A Strat-Style Signature Model

John Mayer’s PRS Silver Sky Captures the Magic of Vintage Guitars


April 12, 2018 Culture : Music By Photo by Chase Pellerin
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On March 5, guitar maker Paul Reed Smith announced a new John Mayer signature guitar called the Silver Sky. The design is immediately familiar to guitarists, inspired by Mayer’s instrument of choice for the majority of his career, the Fender Stratocaster. Though this instrument takes cues from vintage ’63 and ’64 Strats, it is not just another Fender copy. Mayer and PRS spent over two years designing the guitar, starting from the ground up to maximize playability and function.

In 2014, nine years after the debut of Mayer’s best-selling signature Fender model, the singer-songwriter announced his split from the brand. Since then, he played numerous PRS guitars on stage for both solo concerts and engagements with Dead and Company. The past two summers, he collaborated with PRS on the Private Stock Super Eagle and the Private Stock Super Eagle II, $11,500 guitars he used to channel aspects of Jerry Garcia’s tone. His signature model, which is offered with a far more accessible $2,300 price tag, started as an idea almost a decade ago. “I had an idea for a guitar — and this goes back about 10 years — a guitar that is sort of the future of the classic [Strat] design,” Mayer said in a recent livestream.

Since its announcement, message boards have been buzzing about the guitar: is it just a blatant Strat copy? Why’d it take so long to design? What, if anything makes it better than a high-end Fender? To answer some of the more pressing questions, I got my hands on a Silver Sky and tested it for a week.

The Good: For Strat players, this guitar will feel and sound very familiar. If you’re accustomed to the design idiom and sonic palette, you’ll be at home. Tonally, the guitar is even across all registers and has a bright sound that is neither brittle nor harsh. As you’d expect from PRS instruments, the guitar has great intonation and the pitches are clear and focused throughout the fretboard — this is a precision instrument. Each position on the five-way pickup switch occupies its own rich aural landscape which can be shaded additionally with the volume knob and two tone controls. As a whole, the guitar is incredibly responsive to touch and right-hand nuance.

As for the neck? It’s got a 25.5-inch scale length, a 7.25-inch fretboard radius and a more substantial shape. The PRS acoustic frets (smaller than what you find on other PRS electrics) and a lower action make this guitar effortlessly playable, out of the box. For the price, this guitar is a great value for the right player — the build quality is top tier and the sonic palette is ample.

Who Its For: As the $2,300 sticker price suggests, this is an instrument for serious amateurs and professionals. Many of the nuances of this guitar would be lost on beginners and some intermediate players, though they would certainly appreciate the playability. More advanced players will be able to fully utilize what the guitar has to offer. This is an instrument for single-coil lovers; if you currently play Strats, you’d dig it. If you’re someone who buys a Strat and immediately upgrades the pickups and tweaks the set-up, consider this stock PRS before going down the rabbit hole again.

Watch Out For: There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Silver Sky, but there may be things certain players don’t like. People who like v-shape necks or thin necks would not like this neck shape. Also, those who need jumbo frets won’t be as comfortable with this instrument. As per Mayer’s wishes, the bridge is set-up flush to the body, so the tremolo only goes down in pitch. If you’re someone who prefers a floating bridge, this is something you can adjust on your own. The guitar comes in Tesla colors — Frost, Horizon, Onyx and Tungsten — so don’t expect a sunburst or flame-top, at least for now.

Alternatives: There a few new Strat-style guitars in this ballpark. You can pay a little less and get a Fender American Elite Stratocaster or a Suhr Classic Pro guitar — both fine instruments. Or you can pay a little more and get a K-line Springfield or a LsL Saticoy. Though these guitars each bring something unique to the table, they approach the instrument from a different perspective than the Silver Sky. In the next price tier, you’ll get into instruments from Fender’s Custom Shop (alternately, you can find comparably-priced Custom Shop guitars on the second-hand market).

Review: In a recent livestream, Mayer shared the principles that guided the Silver Sky’s design. “This is a part of a larger conversation about going into a guitar that’s been around for 60 years and going, ‘What’s still valid and what’s still vital and what can you go in and modify?’” he said. “And Paul Reed Smith and I went in and our saying was sort of this: ‘You take 100 Strats and two or three of them are magic. The question is, what makes those magic and how do you replicate that so you get 100 out of 100 guitars that are magic?’”

I already had expectations upon receiving this guitar — PRS makes some of the best guitars on the market — but that quote added another element: magic. Paul Reed Smith is known for being able to replicate precision and beauty, so I was curious how the company could bottle the magic of vintage guitars from the mid-’60s.

For a week, I tested this guitar with a Fender ‘65 Princeton Reverb Reissue amp. I tested it with and without pedals, and for the sake of this review, I’ll focus on the time spent playing it directly into the amp. Before playing a note, I immediately noticed the shape of the neck. It was thicker and a touch more substantial than other Strats I own, and it felt immediately comfortable in my hand. After plugging in, the first thing I noticed was the quality of sound. It was bright and focused, but not tinny or harsh. Individual notes were focused and precise while retaining a warm, harmonically rich quality. Notes spoke evenly across all registers and the intonation was great, out-of-the-box.

The pickups each offered distinctive tonal differences, and I found myself exploring the range of colors available when tweaking tone and volume knobs in each position on the five-way pickup switch. Along with having very nuanced controls, the pickups are very responsive to right-hand touch. Subtleties in pick attack and degrees of pressure from right-hand fingers plucking the strings were easy to discern. In a way, the guitar is transparent; it highlights everything you put into it. The Silver Sky features PRS acoustic frets, a smaller fret-wire similar to that used on vintage instruments. Whether playing dense chordal passages, single-note runs or double-stop licks, I didn’t struggle against the instrument — it was easy and fun to play.

With the Silver Sky, PRS manages to blend the quality and precision the brand is known for with the best elements of vintage instruments. Imagine you could cherry-pick your favorite frequencies from a vintage Strat and ditch the wonky ones. Pair that with a vintage-inspired neck profile and modern contoured body, and you’ll get the Silver Sky. Unlike vintage guitars from the ‘60s, it’s a roadworthy instrument that costs a fraction of the price. If that’s not magic, it’s something close. “This has a lot to do with taking what my favorite ’64 Strat is,” Mayer said in his livestream. “Taking the overall sensibility and tone of that guitar and giving it to people so that it becomes not something that’s impossible to get for most people. I just love the idea of bringing it down to a place of accessibility for people. And I think to a certain extent that’s really happened. Paul is a scientist as much as he is an artist.”

Verdict: This is a lot of guitar for the price. If you’re in the market for a top-tier guitar in the Strat wheelhouse, the Silver Sky should be on the top of your list. It’s got the responsive evenness that PRS is known for and a clear, focused single-coil sound that is hard to beat. You’ve got a lot of colors to play with tonally, and the instrument feels great in-hand. While the guitar sounds this great out of the box, I can’t wait to hear how it will age with a decade or two of playing.

What Others Are Saying:

• “I do know that all these parts together make a really great instrument — it’s really impressive… [The Silver Sky], for a brand new guitar, feels very comfortable, like an old friend.” — John Bohlinger, Premier Guitar

• “It doesn’t feel like a PRS at all… [But], this is not a Strat. Everybody’s saying it, but actually, this is less like a Strat than a lot of other [guitars]. It does have characteristics of three-single-coil-pickup guitars… I’d go so far as to say, this might be the first PRS I’d get.” — Peter Honoré, Andertons Music Co

• “I can tell that this guitar was built for somebody who is an amp driver… This doesn’t holler at you the way [the PRS McCarty] 594 does. It’s clear, it’s clean, it’s transparent, it really wants you to dig in and fight a little for it.” — Michael Palmisano, Guitargate

Key Specs

Body: Alder
Neck: Maple
Fretboard: Indian Rosewood
Nut: Bone
Bridge: Steel Tremolo
Tuners: Vintage Style, Locking
Pickups: 635JM

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