The famed luthier opens up about getting his start more than 30 years ago, finally building John McLaughlin a guitar, and how many hot wings he can eat in one sitting.
Paul Reed Smith is no stranger to Premier Guitar: He has joined us for NAMM demos, opened up his factory for private tours, and even performed for the PG cameras during Experience PRS. Just in time for his company’s 30th anniversary, Smith gave fans and PRS owners an opportunity to ask him questions when he took over our Facebook account for about 90 minutes. Thanks to all of your inquiries, we uncovered a few nuggets of the luthier’s personal and professional life that were previously kept under wraps. Here are the highlights:
1. One door closes on a guitarist, the next opens for an award-winning guitar builder.
I started making guitars because I wasn’t a good enough guitarist and I somehow viscerally understood how to build instruments. I wanted to have a big impact ... I thought I had a lot to offer, but the people around me, for the most part, didn’t think so. So the main inspiration was to spend a life of trying to build guitars the best I could, rather then being one of those people who dies saying they could’ve tried harder.
To get my first guitar off a piece of paper, it took me over three years of drawing and redrawing, cutting bodies, and then more drawing [laughs]. If you take a Strat and a Les Paul Jr. and you average the lines, the body shape that comes out looks god-awful. It took a long time to get the body shape to the point that it was comfortable to the eye, comfortable with the way it felt, and comfortable to how it works as part of a musical instrument.
If I went to Washington Music Center and opened a case with a guitar I’d made, it would draw a crowd. But if I played guitar there, no one would show up, so I guess I made the right choice.
2. Proud like a father.
My two current favorites that are mine would have to be the Private Stock McCarty and Paul Signature. We recently got a chance to record “Machine Gun” and I used a DC3 that sounded lovely, too.
3. Don’t get it twisted—25" is the primo choice.
Everybody has it wrong, including the companies that use 24 3/4" as their scale length. The reason I made it 25" is because when you hit a low E string hard using a set of .009s on a 24 9/16" scale length, the low E goes sharp and then comes back into pitch. The reason I didn’t go all the way to 25 1/2" is because Hendrix and SRV were tuning guitars down to Eb or D because the strings were too tight when tuned to pitch. So it was an experientially based decision, not a compromised guess. I’ve always been surprised at how well it worked—especially when I saw other companies building 25" scale fret-slotting machines. Another problem with either the 24 3/4" or 25 1/2" scale-length instruments is that if somebody grew up on a short-scale guitar, they wouldn’t play a longer one and vice versa. With the 25", I was getting a simple “yes.”
4. And while he’s talking about measurements, Paul wants to clear the air on fretboard radiuses.
People think that old Les Pauls have a 12" fretboard radius—they don’t, because all the ones I’ve measured had a radius of 10". I’ve just felt it’s the most comfortable to most hands and so that’s why I’ve pretty much always stuck by that radius. I’ve never had an artist complain about the 10" radius. However, there have been a few times players have requested a flatter one because that’s what they’re used to. But for the most part, a 10" radius works perfectly for our guitars and most guitarists in the market.
5. A guitar three decades in the making.
One of my all-time guitar heroes is John McLaughlin. John is a genius musician who is one of the fathers of our musical industry. He has been telling me for nearly 30 years that one day my company would be good enough to make him a guitar [laughs]. Finally, after playing one of my Paul’s 28 Violin models he said, “Okay, I’m ready to order a guitar.” We made it three times until he was pleased with what he saw on the computer screen.
Essentially it’s a Violin guitar with a tremolo, 57/08 humbuckers, rare curly maple, rare ribbon-striped mahogany, a pernambuco neck, and black rosewood fretboard. Most recently we made him something very similar with the skyline of New York City as a fretboard inlay. His picture is on my door playing that guitar along with another photo of me holding onto Chuck Brown (the godfather of go-go) who recently passed away. Being able to build instruments that John not only enjoys and loves, but uses on a regular basis, is one of the biggest accomplishments of my career.
6. Need an extended-range axe? You should probably look elsewhere.
We’re really limited on our 7-string production right now because we haven’t tooled up for it at this point. PRS bridges are proprietary and as a rule we would not buy a 7-string bridge off the shelf from another manufacturer, so that’s why we haven’t expanded production to include models with tremolos. Our main concern is that other manufacturer’s bridges wouldn’t have our exact specifications on them and we’d either have to compromise our own design or invest a bunch of time and money in R&D to outsource the hardware—and that’s not something I’m comfortable doing right now. Furthermore, we’ve come to rely on our own innovations to make the instrument stay in tune and sound great. No compromises at PRS. As far as an 8-string goes, there are no plans at this point to do anything like that.
7. Chasing the sonic magic.
We develop new pickups because of a need we find in the market or a need we find internally. All of this is done to make musicians a more useful musical instrument and because these needs are fairly constant in the guitar community, we find ourselves continually working on new pickups or using different winding techniques.
That’s the place the Narrowfield pickups came from—we found a hole in the guitar industry that could be filled with a pickup that presents a focused, articulate string attack. The Narrowfields are like a single-coil but are hum canceling, and the result of this is a new sounding pickup system that blends features of single-coils, P-90s, and humbuckers.
We don’t really do pickups because they’re cool, we design them to fill a void, but we’re currently working on something more esoteric, like Filter’Trons and Gold Foils, though these aren’t replicas. When all the bugs are worked out, hopefully we will release them.
8. Robot tuners? We don’t need no stinkin’ robot tuners.
About three to four years ago we were offered the auto-tune system technology when it was first invented, but we passed. If you put a whole bunch of contraptions on the headstock of the guitar, my experience is that the guitar doesn’t sound as good and can become unbalanced. However, I do think the fact that they [Gibson] are putting automatic tuners on all their instruments is awesome and I’m glad to see they’re embracing the future!
If you’re driving a car, you need to be checking the rearview mirror a good percentage of the time while you are also looking through the windshield. It’s a good idea to look left and right once in a while, too!
9. When I close my eyes and imagine what a guitar should sound like, I think….
One would have to be Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? because it started something so powerful. As far as the tone in my head, I hear something in the middle between Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, and David Gilmour with an oboe, viola, and low D whistle thrown in. [By the way, check out the sound of a low D whistle.]
10. We move forward by trying to identify the goals of Leo and Ted.
I keep thinking there is no space left to explore, but on a daily basis this ends up not being true. We discovered something yesterday that we have been working on for 30 years, and I’m almost positive it is going to make it to market in the near future and impact our industry in a good way.
The problem is that we didn’t invent the electric guitar, the humbucker, the single-coil pickup, the tremolo system, the scale length measurements—we’ve refined them. What’s starting to happen is that we are understanding what the people who invented our industry wanted and why they did it a particular way. We’re starting to understand what they were shooting for, what their goals were, and what they were thinking when they were in their workshops years ago. From that mental position, we can make real advancements in guitar design and break the mold. Another analogy would be, instead of understanding the gun they shot with, we are figuring out where the target was. But in short, yes, there is a lot more room for new designs and improvements on old models—what fun!
Bonus fact: Paul Reed Smith caps his hot-wing quota at 15 in one sitting.