Stratocasters

I recently got hooked on the controversy over the PRS Silver Sky guitar. The guitar was designed for John Mayer by Paul Reed Smith. Mayer wanted to improve upon the best features of his favorite 60’s Strats and had lost faith in Fender to meet his needs.  Since its introduction in 2018,  the John Mayer PRS Silver Sky has been met with both derision and praise.

American Deluxe Stratocaster

Below: PRS Silver Sky. This is an affiliate link to Amazon.

I currently do not own any Fender Stratocaster’s nor Strat-like copies. But I have owned two Stratocasters in the recent past. They were great guitars. I sold them because I hadn’t been playing them much at the time when I downsized and moved south. 

The two features most derided in the Silver Sky design are the PRS 3+3 headstock and the fingerboard radius.

The shape of a Stratocaster is iconic and part of that famous shape is the headstock. There are many companies that have copied the broad design while still making it their own. Suhr, Anderson, Friedman, and many others mate a headstock with 6 tuners on a side that suggests a Strat. Copies of Les Pauls, ES-335s, or other similar Gibson guitars get a headstock with 3 tuners on a side. Seeing a strat-shaped body with a non-appropriate headstock is too much for some fans. Note that there are other strat inspired guitars besides the Silver Sky with a 3+3 headstock, e.g., American Exotic Guitars.

Stratocaster head with string tree on first two strings.

Although some guitarists think the PRS head looks stupid on a Stratocaster, I personally think the oversized heads on some Fenders, e.g., the 2020 Deluxe Strat, looks worse. If you can get over the ‘wrong’ shaped headstock, consider the strings on the Silver Sky still have a straight pull to the tuners and, unlike a Fender, do not require a string tree to hold down the 1st & 2nd strings. By-the-way, the Deluxe Strat I mentioned above requires two pairs of string tees to keep the string angled down from the nut to the tuners for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings.

The 7.25 fingerboard radius on John Mayer’s PRS model is a more unusual design choice, but one having more to do with personal preference. One of my Stratocasters, a Made-in-Japan 60s reissue, had a 7.25 inch radius fretboard. It is the most extreme radius on a fingerboard I’ve encountered on a guitar. My second Strat had a flatter fingerboard (9.5”?), but it was still more rounded than those from most other guitar makers.

There was a lot I loved about my MIJ Strat and one of the features that gave me pleasure was the fingerboard. It was one of the most comfortable fingerboards I’ve played. Many guitarists, including my brother, dislike the extreme 7.25 inch curvature because it, allegedly, causes strings to fret-out on extreme bends. I never had that problem, but it should be noted I also use heavier strings than my brother and typically go for no more than half or whole step bends.

MIJ 60s Strat

John Mayer claims he’s never had a problem fretting-out when bending any of his favorite 1960’s Fenders nor on the Silver Sky. 

This controversy over the PRS Silver Sky got me thinking about what I liked and disliked on my Strats. Did I regret selling them? Would I buy another Strat-like guitar, and if so, which model? From Fender or another maker?

Before I go farther let me acknowledge the obvious. Personal preferences drive our choices in guitars (and everything else). There wouldn’t be so many models of Fender Stratocaster much less all the competitors if those models didn’t have buyers who believed they found the perfect guitar for their needs—or at least the best suited guitar in their price range from among the choices available.

Of the two Fenders I sold, I had paid more for the American Deluxe Ash Stratocaster. The guitar had a transparent cherry burst nitrocellulose finish and Samarium Cobalt low noise pickups with S1 switching, which added some cut filters. Overall, everything about the guitar showed a higher build quality and better components than on the MIJ Strat. There was nothing wrong with the guitar. I liked it. I do not miss it at all.

On the other hand, I do sometimes miss the MIJ Stratocaster. The crimson foto-flame finish was beautiful even if it was a faux-flame effect. The pickups could have been swapped out for something better but gave a good vintage sound I preferred to the modern pickups on the American. The five-way switch did not have gold plated contacts and had to be sprayed with contact cleaner on a regular basis. This is common on older Strats. Likewise, the vintage single-coil sound included the problem of vintage hum when the selector switch wasn’t in the notch positions. If you liked the sound, you lived with the noise.

Looking through the Fender website, there are too many models without enough of an attempt to distinguish one from another. At the same time, there are too few choices if you are looking for something specific, or at least they’ve made it too difficult to find the options you want.

I tried finding a high-end Stratocaster on Fender.com with a 7.25-inch radius fingerboard. I couldn’t. Online merchants still had this very round radius on some models but I guess these are previous years’ models still in their inventory. I had the same problem when I searched for a compound radius fingerboard that went from 7.25 inch to something flatter up the neck. These two were still available from online stores but I couldn’t find them at Fender’s website.

Following Stratocasters have 7.25 inch radius on Amazon.

I might have considered a PRS Silver Sky at the time I was shopping for my American Strat, but of course, it hadn’t been created then. I am at a different place in my life now and can’t see myself purchasing the PRS or any other high-end Stratocaster or copy to replace the Fenders I sold. Looking at competitors to Fender, I find none that move me, though the PRS Silver Sky comes close. Maybe I should have kept my Made-in-Japan Strat. Instead, I’ll make do with my 335 copy from Epiphone for playing electric blues, and be quite happy about it.

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