I’m sure it’s happened to you: You meet a great guitarist, try out one of their instruments (perhaps a guitar model you don’t have a ton of experience playing) and suddenly that feeling washes over you - “I need one of these yesterday.”
That’s how I felt during my recent interview with the Cult’s Billy Duffy. I’ve long been impressed by how he developed his own hard-rock voice using guitars that seem to land, timbrally speaking, between the sound of a cranked Gibson Les Paul and a clean Fender Telecaster. A good example of this sound is Duffy’s Gretsch White Falcon parts on “She Sells Sanctuary,” so when he let me test-drive a couple of his favorite Gretsches through his fire-breathing multi-amp touring rig, I immediately realized there was a gaping hole in my guitar collection. I needed a hollow (or at least semi-hollow) instrument that could deliver gargantuan rock tones, yet also radiate single-coil shimmer.
That’s when, perfect timing, I received a press release from PRS about the new S2 Vela Semi-Hollow model. With a splitable PRS Type D humbucker at the bridge, a PRS DS-01 single-coil in the neck position (inspired by DeArmond’s revered DynaSonic pickup, which was used on many a classic Gretsch), and a feedback-friendly f-hole in the upper bout, this Vela seemed like it might go a long way toward satisfying my new tonal craving.
Two weeks later, a tall box showed up at my door and I was quickly holding a fresh-off-the-assembly-line S2 Vela Semi-Hollow that was younger than the email I had sent requesting it. Dipped in PRS’s gleaming Frost-Blue Metallic paint - a hot-rod hue that would look great on a dragster - and having simple dot inlays on the fretboard (the only unpainted part besides the pickguard), I was struck by the artful way this PRS blends modern curves with a touch of rockabilly mojo.
Strumming the guitar unplugged, three things instantly impressed me: How light it is (pick this thing up after playing a Les Paul and it will feel like a balloon animal), the way the high E string keeps up, volume-wise, with the five bigger wires (few things indicate great resonance better than a .010 or .009 that projects) and how easily the guitar tunes. With just a few twists of PRS’s excellent brass-shafted Low Mass locking tuners, it’s easy to get chords ringing harmoniously on this guitar, and that’s obviously due in part to its bridge.
A stellar piece of hardware, the Vela Semi-Hollow’s top-loading bridge, in another nice blending of vintage and modern, evolves the classic Telecaster-style brass barrel saddles to include perfectly skewed holes for the retaining screws (which angle each barrel slightly for improved intonation) and machined grooves beneath each string, ensuring no string slips out of place (and thus out of tune) during strum storms.
Call me a modernist, but, being someone who likes being in tune as often as possible, I see no reason a Tele-style bridge should ever be built again without some form of these two features.
Plugging the guitar straight into an overdriven Dr. Z EMS head driving a Dr. Z 2x12 cabinet, it was instant sonic gratification - huge, sizzling, rock tones from the ’bucker; fluty, soulful sounds from the D pickup; a powerful dirt-under-the-fingernails single-coil scream from the ’tapped bridge pickup (achieved by pulling up on the tone knob) and a sparkly double-single-coil texture from both pickups when the toggle is in the middle position with the tone knob lifted.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to find flaws on this new model from PRS, although the included gig bag, like many on the market, features somewhat wimpy, low-resiliency foam as padding. I mention this mainly because I suspect my shipping box must have taken a hit near the volume knob, which might be why its post was slightly bent, causing it to spin like a warped record. Better padding might have helped prevent this.
Secondly, as groovy as PRS’s “lampshade” knobs look, and as easily as they turn (pinky volume swells are a breeze), their tapered shape and smooth surface make them slightly difficult to lift - which is what you must do with the tone knob on this guitar to tap the humbucker. I pity the player who attempts this with clammy hands.
Overall though, Vela Semi Hollow far exceeded my expectations and has, over the past few weeks of a busy summer performing with Jefferson Starship, quickly ascended to become my number one touring instrument. (I do switch over to a rented backline Fender Stratocaster on songs that require a whammy bar.)
Double-magnet sonic girth, single-coil snarl and a paint job that’s just shiny enough to render me in my dark stage clothes two-dimensional while holding it? I’m in!
MODEL S2 Vela Semi-Hollow
PRICE $1,499, soft case included
NUT WIDTH 1.656"
NECK Guatemalan mahogany, set
FRETBOARD East Indian rosewood, 25" scale, 10" radius, acrylic ivory dot inlays
FRETS 22 PRS Standard medium-jumbo nickel-silver
TUNERS PRS Low Mass Locking
BODY Gloss-finished Ghanaian mahogany
BRIDGE Top-loading PRS Plate Style with brass saddles
PICKUPS PRS Type D humbucker (bridge), PRS DS-01 single-coil (neck)
CONTROLS Pickguard-loaded master volume, master tone with push/pull coil tap, 3-way pickup selector switch
FACTORY STRINGS PRS Classic .010-.046
WEIGHT Approx. 6 lbs (varies)
KUDOS Four super useful sounds, hot-rod vibe and a relatively affordable price tag
CONCERNS Paint everywhere except the fretboard may not be every player’s cup of tea.