Tuesday, February 17th, 2015
The road from my workshop in a historic, haunted Annapolis garret to a state-of-the-art factory was a tough one. Fact is, I always loved working with my hands. Why else would a high school kid sign up for three or four shop classes at a time? My first guitar was built as a challenge to my college music professor for some credits. I got an “A” and decided to pursue my dream of making guitars for a living.
There were a lot of late night brainstorms. I was lucky if I finished a guitar a month. Once a guitar was completed, I’d play it at a gig — field testing in the purest sense. Every design change taught me something new. The next change was built on what I had learned or on feedback from other players test driving the equipment. Over ten years we went through three headstocks, several renditions of body shapes, many tremolo designs, and many experiments with woods and construction methods to get the right mix.
I remember hanging out at the local concert arenas for six or seven hours before a show to make friends with the roadies. With a backstage pass in hand, I’d peddle my guitars to the stars. One night in ten I’d make a sale. Carlos Santana, Al Di Meola, Howard Leese, and other well known players agreed to check one out. I made deals. If someone gave me an order, made a deposit, and then didn’t love the finished guitar, I’d give them their deposit back even if I couldn’t make my rent the next day.
After getting a small following and orders for more than 50 guitars, we built two prototypes. I popped them in the back seat of my truck and cranked it up, calling on guitar dealers up and down the East Coast. After many days and many miles I came back with enough orders to start a company. With the support of my wife, skilled assistants, engineers, lawyers, top salesmen, artists, machinists, and friends who emptied their bank accounts to help me get started, we developed a strong team.
We’ve come a long way, with steady growth in factory capacity, employees, distribution, and the number of prominent artists using our instruments. We’re not stopping here. Every inch of your PRS guitar is based on decades of testing, rethinking, and reinventing. We continue to push the curve beyond what others would consider perfection. With experts to make sure the technology is unsurpassed, and dedicated craftspeople who guarantee a finished product you can’t keep your hands off of, we make no compromises. That’s the story of the beginning of the journey. Not so short, but very sweet. The moral? Believe in your dreams.
– Paul Reed Smith, 1992
If becoming the gold standard of quality in the guitar business was a remarkable achievement for PRS, equally impressive has been its maintaining that standard as the company has grown into a major industry presence. While PRS’s continuing success in this regard demands a constant re-evaluation of materials, tools, and procedures, the bottom-line goal hasn’t changed since the days when Paul Smith hand-crafted his first instruments in an upstairs loft: Build extraordinary guitars, guitars with magic.
National Sales and Marketing Manager Larry Urie: “With every increase in factory size or production output, we build in even tighter quality control to make sure our standards remain extremely high. If anything, the quality control at PRS is tighter than it’s ever been.” Some companies see a public relations benefit to invoking the romance of historic guitars from the ’50s and ’60s, but Paul Smith knows that for the people who actually designed and built those classic instruments (people like his mentor, Ted McCarty), PR and romance were the furthest things from their minds. Their goal was to manufacture great instruments, period. Build a guitar whose tone inspires you to be a better player, whose durability will get you through a thousand gigs, whose elegance makes it an artwork in its own right. Build a guitar that players can’t put down, and the romance and the PR and all the rest will follow.
Paul Smith: “We don’t do something just because that’s the traditional way. If the best possible guitar results from using a robot for one procedure and a lot of hand-sanding or hand-inlaying for another, then that’s how we do it. Our tradition is a byproduct of our quality, so excellence is always the goal. We never lose sight of that.”
Larry Urie adds: “The automation and the individual craftsmanship go together at PRS. Using automation in one area where it produces superior results allows us to do even more handwork and detail work in those areas where there’s no substitute for the individual craftsman’s eye and skill. People who tour the factory come away amazed at how much handwork they see, and even with the machinery, it’s all dominated by the human element. It’s all about the commitment and the judgment of a highly skilled individual.”
In other words, even in the age of CNC machinery, the essence of the PRS magic still comes down to a pair of hands.
Aside from his family, friends, and business, one of the most important things in Paul Smith’s life is his music — his songwriting, guitar playing, recording, and performing. I mention it because Paul’s enthusiasm for killer tone and for exhilarating music inspires a kind of top-down passion for craftsmanship that as far as I can tell reaches to every workbench in the factory. He estimates that 80% of PRS workers are musicians; many of them gig regularly in bands. PRS President Jack Higginbotham: “These builders have a special kind of pride, an individual ownership of the instruments they’re making. Every one of them treats each guitar as their own, because it is their own. It’s a very personal thing for these builders.”
This passion for quality affects not only the work habits of individuals but also the structure of the whole company. Paul Smith: “We’re not organized like other companies. Every PRS craftsperson is a self-contained quality control ‘department.’ They have a lot of authority over their work, and if a guitar falls short in any way, they don’t pass it on to the next stage, and they make that decision themselves. They hand guitars back and forth all the time, and they inspect everything over and over. It’s like an old European guild or a shop. There’s a constant ‘is this good enough?’ conversation out there on the factory floor. So the quality control begins at the workbench. It’s not something we overlay or tack on. It’s an integral, organic part of the process, beginning with design and materials selection and going through every single step in construction and testing.”
I’ve had many conversations with Paul Smith over the past 15 years or so, most of them beginning with his asking “Guess what?” and continuing with an enthusiastic explanation of a new discovery about tone. The latest improvement to PRS guitars could be something as minor as the tonal effects of substituting a small part made of a different material. Yes, Paul Smith can hear things most of us can’t hear, or can barely hear, but what’s more remarkable is that the mechanical and engineering savvy of Paul and his brilliant collaborators enables them to convert those observations into improvements in PRS guitars — improvements you can hear and feel.
My son Joe is a black belt in karate. I always assumed the black belt was the end of the road, but he explained to me that it’s just the beginning of a new road. I sense a similar philosophy from the people who build PRS guitars. While players and magazine writers have been waxing eloquent for years about these workers’ mastery of their craft, the builders see themselves as travelers only midway on a journey of discovery. “We’re not there yet,” Paul explains. “It’s a continuing thing. We’re never finished. It’s the quest, the challenge — that’s what brings us to the factory every day.” Back when he started crafting instruments one at a time, Paul Smith was steeped in the traditions of the great electric guitars of the ’50s and ’60s. Today he finds himself absorbed with the traditions of another revered company — his own. While he fondly recalls the early days of PRS, nostalgia is not a top priority. The best way he can honor the traditions of his own past is to look forward. At PRS, yesterday always takes a back seat to tomorrow. Paul Smith: “I am lucky to have an extremely talented team — not just craftspeople and artists but marketers, salespeople, programmers, administrators, and others — and everyone who works here feels the same way: We want players to know that no matter how great that old PRS guitar is, we’re pushing for the new one to be even better.” – Tom Wheeler is the former editor-in-chief of Guitar Player and the author of The Guitar Book and American Guitars.