NAMM 2016: Paul Reed Smith Interview

by Alec Lee

On Friday, I got to sit down with Paul Reed Smith.  Our readers gave me some great input for questions to ask and it was interesting to see him ponder the questions more than I’d seen in open Q&A sessions I’d attended.

TGP: In the 15 years that I’ve been playing PRS, there have been a lot of changes, many of which you seemed to oppose previously.  What are the factors and vision affecting product line choices?

PRS: I’ll give you one example: So we went from Custom 24s to Custom 22s and what was driving it was that almost all artists were playing 22 fret guitars, not 24 fret guitars and we were getting ready to release the Dragon. We changed it over from a 24 fret guitar to a 22 fret guitar at my kitchen table. Ralph and I were talking about it and it ended up becoming the McCarty and the Dragons and we started making 22 fret guitars. We moved the bridge. We moved the neck pickup. We changed the thickness of the guitar and some other things. Thing is, that was all driven by the fact that almost nobody was playing 24 fret guitars.

513 came about when I thought that we might be able to get a pile more tones out of a guitar. You could have a heavy humbucker guitar, a light humbucker guitar, and a single coil guitar all in the same guitar: five pickups and 13 sounds. It was driven by a need to have an extraordinarily sophisticated Swiss Army knife that could do anything.

The McCarty was an answer to David Grissom. He wanted a guitar that sounded like Duane Allman Live at the Fillmore. We named it after Ted McCarty and we later made a DGT which was what he thought the guitar should be.

All these things have an origin. That was a little view into it.

We brought the CE 24 back this year and what was driving that was Jack [Higginbotham, President of PRS], who thought they would sell again and he was right. There’s always something driving the bus.

TGP: The SE line started out as a way of extending the brand into a more price-sensitive customer base.  More recently, we’ve seen features such as baritones and Floyds introduced into the SE line and not the Core line.  How does a feature get slotted into one line or the other and what are your plans for the SE line?

PRS: It all stems from a form of sophisticated arguing. <smiles> It’s not angry, it’s us making points. “I think we need to make a baritone. I think the best way to do that in a place where people are buying baritones is the SE line. We have done it in Private Stock but what about Core?” and so forth. It’s an iterative decision making process in which you get people in a room who know what they’re talking about and having at it. What are my future plans for SE? I can’t tell you that! I haven’t told my reps yet! We’re trying to hone it down to a good position. The first observation that it’s getting more sophisticated and sometimes releasing stuff we haven’t released in the Core line is accurate. I never really thought of it that way so I learned something from the question too. <laughs>

TGP: What can you tell us about the collaboration with John Mayer?

PRS: He was gonna front the Grateful Dead and needed an instrument to get those sounds. That was a helluva project! More than that, I don’t want to talk much about it. John Periscopes. John Instagrams. John does all kinds of things. I think it’s better left to him right now. I can tell you that it was an honor to get the nod to make that guitar for that tour. And he wasn’t just using that, he was using amps that we made as well to get those sounds. I really enjoyed that whole process. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would get to make a guitar to sound like Jerry Garcia and we have one guy at work, Lenny Johnson, who can play like Jerry. He was the asset. I had one guy who could play like that and I could tell if the sound was right. When we finally got it right, we *knew* we had it right and we called John. “We got the tone. We got it.” But he went through every pickup we had, he went through everything really.

TGP: There’s a lot of concern about sustainable materials in the guitar industry.  How do you manage your supply chain to avoid legal issues like Gibson and are there any synthetic materials that you would consider using?

PRS: The forests in America are in better shape today than they were in 1900. The curly maple thing I’m okay with. It’s fine. Mahogany stuff that we’ve been doing, we’re making sure is from sustainable practices. If you take only one seed tree out of an acre, it’s fine. You leave seed trees in every acre and they’re *very* *very* careful with that. As far as the Indian rosewood, those are trees that blow down in monsoons and are laying on the ground. The collect them and bring them to this place in a tiger reserve. I’ve been there and people buy these blow-downs. Would you rather rot it or make guitars out of it? It seems okay to me.

Do I think synthetic materials have come a long way? Yes. Do I plan on replacing the woods with synthetic materials? Not until I find one that I like as much as wood. We use a lot of synthetics for pickup rings, knobs, pickguards, TRCs and nuts but in terms of the wood, if I found something synthetic that did as good a job, I’d be all over it. What do you want me to make it out of, injectable foam? <laughs> Plexiglas is a little too heavy if you haven’t noticed.

TGP: What’s your take on the doctor / lawyer jokes? Do you find them complimentary or insulting?

PRS: It’s just not true anymore. I don’t think John Mayer is a doctor or a lawyer, although he’s probably got lots of doctors and lawyers. I just don’t buy it! You think Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Mark Tremonti, David Grissom, the guys from Periphery…they’re not doctors or lawyers. Look, it used to be that we were know for making the best looking, best playing guitars and I have spent the last decade working as hard as I possibly can to add “best sounding” to that list. We’re getting there…to the point where I had a bunch of studio musicians in Nashville telling me if they don’t have a PRS on the session, they would erase the tracks. I said “What are you talking about?!?” They said “They’re tuning every syllable of every vocal. If the guitar isn’t in tune with the vocal at the end, they erase my track and the only ones that do that are yours!” I was dropjawed! The sound of the guitars has come a long, long way. We have almost 100% acceptance rate on the 58/15 pickups.

Things are getting better. Fast. I think things are okay. It’s a pot shot. Ten years ago, it wasn’t a pot shot but now it’s a pot shot. Doctors and lawyers aren’t buying SEs. By the way, it’s not just doctors and lawyers. When I was at Apple, a lot of the employees at Apple bought ’em.

TGP: These days, a lot of premium guitar brands are using stainless frets.  Is there a possibility of PRS offering stainless frets or is that something you just don’t want to do?

PRS: Stainless steel is mostly made out of nickel. Fret wire is made out of nickel. There’s no silver in “German silver”. Making frets out of nickel is good. We make our frets really hard so you don’t have to refret. Most people are using much softer wire than we are and the strings are so high in hardness so the strings wear the frets away. I’ve spent a boatload of time trying to get the guitars to sound right. I’m not opposed to stainless steel frets in any way but I don’t know enough about it to make a shift right now.

TGP: On the topic of his guitars sounding “sterile”

PRS: Maybe you should ask John McLaughlin that. Ask some of our resident geniuses in our industry that question. What they’re basically suggesting is that there’s not enough organic sound coming out of the guitar. Is that a darkness, a volume, a character? I don’t know. In order to know why someone thinks they sound sterile, I need to know what he likes. I’d need to know what he or she looks for in a guitar that they’re looking for? Are they vintage guitars they’re referring to? Are they new guitars they’re referring to?

You can test out how good a guitar is with a stopwatch. A guitar that rings for 10 seconds is not as good as a guitar that rings out for 45 seconds. That’s a fact. I’ve actually been at clinics where they’ve gotten out a ’57 Strat and a ’59 Les Paul and a PRS and we started timing them. Very interesting. It takes all kinds. It just seem to me that some people have an opinion that there’s something wrong with our guitars and they don’t really know how to put it into words. Maybe they’re just on one side of the fence and taking a shot over the fence. Maybe it’s keyboard courage, just sitting there hiding behind a computer. I don’t know but having a real conversation about it and plugging their guitars and plugging in a PRS that I thought would do the job, having a real discussion about it makes a lot more sense to me.