Just after we entered the small, crowded office, the door burst open and an intruder blurted out, “Excuse me. Check this out. Is it right?” The company’s R&D chief handed Paul Reed Smith a freshly carved neck over the cluttered desk. Smith ran his hands over the slender sliver of red mahogany. His R&D guru angled a wooden template over the blank headstock. “Yeah,” nodded Smith, “that’s how we used to cut them.” The nascent neck was taken back and hastily returned to its experiments.
Smith turned to me, apologized for the interruption and explained. “Carlos’s guitars were stolen a couple days ago. They were going through customs and someone just picked them up out of their roadcases and walked off with them. He’s pretty upset. They’re the only ones he uses in concert. Unfortunately, they were really old ones. We dug up old files and are working to reproduce them for him. We sent him some others to try till we can get these done.
“Welcome to my world.”
This somewhat frenetic pace is all in a day’s work at the Paul Reed Smith guitar factory, the place where some of today’s most highly respected guitars are built.
I think it’s safe to say that PRS guitars have the rare distinction of having been regarded as both new kids on the block and instant collectible classics almost from the moment they came to the attention of the larger guitar world in the early Eighties.
Such a balance of new and old is both intentional and, undoubtedly, a product of the environment.
PRS guitars are created amidst the counterpoint of an activated atmosphere and quaint surroundings of Smith’s hometown, Annapolis, Maryland. As you enter Maryland’s capital city from its landward side, through the relatively flat sandy coastal plain that runs along the Eastern Seaboard from New Jersey south, you’re immediately presented with the signs of a robust economy: fields sprouting brand new townhouse developments, busy strip malls and bustling industrial parks. All this shiny new Annapolis is wrapped around a core that consists of a small Eastern seaport city, dating from the 1600s, chock full of history. Its elegant late-1700s, red-brick statehouse is surrounded by ancient narrow winding alleys built for horse carriages and blocks of brick or shingle-style rowhouses. The neatly ordered U.S. Naval Academy resonates with tradition, as does the charming, typically Mid-Atlantic open market on the harbor, or the magnificent open-water bridge spanning the mighty Chesapeake Bay.
Paul Reed Smith’s highly desirable guitars are built in a couple low-rise brick buildings in one of the small industrial parks on the outskirts of the old city. [Just recently, after this tour took place, PRS moved to a new facility located outside Annapolis in Stevensville, Maryland.] Their success was hardly an overnight one, and reflects the impassioned vision and tireless energy of Paul Reed Smith.
“I knew I wanted to make guitars when I was 16,” says Smith. “I even had a poster on my wall that said ‘Les Paul Custom Dragon.’ Someday, I was going to build Dragon guitars.”
It took a few years, however, before Smith got around to begin working on his dream. It was actually in the Spring of 1975, while a sophomore math major at St. Mary’s College, that Smith built his first guitar. Beginning to have second thoughts about his math career path, Smith approached the head of the music department about doing an independent study project in which he would build a guitar. It took persistent and persuasive salesmanship