By Nikki O’Neill
When the original Silver Sky — John Mayer’s most recent signature electric guitar — was released by PRS in 2018, it received rave reviews by guitar press since it captured the classic sounds and feel of 1963-64 Fender Strats, but came with modern finesses to make playing easier on the road and in the studio.
These upgrades included greater tuning stability through locking tuners and a reversed headstock where all strings have a consistent length behind the nut; a body with a more comfortable arm rest contour; a slightly curved jack plate for easier plugging/unplugging, and a double-action truss rod accessible from the front instead of the back of the headstock. Reviewers also noted the comfortable neck and broad dynamic range of the pickups, which produced great clean and overdriven tones (especially the bridge pickup sounded less harsh than on many Strats). Since PRS didn’t make many single-coil models at the time, this guitar has continued to be very popular.
Nowadays, the original Silver Sky guitars come in 17 colors like frosty white and pearly blues, greens and grays to reflect a more contemporary look. Like other guitars in PRS’s Core and Bolt-On lines, they tend to feature high-quality woods and are made in the U.S. at the main factory in Stevensville, Maryland, where PRS’s staff wires their own pickups and sands, fits and finishes every guitar by hand.
Of course, all of this comes with a heftier price tag: today, an original Silver Sky guitar costs around $2,000-2,500. Since PRS launched their more affordable SE (“Student Edition”) line in 2001 and expanded it to a multitude of SE models that even pro players use, there have been hopes for an SE Silver Sky for the last couple of years, and now they’re here for us to test.
One disclaimer: we did not have an original Silver Sky during this review for comparison because they weren’t available.
Since the SE Silver Sky is a much lower-priced guitar (made in a designated SE factory in Indonesia), there will, of course, be compromises to the design. The model that we received for our review sports the Dragonfruit color (the other three shades available are Moon White, Stone Blue, and Ever Green, all with a polyurethane finish vs. the original’s nitrocellulose lacquer). The guitar arrived in a pretty ok soft case with a sturdy zipper and was set up with .010-046 strings. The solid body is made of poplar as opposed to the original’s more expensive alder, but the scale length and 22-fret design are the same. Both models feature a bolt-on maple neck and a rosewood fretboard with the trademark bird inlays. The original is also available with a maple fretboard, but as of now, there are no plans to offer this for the SE (the same goes for the colors). The nut on the SE is synthetic vs. the original Silver Sky’s bone nut. Although debated, nut material and density do affect durability, sustain, the representation (or absorption) of high end frequencies in the tone, and also tuning stability.
Both models also feature the curved jackplate, which indeed does make it easier to insert or pull out a cable (good for quick guitar changes on stage), and the truss rod cover in the front.
At first touch, the guitar sounds fairly resonant unplugged. The tuners are non-locking on the SE, which isn’t uncommon, but it usually requires a few extra string windings for tuning stability, and if you’re using the tremolo bar very actively, there can be more risk for string slippage. But with that being said, this guitar was able to handle lots of wide string bends and whammy bar dipping without going out of tune, which is great. The tremolo system is traditional and only allows for downward bending of pitches, so it’s not for Steve Vai or Jennifer Batten-style dive-bombing, but keep in mind… that isn’t John Mayer’s playing style. The guitar’s intonation is also really good as we played chords in various voicings all across the neck.
Speaking of neck, this is a slim one (with minimal finish on the back) that feels quite comfortable to play quick passages on. Many online debaters have wondered why PRS chose to change the SE Silver Sky’s fretboard radius (curvature) to the unusual and slightly flatter 8.5” radius instead of going with the original model’s 7.25” radius, which was used for most Fenders since the ’50s until the modern era introduced the 9.5” to many Fenders. According to PRS, the change was made to offer a similar feel to the original Silver Sky, but with fewer production challenges related to fretting and fret level. It’s basically an art to create a guitar with a 7.25” radius fretboard with low action but no fret buzz. A beginning or intermediate player should not fear any problems here — this neck is friendly to play on. This particular reviewer has a personal preference for a little more curvature, but on the upside, this fretboard works great for slide playing while still having reasonably low string action. For beginning rock and blues players, we’d just suggest switching the string gauge to the lighter .009’s to make bending easier (make sure your luthier sets the guitar up accordingly).
The SE guitar does not feature Mayer’s name, although that shouldn’t matter. What we care about is the feel, sound, and what level of value you get for the price.
Since this is a Strat with single-coil pickups, we plugged it into a Fender amp — a Deluxe ’65 Reissue. Note that this amp’s old-school configuration means that there’s no separate gain channel; in order to get some nice overdrive breakup, you need to turn up the volume real loud and give it additional push through a boost pedal that doesn’t color the sound (in this case, an Astro Blaster by Post Culture Pedals)… or bring in a distortion pedal. But we wanted to hear the guitar’s pickups without any outside coloration.
The volume and tone controls have a nice, wide range (on budget guitars, you usually don’t hear much of a difference when you turn these knobs). The 635JM “S” pickups — which were developed by PRS and their overseas manufacturing partner — are meant to be a version of the 635JM’s on the original Silver Sky, but with a little bit more bite. PRS created them by bringing their partner’s materials in-house and reverse engineering their own 635JM pickups (which are made in the U.S.). These SE pickups are very responsive; you get five classic strat sounds that are (and should be) distinctively different. The bridge pickup is actually usable, with a surprising fullness as opposed to sounding tinny and shrill (as it often does on many budget or mid-priced Strats). Whether we played single notes, double stops (two-string harmonies) or full, chunky barre chords, we got a surprising amount of clarity in all registers. These pickups are very snappy and responsive to picking attack, making them great for funk rhythms, chicken picking and Stevie Ray Vaughan-style blues, albeit with a contemporary crispness where every note is well defined — it’s not a loose, raw and fuzzy sound. In fact, when we played the guitar with a lot of overdrive, the pickups lost definition and sounded like they were out of their element. Playing with some David Gilmore or cleaner Jimi Hendrix-levels of overdrive was fine; moving into Ritchie Blackmore territory wasn’t as successful, and one can forget about Yngwie and beyond… but then again, that isn’t John Mayer’s playing style.
The five-way pickup switch is a little bit stiff, which can be a good thing if you tend to unintentionally switch sounds as you bump into it when strumming, or it might be slightly annoying if you like to quickly switch pickup sounds in the midst of a solo.
For a lover of vintage guitar aesthetics, the SE Silver Sky’s grey plastic tuner buttons and truss rod cover can be an eyesore. These plastic tuners are actually on the original Silver Sky as well; as Mayer and PRS were pulling materials and colors from modern references, they thought the gray material added a unique, modern vibe. Also, their very lightweight material is supposed to support the tone and resonance of the guitars.
In closing, will the SE Silver Sky — as speculators wonder — make buyers of the original and way pricier John Mayer signature guitar kick themselves for not waiting to buy the SE version? Or will the SE devalue the original model, which still sells surprisingly well in spite of its price? Probably not.
We find that the SE Silver Sky is an excellent instrument of great value for the intermediate guitarist who wants an instrument to develop their chops and sonic preferences on, that’s easy to play with many Stratocaster-style options, and that reliably stays in tune no matter how aggressively you play it with ample string bending and whammy bar action.
For more information and full specifications, visit prsguitars.com.
Price: $849 street price