07/27/12

GearHead: Paul Reed Smith's JA-15

A singularly versatile hollowbody

As with any worthwhile signature guitar, the key to understanding Paul Reed Smith’s outstanding JA-15 hollowbody is to study the player who inspired and helped develop it. Here that means Paul Jackson Jr., whose résumé reflects not only his multi-disciplined expertise but also his status as a dyed-in-the-wool Los Angeleno: lots of work with Michael Jackson, a slew of smooth- and contemporary-jazz credits, house-band spots on American Idol and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno—not to mention his vast experience with R&B royalty. The JA-15, it seems, was designed and manufactured to operate equally well in all those settings and then some.

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Paul Reed Smith JA-15

The instrument ($4,185 online) boasts a carved spruce top, mahogany sides and curly maple back—all solid woods. The bound curly maple neck supports an ebony fingerboard filled out with 22 smaller frets and PRS’ trademarked bird inlays in mother of pearl and paua heart; the headstock is the old-school PRS shape you might recognize from PRS’ Santana models. The JA-15 is available in 10 tasteful V12 finishes, V12 being the thoroughly researched surface the company claims “will not crack or react with thinners.” It’s an organic, unobtrusive finish, neither overly glossy nor self-consciously raw. Among the other highlight features: two classic-sounding 53/10 humbuckers; PRS’ brass and aluminum two-piece adjustable bridge, with increased weight and mass for improved resonance; and the Phase III locking machine heads, which you’ll tweak much less than you might expect, as the JA-15 stays in tune almost at set’s length. Nickel hardware comes standard, but there is a gold option if you really want to make the finish pop. Also standard is a PRS hardshell case.

It’s difficult to decide where to begin praising this guitar, since its playability and sound complement one another so effectively. Like all Maryland-factory PRS instruments, the first thing you’ll notice is the craftsmanship, which borders on impeccable: no dead spots, no stray glue, a repair-shop-perfect setup right out of the case. Noodling around, the JA-15 just feels right, and substantial. The 25-inch PRS scale length is especially welcome, finding a sweet spot between the ease of play of Gibson guitars (24 3/4-inch scale) and the clear lows and squarer intonation of Fenders (25 1/2). The lightweight body handles well, too: Its scalloped cutaway makes for wieldy access to the upper frets and, when combined with the guitar’s 15-inch lower bout and roughly 2 1/4-inch thickness, grants the JA-15 a comfort more solidbody than traditional jazz archtop. (I also found it less cumbersome than an ES-335-style body, particularly when seated. For standing, the JA-15 flaunts PRS’ oversized strap buttons—way oversized, in fact. If your strap is new, you’ll have to wrestle it onto the guitar.) The PRS “Pattern”-style neck, fast but meaty, furthers Paul Smith’s reputation as a diplomatic luthier, designing instruments capable of pleasing most everyone.

That sentiment applies equally well to the JA-15’s sound. Unamplified, the guitar projects OK, but focusing on pure acousticity would be missing the point here, because PRS winds incredible pickups. The 53/10s somehow offer their own P-90-ish identity while acting as a thoroughfare for the tonewoods, like a fine microphone. Strung with roundwounds and played through a Roland Jazz Chorus and an all-tube Fender combo, the JA-15 was a tonal mixed bag, in the best possible way. There was symmetry and transparency throughout its sound, as well as a warmth and a fat, midrange punch indicative of a serious jazz instrument. The highs were much brighter than the usual opaque-sounding jazzbox, but not distractingly so.

For R&B licks and funky rhythm work, check out the middle and treble positions; for bop lead sounds, select the neck pickup and roll the tone off. (The controls—three-way switching with one volume and one tone knob—are simple and efficient, perhaps too efficient for those who like additional blending options.) Stringing the JA-15 with light-gauge flatwounds pushed the instrument further into hard-swinging territory.

Jazzers will be pleased, no doubt. But somehow the JA-15 impressed in gainy rock settings, too. Through overdriven amps and stompboxes, the JA-15—a fully hollow instrument, save for a solid piece positioned underneath the tailpiece—fed back in amounts more on par with proper semi-hollowbodies. Most important, that feedback could be manipulated into creamy, sustainable, to-die-for tone. Here is a guitar that allows you to channel both Eric Clapton circa 1968 and Pat Martino with equal authenticity. It’s a remarkable ax.

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