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Paul Reed Smith

Paul Smith is from Bowie, Maryland and graduated from Bowie High School, followed by attending St. Mary's College. He played in area bands that included Kite, The Jude Band, and Band of 1000 Names with Crack the Sky bassist Cary Zeigler. Paul opened the Guitar Shop on 33 West Street in downtown Annapolis in 1975. He custom built guitars for area musicians, eventually generating national interest after building instruments for recording artists such as Peter Frampton, Al Dimeola, Carlos Santana, and Howard Leese. His reputation for building fine handmade guitars led to development of the company we all know as Paul Reed Smith Guitars. From a small workshop to the current production facility, PRS guitars are known the world over for their craftsmanship, playability, and tone. Whether the humble CE or an elaborate Private Stock, all instruments share a quality that we have come to love.

 

Interview With Paul Reed Smith - September 19, 1999

A phone interview was conducted with Paul and my summary of that conversation is that the man is very genuine, loves his guitars, and fully appreciates the feedback that he gets from his customers. Without further ado, hereís the interview.

Forum: What was your inspiration to build your own guitars?

Paul: My father only bought me one instrument as a kid, a $40 guitar, which obviously wasnít the best sounding thing out there. I used to make a lot of things out of wood in school and I wanted to make guitars from a pretty young age. I didnít have the money to buy the guitars I really wanted, so I would go and measure speaker cabinets, make my own and sell them. I didnít have a bass, but I wanted one, so I took the neck from a Japanese imitation Hofner Beatles-style bass and started taking measurements of the neck and made a dyslexic Strat body for it. I would make things and sell them or trade them in on items I really wanted. It was my way of being able to get the things I wanted and I enjoyed working with wood.

Forum: Have there been any major disappointments as you built up PRS?

Paul: No real disappointments, but some surprises. Each thing that went wrong was a learning experience that taught me something. Thereís really no time for resentment. The biggest surprises have been in getting 120 people to mesh. Itís been a learning experience. Another surprise was how hard it was to move the factory. Moving was difficult. We had to make sure that everything from electrical boxes and sprinkler systems was perfect before the first moving box arrived. Thatís a bigger job than it seemed.

Forum: What have you experienced in terms of company growth pains?

Paul: The hardest thing has been getting over the hump of being a company that will be there year after year, rather than disappearing. Getting a company to the $10 million dollar mark is one thing. Keeping it at that level and growing is another. A lot of other guitar companies have come and gone over the years. I wanted PRS to be one that reached the level of stability that itís at now.

Forum: Do you have any plans for any new models coming up?

Paul: Yes. We have a new bass that will be out soon. Itís coming along well and weíll announce the particulars as soon as we're satisfied that the bass is the way we want it to be. We are also planning a single cutaway guitar along the lines of the Private Stock guitars we've already made, although there will be differences.....changes in the wiring and in the shape.

Forum: Have you thought of using any new woods or materials in your instruments like burled woods or other things?

Paul: I donít like using burled woods because they tend to have cracks, they're hard to get, and have a lot of imperfections. Burl is basically like a cancerous portion of the tree. We have used burled redwood and cedar, but I canít see using many more woods than we do now. We have to use the kinds of wood that have the greatest resonance and ring out. Other exotic woods that might be used tend to sound dead and wouldnít make for a highly resonant instrument. People have been making instruments out of wood for quite a long time, and the best woods continue to be used today for making instruments. They include rosewood, alder, mahogany, ash, and maple. The most resonant wood in the world is Brazilian rosewood, which is extremely hard to get now. When you do, the wood is 20-30 years aged already and sounds wonderful. Thatís why we just took orders for the Brazilian neck McCarty, which was sold out in no time.

Forum: How are you dealing with keeping a good stock of wood?

Paul: People are mistaken to believe that there will not be good wood in the future. The US forests are in the best shape theyíve been in for years. Other than the Brazilian rosewood, the rest will be in good supply. We buy mahogany from places who cut maybe one tree per acre. They make their living selling the wood and know that they have to be conservative and keep their forests in great shape. Indian rosewood is no problem. I wouldnít worry about the wood supply.

Forum: Have you considered any possibilities of making lower-cost guitars, possibly building them in other countries, for entry level people who may not be able to afford even a CE right now?

Paul: (Long Pause). Yes, we are looking into some possibilities, although I really donít think that it would be appropriate to talk about them yet. I donít want to talk about how or where at this time, but we are considering the idea of lower cost guitars. They would have to be very much like what we make right now in terms of quality and tone, and thatís something that we are looking at.

Forum: What were your musical inspirations?

Paul: Wow! The Beatles, Hendrix, The Allman Brothers live at the Fillmore, Humble Pie live at the Fillmore, Santana, Jeff Beck, ZZ Top, and we canít forget Led Zepplin. Watching Eric Johnson for the first time was amazing. Al Dimeola, David Gilmore from Pink Floyd, the guitar player for Heart. There have been a lot of amazing people. Have you seen Jeff Beck on his new tour? (Not yet). Youíve got to go see him. I was near tears three times during the concert. You canít miss him....itís an incredible experience. Your son needs to see him. And donít forget Santana. Heís the only guy to have those kinds of hits through the 60ís, 70ís, 80ís and now the 90ís.

Forum: Can you define the different PRS guitars by musical style?

Paul: Not really. I can pretty much take any model and make it sound the way I want to. The Swamp Ash Special is probably the most in-between in terms of flexibility, but each model has its own characteristics that a person can use to bring out a great sound for many types of music. Of course the new guitars with the Piezo system open up even more possibilities.

Forum: What about your own favorite guitar?

Paul: My guitar is the prototype for Private Stock guitars. Itís a mix of a lot of prototype ideas, in terms of being a McCarty and a Dragon I, with the neck I like. Itís great to play.

Forum: Will there be future artist endorsement models?

Paul: I donít know.

Forum: How do you see the PRS Forum as the creator of PRS?

Paul: I want it to be independent and honest. Itís perfect as it is now. You should invite answers from me when necessary, but you should let the questions build up rather than trying to answer everything right away. I like tough questions. Customer service is important and thatís why Gregís office is right next door to me. I like to know what people think and what they donít like. People put a lot of money into these guitars and they have a right to make suggestions or to complain. I care about the way our guitars sound, not just the day theyíre bought, but years later. Thatís why we came out with an update kit. The older guitars are wonderful, but weíve made advances in our knowledge of what makes a guitar sound the best. The update kits are important because they take our older guitars and bring them up to the best standards that we have today. I want to make sure that you let people know this. I havenít had any complaints from people who have bought them, saying that they want them back the original way. The update kit presents a real improvement in the sound of those guitars.

Forum: Any parting thoughts youíd like to add?

Paul: I love meeting and talking to our customers. I do clinics all the time and get a chance to look at peopleís guitars and see the joy they have when they play them. I do want people to know that some of the questions they have are really well answered on our newest video. People should really look at that video............

Brian - There was more to this conversation in terms of future possibilities. In the spirit of keeping my agreement with Paul, there are some things that will be added at a later time. I found Paul to be energetic and a joy to talk to. There was nothing egotistical about him....a true down to earth person who genuinely loves the work he does and his creations. I left the conversation happier than ever to own PRS instruments. Best of all, Paul was gracious as I stumbled through my first interview......a reporter Iím not!