Paul Reed Smith Guitars

The World of Paul Reed Smith
The World of Paul Reed Smith

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 a useful talent to have if you’re going to make a consumer product but Smith got permission and built a natural-finished copy of a single cutaway 1957 Les Paul Junior, his favorite guitar at the time. His career path had changed.

That summer Smith left college, turned his brother’s bedroom into a “guitar factory” and began to build guitars. After trying to sell some of these guitars in New York with no success, Smith landed some repair work for Danny Gatton’s repair shop.

“I spent Thanksgiving repairing the headstock on Joe Perry’s guitar,” recalls Smith. “One of the things I realized while working on the repairs was that all the top guitarists were playing either Gibsons or Fenders, and I decided that if I was going to be successful, I needed to combine the best features of both.”

Smith continued to build guitars throughout the Seventies, hanging out at concerts, meeting the guitarists and trying to get them to try his guitars. “I knew that a lot of people offered guitars to these guys,” explains Smith, “and that they’d been burned. So I always told them that if they’d buy one of my guitars and didn’t like it for any reason, I’d give them their money back.” Slowly but surely Smith’s reputation began to grow.

Smith’s early guitars still reflected his attraction to Gibson, but he kept working on the idea of a Gibson-Fender compromise, and in 1983 he finally came up with the new body shape that now characterizes his instruments. “You have no idea how hard it is to come up with a new guitar shape,” says Smith. “It took me about a year and a half. I’d do sketches and work on it at night. My wife would go to bed, and I’d come in and wake her up to show her my latest design. She’d always say, ‘No, that’s not it.’ Finally, one night I woke her up and she said, ‘Yeah, that’s it’ and rolled over and went back to sleep. I knew I had it. That’s the Paul Reed Smith guitar.”

“I tried to sell that guitar to everyone,” continues Smith. “I took it to Ovation, Kramer, Guild. Yamaha was pretty interested at one point, but they didn’t want to pay enough of a royalty. I decided to do it myself.

“I started working on the prototypes. I was playing in a band at the time. My schedule was going to my shop from noon to six, run home for a quick dinner, and start playing with the band from 7 pm ’til 2 am. When the prototypes were done, I made up a little brochure and hit the road trying to get orders. It was November of ’84 and I managed to bring home $300,000 in orders! I raised another half million and used that money to build a factory, and started shipping guitars in August of 1985. 1995 was our 10th anniversary.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, around 480 PRS guitars are built each month, a considerable number considering the amount of attention each receives. About 35% head overseas; the rest out to some 16 distributors and 160 or so domestic dealers.

With Smith as guide, my tour began at a building a block away where PRS lumber is processed and stored. Smith is rightly proud of his wood stock; after all, it’s the heart of his guitars. One palette after another was stacked to the ceiling with mahogany neck blanks, slabs of mahogany for bodies, huge pieces of ebony and chunks of highly figured maple. All have different colors of paint on the ends, coded according to grade and earmarked for specific PRS models.

In a telling event, a pickup truck sat in the doorway, its back full of small rough pieces of exotic woods. “For the local public schools,” explains Smith. “No budget for wood in shop class. Can you believe it?! We donate the ends and scraps to them so they’ll have something to work with.” I began to think maybe I ought to buy a PRS guitar sooner rather than later.

We made a brief stop in a side room where PRS houses its growing accessories business. After some familiar, familial banter (“I told you you were going to have twins. I was right wasn’t I?”), his accessories manager showed Paul a new jacket design. A rack of expensive jackets lined the wall, across from cupboards full of T-shirts, guitar pins and guitar strings. “These are just about the only strings you can buy with a 9.5 first string,” beams Smith. A call comes through, a quick answer, and Smith pulls out a leather guitar strap. “New item. Smooth on this side for players who like to slide their guitars around, rough on this side for those who want it to stay put. Simple idea. Players love it.” Indeed! Even guitar straps get Smith’s enthusiastic attention.

Back at the main plant Smith fielded another question about the neck joint on the new Santana guitars and took a short call from the guy who does his pearl work. “Guy’s a genius,” Smith confided. “He came to me with this idea that he could use computer technology to do inlays. We backed the idea. He does our Dragons.”

Like Smith’s office, the PRS factory has lots of stuff crammed into a small space, with rooms and stations for all stages of making guitars. Truth to tell, most of the technology employed at PRS is fairly similar to most other modern guitarmaking operations, a mix of time-honored jigs and gluing presses and fancy new computer equipment. The difference lies in the way it’s used.

At the start, Smith picks up a couple tops and shows them off. “A lot of manufacturers wouldn’t use this one because of this darker area here, but its still a gorgeous piece of wood,” Smith points out. “Instead, we developed a new finish combination which takes advantage of the natural coloration.”

We stop at Smith’s new computer-controlled carving machine, where bodies are shaped with a variety of cutting points. “We consider using any technology as long as it serves the art,” explained Smith. “I didn’t want to get the carving machine, but got talked into it. Now, we’re going to buy a second one.”

In sharp contrast, our next stop is at a sanding station, where a young employee patiently smooths and shapes a newly carved body while a vacuum system under the table sucks away the dust. “It took me six months to learn how to do this,” explained the sander, “and I’m still learning. Each piece of wood is different. You have to learn to read the grain.” The sanding process is a critical step which takes a rough guitar with ridges from the cutting blades in multiple stages down to a glassy-smooth surface ready to be finished.

A worker calls out to Smith and we take a brief detour to inspect a new vibrato unit. Both vigorously manhandle the whammy while peering closely at the back of the cavity. “We’re exploring whether or not it’s feasible to make these without chrome plating the blocks inside. That would make them a lot easier to manufacturer,” Smith explains. PRS manufactures its own patented vibratos and locking tuners.

We pause to admire a fingerboard inlaid with one of the most dazzling, stunning dragons imaginable. “We’re only going to make these for another year. Then they’re done. We’ll go on to something else,” says Smith.

Next we stroll past workers diligently finishing off necks, past the painting chamber, and through a drying room hung with beautiful, multicolor PRS guitars, almost all with those killer maple tops that’ve become synonymous with the brand. Paul is interrupted with another phone crisis (“We’re getting ready for the NAMM show,” he apologizes) and leaves me with a young lady with a lot of power. Her job is to put the final sealing buff on the finish before the guitar gets its hardware and setup. If she finds a single dimple or flaw, the guitar goes back to be stripped and refinished. Perfection is the rule.

One thing you notice right away when you visit the PRS plant is the youth of the workers. Most of the employees I saw were males in their twenties, wearing various rock ‘n’ roll t-shirts, many sporting the usual complement of shaved heads and/or long hair and earrings. Another thing you notice (in contrast to the plethora of bad press about the lack of motivation of Generation X) is how earnest they are and how hard they worked. As with all manufacturing concerns, PRS puts high emphasis on productivity and has a number of cool incentive programs in place. But you get the distinct feeling that the passion these young people put into their work isn’t coming from the chance at getting a free factory second some day. Instead, they approached their jobs, from sanding tops to spraying finishes, as professional craftspeople. I was visiting during lunch, and everywhere people were working through their breaks because they had things to get done. Every person I spoke with was proud of his or her work and knew how essential it was to the success of PRS guitars. The quality of PRS guitars is great testimony to this pride and devotion.

Back from business, Smith steers me toward the electronics room where PRS pickups are made from scratch. Most fascinating are his new split single-coil pickups which deliver the glassy single-coil sound but, with three poles staggered, act as humbuckers. “We just got a new computerized machine which allows us to plug in parameters, design any sound we want and then make pickups which consistently get that sound,” says Smith. “Want to hear our latest?” Who wouldn’t?

We moved next door to the last stop in the life of a PRS guitar before it’s packed and shipped, where it gets pickups, tuners, strings, a setup, a test-drive on a well-used Mesa Boogie amp, and tags. Smith pops a cassette tape into a player on the workbench. “We recorded this last night,” he beams, “It took a while. They kept stopping me, saying ‘That’s not the way the song goes’.” All work halts as we gather around and listen to a five-minute instrumental rock number, sort of fusion, but with balls.

Comments start. “Nice riff.” “Great tone.” “Jeff Beck.” “Santana.” I add, “Billy Gibbons.” “The harmonic stuff,” responds Smith. While he now makes superfine guitars, Paul Reed Smith hasn’t forgotten how to play some superfine guitar.

Back in his office, over Chinese takeout, Smith shows me the guitar he recorded with the previous night, a spectacular piece with new pickups and a solid rosewood neck. “I miss the days when I was a guitar player in a regular band, but for now there’s this,” he says, indicating the factory that surrounds us. “Still, I get to play a lot. I’m always showing up with a new prototype, so the guys I play with never know what to expect.”

“A lot of people have thought some of the things we’ve done were crazy,” continued Smith. “When we introduced guitars above the thousand dollar price point, no one thought guitarists would buy them. Look at the market now. When we introduced the Dragon at an $8,000 dealer price, people really thought we were crazy. They sold out immediately. Now the cost is closer to $17,000, and one of our Dragons is in the Smithsonian.”

The phone rang. It was PRS’ sales manager reporting on the Santana concert the night before, where Carlos was given a replacement PRS guitar to try out. The guitar was an older PRS on loan from Howard Leese, until PRS could finish making the reproduction. With resignation and not a little frustration Smith hung up. “He played it for 10 seconds, and he didn’t like it. It got the 10-second rejection. We’ll have to keep trying. Welcome to my world.”

Despite the hectic pace and demanding challenges, it’s an exciting world where, at the very least, Paul Reed Smith has gotten to build his Dragon guitars.

Current Paul Reed Smith Models
Here’s a brief list of the current offering of Paul Reed Smith guitars.

EG Bolt-On: contoured alder body, PRS tremolo and locking machines, 22-fret rock maple neck, 22-fret rosewood fingerboard, dot inlays, five-way select, volume, push-pull tone, choice of three pickguards (plus custom ‘guard option), finishes: black, black sunburst, classic red, seafoam green (custom colors: pearl white, electric blue, electric red, vintage cherry, tri-color sunburst, pearl black).

EG Bolt-On Maple-Top: same as EG Bolt-On except maple top over the alder body (3-piece 10-top optional), finishes: black sunburst, grey black burst, tri-color sunburst, black cherry burst, scarlet burst, whale blue burst, royal blue burst, emerald green burst, purple burst.
EG-1: HFS/single-coil/HFS with coil tap.
EG-2: HFS/zero-hum single-coil/zero-hum single with coil tap.
EG-3: 3 zero-hum single-coils with dual tone and presence.
EG-4: HFS II humbucker/single/single.

CE Bolt-On: carved alder body, PRS tremolo and locking machines, rock maple neck, standard or wide/thin neck, 21-fret rosewood fingerboard, abalone dot inlays, HFS treble and vintage bass pickups, five-way rotary select, volume, tone, optional bird inlays and gold hardware, finishes: black, classic red (custom colors: vintage cherry, electric blue, electric red, black sunburst, pearl black).

CE Bolt-On Maple-Top: same as CE Bolt-On except maple top, optional 3-piece 10-top or quilted maple top, finishes: scarlet red, royal blue, dark blue, grey black, black sunburst, tortoise shell, emerald green, black cherry, cherry sunburst, vintage sunburst, vintage yellow, orange, purple, scarlet sunburst, tobacco sunburst.

CE 22 Bolt-On: same as CE Bolt-On except 22 frets, Dragon treble and bass pickups.

CE 22 Bolt-On Maple-Top: same as CE 22 Bolt-On with maple top and maple-top options.

Standard: carved mahogany body, mahogany neck, optional standard, wide/thin or wide/fat neck, 21-fret rosewood fingerboard, moon inlays (optional bird inlays), HFS treble and vintage bass pickups (option charge to change pickups, including humbucker/single/single option), PRS tremolo or stop-tail, PRS locking machines (optional gold hardware), five-way rotary select, volume, tone, finishes: black, vintage cherry, natural (custom colors: pearl white, pearl black, electric red, electric blue, gold-top, custom black).

Standard 22: same as Standard with 22 frets.

Custom: mahogany back with carved maple top (optional 10-top or quilted maple), mahogany neck (optional standard, wide/thin or wide/fat), 21-fret rosewood fingerboard, moon inlays (optional bird inlays), PRS tremolo or stop-tail, PRS locking machines (optional gold hardware), HFS treble and vintage bass pickups (option charge to change pickups, humbucker/single/single option), five-way rotary select, volume, tone, finishes: scarlet red, royal blue, grey black, whale blue, black cherry, black sunburst, scarlet sunburst, emerald green, tortoise shell, purple (custom colors: vintage yellow, vintage sunburst, tobacco sunburst, cherry sunburst, natural, orange).

Custom 22: same as Custom except for 22-fret fingerboard and Dragon pickups.

McCartyTM Model: using most resonant woods, special headstock and body dimensions, mahogany back, select maple top, wide/fat mahogany neck, 22-fret rosewood fingerboard, moon inlays (optional bird inlays), three-way select, volume, tone, PRS stop tail, vintage style machine heads (optional gold hardware), PRS Dragon bass pickups with covers, finishes: McCarty sunburst, McCarty tobacco burst.

McCartyTM Standard: same as regular McCarty except gold-top and custom black finishes over maple tops.

Artist 22: mahogany body with exceptional maple top (optional semi-hollow body, quilted maple top), wide/fat or wide/thin mahogany neck, maple purfling on neck, headstock and truss rod cover, abalone signature on head, 22-fret rosewood fingerboard, abalone bird inlays, gold hardware, PRS stop tail and locking machines (optional PRS tremolo), Artist series pickups, five-way rotary select, volume, tone, certificate of authenticity, leather hardshell case, finishes: amber, teal black, dark cherry sunburst, indigo.

Artist LTD Edition: same as Artist 22 except made of 200 pieces, including 14 carat gold bird inlays, abalone purfling on neck, head and truss rod cover, PRS pearl eagle headstock inlay.

Dragon IV: select mahogany back (optional semi-hollow body), carved maple top (optional quilted top), wide/fat or wide/thin mahogany neck, 22-fret rosewood fingerboard, 438-piece dragon inlay with gold, red and green abalone, mother-of-pearl, mammoth ivory and stone, gold hardware, PRS stop tail (optional PRS tremolo), locking machines, dragon pickups, five-way rotary select, volume, tone, certificate of authenticity, leather hardshell case, finishes: amber, teal black, dark cherry, sunburst, indigo. Only 100 made.

Paul Reed Smith hand-made pickups include the following:
Dragon Treble: fat with no loss of clarity, clean or high gain, ceramic magnet, highest wire turns.

Dragon Bass: lower output with rich, warm bass, sweet high end, vintage alnico and vintage winding.

Artist Bass: neck pickup with silky sound, vintage alnico, hotter winding than Dragon bass.

Artist Treble: warm, full and clear bridge pickup, extra turns to match Artist Bass, warmer vintage tone.

HFS: hot, fat and screams, ceramic magnet, hot winding, dark when clean, best cranked up.

Vintage Bass: neck, classic tone, alnico magnets.

Vintage Treble: low power, sweet sound bridge pickup, clean and clear, alnico magnet.

Deep Dish II: bridge pickup, fat tone with clarity, alnico magnet, deep winds with more turns, similar to a P-90, big and warm with nice high end.

PRS Custom 22 in black cherry.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’96 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.