A Conversation with Paul Reed Smith
One could argue that Paul Reed Smith has become the name in guitars.
True, Fender and Gibson are name brands, but "I'm going to get me a Leo Fender" has never quite stuck. In that sense, Paul Reed Smith has entered the realm of Walt Disney and, yes, even Martha Stewart—at least for the guitar players of the world. Not bad for a guy who was subsisting on fish sandwiches in the early-1980s.
In the twenty years since its founding, Paul Reed Smith (PRS) Guitars has developed into the third-largest guitar company in the United States, along the way transforming the industry's "Big Two" into the "Big Three." The company has annual revenues of $24 million, and its clientele includes guitar legends such as Carlos Santana, as well as players from some of today's hottest young bands.
Smith recently took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Guitar.com for its Mothers of Invention series. We are pleased to share with you his thoughts on a variety of topics, from his efforts to bring higher-end guitars to the masses to the current state of the guitar in popular music.
Guitar.com: We're almost to year-end. How has 2003 been for PRS Guitars?
Paul Reed Smith: It's been a difficult year for the music business. [At least], it's going much better [now] than it was. Walk-in traffic to the stores [has been] down, but it is going a lot better now. We did a DVD; we've been making really good guitars with Brazilian rosewood. What we've done has been to fight back with better stuff. I've been on the road a lot, talking to customers. Things have come along, but it was a tough summer for everybody.
Guitar.com: What have you been hearing from customers? What are they looking for?
Smith: They're interested in what's new. They're trying to make an informed purchase, and they want to know what the truth is. They want to know the backbone history of our business. But the question that you're getting at is: "What do guitar players want?" I've actually asked that question a lot, and I think I have an answer for it.
I don't think guitar players really want guitars to play a lot better, though they'd like that. I don't think they're asking that they look a whole lot better either. I think what they want is more sounds out of guitars—I would say that music is getting more versatile in nature and guitarists are wanting a lot more sounds out of the guitar. They're not saying that [exactly]—that's a conclusion [to which] I've come.
Guitar.com: When you say that music is getting more "versatile," what exactly do you mean?
Smith: All the tunes on the radio tell the story. They start with an acoustic guitar; then, it goes to clean electric, then to distorted electric, then to some super-distorted electric, and then they add a bunch more sounds. Creed is like that. It's not just a guitar track and a guy singing—That 70's-type stuff—guitar, bass, drums, vocals—that's not happening. I see people really pushing the envelope on a variety of tones. went to clubs, and everybody was using a pedal board. Almost nobody was playing like I do—just plugging straight into an amp. I've had people walk up to me in clinics and say, "Do you just plug straight into the amp?" I say, "That's just the way I was taught." "But where's your distortion pedal, your chorus, echo, delay, flanger, your Line 6 tape echo imitation unit, your Leslie simulator?" "Well. I don't use one." "Huh?" But I am starting to get into that stuff. In a way, they're right. Tone variety is a very important aspect of music. I'd say a lot of things are expanding. It's almost like Terminator 2. Have you seen it?
Smith: It's non-stop coming at you with something new. It never lets up. Music is kind of heading in that direction.
Solos are also less important than they used to be. Being in a band is more important, having an ensemble sound. The days of a tune being an excuse to play a solo are reducing. Do you notice that too?
Guitar.com: Definitely. In large part, though, the bands we're talking about—Nickelback, Creed, etc.—they're on mainstream radio, and mainstream radio pretty much doesn't want songs with solos.
Smith: But I think guitar players are more interested in big strings, new tunings, and chords than how much shredding they can do....
Guitar.com: Right, I guess what I was getting at is that the growing interest in sound layering is less an evolution and more a case of pragmatism. If bands want to be successful today and make it on MTV or mainstream radio, they have to find other ways to keep themselves busy and relevant on their instruments.
Smith: I completely agree. So, I want to go back to your original question. Let me ask you: What do you think guitar players want?
Guitar.com: I don't think it's different than with any other commodity. People want more for their money; they want to see more included at the usual price or to see that price lowered. I'm fairly typical of our website demographic—a younger player with not a lot of disposable income, so I tend toward more utilitarian guitars than higher-end models.
Smith: What price range is that?
Guitar.com: I'd say $500-$1000.
Smith: Would $1400 be too much?
Guitar.com: Well, it depends...
Smith: If something came out that was the equivalent of four guitars in one guitar, would you be interested in paying more then?
Guitar.com: If there were a clear and decided advantage over the other models, I would think so.
Smith: Pretty much, you're looking for something in a regular price range—a very good utilitarian instrument that'll do the job better than what the competitor's would do, but not anything exotic. If somebody were able to come out with something exotic that wasn't that much more, you'd be willing to bump up. That's what you just said, and that seems true from what I've seen.
I think guitar players have finally come to the place where they realize that, if they really want something good, they're going to have to belly up to the bar for more money than $500. It's not unusual [today] for a mom to come in and drop $1400-$1500 on an electric guitar, where it used to be thought of as too much money. Those days are gone. I think guitar players are willing to look at guitars that are better than a put-together Strat from the old days.
Rock stars are buying nice guitars; they're not buying cheap guitars. Eddie Van Halen wanted something with bark on it in the early days; now, the guy from Nickelback is playing Private Stocks. If they're going to be there, they want something beautiful. So, I think the mentality has changed a little bit. I do not have to convince people that it's worth it as much. They're much more interested in what's the right one for them. Or is one right for them at all? The "why are guitars so expensive?" question has backed way down. I used to hear that all the time.
Guitar.com: As for the average guitar player being willing to "bump up," has the response to some of your newer SE models validated your theory thus far?
Smith: I think so. We've shipped as many as 1500 a month and as few as 400-500 a month. We're doing OK.
We're in a commodity market peddling a quality product. Normally, in a commodity market, you peddle a commodity product, but we decided, in the price range for the SE, to try and do it right instead of having it only look right. I've seen Carlos [Santana] take one out of a box, play it onstage, and be completely happy. I've seen Mark Tremonti [Creed] do the same thing. Dave [Baksh] from Sum 41 plays them onstage [too]. It's a real guitar. And I think it takes the market a long time to get used to something new—it always has. What's new is that, for that money, you can get a guitar that you can make a living on. That's how I divide guitars up—you can have the worst piece of junk ever made and the best guitar ever made. Take Pat Metheny's guitar—something you could make a living on—all the way down to something you couldn't make a living on. At some point, it becomes a musical instrument. We're trying to make stuff that's in that range that you could make a living on.
I think it's a sin to go in a store, pull out a guitar, and not be able to go straight to a gig and use it. If you can't pull it out and use it that night, it's not OK. Everything we sell, we're trying to make so that somebody can use it that night. If you get your guitar stolen and you go to a guitar store, our hope is that, if it says PRS on it, you're going to be able to use it that night. That's not the case everywhere. It just isn't.
Guitar.com: PRS Guitars now has 185 employees as well as annual revenues of $24 million. Despite the company's growth and success, are there things that you miss about having a smaller operation?
Smith: Mostly, no. I'm enjoying the energy of what the company's doing these days. I enjoy our position of leadership at NAMM; I enjoy coming out with new stuff and pushing the envelope. I like people; I like talking to you. Back in the old shop, there would be no Guitar.com interview—I'd be gluing on a fretboard. Now, I've got others who want to do that. Not that I don't want to do that—I still get very excited about making guitars. [In fact] I checked today on a guitar that they're making for me. I still get excited about guitars, and I always will.
I'm in a very rare position to be involved in a lot of different things all the time. I enjoy the variety, and I can learn a tremendous amount—as long as I'm learning, I'm OK. As long as my family is not missing me too much when I'm on the road, I'm OK.
Guitar.com: Was there any point in your career where you either heard a recording done with a PRS Guitar or perhaps witnessed a performance on a PRS guitar that made you feel like you'd arrived or made it?
Smith: Yes and no. Yes, there are moments that I saw Carlos play guitar at Live Aid or on the Tom Snyder Show, or that I saw Mark Tremonti in concert...I enjoy that—I've been able to notice pivotal moments and know they're pivotal. Carlos playing guitar at the Olympics in Atlanta—that stuff is real. Watching the Super Bowl—he was on this year—watching him on Monday Night Football the other night—all that stuff has impact. Did I think I made it? No.
I'm always focused on if they're having a problem. Like, if I'm watching Carlos play guitar on TV, I sit and ask myself, "Is it in tune? Is he getting the sound out of it that he wants? Is he comfortable? Is he happy? Is he comfortable with his amp?" I know the man very well, so I'm watching him like a hawk. When Andre Agassi's coach is watching him play tennis, he's watching his every move, keeping his eye on him, and making sure everything is OK. Does he feel proud when he wins? Yeah. Does the coach think he's made it at that point? Probably not. He probably thinks that he's looking out after his client. I'm looking after mine. I'm trying to be his support system and take as good care of him as I can. I'm aware of the moment.
Guitar.com: The reason I ask is that, in past interviews, I've heard you recount the days early in your career when your food budget was $2 a day and you lived on fish sandwiches. Surely, you must feel immense satisfaction about how far you've come.
Smith: That all did happen. I feel touched when I look back and think how much I did to try and learn an art form. But I didn't think of it, at the time, as a stress. It was a good life...a happy time.
There was one Nashville NAMM when the entire industry came up and said, "Well, you're now part of the three." Everyone said it. What used to be Fender, Gibson, and maybe a little bit Ibanez—now, it's Fender, Gibson, and PRS. The whole industry—that's what came out of their mouths. "Fender, Gibson, PRS." I remember feeling proud, but I feel much more proud of individual moments like watching my son play lacrosse or my son play soccer. I feel proud of my employees and how much they love the guitars. I feel proud when I play a guitar, and it feels like it's got it. I hold the old Les Pauls, Strats, and Martins as benchmarks. When we get to that level or better than that level at some point, I'll feel proud about that. There have been some guitars we've made in the past few years that have been extraordinary instruments. The head of Guitar Center called me and said that he had used the guitar at one of their retreats and that everybody loved it. These are people who see everything. That makes me proud. But pride is such an ego thing—I try not to live there. When I meet rock stars that are really loving and personable human beings, it warms my heart. When they hide behind sunglasses, I have a hard time with that.
Guitar.com: Santana being an example of the former?
Smith: He walked into my office after he had gotten eight Grammies and said, "I swear to God, I haven't changed." [laughs] He'd just been on the cover of every newspaper in the world, and he'd hired three more secretaries just to answer the phone. When I met Phil Collins—he will never remember me—he was a real personable guy. They were people interested in other human beings.
Let me back up a second and tell you a story that might answer your original question. At my 40th birthday party, a whole bunch of industry people showed up. I was very pleased with what I'd accomplished by the age of 40. I think there are assessment points in your life where you're either pleased with what you've accomplished or not. I had a great 40th birthday party that my wife threw for me. That was a point at which I didn't think I had made it, but I was overwhelmed by the amount of care and love amongst my friends in the industry for me. In terms of an assessment point, that would be a good thing. I'll be 50 soon and will probably have another [party]. I haven't had a birthday party since my 40th, since it was so overwhelming.
Guitar.com: I understand that, among all the other things you have going on, you and your band are currently working on a new CD.
Smith: We're working our butts off. The producer's here with me right now. It's all original music. I wrote three tunes in the last three weeks. I write tunes all the time. I've got one that I'll play with my friends tonight. It's a very modern-sounding record. Our other records sounded very beautiful—kind of vintage. The producer that I hired [Shane Koss] has become a friend and has been working very hard to make it really cutting-edge.
Guitar.com: When do you expect the album to be released?
Smith: January or February.
Guitar.com: We look forward to hearing it. Well, we've taken enough of your time today and will let you get to your recording. We do appreciate the time you've taken to chat with us. Best of luck with everything, and we'll see you at NAMM.
Smith: Thanks. I've enjoyed talking with you.