PRS himself talks about learning from Ted McCarty, building guitars for the stars, elbowing the competition, his distinctive headstock design, and more.
Paul Reed Smith could be gloating. At a time when other majors have made layoffs or are coming down from the lockdown-era sales buzz, the company the luthier founded literally with his own hands in 1985 has become a $100-million business. PRS Guitars’ $849 SE Silver Sky—a 6-stringed Clydesdale—was this year’s top seller on Reverb. Recently, the Stevensville, Maryland-based operation introduced its debut pedals, plus a limited-run Robben Ford signature axe that’s a Rolls-Royce with strings. And a raft of new instruments are already in the wings for 2023.
Instead, at an early November party Smith threw at Nashville’s Soundcheck rehearsal complex during CMA week, he reflected humility. Smith addressed the roomful of players, emotionally recalling the 2015 CMA Awards, where the count of PRS instruments onstage was literally neck-and-neck with the population of Fenders and Gibsons for the first time. That ceremony was an ignition point for greater success as well as an affirmation for the guitars that bear his name.
“We don’t want to be a brand,” he told the crowd. “We want to be guitar makers. Country guitarists really helped take us to another level. I am truly grateful.”
“We didn’t have heaters and we were wearing winter coats inside, because if you opened the door for a delivery, it got to be 30 degrees in there.”
Besides his passion for pursing all aspects of what goes into creating guitars, that humility—sometimes inflicted upon him—has played a role in his success. Smith found his calling while at St. Mary’s College, at the opposite end of the state from his native Bowie, Maryland. Lacking a guitar and the cash to buy one, he persuaded a music teacher to let him build a guitar for credit. He got an A, of course. He also dropped out to play and repair guitars, opening a shop in a reputedly haunted garret in Annapolis.
“As a repairman working on every conceivable type of guitar, I became convinced that vintage instruments were desirable not because they had improved with age, but because they had been built differently from current models,” Smith relates. “The reason some of the electrics from the ’50s and early ’60s felt and sounded so good was that a great attention to detail went into the manufacturing process, and that the manufacturers had a real sense for the subtle points.”
Racked and ready: Four decks of PRS guitar necks wait for their final destinations at the company’s Stevensville, Maryland, guitar-building location.
Pondering how to reintroduce these characteristics in the instruments he wanted to build, Smith hit upon the idea of contacting Ted McCarty, who was president of Gibson from 1950 to 1966—the golden era of electric guitar making. “I would sit at the shop, and I was afraid to call him,” Smith says. “We didn’t have heaters and we were wearing winter coats inside, because if you opened the door for a delivery, it got to be 30 degrees in there. So, Clay Evans [a friend and, later, early PRS executive] and I are wearing our coats, and Clay’s saying ‘Call him! Just call him!’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t....’ But I called him and explained who I was and what I did, and he asked, ‘Would you be willing to come visit?’ So, we picked a date, and I went.
“The first time I went, he got very, very upset at the end of the interview. It was about three hours. And I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He goes, ‘Nobody’s asked me these questions in 30 years. Nobody’s asked me how to glue the fingerboard on, what glue we used to glue the frets in…. All they want to know is how to get rich quick. ‘Where can I find a Les Paul? Where can I find a Flying V? Where can I find an Explorer?’ Nobody’s asked me these guitar-making questions, and this is how I made my living.’
“I thought it was beautiful,” Smith continues. “I just kept coming back and coming back. I was very grateful for his attention, and it ended up being a grandfather relationship. I sang to him on his deathbed, with a guitar.” And, of course, Smith also paid tribute to his historic mentor with PRS’ vintage-informed McCarty series.
Over the decades, Smith and his team have made guitars for a coterie of world-class players that includes John McLaughlin (including a 6- and 12-string doubleneck), David Grissom, Nancy Wilson, Mark Tremonti, Jimmy Herring, Mark Lettieri, and, of course, Carlos Santana.
“What Robben Ford wanted and what David Grissom wants is that every one of those models we ship is a his-caliber instrument. He doesn’t want just the couple we tweak for him and then put his name on a bunch of others.”
“The first guitar I made for Carlos Santana changed my life,” Smith offers. “At first, he didn’t see me as a guitar maker. He made me earn his respect, which I honor. He said the first instruments I gave him were ‘accidents of God.’ He thought it was like somebody wrote a hit song, but it was almost an accident—and he didn’t see me as a repetitive hit writer. He literally said, ‘Okay, it’s an act of God, can you make me another one?’ Then, after the fifth instrument, which was a doubleneck, he called me up and said, ‘Okay, you’re a guitar maker.’ That was tremendous. Every Christmas he would call and thank me about the sound coming out of his guitar. He thought of it as a big, male saxophone tone, and he adored it.”
So, what does a world-class musician demand in a guitar? “If you look at guitars in general as a line, and about four-fifths of the way along that line you draw a vertical line through it, what’s beyond that graduates from being a guitar to a musical instrument,” Smith says. “They want musical instruments. What Robben Ford wanted and what David Grissom wants is that every one of those models we ship is a his-caliber instrument.
Initial sanding happens after the overall body shape, electronics cavities, and other cuts are made.
He doesn’t want just the couple we tweak for him and then put his name on a bunch of others. Carlos Santana wants a guitar that he can take out of the factory, put in the limo, go to the gig, pull it out, and play it. And by the way, I’ve watched him do that. It’s a little scary to have him play to 15,000 people with a guitar that’s only been played about a minute-and-a-quarter its entire life. David Grissom does not take a guitar to clinics. He takes ones off the wall at the store to hold my hands to the fire. Carlos calls me constantly and has requests to make ’em better. David wants them better. He just got one that has a hollow, single f-hole in it, and he’s losing his noodles over it.”
It’s been years since Smith has built a guitar himself. “I have a bench where I repair audio gear, and I’m my wife’s furniture repair person, but that’s it,” he says. Nonetheless, he is a regular presence on the PRS factory floor, checking the progress on models in development, eyeballing the wood inventory, checking out pickups, offering suggestions, and evaluating as he formulates plans for the company’s future. “It’s almost a soothsayer job,” he offers. “It’s like having a crystal ball, but you gotta do it from experience, with your ear to the tracks.”
A high-quality instrument starts with good tonewood, and the factory keeps an abundant inventory for both necks and bodies.
Part of that is trying to rout the competition, which he obviously enjoys. At the Nashville party, Smith recounted a story about paying top dollar for a Klon Centaur, and then putting it through its paces. Pleasing at it was, he felt there were shortfalls in tone and control, so he decided to try to beat it. The result is PRS’ Horsemeat Transparent Overdrive (get it?), but his company’s engineers took it a step further, also designing the Mary Cries Optical Compressor and the Wind Through the Trees Analog Flanger, which all debuted in September. Nonetheless, Smith’s goal was not to expand into pedal making, but rather to lure players who’ve avoided PRS. “I’ve actually heard comments like, ‘I like these pedals, maybe I’ll look at their guitars again,’” he says.
Earlier last year, he took on the template, working-player’s Stratocaster with the release of the SE Silver Sky, a low-cost, high-performance version of PRS’ John Mayer signature model. When I mention the guitar, his immediate response is, “How about those pickups?” He then related that he worked with his suppliers in Indonesia, where the guitar is built, for two years on the remarkably wide-ranged pickups. “Initially, they weren’t right, and we didn’t have direct control over their creation, like we do with models we build here, but the pickups still had to lay in exactly the right place sonically. When John played ’em, he thought they were the best overseas-made single-coils he’d ever heard, and he signed off on them literally that second.”
“The first guitar I made for Carlos Santana changed my life,” Smith offers. “At first, he didn’t see me as a guitar maker. He made me earn his respect.”
Although much has changed over the decades at PRS, the company’s distinctive three-and-three headstocks have remained unchanged since the early ’80s—despite being a turn-off for some trad-minded players. Smith explains why: “The design was half practical and half reflective of the front curve of the guitar. It’s like a Dan Armstrong headstock, where the strings went straight to the tuning pegs. On a Fender, they went straight to the tuning pegs, but they were all on one side. That it goes straight to the tuning pegs is important.
“When I started putting tremolos on guitars, Carlos Santana ordered one and he goes, ‘It’s gonna stay in tune, right?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ I had no idea how I was going to do it. Turns out what makes a difference is how you cut the nut, having it as close to the tuning pegs as possible. Also, the strings need to be as straight as possible, and you have to reduce the headstock angle. It’s a combination of those three dimensions.”
PRS Guitars Factory Tour
The Dark Side of the Moon 50th anniversary box set is available March 24, 2023. Pink Floyd invites animators to create videos to accompany album tracks.
The new deluxe box set includes CD and gatefold vinyl of the new 2023 remastered studio album and Blu-Ray + DVD audio featuring the original 5.1 mix and remastered stereo versions. The set also includes additional new Blu-ray disc of Atmos mix plus CD and LP of The Dark Side Of The Moon - Live At Wembley Empire Pool, London, 1974. Simultaneously, on March 24, the CD and first ever vinyl issue of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon - Live At Wembley Empire Pool, London, 1974 will be released independently. It was originally recorded in November 1974 as part of the band’s winter tour and this is the first time it will be available as a stand-alone album, with artwork featuring an original 1973 line-drawn cover by George Hardie.
The book Pink Floyd - The Dark Side Of The Moon: 50th Anniversary will also be published separately by Thames & Hudson on March 24, 2023 to coincide with the box set release. Curated by photographer Jill Furmanovsky and art directed by Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey Powell, this LP-sized volume showcases rare and previously unseen photographs taken during The Dark Side Of The Moon tours of 1972-1975 and was created with the involvement of the band members.
The 50th Anniversary release will also be celebrated as Pink Floyd invite a new generation of animators to enter a competition to create music videos for any of the 10 songs on the iconic 1973 album. Pink Floyd has a rich history of collaborating with animators from the beginnings of the band (Ian Emes, Gerald Scarfe, etc.), and in some cases the visuals that accompany the songs have become synonymous with the music itself. The 50th Anniversary will be no exception. The band would like to give all animators an opportunity to present a fresh take on these timeless aural works. Animators can enter up to 10 videos, one per song on the album. A winner will be selected from a panel of experts which will include Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, Aubrey 'Po' Powell (Pink Floyd's creative director) and the BFI (British Film Institute). The deadline for submissions is November 30th 2023. To enter and for more information go to https://www.pinkfloyd.com/competition/
On February 27th 1973, EMI Records held a press conference for the debut presentation of Pink Floyd’s new album The Dark Side Of The Moon at the London Planetarium. Although, the Planetarium dome could only show an array of stars, constellations and images of the cosmos whilst the music played, it was an unprecedented success. Fifty years on, in recognition of the iconic album and with the help of huge strides in technology, an official full dome experience with stunning visuals of the solar system and beyond and played out to 42 minutes of The Dark Side Of The Moon, will be released in Planetariums around the world in March. Contact your local Planetarium for any screening details.
Remembering the art and life of one of the world’s greatest and most innovative instrumentalists, who died on Tuesday, January 10, at age 78.
Legends are immortal, but not human beings. And so, Jeff Beck, an immortal of the electric guitar, died from bacterial meningitis on Tuesday in a hospital near his sprawling county estate, Riverhall, in Wadhurst, England, at age 78.
To call Beck a giant of the instrument nearly diminishes his monumental and singular accomplishments. He established his own supremely influential language of the guitar and spoke it fluently for more than six decades. Although he never sang on his recordings, in his hands the 6-string was vocal—fluid, melismatic, melodic, and most important, full of heart. Attending a Jeff Beck concert was to witness inspiration at its most wild and relentless. And to bask in a tone so large and purposeful that it could seemingly be heard around the planet.
Which it was. Beck was known and revered across the globe—an instrumentalist who made albums for the first two decades of his career, (starting with the Jeff Beck Group’s still stunning and innovative 1968 debut, Truth) that routinely made the top 20. Those include his groundbreaking duo of mid-’70s recordings, Blow by Blow and Wired, that transformed fusion into part of the soundtrack of popular culture. But Beck was not a jazz or rock guitarist. He was an omnivore, who digested every style—country, rockabilly, swing, Tin Pan Alley, punk, skronk—to both put his seal on them and twist them to his own ends, turning the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” into a reggae playground and transforming an idea taken from a theme by composer Maurice Ravel and turning it into the epic, soaring, and harmonically supercharged “Beck’s Bolero.”
“Whenever I pick up a guitar, it will always be heavily blues influenced, but I try to push it further, because you have to expand your scales and melodic thinking.” —Jeff Beck
When I asked Beck about his approach, during the ’80s, he replied, “Whenever I pick up a guitar, it will always be heavily blues influenced, but I try to push it further, because you have to expand your scales and melodic thinking. But I’ll play a blues solo on a non-blues song, bending the notes into whatever the song takes. That’s my whole thing: trying to explore the blues to the maximum, really. It’s in the blood.”
Note that Beck said, “whatever a song takes,” not whatever it needs. The courage and will of his playing were consistent, impulsive, and limitless. Listen to “Morning Dew” from Truth. His guitar toys with themes, playing fragments of melodies, dropping patches of wah wah, howling, rather than weaving a defined rhythm or tune through the song. Then hear “Pull It,” from 2016’s Loud Hailer, an album cut with vocalist Rosie Bones and guitarist Carmen Vandenberg of the English punk outfit Bones UK. Made nearly 50 years after Truth, that song is also telegraphy as music—dots, dashes, fuzzy blots of tone. And yet both performances not only work—they’re riveting.
Beck considered blues to be the core of his music but saw its opportunities for expansion as limitless.
Photo by Ross Halfin
Beck was born in Wallington, Surrey, England, on June 24, 1944. Les Paul was his first guitar hero, followed by Cliff Gallup, B.B. King, and Steve Cropper. He became friends with Jimmy Page when they were both teenagers, and, while attending Wimbledon College of Art, he fell in with David “Screaming Lord” Sutch, with whom he first recorded in 1962. But Beck really began his 60-years-plus of breaking rules in 1965, when he replaced Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds. There, he pushed the group’s blues envelope with his inflammatory guitar on “Shape of Things” and the demented “Over Under Sideways Down,” where his hammer-ons, slides, and bends created the number’s sitar-influenced riff. Although Beck was unhappy in the Yardbirds, his 18-month membership earned him his first induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, followed by a second induction for his work as a leader and solo artist in 2009.
The inevitable formation of his own band, the Jeff Beck Group, featuring Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, occurred in 1967, and with the next year’s Truth, he presaged Led Zeppelin’s recasting of blues as psychedelic manifesto. Beck’s playing on that album remains practically avant-garde at its least restrained, yet still directly speaks a dialect of the blues. But with the notable addition of pianist Nicky Hopkins, the Group tilted further into rock with its next release, 1969’s Beck-Ola. Two more albums, Rough and Ready and Jeff Beck Group, followed, with the latter including “Going Down.” Beck’s version of the Don Nix tune that Freddie King had made famous became an instant FM radio staple.
“I saw Beck use the whammy bar alone to play a slow, lovely feedback melody through his array of amps, and then point the guitar’s headstock straight down into the stage and push himself into the air by placing his hands on the rounded back end of the body. When he touched down, he tossed the guitar—still feeding back—into his arms, hit two notes that revealed where the tuning had drifted, and flawlessly picked up the melody he’d been playing before his acrobatic stunt.”
That band was followed by the short-lived Beck, Bogert & Appice, who released an album of the same name in 1973. The group was a trio, with vocalist/bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, from the Vanilla Fudge and Cactus. All along Beck had continued to maintain a studio career (which continued almost to the present) and had played on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book the year before. Beck, Bogert & Appice’s rendition of Wonder’s “Superstition” was one of their album’s highlights, along with a beautiful slide-guitar-dappled reading of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud.”
After this soul-music-influenced outing, Beck experienced a kind of rebirth. He was already a Gibson Les Paul player, but while recording in 1972 in Memphis he found a 1954 goldtop that was refinished in oxblood by its previous owner. That guitar is depicted in Beck’s hands on the cover of 1975’s all-instrumental Blow by Blow, which sold a million copies in the U.S. and reached number four on Billboard’s Hot 100 album chart. The epochal Blow by Blow alone is enough to ensure that Beck’s legendary status will endure. It’s full of monumental performances, including his emotional tribute to Roy Buchanan, “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” perhaps the greatest blues-inspired instrumental ever recorded.
Longtime friends Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton share the stage at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival.
Photo by Chris Kies
And the die was cast. Although he went on to make albums and cut singles with exceptional vocalists—perhaps most notably a soulful 1985 version of the Mayfield gospel song “People Get Ready,” with Rod Stewart, that’s become a classic—from that point on Beck dedicated himself primarily to instrumental music.
The next year’s follow-up, Wired, built upon Blow by Blow’s success with performances of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and Jan Hammer’s “Blue Wind” that also set radio afire. More important, though, was the arrival of the Fender Stratocaster on its cover. For the rest of his life, Beck and Stratocasters were mostly inseparable onstage and in the studio. And by using banks of amps and unsparing volume, he crafted a unique sound on the single-coil instrument, huge and compelling, with a horn-like fluidity and endless, sustained tone.
His technique on the Strat’s vibrato arm was extraordinary. It was as if it was grafted to his hand, or, at least, seemingly never left it. His subtle—and often radical—bending and pulling of notes with the bar made his playing even more voice-like, able to carefully craft and negotiate micro- or macro-tonal changes effortlessly. His intimacy with the Strat made for some truly uncanny performances.
In a ’90s concert at the Great Woods Amphitheater in Mansfield, Massachusetts, I saw Beck use the whammy bar alone to play a slow, lovely feedback melody through his array of amps, and then point the guitar’s headstock straight down into the stage and push himself into the air by placing his hands on the rounded back end of the body. When he touched down, he tossed the guitar—still feeding back—into his arms, hit two notes that revealed where the tuning had drifted, and flawlessly picked up the melody he’d been playing before his acrobatic stunt.
Beck’s romance with the Stratocaster caught fire during the recording of 1976’s Wired album.
Photo by Ken Settle
Beck continued to make excellent studio albums—most notably There and Back, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, Jeff, Emotion & Commotion, and Loud Hailer. He also racked up high-level session credits, recording with Roger Waters, Jon Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, and Tina Turner. And he accumulated eight Grammy Awards—seven for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. His most recent album was 18, a 2022 collaboration with Johnny Depp. Beck’s final public performance was touring behind that release, on November 12, in Reno, Nevada.
After Beck’s family announced his death on January 11, fellow guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson shared his thoughts on social media: “Hearing about Jeff Beck is a shock. He was one of the most original guitarists I ever heard. He never conformed to status quo guitar or conventional playing, always reaching for a new dimension, which he achieved multiple times. He was the most expressive lyrical storytelling guitarist there ever was and that’s why non-musicians loved him. He garnered more affection from audiences than other guitar heroes because he had such a musical poetry to his playing.
“I believe that he and Jimi Hendrix were the most inventive and original rock guitarists there ever was. I had the gift of being able to visit with Jeff a few times and that is a treasured memory in my life. The guitar world will go on, but it won’t be the same without the most inventive 6-string visionary we have been graced with on this planet. Joyous wishes to you, Jeff, as you soar on to your next magnificent adventure. Thank you for teaching me and inspiring me to want to play guitar.”