- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

STEVENSVILLE, Md.

Guitar maker Paul Reed Smith used to approach visiting musicians with all the subtlety of Pete Townshend sending his own guitar to meet its maker.

A young Mr. Smith would hound the roadies of Ted Nugent, Peter Frampton and other notorious guitar slingers until they agreed to put one of his guitars in their bosses' hands.

These days, a permanent artist-relations professional handles such negotiations for PRS Guitars, Mr. Smith's Stevensville, Md., based company.

That wouldn't have been necessary had his guerilla tactics and his product not proved so successful.

"We're always working on refining our instruments. The constant thing here is, can it sound better?" says Mr. Smith, whose unabashed approach helped establish his credibility in guitar circles.

PRS Guitars doesn't crank out axes with the regularity of a Fender or Gibson, the acknowledged powerhouses in the field. Instead, its 44-year-old founder focuses on hand-sanded products that reflect his uncompromising view of the way a guitar should be crafted.

The company's best-known customer, guitar legend Carlos Santana, appreciates Mr. Smith's unequivocal attention to detail.

Mr. Santana, who recently nabbed eight Grammy awards, has been using PRS guitars for the past 20 years.

In 1980, Mr. Smith approached Mr. Santana's roadies at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., before a performance.

"If I could build Carlos Santana a guitar and get him to play it, that'll be the path," he recalls thinking.

Soon, Mr. Santana himself had a PRS guitar in hand backstage and was delighted by the sounds he could coax from it. But once he connected it to the "big rig," the large onstage amplifier, his demeanor changed. The guitar's pickup, which translates the strings' vibrations into electric sounds, wasn't suited for such a powerful amp.

The discrepancy soon was remedied, leaving Mr. Santana so impressed by Mr. Smith's handiwork that he declared its making "an accident of God," one that couldn't be repeated. When Mr. Smith followed up with two more "heavenly" instruments, the future Grammy winner softened.

"He's been buying guitars [from us] ever since," Mr. Smith says. PRS Guitars holds an exclusive contract with Mr. Santana to supply him with at least two guitars a year.

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Mr. Smith's company opened its first factory in 1985 in a modest studio along Virginia Avenue in Annapolis. By the end of 1995, the growing company had secured a more expansive home, its current 25,000-square-foot location on Kent Island.

Today, PRS Guitars sells through 350 domestic dealers and exports to 27 countries. The factory produced a little more than 8,000 guitars last year, but that number is expected to increase in 2000.

Among the artists who have played PRS guitars are Jimmy Page, Heart's Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Buffet and Jewel and Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti, the company's other exclusive client.

As a teen, Mr. Smith began building guitars in his bedroom, in wood shop at school wherever space was afforded him. He bent the ear of violin makers, mechanical draftsmen and patent attorneys to learn the nuances of the craft.

"I found teachers for everything," says Mr. Smith, including ex-Gibson chief Ted McCarty, a mentor for whom Mr. Smith later named an entire PRS Guitar series. "I picked his brain clean," Mr. Smith says.

Some of his best teachers were the guitars themselves. He would spend hours with a particular model, trying to unlock its acoustic secrets.

One cherished instructor, a 1953 Les Paul gold-top guitar, became the standard against which he measured his homemade efforts.

"I'd go back and play the one I made and [then play] Les Paul, but Les Paul won," he says. "One day, it didn't win."

Along with his guitar making, Mr. Smith flirted with a music career. By 1984, he decided to devote his energies full time to making guitars.

"I never made a good living at playing," admits Mr. Smith, whose bespectacled face befits a businessman more than than a rock 'n' roller.

A PRS guitar isn't for the casual musician. Prices start at about $1,500 and can climb to more than $10,000. Gold-encrusted inlays or solid rosewood necks can cause significant price increases.

Most PRS guitars are forged from mahogany imported from South America. Other wood, such as maple shipped in from Canada, occasionally is used to top off mahogany bodies.

Incoming wood is placed in drying rooms to reduce the material's humidity levels to about 7 percent. The process stabilizes the wood, making it less likely to splinter during production.

"Wood is always absorbing and releasing moisture, expanding and contracting," says Doug Chandler, PRS Guitars' marketing director.

Computer-controlled drills transform the blocks of wood into guitar bodies and necks. Once the initial cuts are made, the wood is dried again, and then the first of many hand sandings is administered.

After the guitar's basic assembly is completed, a thin polyester coat is applied, followed by another round of hand sanding.

Thin finishes allow for a more pure sound, Mr. Chandler explains.

An acrylic urethane topcoat seals in the previous coats and is then buffed by machine to a glossy sheen.

Workers check for defects throughout the construction process. Imperfect guitars are tagged and either must repeat earlier steps or be scrapped. About 34 guitars survive the audition process each day.

The production wraps with employees sound-testing the finished product.

Assistant Production Manager Rob Carhart says workers aren't obligated to play "Stairway to Heaven" on the floor models but most probably could.

"The majority of people in here play the guitar very well. It helps," Mr. Carhart says.

Demand for guitars remains high these days, Mr. Smith says. His company, which generated $11 million in sales last year, has a nine-month backlog of orders.

He pins much of the blame on the guitar's status in American culture.

"The music of our time is based on the guitar, starting with Elvis," he says. "It's the instrument … of the last 45 years."

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