Paul Reed Smith: The Luthier Behind the Initials
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
Mesa/Boogie Announces the King Snake
This tribute model is an exact replica of the amp Carlos Santana toured with in 1972 and 1973.
Petaluma, CA (December 10, 2013) -- Mesa/Boogie recently announced the limited-edition King Snake, designed in conjunction with Carlos Santana. Here are the details from their website.
The Compact 100 Watt 1x12 Combo, Tube Cascading High Gain Preamp (SUSTAIN), FOOTSWITCHING (Clean to Overdrive), Half Power Switch (100/60), Pull-Gain Boost, On-Board Graphic EQ, Slave Out, All World Export Transformer, Custom Hardwood Cabinetry and a Wicker Cane Grille were all innovations seen exclusively on the world’s first boutique amplifier by the world’s first boutique amp builder, Randall Smith and MESA Engineering.
The Limited Edition King Snake is legendary in both sound and story because it is the direct descendant of the original Boogie that stood alone at that intersection so long ago. That amp was the transitional link between the low gain single channel amps of yesteryear and today’s current high gain, multi-channel footswitching amplifiers. Before the Boogie’s appearance back then, players had to turn an amp all the way up to get overdrive and sustain and it occurred in the power section, which of course was LOUD. With the creation of the world’s first high gain tube preamp in 1970, found only in the little Boogie by MESA Engineering, players could achieve sustain and singing tube overdrive at any volume. Revolutionary! The rest is history – and while it is correct to say that the little high gain, high power 1x12 Boogie Combo changed guitar and popular music forever, the story doesn’t end there!
This tribute model is an exact replica of the amp Carlos Santana toured with in 1972/73 as he introduced the world to this new sound, right down to the unique chassis size and the aged Snake-embossed Lambskin covering. But it has also been updated to include all our most secret Tone discoveries uncovered throughout the 43 years since the original’s creation. These improvements, some visible and some hidden, increase the performance and versatility while recreating the original voice with full authenticity. They make the Snake more usable across a wider range of musical styles and power requirements and add exciting new possibilities for expression and enjoyment.
Watch the company's video demo:
For more information:
The guitarist''s legendary chops return to the forefront with his upcoming instrumental album. In our interview, he muses on forgetting that he''s Carlos Santana, why he doesn''t tour with his wife (drummer Cindy Blackman Santana), and how a PRS just isn''t a Strat.
Guitar legend Carlos Santana has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in popularity and cultivated a new generation of fans over the past couple of decades via his collaborations with the biggest names in pop music. He made a huge impact in 1999 with Supernatural, which featured the multiple Grammy-winning hit “Smooth” with vocalist Rob Thomas, and other guest appearances by the likes of Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews. Santana’s three subsequent releases have followed that winning formula and focused on vocal-driven numbers with a star-studded cast including Michelle Branch, Steven Tyler, Chris Cornell, India.Arie, and Nas, among many others. But while these outings have cast him as a pop culture icon, his die-hard guitar fans longed for some new incarnations of what they consider “classic” Santana—the guy that kicks ass on the 6-string.
Shape Shifter, Santana’s first album on Starfaith Records, finally brings his guitar prowess back to the forefront. The outing comprises primarily instrumentals that Santana wrote from 1997 to 2007. “I felt like it was needed,” Santana says of his re-focus. “I had been appeasing and complying with a lot of major artists and singers from Supernatural on. But I kept hearing from different people, and, from my heart that it was time to do something where we just hear the Mexican playing the guitar,” he explains. It’s the first Santana release in recent memory that doesn’t feature a mega-star vocalist, but the album does feature perhaps the biggest star in Santana’s eyes: His son, Salvador plays piano on the album’s two closing tracks, “Canela” and “Ah, Sweet Dancer.” He heard the latter tune in a taxi in Hamburg, Germany, and was so taken aback that he had two friends contact the radio station and track it down. “It’s a beautiful song, and so I wanted to record it with my son,” says Santana.
You would think that Santana might start taking it easy after selling more than 100 million records and nabbing 10 Grammy awards over 40-plus years—especially considering he turns 65 this July. But there’s no retirement in Santana’s plans. In fact, he’s going stronger than ever. In addition to his new album, he just kicked off a two-year residency at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. We recently got a taste of what it’s like to be Carlos Santana, as well as an inside scoop on the recent additions to Shape Shifter, his gear arsenal, and how his instrument choices affect his sound.
How did Shape Shifter come about?
Everything comes from the need within. Like John Lee Hooker used to say, “It’s in you, and it’s got to come out.”
Your solo on “Canela” sounds really inspired, particularly with those aggressive overbends and tremolo-picked unison bends, during the last minute of the track, as you play the melody out. What ignited such passion there?
Sometimes you get really … how do you say it without getting weird? Sometimes you get spiritually horny and you have this molecule screaming that you need to be aggressive—but not hurtful. Even though the song is gentle in a certain way, I felt like I had to honor the dynamism and energy. Because at this point, I’m almost 65, man, and what I’m really into more than ever is the thing that I love about Jimi Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock, which is energy. I don’t apologize for it—I’m actually grateful that I have it and it’s just about learning to direct it without harming anyone.
Now, this spiritual horniness, how does it manifest itself? Do you just get the urge in the middle of a song or is it present even before getting to the studio?
You know some days you just wake up with an abundance of energy and you just need to ride a bike, or play tennis, or take a walk up the hill or something. All of us as humans have an abundance of energy and sometimes, if you’re not exercising or doing something with it, it spills over on you. It needs to come out. Some people get cranky, some people talk too much, and some people do this or that. For me, when I’m in the studio, sometimes I need to be aware of this. “Is it okay for me to really spill over with energy?” And I said, “Yeah.” I validated myself and so I went for it.
Listen to "Mr. Szabo" from Shape Shifter:
“Shape Shifter” has several parts that remind me of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Was that at all an inspiration here?
[Laughs.] We both get bass lines from James Brown [hums a bass figure]. It’s the sequence of repetition. For me, repetition is not redundant or boring. Done the right way, it helps create a vortex that helps your feet get off the ground.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by “the right way?”
It’s intentionality. For example, it’s not so much what chord you play or what amplifier you’re playing through. It’s more about, “What were you thinking or feeling when you hit that chord or that note?” That’s what makes you into B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, or Jimmy Page. What were they thinking and feeling at the time they played those notes? And then it’s not repetition, it becomes like a spell.
You’re turning 65 soon, but instead of retiring, you’re going stronger than ever. What is the secret to your longevity?
I’ve found, in the last four years, that I can shift my perception. When you get out to do things for other people rather than yourself, you get a hundred times more energy. When you wake up just for you, you don’t even want to get out of bed.
It seems most of your energy and focus is on performing and being Carlos Santana. Would you have a hard time adjusting to life without that?
Well, thank God I have a celestial amnesia. If it wasn’t for the fact that people ask me to sign autographs or take pictures with them, I can forget really, really quick that I’m Carlos Santana.
Can you really?
Yeah, and that’s a real gift from God. I’m not into Carlos Santana—I’m into what he does and why he does it. God gave me a whole other incentive, and a crystal clear perception of reality where I don’t get carried away. I know when to get the heck off the stage. A lot of these guys never get off the stage, you know what I mean? When you get into the persona then the same thing that happened to Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston happens to you. Because you start carrying baggage that’s very heavy with illusion and false expectations, and you start feeling like, “Nobody understands my pain.” Then you start hiring psychiatrists, analysts, therapists, and doctors to give you medicine that you really don’t need because your body can actually heal itself if you just give it time.
With your upcoming residency at the House of Blues, I’m sure the
audience is expecting to hear the hits. How do you keep it interesting
for yourself when you play something like “Oye Como Va” for the
I keep it interesting by accessing something that I have inside me. There are switches that I have in my brain and my heart that I click on … here’s the secret for a lot of people. I call it the “First French Kiss.” You can will things to feel and be, and become. For example, I will this “first-time ever” for everything. If I want to play “Black Magic Woman” how I felt with the innocence, purity, and first-time sensuality, then I remember how it was when I played it for the first time at a rehearsal in Fresno, before a concert. That’s the first time we played it. Gregg Rolie said, “Man, I got this song from Peter Green called ‘Black Magic Woman,’ and I think we should do it.” We did it at the soundcheck, and I go back to that soundcheck, or back to the first time I played “Oye Como Va” on the radio in San Francisco. I just go back to that place and make it as real as I can, and I do, and therefore I don’t get tired of playing that song. I don’t count how many, I just feel how deep.
Your touring band features drummer extraordinaire, Dennis Chambers. Why didn’t you use your wife Cindy Blackman, who is also a phenomenal drummer?
Because her music dictates her soul to do something different. She comes more from the Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, or Miles Davis direction. For me, I’m into that but not only that.
You tend to work with a lot of jazz drummers. What do they bring to your music that say, a rock guy, couldn’t?
They have more freedom than we do. They get to hit everything at the same time and they also create melodies on the cymbals and everything.
But with that said, your favorite musicians are not only just jazz musicians. Are they?
I create a big circle and put the number ones in there: Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, John Bonham, Ginger Baker. You know, they’re all number ones to me. Or take the drummer in Bob Marley’s band. Even when you just hear the music without Bob Marley, and the band is just jamming, you know it just doesn’t get any better than that, for what that is. When you hear Metallica, it doesn’t get any better, for what that is. You have to give credit to Lars and everybody.
How has your conception of tone changed over the years? Are you still chasing the same singing tone?
No, I don’t chase sound anymore. I stopped chasing it. It’s in my limbs, it’s in my vitals, it’s in my heart, and it’s in my fingers. I just plug in and turn knobs until it doesn’t sound offensive, until it doesn’t hurt my teeth.
Some of the tones on Shape Shifter, like the ones on “Ah, Sweet Dancer,” sound a bit bassier than your signature tones. Is there a reason why?
I think it was the placement of the microphones, plus I had to be very careful because my son was playing acoustic piano on that one. I had to play softer and roll more bass so I could crank it up. Usually if you don't crank it up, things sound thin.
After immortalizing the Mesa/Boogie Mark I throughout your career, you added a Dumble, and most recently, a Bludotone to your arsenal. What do they offer that the Boogie doesn’t?
Bludotone did something that is really incredible that, with all due respect to Boogie and Dumble, they have yet to do. With Boogies and Dumbles, you have to turn them up loud to get real fullness. The Bludotone you can play full like, excuse the expression, a full erection, but at a different volume without sounding shrill or weird. Bludotone found something that makes the amplifier very robust and warm without having to crank it up past 7.
I understand that PRS recently made you a guitar with three single-coil pickups, and that you also have a ’63 Strat and a Strat-style guitar in your arsenal. Are you able to get that liquid, vocal tone without humbuckers?
Not yet. A Strat is a Strat. If I want to do a song that sounds like Stevie Ray or Jimi or Jeff or Eric, well… you have to play a Strat through a Dumble to get that sound. I mean, I respect Paul [Reed Smith], he’s my brother. But, a lot of musicians use a keyboard to try and impersonate a trumpet or a trombone, and they think they sound like it. Then I tell them, “No [laughs]. A trombone sounds like a trombone and you sound like a synthesizer trying to sound like a trombone. Why can’t you get that straight?” I give them credit for trying, and I think the only thing that computers have gotten close to replicating are cellos and flutes. The rest is…no, not yet. And so it’s the same thing with Strats. We’re still trying on it but I’m getting the feeling that with a Strat, you just have to leave it alone because it’s a Strat.
PRS Santana II, ‘63 Fender Strat, custom Strat by Jesse Amoroso (Cowtown Guitars), Alvarez nylon string, Toru Nittono nylon string
Mesa/Boogie Mark I, Dumble Overdrive Reverb 100 watt, Bludotone Universal Tone
PRS 4x12 with Celestion v30s, Bludotone open-back cab with two Celestion G12-65s and two Austin Speaker Works speakers, Tone Tubby hemp cones (sometimes)
Customized Teese RMC3 wah, Pete Cornish LD-1, Pete Cornish AC powered splitter, Pete Cornish custom DI
GHS Santana .0095–.043 (on PRS guitars), .0105–.048 (on Strats)
Handmade by Edwin Adair using Canare GS-6 cables with Neutrik connectors
Yamaha .030 Triangle
El Dorado Guitar Accessories, PRS
Information provided by Santana’s guitar tech, Edwin Adair
Watch Carlos Santana channel his unwavering energy into glorious guitar work during these live performances.
Santana reunited with members of his original band that played Woodstock to perform “Black Magic Woman” at the 1998 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony with the song’s composer, guitar hero Peter Green.
YouTube search term: Carlos Santana ft. Peter Green “Black Magic Woman” Live
Guitar legends converge at the Crossroads Guitar Festival as Carlos Santana shares the stage with Eric Clapton to perform “Jingo.”
“Oye Como Va,” written by the late Tito Puente, became immortalized in the hands of Carlos Santana. In this clip from the Live at Montreux 2011 DVD, Santana demonstrates that even after playing this song for decades, the fire burns brighter than ever.