Before Paul Reed Smith settled on the now classic design of his double-cutaway guitar back in 1984, just before he started his production company, Smith's handmade guitars were shaped differently – like a double-cut Les Paul Special but with a carved top.
PRS revisited this shape in 1995 with the maple-topped Santana signature model that remains in the line today as the Santana II.
Smith's early hand-made guitars were invariably all mahogany (the sumptuous 'curly' or figured maple tops didn't become a feature until 1980 when Paul utilised the curly maple drawer fronts of a friend's dresser to create his first maple top guitar – long-owned by Heart's Howard Leese).
For 2007 PRS released what the company is calling a "faithful replica" of this pre-factory, pre-maple guitar in the form of the 1980 West Street Ltd. "We're making just 300 of these," says PRS's Larry Urie, "180 for the US and 120 for overseas."
In the UK we'll see around 20. But if the West Street looks back, the also new-for-2007 513 looks very much towards the future.
Originally introduced in 2004 as the now discontinued 513 Rosewood, it amounted to a virtually complete redesign of the PRS Custom.
But, at well over £4,000, with new pickups and electronics and Brazilian rosewood neck and fingerboard, its potential impact was severely limited.
With a base price under £3,000, achieved primarily by swapping the Brazilian rosewood for a standard mahogany neck with Indian rosewood fingerboard, the new model aims to provide the same versatile sounds but at a more affordable price. But first, let's go back in time…
Smith's original guitars obviously have a hand-made vibe and the most fundamental difference here is that the West Street doesn't look or feel handmade. Instead it's built to the near perfect standards that we've become accustomed to from PRS.
The finishing is faultless and appears thinner than usual. "It's exactly the same [polyester basecoat/acrylic topcoat] finish that we use but we've been working real hard to keep it really thin. I guess we're getting better at it," says Paul Reed Smith.
And while the neck and body back are one-piece mahogany, the top is unusual in that it is a beautifully figured sapele – a mahogany-like African wood that is way more attractive than the plainer mahogany Smith would have used back in his old shop.
"The market has got very jaded," explains Smith of this wood choice. "Unless it's extraordinarily curly, forget about it. I recently saw the first guitar I made for Carlos Santana. At the time, in 1980, it was the most curly piece of maple anyone had seen in decades. Yet today that guitar doesn't look curly at all compared to what we're doing now."
There's a girth to the build that will surprise some – the body is thick at 53.2mm, which is marginally thicker than the McCarty and 4mm thicker than a Custom – and as usual we have a slight rib-cage cutaway on the back.
The neck too feels chunky, slightly less V'd than the wide-fat and with the shorter 622mm (24.5-inch) scale length, and despite the 24 frets, the overall feel is a little more compact than a Custom 24, less feline too. It's also quite weighty.
The 'Santana' headstock also adds to the chunky appearance and, along with the 'om' symbol inlaid into the Brazilian rosewood truss rod cover that we see on the Santana model, there's a small eagle inlaid into the head – not to be confused with the large eagle of the more expensive Private Stock models – which matches a small dragon inlaid into the face of the body.
Although it's the special edition Dragon guitars built from the early nineties that most of us know, a handful of pre-factory guitars, including a 12-string purchased by Heart's Nancy Wilson, include similar, discrete dragon inlays.
"That little dragon was originally drawn bigger," remembers Smith, "but I made it smaller so I could charge people less money – I only made a few of them."
The hardware too harks back to the early guitars: the vibrato might be the modern PRS design but its unplated brass exterior matches the appearance of the vibratos and hardware (often hand-made) that Smith originally used.
The highly efficient Phase II locking tuners also seem out of place but the large buttons hark back to yesteryear and it was on these early guitars that the string lock we see today was first designed and tested – a design Smith reverted to in 2002 after using the cam-lock tuners on the production guitars since 1985.
There are a raft of other differences too, like the way the fret tangs are notched so the tang isn't visible at the fingerboard edge; there's no rear vibrato coverplate – instead the edges of the cavity are heavily radiused and the four springs and brass vibrato block are clearly visible.
"That's the way they were in the old shop," says Smith of the fret-work. "I'd glue a piece of Brazilian rosewood on to each side of the fingerboard; now we don't have to do that, we drop the router bit in then pull it out. I'd have done that in the old shop if I'd thought of it. Same with the backplate.
"Every Strat I got in to the old shop did not have the back cover over the vibrato because it was impossible to change the strings. So in my mind, no back cover meant good guitar."
The guitar uses the same control setup as the current Santana and pickups are an HFS at bridge and RP Bass (as used on the Modern Eagle) in neck position. "They're our standard pickups," says Smith, "pretty similar to the type of pickups I used back then."
To describe the sounds alone would be an injustice to this guitar, it's a real chameleon but in a very different way to the 513. In basic terms it offers a hot, crunchy, brighter- than-you-may-imagine back pickup contrasted by a beautifully balanced vocal-sounding neck pickup that retains clarity.
Even the pickup mix sounds deep, clear and bell-like in equal measure. It is a soloist's dream, especially if you want to hear pick nuances, plus use your volume, tone and different pickups all in one break.
The slightly softer action adds fluidity and with the supplied 0.09s initially feels a little too flexible until you control your right hand – it almost begs a more controlled style.
In many ways it's the essence of the PRS sound – the ability to move from a whisper to a roar in an instant.
The harder the attack the more it barks, hold back and you lose nothing, the dynamics are wonderful. Put simply it's a magnificent instrument than encourages you to add light and shade into your playing.