PRS has thrown down the gauntlet to the other top American guitar makers with its S2 series. These are genuine US-produced guitars from one of the world's best brands but at prices you didn't think possible. But how good are they? Have corners been cut? We told Rick Graham to show no mercy.
Paul Reed Smith is a brand that has set incredibly high standards for product quality since it arrived on the scene but, as you might expect, always at a price. Striving to offer players in the 'real world' instruments they could more easily afford, PRS made perhaps the most successful transition to offshore manufacturing of all the US makers with its Korean-built SE range (consistently among our most highly rated 'value for money' guitars here at GI) but now it has taken on an even bigger challenge by deciding to make guitars back home in Maryland, which it can sell at gigging musician-friendly prices. PRS promises these new S2 Series models (there are three in total and we have two for this review) mirror the kind of quality, feel, playability and sound that you'd expect to experience on the higher priced models.
S2 Custom 24 - the details
The format of the S2 Custom 24 will be very familiar to PRS fans, as it features the classic combination of a maple top and mahogany body, making it visually like the original PRS guitar but in a stripped-down form. Unlike the original though, the S2 has an asymmetrical bevelled top, which perhaps doesn't look quite as classy as the one on its inspiration but certainly offers a fresh alternative. The now classic body shape of the original remains otherwise the same, though.
The neck on the S2 is made from mahogany but again differs from the original in that it features a three piece neck construction. The neck also has a 1980's style PRS 'pattern regular' profile and we have no complaints at all there - it certainly looks and feels the part. Add a 24 fret rosewood fingerboard complete with the PRS S2 'birds' inlays as standard and you have a really pleasing offering. The scale length measures 25" which is a well-chosen size that few will find hard to get to grips with. The headstock retains the original PRS shape but now features PRS S2 locking tuners - also a very welcome addition. Add in the always fabulous PRS trem system, which we're reviewed so many times it needs no further comment, and you have a perfectly turned out ready-to-gig guitar of formidable appeal.
On to the electronics and the Custom 24 sports an S2 HFS Treble in the bridge position with an S2 Vintage Bass in the neck position, controllable via a three way blade pickup selector switch.
The Starla features an all-mahogany construction and like the Custom 24, sports a top with an asymmetrical bevelled edge. It also shares a three-piece neck construction, something which PRS has done to help save waste and control costs. Again, we have no complaints there. The necks start out as quarter sawn mahogany blanks with scarf jointed headstocks - all traditional techniques which have enabled PRS to use less costly sources of wood without compromising tone or strength.
Again, we find a 'pattern regular' PRS neck profile and a 25” scale but this time with 22 frets in the rosewood fingerboard and plain dotted fretboard inlays. If you want more ornamentation, PRS S2 'birds' inlays are available as an optional extra. The headstock retains the original PRS shape but now features PRS S2 locking tuners, while the bridge on the Starla consists of a combination of a Tune-O-Matic with a Bigsby B50 tail piece, which, from an aesthetic perspective, adds a unique statement to an already unique instrument. Is PRS aiming this at the Rockabilly or Country market? Maybe and it's true not everyone is keen on Bigsby units, though we found no problems with this one.
The pickups fitted are an S2 Starla Treble in the bridge position and an S2 Starla Bass in the neck position, again controllable via a three-way blade pickup selector switch. Volume and push/pull tone control complete the electronics.
So what are they like?
The first of the S2s that I checked out was the Custom 24 and I was immediately struck how similar it was in feel to an original Custom 24. There's just no mistaking that essential PRS quality, even in these trimmed down S2 versions!
The S2 is remarkably resonant too - even unamplified it resounded with authority. Plugged in and I couldn't help but head straight for the gain. The bridge pickup took me into Metal territory in no time with plenty of body to the tone and with enough highs to cut right through the mix. The neck position sounded smooth and full and when playing in the high register had buckets of sustain on tap with a wonderfully creamy, tube-like sound. Backing off the gain a little lead to a much bluesier kind of vibe and a little tweaking of the tone gave rise to more Jazz like tones. Even though the bridge on the custom 24 differs somewhat from the original model, the tuning stability proved to be exceptionally good.
The playability and overall feel of the custom 24 was, quite frankly, superb and there's no doubt that this is an exceptionally impressive guitar!
Next up was the Starla. I found this one a little darker than the Custom 24, no doubt due to the all mahogany construction, thus offering a different sonic vibe but with a playing experience equally as impressive as its sibling.
The lower output pickups on the Starla are more suited to an Indie, Pop/Rock, Country type sound for sure and even though those aren't my favoured playing styles, there was something about the Starla that was incredibly addictive, both tonally and feel-wise. It had a certain character that I couldn't quite put my finger on but which just made me want to keep playing. I was particularly impressed by the jangly clean sounds we got out of the Starla but adding gain to the mix really brought out some attitude. Again, playability and quality was right up there alongside the custom 24. The combination on the Tune-O-Matic bridge and the unmistakable Bigsby B50 proved to be a formidable combination. Subjecting them to some serious abuse proved just how stable the tuning was and the feel of the trem arm on the Bigsby just made me want to reach for the arm with pretty much everything I played. Great stuff.