By Adam Perlmutter
This feature originally appeared in the December 2014 issue and has been updated for 2022.
In a 2013 TEDx Talk about guitar making, Paul Reed Smith dropped three nuts on the floor, paused to do the obvious double-meaning, and then drew the audience’s attention to something more subtle. Each guitar nut had a distinct sonic property. One was plastic, which Smith likened to the material connecting a toilet to a septic tank. He lands with a thud. Another was made of bone and had a greater resonance when it hit the ground. The third was constructed from proprietary material and sounded even livelier.
Smith looked at the crowd. “It makes a difference what the materials are,” he said. Moments later, he walked over to one of the acoustics his company, PRS Guitars, makes. “So now I’m going to play with the theory,” he said, strumming the instrument. “It lasts longer than most electric guitars. Do you hear that?”
During his four-decade career as a luthier, Smith has approached the guitar, which he calls “a device of applied physics,” with scientific rigor. He scrutinized the impact that even the smallest component, like the nut, has on sound. He analyzed the best Fender and Gibson designs to arrive at his own style of high-performance electric guitar, and in doing so managed to create a line of instruments known for their commanding voice and easy playing coupled with trademark cosmetics such only gem finishes and inlays of birds in flight that have transformed the electric guitar into a luxury good. In recent years, Smith has given the acoustic guitar a similar treatment in PRS’ collection of custom and mass-produced instruments.
Like many guitar makers, Smith, now in his 60s, had humble beginnings. The son of a big band leader turned mathematician, Smith grew up in a musical household, taking up the ukulele at the age of four. At home, his mother sang and played a nylon-string guitar, which he appropriated to learn Beatles songs. Smith took the guitar seriously as a way to cope with teenage life, but he couldn’t afford the expensive instruments favored by his favorite bands. “I had no choice but to build my own,” he says over the phone from his headquarters in Stevensville, Maryland.
As a high school student, Smith began building guitars in his bedroom and around the same time learned how to repair guitars while working at a shop in Washington, DC. He briefly studied at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, but dropped out to focus on construction. guitars and playing in bands. Smith became a fixture on the local scene and quickly developed a clever strategy: after he finished a guitar, he would take it to a venue and have fun with a roadie in order to gain backstage access. This is how he sold a guitar to Al Di Meola and then another to Carlos Santana. “People were definitely a lot more excited about the instruments I was making than my guitar playing,” Smith says.
In 1985, thanks to his prominent customers, Smith was able to grow from a small shop where he worked and lived, to a real factory with a team of guitar builders. The mid-1980s was a difficult time for major electric guitar manufacturers, both in terms of brand identity and quality control. But PRS, with its new designs and ever-refined craftsmanship, has established itself as a leading player in the electricity market. Smith was so picky about quality that he was known to destroy guitars that weren’t up to scratch. From the outside, it looked like Smith had cemented his reputation as an enduring luthier, but he wasn’t satisfied.
“They say it takes 10 years to get good at something,” Smith says, “but it must have taken me twice as long.”
Smith has always loved acoustic guitars. As a young repairman, he had learned about acoustics by rebuilding guitars that he said were “broken in anger”. At trade shows he was well known for checking out all the best acoustic news. “I really appreciate the form – that combination of guitar making, beauty and physique,” Smith says. “Even more than electric guitars, acoustic guitars are physical devices, involving a transfer of force to sound. Take two identical sets of nylon strings, put one on a $100 guitar and the other on Segovia’s guitar, and the latter will fill an auditorium with music, while the other might sound puny. The Segovia instrument does a much better job of transferring force into sound energy.
In the early 1990s, PRS briefly flirted with making acoustic guitars in collaboration with luthier Dana Bourgeois, resulting in a handful of instruments that never made it past the prototype stage. Smith couldn’t put his finger on it, he says, but the guitars just didn’t pick up the sound he was looking for. Then, in the mid-2000s, Smith saw a guitar in the collection of Larry Thomas, the CEO of Guitar Center who now runs Fender. Smith was blown away by the instrument. “Larry played two notes on this tiny, three-inch-deep guitar with maple back and sides, built in the 1800s by Antonio Torres,” he says.
“When I first heard it, it was so beautiful I immediately gushed. The guitar was exploding in tone, so much louder and with more bass than any other acoustic guitar I’ve ever heard. ever heard. I was confused.
To understand how the guitar works, Smith had it x-rayed. Based on his findings, Smith states, “I came to the conclusion that, although he didn’t know it as such, Torres viewed the guitar as a kind of speaker.”
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Smith knew then that his own steel-string acoustic guitar designs would borrow structural elements from Torres. He enlisted luthier Steve Fischer to come up with a design whose soundboard combines Torres-style fan bracing with the X-pattern traditionally used on steel-string guitars. Rather than having both the top and back vibrating, as on traditional steel string, PRS uses a non-moving back; it is locked in place with wide but light mahogany braces. To extend Smith’s metaphor, the soundboard is the diaphragm and the bottom is the cabinet.
The same basic design principles are used on all PRS acoustics, from the Korean-made SE Series Angelus, Tonare and Parlor models, of which approximately 2,000 in total are made per month, to those who select a few, two dozen or less per year. , built primarily by luthier Austin Harris in the Private Stock department of the Maryland factory. Smith has never built an acoustic guitar himself, but he plays a hands-on role with the one or two acoustic instruments the company builds each month. “At this point, it wouldn’t be a good use of time to sit in the back of a store and work on an acoustic; it would take away my leadership role in working on new projects,” he says. “But I have my hands on every guitar we make, and I even keep a master bracing model here in my office. I may be the managing partner of PRS, but not a single acoustic leaves the building without me playing it.
“Wait a second, let me get a guitar,” Smith said. He stops to retrieve a nearby Angelus and tunes his sixth string to D before launching into aggressive play. “That thing is probably warping your phone. It just looks like a rocket!
Although Smith’s description may sound like hyperbole, more than a few top players agree with his assessment of the power and tone of PRS’s acoustic guitars. Two of those players are fingerstyle wizard Tony McManus and singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne.
“One day several years ago,” says LaMontagne, “my friend brought in a PRS acoustic guitar and took it out of its case. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so weird! The doll is weird – what’s going on here? But as soon as I started playing it, I lost it. Everything I needed was there. It was so present [with a] really strong low end, and yet I didn’t lose anything on the high end. With all the other guitars so far, I felt like I got one or the other.
After twisting my phone, Smith picks up his Angelus and, in a nod to Torres, plays a quick passage in E Phrygian mode. “The guy was right,” Smith says, “and we left a lot of his theories untouched when we built our rockets.”