Paul Reed Smith: 'I Didn't Have Enough Money to Buy Guitars - That's Why I Started Making Them'

artist: Paul Reed Smith date: 04/08/2013 category: interviews
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Paul Reed Smith: 'I Didn't Have Enough Money to Buy Guitars - That's Why I Started Making Them'
Paul Reed Smith will tell you that in 1985 - the first year the company manufactured instruments - a lot that could go wrong, did go wrong. Gear was breaking down and mistakes were made. "We had humidifiers in the factory to keep it climate controlled and all the necks warped," Smith says. "We realized the necks were sitting on a cart underneath the humidifier. I could tell you story after story after story of things that almost ate our lunch." Almost is the operative word here. Smith figured it out and in a big way.

PRS Guitars would go on to become one of the premier guitar companies in the business building every type of instrument from higher-end signature guitars to the extraordinary line of more budget - friendly pieces as part of the SE Series. Here, Smith carved out 45 minutes from a typically busy day to talk about the company.

Ultimate-Guitar: Did you want to build your own guitar because you couldn't find anything you wanted on the shelf?

Paul Reed Smith: No, if I opened a case of a guitar I made, it drew a crowd. If I played, everybody ran. It's simple. You have to pay attention to the feedback of the world.

You were playing self-built guitars in some of the early bands you played in?

Yes, a guy came up to me and he comes up to the stage and goes, "Where did you get that guitar? That was made by a guy in Annapolis. You don't dress well enough to have that guitar. You can't have it - you don't have any money." And the band cracked up and were laughing their tails off. That's right, I didn't have enough money to buy the guitar. The reason I started making guitars is because I didn't have the money.

What vintage guitars from back in the day did you hold in high esteem?

Old Strats, old Tellys, old Les Pauls, old Les Paul Juniors, and old Les Paul Specials. Old Firebird basses, Epiphone Firebird basses and some of the Epiphone 335s. The real deal, right? Old Martins. Real guitars - for that time real guitars.

"Al DiMeola and Carlos Santana and Howard Leese - those were my first three endorsers. And Ted Nugent."

What was your philosophy about building your first guitars?

I had a 1953 Les Paul - number 740 - and I would build a guitar and I would go compare to that guitar. Or I would compare to the guitars that came into the shop. I was the repairman for all the really difficult repairs. I had a huge feedback loop of how I was doing compared to how history was doing. I had sold about 40 or 50 instruments to people in my area and to rock stars over a period of time. Believe me, the second a rock star gets a guitar, they'll compare it instantly to what they have. It's the most powerful feedback loop you could have. I was trying to make a musical instrument the musician would play. There wasn't this grand plan. It was more about I was an artist making guitars. They did a book on artists in Annapolis and I wasn't included in it and it kinda pissed me off. They thought artists were only writers, painters and sculptors.

Derek St. Holmes was one of the first rock stars to try one of your guitars?

I had made a single cutaway kind of Les Paul Junior guitar and I showed it to him and he played it at the Capitol Center. It was the first time I ever saw a guitar I made up on a Jumbotron and I thought that was cool. But I realized he didn't have the money for it and he wasn't gonna buy it. I thought the guitar sitting on my shelf in one room I lived in was a waste of time so I sent him the guitar. It was a beginning for me and he used the guitar. They took nail polish 'cause I didn't know enough to put side dots on and they put nail polish where the dots should be and he played the guitar.

Howard Leese was another early player of PRS guitars?

Yeah, but he got the first curly maple guitar. Howard was a very powerful endorser for me. He saw a picture of this curly maple top guitar I made and I sent it to him and he said it rocked his world. Howard was always the first guy to have new gear like the Seymour Duncan Convertible and Dean Guitars and you name it. Howard was always the first guy to go out there and do that stuff. He always had his ear to the ground.

Was working with Carlos Santana the real turning point?

Yes. Al DiMeola and Carlos Santana and Howard Leese - those were my first three endorsers. And Ted Nugent. The guys who got me in were Carlos Santana, Al DiMeola, Howard Leese and Ted Nugent.

Were you fans of all their music?

God yes! You kidding me?! Did you ever see Return To Forever when Al was playing in it?

"PRS guitars now have proprietary parts on almost everything. Were finally proprietary just like all those '50s companies."

I did.

Were you around when that record ("Where Have I Known You Before") came out? Carlos Santana's "Zebop!" record came out when he had the first guitar. Yeah, of course I was a fan. You're talking about legends in an industry I love. Wait a minute, they're not just legends - also they're gifted musicians all four of them. Howard Leese is a better player on the backside of the beat than any guitar player I've ever met.

You had a close relationship with Gibson Guitars' Ted McCarty?

I drained him of every piece of information he had and I knew I'd done it because he started repeating himself. You name me something and I interviewed him about it. Did you know they put the frets in at old Gibson with fish glue? Did you know they had microwave ovens to glue the tops on? You could hold a light bulb up near the ovens and it would go on without plugging it in. I could tell you so many stories. I mean we could spend this whole time me just downloading what Ted told me.

Musicians have often said that all guitars were based on four designs: the Les Paul, 335, Stratocaster and Telecaster. Do you agree?

The list is way too short so let me give it to you, OK? A Telly, a Strat, a P bass and a Jazz bass. A Les Paul, a Les Paul Flattop guitar and an SG. A Gretsch, a Rickenbacker, a Gibson electrified acoustic, and a Martin. A 335 and a Super 400. You know the 335 was a price, right? So you had 175s, 125s, 335s, 345s, 355s and a Super guitar for $400. A Byrdland and Firebirds. This is the language of our industry, right? So these guys wrote a language and they got P90s, Strat, Telly, Firebird baby humbuckers and humbucking pickups. The Strat vibrato and the Bigsby; the sideways Vibrolas. I could go on and on and on. That is the basis of our industry and it's a language and it goes from there. Gibson had a whole bunch of proprietary parts on their guitars and Fender had a whole bunch of proprietary parts on their guitars. Gretsch has had proprietary parts - a Gretsch bridge was not found on a Gibson.

"Howard Leese is a better player on the backside of the beat than any guitar player I've ever met."

PRS builds just about all of their own parts now?

PRS guitars now have proprietary parts on almost everything: tuning pegs; nuts; inlays; neck shapes; body shapes; the 408 pickups; bridges; electronics; and the knobs. We're finally proprietary just like all those '50s companies.

How have you managed to keep the SE Series of guitars to such a high standard?

By requiring things to be the way we want them to be and by teaching. If you have a guitar - no matter what the price point is - you still have to fret it; you still have to glue a fretboard on; paint it; make a bridge; wire it; level the frets; cut a nut; make and install tuning pegs; put in a truss rod; and have a case for it. All these things you can either do them well or do them poorly. I was blown away in the Sear's catalog when I was a kid that it was the same thing to make a very expensive guitar as it was to make a Teisco. You still had to wind the pickups and you still had to have bobbins; you still had to wire the pots and you still had to have a tone control. Do you know what I'm saying? So why not do it well? It's the same theory with the SEs - we're doing our very best without being complete control freaks about it, to have our manufacturer do what it is we want. Then we've held their hand as a partner for a very long time to build what we want.

Was Santana one of the first players to use an SE?

Yeah, as a matter of fact when I showed him the SE, he thought it was Maryland-built. He said, "Are you telling me this wasn't built in Maryland?" and I said, "Yes." He signed the document right there on the spot. Done. I needed his permission. I mean he signed that thing so fast, it took him 10 seconds.

"We're doing our very best without being complete control freaks about it, to have our manufacturer do what it is we want."

1985 was the first year for PRS?

The first year for the company manufacturing.

What obstacles did you run into that first year?

It was a new challenge every day. It was fun and exciting; it was scary. It was hard work. We used to have a new problem every day. I remember saying if God had given us all the problems on the same day, we'd have never survived.

What were some of those problems?

I'll give you an example. We had three cutters made - beautiful cutters. They were helical, carbide-tipped and very special cutters for cutting the bodies out. The first one worked perfectly and the second one worked perfectly. It was, "Ah great, we got cutters and we know what to do with them." We pulled the third one out and it didn't work. We were shut down. We made it but if it had happened on all the same day, we would have died. If you had your car break down, your basement flood, your credit card be stolen and all the other problems you've had in your life - which I'm sure you've had - all on the same day? That would be really bad.

Were there other companies around who you felt were competing for the same customer?

Sure, Kramer. Fender and Gibson were out but they came back in. Jackson was a big deal when we went into the market. Steinberger back when Eddie was playing "Summer Nights" on a Steinberger. It was the real deal. It was different players, same game.

"Very difficult to build a guitar, which is supposed to be extraordinarily beautiful and have it be extraordinarily good sounding and good playing all at the same time."

Can you talk about the relationship you have with your endorsees?

Sure. Brent Mason, we made guitars for him on-and-off over a very, very long period of time. He gets a DGT and he really likes it. We go down and interview him about it and I said, "Brent, why do you like this?" He goes, "I don't know. It works for me." Which I thought was a very sophisticated answer - as a tool to do his job, it works for him. I thought that was a really good answer. He came and kicked the tires, toured the factory, played in our band, recorded at my studio and had us make a whole bunch of prototypes. He got more prototypes and came to Frankfurt (Musikmesse, huge music trade show held in Germany each year). When he finally had a guitar he played through his Deluxe in the basement that he liked better than everything else he had, he signed off on the Brent Mason model and we went to market with it.

A lot of R&D went into the Brent Mason model.

I subsequently have been taking it on the road with me and it's pretty devastating when you compare it to anything of any year anytime. It's not a pretty good guitar; it's a really good guitar. He's a very, very smart cat. There's a reason he's played on 125 number one singles in Nashville.

He's an extraordinary player.

Yeah, and he knows what he likes. It takes him time because he's not a guitar maker by trade but he does know what he likes and he knows how to hone in. I've learned a lot.

What about some of the other relationships?

Rhonda Smith is another example of a very bright musician. She has been able to keenly hone us in on some things about the Gary Grainger basses we didn't understand.

"Brent Mason, we made guitars for him on-and-off over a very, very long period of time."

What's it been like working with Mark Tremonti?

A joy. Watching people fight to get down into the moshpit when he first started playing (a PRS) to find out what he was playing 'cause they knew it wasn't what he normally played. He's dreamed about having a PRS model his whole life. That's kinda like Herman Li with DragonForce - he dreamed about having an Ibanez model his whole life. He toured our factory and he was like a kid in a candy store and he loved it but his dream was to do that instead. Mark's dream was to have a PRS and he's been a joy to work with. He's just awesome.

Have some players presented challenges to you as a guitar builder?

I think Mark did. He wanted special tremolo options, wanted his body shape a certain way and wanted the pickups to be a certain way. He wanted the neck shapes to be a certain way and he'd change his models. Challenging? I'll work on something for Carlos Santana for three months and sometimes he'll love it and sometimes he'll wave it off in 10 seconds. These guys do something I call the 10-second decision - they'll play something and they know if they like it in 10 seconds. Neal Schon picked up a guitar we made him once and he goes, "Nope." He's got a 14 and a 15 he uses so I would say, yeah, it's been incredibly challenging.

What about working with someone like David Grissom?

David Grissom has been challenging. The DGT model we developed together has been great. Bugs Henderson on the other hand picked up a Custom, plugged it in, never said anything and started to do things with it we didn't know was possible. He was using the volume control as a tone control; using the arm backwards on the guitar; and he was using rotary switch positions we didn't even know existed. It became a whole different game for everybody. Bugs and I became very good friends and I'm sorry we lost him last year. It was tough.

What is the most expensive guitar you ever made?

A double-necked Dragon and a specific Private Stock guitar took us a year to make. But I would say the double-necked Dragons in general were the most expensive things we made. They were both more than $25,000 guitars.

Is there a dream list of guitar players with whom you'd like to work?

Are you kidding me? Are you serious? Let's start with Steve Vai. That'd be cool and then we'll go to Jeff Beck. The list is too long for me to go over.

Can you address the production process for a guitar?

Four-hundred meticulous steps. No, cut that number down to over 200 meticulous steps. Which one do you want to know about?

"The thing's that nice about kings - Carlos Santana, Howard and Al - they're all kings, right? They don't care what anybody else thinks; they only care what they think."

What's the most complex step? Most demanding? Most critical?

Making a straight neck that plays in tune that stays straight a lifetime. Making a pickup that sounds beautiful; finishing the guitar; and setting it up. That's a long list; that's not fair. Making a guitar that has the possibility of magic.

You talked earlier about PRS building their own proprietary pickups. Do you build your own pickups for instance because you can't find what you need from other pickup builders?

No, other companies could have done it. But now if I need a pickup, I have it on my desk in one-and-a-half hours. If I needed a prototype from another manufacturer, it would have taken a week and that's just normal. I mean literally we'll go down and re-program the machine and I've got the prototype sitting there in seconds. It's cost effective for us. I think early on a lot of our guitars got new pickups in 'em. The amount of new pickups going in our guitars are getting less and less and less by the day. The 408s are going very well for us but nobody other than us are making 408 pickups (and that's the same with many other pickup models we make).

Is that the same philosophy that goes into building your own tremolos?

Yeah, same thing. That's a Fender-styled tremolo with a huge number of modifications with our string spacing. That device just works.

Can you talk about the custom ordered Private Stock instruments?

Very difficult to build a guitar, which is supposed to be extraordinarily beautiful and have it be extraordinarily good sounding and good playing all at the same time. I'd say the whole building has been really focused on making sure the Collection instruments are take-your-breath-away beautiful but my goal is they take-your-breath away sound wise. The Collection guitars are starting to get a reputation of being magic and it's been a very interesting event. It's a, "What have you done for me lately world?" I did an absolutely beautiful hand painted sunburst last month and it's, "Hey, you got something new?" And we say, "Yeah, we do this thing called sideways sunburst." And they're like, "Really?" And then we do a glow and it's nothing but new stuff all the time. It's like, "Oh, that's beautiful. What else you got new?" It's like the Janet Jackson song, "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" But we move with the process and we used to fight it and now we enjoy just changing things up. There's a new glow finish that goes sideways from corner to corner.

The aliens have come down and found the PRS time capsule. Inside it are three of the best guitars you've ever built. Which three guitars are in there?

Carlos Santana's wedding guitar that was given to him for his wedding that was made by Private Stock. Are you serious? Are you dead serious?

Am I serious?


I am.

Well, it's a good question. My guitar that's in all the ads right now that my wife stole from me. It's called Paul's Guitar and I brought it home and my wife said to me, "I'll have that." I went, "OK." It broke my heart because I thought it was one of the best guitars I ever had my hands on. My kids have a guitar so she gets one, right? But it's OK because now I get to borrow my wife's guitar when I go on the road.

"Mark Tremonti is dreamed about having a PRS model his whole life."

What other guitars would be in the capsule?

The bass Gary Grainger is playing. But that's not fair - I want to add one more. I want to add the acoustic guitar Tony McManus has had on the road for the last six years. And the guitar that got PRS its start - the original yellow Santana that Carlos used at the very, very beginning. The last one would be the guitar Howard Leese has with the first curly maple top. I showed a picture of it to Carlos Santana to get the order and I showed it to Al DiMeola to get the order. So there would be six guitars in there and that's not even fair. How about the very first PRS prototype up in the archives? There's way more than three and it's not a fair question but I answered the question.

Do some guitars come off the line that are simply a little more social than others?

Yeah. I try to buy 'em and I call the dealers and I try to buy 'em back and they won't sell 'em to me. I said, "I'll take this" and they go, "No, it's sold, Paul." I'll call the dealer and say, "I want the guitar" and they'll go, "No." There's one acoustic in the Netherlands with pernambuco side and back and I begged him to sell it me. Begged him. He told me, "No, that's my retirement." Look, when the firemen are going in the houses around here when they have a fire and the people are screaming for their PRS and not the photographs, that's when I feel good about the job we're doing here. The firemen told me that. So if you built an heirloom and they're screaming for their guitar more than they're screaming for their photographs, we've done our job.

Do you ever wish you were on the other side - the guitar player instead of the guitar builder?

It's happened to me - a builder came to me with an acoustic guitar. If there was a guitar I liked more than the ones I made, I'd order one. I wouldn't even think about it. First of all I'd have a lot to learn from it and second of all it would be kind of fun to do. Yeah, of course I'd do it - I would be Derek, I would be Carlos, I would be Howard, I would be Al. Let's say you came up to me and said, "You're gonna build me a tool for me to do my job? And I think this thing's got a chance of being something?" I'd be all over it. The thing's that nice about kings - Carlos Santana, Howard and Al - they're all kings, right? They don't care what anybody else thinks; they only care what they think. So Carlos doesn't care what anybody else thinks - they care what they think. If it wets their whistle, that's good, right? That's the beautiful thing about people way up the ladder is they'll give you a chance when other people won't. By the way, this whole industry has given us a chance here. It's not just me - it's all of us. It's not just me; I just happen to be the figurehead.

"So if you built an heirloom and they're screaming for their guitar more than they're screaming for their photographs, we've done our job."

What is it like being a guitar builder in 2013?

It's unbelievably hard and I'm gonna be on the road all year. I was at the Chicago Music Exchange and I was at Dave's Guitar Shop in La Crosse, Wisconsin last week. I was in Guitar Center in Boston and I've been going everywhere. I'm gonna be all over the country all year. My wife and I have made a deal and she's OK with it - I'm gonna be gone. The landscape is changing really quickly. When we were kids we played the stuff that was cool. There are kids who have never held a 1961 SG and they don't know what a '57 Strat is or they've never held a '58 Les Paul. They've never held a real White Falcon. They don't know.

Because young players typically don't have the knowledge about vintage instruments, does that make it easier or harder to put a guitar in their hands?

It's never hard to put a guitar into somebody's hands - it's about feel. If they've never seen Mt. Everest and they've never been to the top, they don't know what it looks like off the top of the mountain. A '63 SG doesn't feel like a '61 SG and kids don't know that. But they aspire to have a really good guitar and they're trusting their endorsers. If a guy loves Herman Li, he's gonna trust Herman Li as to what Herman Li plays. The endorsers are the one saying, "This is what's good and that's what's not." When Steve says, "Buy a Legacy amp," that's because he believes in it, right? The guy isn't supposed to have to know what every vintage amp sounds like. He should trust his hero.

That's really the way it's always been.

The landscape is changing for everyone right now. Some of our industry has lost its footing and some stores absolutely know what they're doing. I've been in some stores where there's a frightening amount of knowledge. A guitar repairman/builder used to be a guitar player's gynecologist and that was the deal. It's not that way anymore. Some kids don't even know who a guitar repairman is. I was the head of a whole group of musicians 'cause I repaired their guitars. I was the guitar repairman in the Annapolis area - I was the doctor. The guitar needed a re-fret or whatever the guitar needed, I was taking care of it.
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