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American Guitar Maker Stands Out in Crowded Industry

Paul Reed Smith holds one of the guitars he makes as he discusses what is involved in the craft - and art - of creating these customized instruments, June 2011
Paul Reed Smith holds one of the guitars he makes as he discusses what is involved in the craft - and art - of creating these customized instruments, June 2011

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Jeff Swicord

In the early 1980s, a young guitar maker named Paul Reed Smith first tried to sell his guitars to major artists. Now more than 25 years later, Smith's guitars are considered some of the finest instruments made.

Latin artist Carlos Santana, and jazzman Al Di Meola play two different styles of music. But they both have something, or rather, someone in common: Paul Reed Smith.

“I started building guitars in wood shop in high school, in my brother’s bedroom and in my bedroom," he said. "And I would rent equipment.”

State of the art

Not anymore. Today, Paul Reed Smith Guitars are built in a state of the art factory on the Maryland eastern shore.

The company’s 260 employees made 13,000 guitars in the U.S. Another 25,000 guitars were made in South Korea for a less expensive line. PRS earned $40 million in sales last year.  

Since its founding in 1985, the company has carved out a niche in a competitive market. When asked about his business philosophy, though, Smith simply says he just tries to make the best guitars possible.

“We have been asked why the guitars are different and I have come to the conclusion that it is a very complicated, long list of attention to detail,” he said.

Attention to detail

That detail is most apparent in the built-to-order Private Stock line, often referred to as part works of art and part instrument.

“We have maple tops, we have mahogany necks… ,” said Smith.

PRS president Jack Higginbotham said building an exceptional guitar starts with the wood.

“Nice piece of mahogany," said Higginbotham of one block. “Nice ring to it,” he said as he tapped on it.

Exotic wood

PRS buys exotic woods from around the world, and its guitars are known for their eye popping, curly maple tops.

“This is a pretty exceptional example of what will become a private stock guitar," said Higginbotham. "What we are about is just trying to obtain the very best wood as far as visual goes and sound goes.”

Higginbotham said the manufacturing process is equally important. Wood is slowly dried in a special room. The guitar is shaped within a thousandth of a millimeter on computerized milling machines. All pieces are hand-sanded, stained, and lacquered. Neck inlays are done by hand. On average, it takes about six weeks to build one guitar.  

Smith said his company seeks perfection.

“Our job is to try to make the guitars better and better and better. And then when we get to the point where we don’t want to mess with them, then we try to repeat the same thing over and over again,” he said.

That attention to detail is not lost on musicians. Brian Meader sells guitars at Chuck Levins Washington Music Center, one of the first stores to carry PRS.

“This is the PRS Custom 24, it is the original PRS guitar… ,” said Meader.

Quality production

He said that when it comes to quality, for a mass production guitar, PRS is unmatched.

“You are getting custom guitar construction, build quality and tone from now a production guitar company," said Meader. "And there are very few out there that can kind of compete with them on all of those levels at the same time.”

Paul Reed Smith is applying the same attention to detail to a new line of acoustic guitars.

“I mean the thing is going nuts," said Smith. "It sustains forever right?”

PRS guitars range in price from around $600 to tens of thousands for the Private Stock line.

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