Gear reviews and "guitar player interviews". The Guitar Zombie is the fastest spreading blog about guitars, amps, effects and other stuff.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Paul Reed Smith - The man who challenged Fender and Gibson

I have been interested in Paul Reed Smith for quiet some time now, and I think that the story about him and his work is amazing and worth spreading. It´s a story of an obsessive guitar luthier who started out with two empty hands, a great deal of curiosity and dedication, and created a global brand around his stunning guitars. I would argue that Paul Reed Smith is for the guitar industry what Steve Jobs was for Apple and the computer industry. Both crazy entrepreneurs with the same unbroken faith in themselves and unstoppable in their ways to accomplish their visions.

There are many stories about Paul Reed Smith and how he created a series of guitars with such a high quality that many people nowadays even say that they are "actually too good". It have not been really clear to me what people mean by that though. Too good?

High quality instruments often go hand in hand with high production costs and in turn high price towards the customer. An American-made PRS is considered a guitar in the high price and quality range. Since early 2000s there is a series of cheaper PRS though, they so called SE models. They are manufactured in Korea, but still very well built for a guitar i that price segment.

One explanation of the high quality is that basically all employees are guitarists themselves. That means PRS has employees who understands what makes a good instrument good. Employees can also build their own "custom instruments," so called "Employee Guitars".

From a management perspective, it is an interesting approach because it means that the employees contribute to the company innovation with their own ideas. These guitars are also extremely   attractive in the seconhand market.

PRS guitars are well known for their "consistency", there are in fact no mistakes in the production. All guitars I have tested is flawless. Their is always a risk when the demand exceeds supply or when you're trying to cut costs, because greedy people eventually become stupid. A generic problem in all industries.

Both Fender and Gibson suffered from this phenomenon at the time when Paul Reed Smith started his work. The early PRS, until 1985, were all completely handmade. Down below you can see the first PRS Custom that Paul built by hand in 1984, only 28 years old. He had no training whatsoever in guitar building, which is worth noting as those guitars are considered the best built guitars in the world ever.

Paul Reed Smith made his first guitar during college in Maryland. A funny thing is that  he use to talk himself in to the backstage area when well known artists were playing in town. Ted Nugent guitarist Derek St. Holmes once tried his guitar  # 2 and played it live and later bought it for the stunning amount of $200.

Even Carlos Santana got a visit and that meeting resulted in a collaboration that continues to this day. Paul Reed Smith was working extremely hard on his "impossible project" to compete with the big companies, he once told a reporter that he had not bought new clothes in years and that he sometimes couldn't afford proper food.

But his stubbornness and his passion for his guitars finally gave him commercial results and he started the company in 1984 and the plan was to build a series of prototypes and launch them at NAMM 1985.

Paul traveled to New York and gave Sam Ash Stores an offer and got an immediate order of 30 instruments. The following months orders were worth over 300,000 dollars, which was a lot of money at the time. With the order book in their hands the company raised another 500,000 dollars to build a factory.

The exhibition NAMM was imminent, and because they didn't had the plant ready they had to build the guitars for NAMM exhibition by hand, these guitars are nowadays called: "THE NAMM 20 guitars". These guitars were the very first guitars that PRS company unveiled, and they did it at the same time the guitar industry was facing big changes and the leading big companies faced problems with both quality and revenues.

Paul Reed Smith's own words:
"NAMM was a place to “show our goods” for the first time, show dealers, get visited by guitar companies, and visit other guitar companies. It’s a musical industry trade show in the best sense of the word. That first year I visited Kramer, Jackson, Steinberger, and I got visited by Gibson. Jackson, Kramer, and Steinberger were supportive of what I was doing. That year Fender didn’t attend the show, and at that time Kramer was the bolt on company." Because Fender wasn’t there and Gibson wasn’t doing well, the window of opportunity was open for PRS." (prsguitars.com)

In 1985 PRS began to automate some operations at its factory on Virginia Avenue in Annapolis. They kept their factory there until 1995 when the they moved to Stevensville in Maryland. After 1995, the high quality guitars continued in that same direction, but there is no question about that the first instruments made entirely by hand is legendary and very nice.

Still today, a large part of the production is "made by hand", except for certain non-critical operations such as sawing and milling which is done by CNC machines. But all detailed work is done by people, and that is of course what makes the instruments so extremely good compared to more or less "fully automatic manufactured" cheap n nasty instruments with weak quality control.

It doesn't  matter what guitar model you try in the US series, different models may fit different playing styles and tastes and flavor of course, but they all feel very classy.


The original construction, still continuing, was based up on a  25'' scale length, which simplified can be seen as neck length. The scale length positioned PRS midway between Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul. That makes it a little longer than Les Paul fans are used to, which is 24.74 "and a little shorter than the Stratocaster, with its 25.5".

25.5" scales provide a stronger bell-like type of basic sound,  and 24.75" scale guitars gives a little warmer tone, much like you think of a Stratocaster vs Les Paul. A shorter scale length also gives the guitar less string tension and therefore becomes somewhat easier to play. We are talking about details here though, most people doesn't notice this at all. There are many things that makes a Les Paul and a Strat sound differently but this is one of the reasons.

If we look at the area of ​​the radius the PRS also put themselves in between Fender and Gibson, and most PRS guitars have 10". Most newer Fenders has  9.5", the vintage has 7.25" and Gibson are generally 12".

The first PRS guitars had 24 frets, but the company later started manufacturing guitars with 22 frets to challenge the Gibson camp.  PRS guitars are well known for its wide tone range, and you can get them to sound like both a Strat or a Les Paul by combining different pickups with the 5-way switch.

One interesting thing with Paul Reed Smith's approach to the "tone chase" is that he was thinking backwards. Most manufacturers make the guitar first and then try to find the best pickups for that particular guitar model, but Paul begins with the pickup and build guitar to enhance the character that is in the pickup. Paul has rarely been using other manufacturers' pickups. It is said that he has a large drawer with over 500 hand wired prototype pickups for all pups he has been developing over the years.

10 years ago he listed 21 things you need to consider when building a great sounding guitar. The secret list was PRS "Holy Bible" and he called it "21 Rules Of Tone".

That list formed the basis for some changes they have made the past 10 years and probably also for future changes. The list was actually a result of long discussions he had with his father and it is exclusively about the physical laws that govern the guitar construction, by definition, such as the choice of tailpiece, tuners, nut material, neck joint, wood, etc.

He likes to talk about the fact that guitars, or any other instrument really,  has to deal with "subtraction", ie the material's ability to drain tone from the string characteristics or to maintain and even strengthen it. He often refers to Newton and that every force has it's counterforce. If you put the resource 10 in to something, your mission is to get as close to 9.9 in the output. To get more than you add is physically impossible, and if you do a poor job you might get as little as 7.  This is where the magic starts, every little detail in the guitar matters.

I think this list, "21 Rules of Tone", exemplifies Paul's obsession for tone and his passion for what he does. On YouTube, one can see how he actually gets tears in his eyes for real when he talks about a specific guitar's tone or a particular guitarist with magic fingers. There are very few business leaders today who weeps for the love of their products. The only one I can think of is Steve Jobs, he had that same passionate mindset for his products.

In order to make the upcoming articles on PRS guitars I have been forced to sell many of my own instruments to access guitars both in the SE segment, made in Korea, and in the US made. I will test McCarty, P22, Custom 24, Tremonti Signature, Tremonti SE + Åkesson SE and the amplifier PRS Archon 100.

Stay Zombied

2 comments:

  1. This is as fine a primer on PRS guitars as I've found anywhere in my travels around the internet. I could feel your love for the subject, and you actually made me homesick for my PRS SE Custom 24 30th Anniversary, which I'll pick up just as soon as I get home.

    I'm not yet good enough to be able to justify purchasing an American-made PRS, but I get that big, goofy grin every time I pick up my SE. It's just a beautiful instrument that feels great under my clumsy fingers.

    Again, well done. I look forward to reading some more of your posts. Have a great day!

    ReplyDelete