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.
We have had to squeeze in the Singlecuts for the NAMM show as well as some for review of course but, by and large, Singlecuts ordered from Sept 2005 onwards should start shipping around March or April 2006."
For some years now, early PRS guitars and various limited models have been becoming highly collectable.
The production hiatus of the Singlecut range certainly pushed up the value of existing models and 'pre-lawsuit' Singlecuts were being hailed by some, er, enterprising collectors as somehow better that those made after the appeal decision.
"I haven't played enough of them to know that and I'm in here," laughs Paul Reed Smith incredulously. "The crew hasn't changed.
There are the same people making the guitar now as before. Some of the new ones were from old necks and bodies that were made but never finished – we put 'em in bubble-wrap until we could start making them again.
There are no changes: the same finish material, the same people, the same sandpaper! No, there's nothing different."
If anything, the 2006 Singlecut, refreshed by its notoriety, is more desirable than on its introduction. Comparing the new blue matteo model pictured here with a 2001 Singlecut, the new model seems even more sharply made and a little lighter in weight – a criticism of some earlier Singlecuts.
"Yeah, we play with that [the weight] on an ongoing basis. We've come up with lighter mahogany for the backs. Some other people drill holes in the bodies before they put the maple tops on to reduce weight. We don't do that.
The weight thing is getting better; we're getting our hands around the whole thing." It remains a big bruiser of a guitar – certainly compared with the more delicate form of a Custom 24.
Here, the body thickness is Les Paul-like, at approximately 60mm (a Custom's body depth is closer to 49mm) and importantly the ratio between the thickness of the mahogany back and maple top veers dramatically in favour of mahogany, with a thinner and less dished maple top than a Custom.
Combine this with a shorter, and therefore stiffer, wide-fat profile mahogany neck that joins the body at the 16th fret and you're clearly dealing with a very different beast to the double-cut Custom.
PRS features abound: the fabulously figured maple 10-top with its clean natural edge, the perfectly inlaid abalone birds (dots are standard), the perfect fretting on the dark rosewood 'board with its subtly rolled edges and that highly distinct treble cutaway.
The Singlecut only comes with the PRS Stop-Tail bridge and non-locking Kluson-style tuners. The other major difference between this and any other PRS models is the shoulder-mounted three-way toggle pickup selector switch and the four rotary controls laid out in a different diamond pattern to the Les Paul.
It puts the two volume controls closest to the bridge – neck (upper), bridge (lower) – flanked on the outside by the two tone controls.
Yes, it's different from a Les Paul, but once you've driven it for a while it seems somehow more logical. The covered humbuckers are PRS 7s and, unlike on the majority of the double-cut PRSs, there's no treble bleed cap on the volume controls.
Big guitar equals big sound? Well, in the case of the Singlecut it really does. There's a girth to the sound that gives low single-note riffs and partial chords tremendous body and power and you may find yourself cleaning up your gain simply because you can use less for a clearer but still powerful sound.
The bridge humbucker has just the right balance of clarity and darkness. It doesn't strike you as being too closed or mid-range heavy, in fact it's quite an open tone – 'enhanced vintage', if you like.
The highs are clear but not scratchy, they're silky and rounded and although there's that warm deep low end it's not flappy. The neck pickup adds a really gooey foil, but again it's not over-dark, and there's a wonderfully distinct clarity.
Kick in a volume/gain boost and where some guitars get too fizzy, the Singlecut retains its authority. It's also a highly dynamic instrument – as you dig in, more comes out, but wind down the volume to a whisper and there's still presence here, and surprising twang.
"The sound differences are hard to quantify," muses Paul Smith. "All I know is that when I play a Singlecut it sounds different than when I play a double-cut.
The frequency response of the Singlecut is different: it has a little more deep bass, the upper mid-range is a little different… there are slight movements in the bass, mid-range, upper mid-range and high-end. I don't know how to describe it other than that. I liked what you said about it being a big sounding guitar. Why don't we leave it at that?"