From the outset, the PRS Singlecut was a controversial guitar. Introduced in January 2000, it was the first PRS single-cutaway model, and it was clearly inspired by the Gibson Les Paul.
For the first time too, it used the two volume/two tone and three-way toggle pickup selector of the Les Paul – not the single volume/tone set-up of all previous PRSs.
Released in 2003, however, the Singlecut Trem was instantly a more PRS-like guitar. With a less bulky body thickness, vibrato and standard twin control set-up it made much more sense as a PRS guitar.
Indeed, had the Singlecut Trem been released before – or instead of – the Singlecut itself, PRS Guitars, as Paul Reed Smith himself admitted later, might not have had to spend valuable time and money in a lengthy court case with Gibson defending the original design and whether or not it infringed trademarks on the Les Paul.
Problems between the two companies started just after the Singlecut was launched. On 27 March 2000, Gibson sent a letter demanding that PRS cease and desist from producing and selling the Singlecut. In November, Gibson sued PRS for, among other things, trademark infringement.
PRS counterclaimed and the gloves were off. But it wasn't until January 2004 that it was ruled that the Singlecut had "imitated" the Les Paul and that the two parties had 90 days to sort out damages.
The future of the Singlecut looked bleak, and while the legal wrangling continued another court action was taken to prevent PRS, as of 2 July 2004, from "manufacturing, selling, or distributing… the PRS Singlecut." Order books were closed. Any existing work-in-progress bodies and necks were stored.
During this time, however, the PRS Singlecut had become quite a cause celebre. While it certainly isn't a carbon copy of the Les Paul, the Singlecut has clearly evolved from and was inspired by Gibson's design. It's hardly unique in that regard.
It was assumed that if Gibson succeeded in closing down the Singlecut, other companies would be under threat too. Anyone who made a single-cutaway guitar was concerned. PRS then launched an appeal that was argued on 10 December 2004.
It took nearly a year before a decision was forthcoming. On 12 September 2005, the US Court of Appeals revoked the earlier court decision and subsequent injunction and a collective sigh emanated from virtually every guitar-maker around the world.
Sense, it would seem, had prevailed. "I feel relieved," said Paul Reed Smith in December 2005. "I agree with the [appeal] court documents: there was so much wrong with this case we're not even gonna talk about most of it. That's what it said.
"There was so much wrong [with the original court hearing] it didn't feel right. Now it feels right again. So, I feel like it's time to get back to business: normal has returned. People that play Singlecuts think they're their own animal. I feel good about it, and that the judges finally heard what was going on."
"We didn't instantly start production back up," explains PRS's Larry Urie of the September 2005 reprieve. "We did have the unfinished Tremonti Tribals in work-in-progress. We began taking new orders that same day but we were – and we still are – about eight months back-ordered.
To start the production of Singlecuts back up right away we would have been forced to bump someone's existing order.
Launched three years after the Singlecut, the Singlecut Trem is quite a different guitar and certainly not just a Singlecut with a vibrato bridge. Instead, it attacks the points raised in criticism about the Singlecut itself.
Firstly, while the maple top retains the same thickness, the overall body thickness is reduced noticeably to a Custom-like dimension of 49mm. Again, our sample features an optional, beautifully figured maple 10-top with a deep amber centre and dark brown bursting around the outer edges.
The natural edge is typically clean but the back, sides, neck and headstock face are all dark brown as opposed to the natural mahogany of the blue matteo Singlecut we've reviewed here.
Aside from the body thickness, the PRS vibrato creates a very different resonance, and here it's typically paired with PRS's Phase II locking tuners.
Then there are the pickups and controls: two uncovered PRS 6s with zebra bobbins and the more usual PRS controls layout of volume (again without the treble bleed cap), tone, and three-way pickup selector in the usual double-cut position.
Are the PRS 6 humbuckers just uncovered versions of the Singlecut's 7s, or are there other differences? "Yes, lots of them," says Smith. "A pickup is a magnetic microphone that's basically a parametric equaliser.
At the time we were very careful to pick the wire turns, wire type, magnets, a cover or no cover… all those things so that the guitars sounded the best they could." Back in 2003 Smith told us: "In reality, the new pickups lie somewhere between the Singlecut's 7 pickups and Dragon IIs.
They're powerful like a 7 but sweeter like a Dragon II – that was our intention. Pickup covers warm up the pickup's sound – no question.
It's like in the old days with PAFs, people would take off the covers and think they'd look cooler but the sound was brighter. We use covers to sweeten pickups. So, if you're using an uncovered pickup you have to make them different so it actually sounds like a covered pickup."
"The treble pickup is not the same pickup at all," Smith says today of the Singlecut Trem's bridge humbucker. "The Singlecut has a little more open- sounding pickup, with a little more bass and treble. The Singlecut Trem has a little bit more mid-range."
And presumably these pickups are different from those you use on the double-cut guitars. "Yes, you have to voice the pickups quite differently with single- or double-cut guitars."
The SCT, by design, is a very different animal to the more bulky Singlecut. The combination of the thinner body and the vibrato creates a more Fender-like tonality with more grain and twang, less awesome low end.
Plugged in, it's this and what sounds like more mid-range focus to the pickup voicing that widens the differences compared to the Singlecut itself.
There's more grind to the sound in full humbucker mode, and with the humbuckers split (voicing the screw coils) it's more hot-rod Fender with a neat twin-pickup mix that's nicely funky.
The twin control layout may be more familiar to existing PRS users, but having got used to the Singlecut, it now feels a little alien as you swap between the two instruments. But rest assured, it's features like this that make the Singlecut Trem a lot more than just a Singlecut with a vibrato option.
It has its own distinctly different and highly valid voice, with more apparent versatility. Conversely, it doesn't match the majestic richness of the Singlecut, which somehow has a more organic tonal versatility created by pick attack, dynamics and volume/tone changes.