“We choose to focus on pushing the art forward”: Paul Reed Smith on the pandemic, progress and the importance of PRS’ 35th anniversary

Ahead of his Guitar.com Live Masterclass on guitar building, legendary luthier and PRS founder Paul Reed Smith discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the brand, why he’s always pushing on to the next thing, and his enduring love of the Dragon.

Paul Reed Smith
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Paul Reed Smith and PRS had a plan for this year – festivities at the NAMM Show in January were meant to kick off a whole year of celebrations for the brand’s 35th anniversary, culminating in a huge event at PRS’s Stevensville home in April. Of course, the world did not go to plan for anyone in 2020, but in spite of all that, Smith was delighted with the way his company, the artists they work with and the fans who support them came together to celebrate this year in a unique and virtual way.

“I am so proud of the way the company pivoted to have Experience 2020 virtually,” he enthuses. “It was such a large, community-bolstering event for the people who tuned in live. If you missed it, you can still see the artist clinics on our YouTube channel. We are learning so much through these times about connecting with each other without being able to travel and have in-person events, and we are trying to find the positives around that. With 2021 still being so uncertain in many ways, I just ask that people stay tuned… we definitely have some plans that won’t want to be missed.”

The global pandemic has, of course, had a huge effect on the guitar industry, with factories having to shut, stores closing for good and the global economy in dire straits. But when we ask Smith about the lesson he’s taken from this uniquely challenging period, he focuses on one thing: family.

“I have learned the depth of care that the employees here have for the company,” he explains. “The way the entire team here, from top to bottom, handled and is continuing to handle the COVID situation is remarkable. The factory was shut down for almost two months, and we all did our part to keep our team whole. That’s one aspect of being a 35-year-old company that is sometimes overlooked – so many people at PRS have been with us for 10, 20, 30-plus years. The employees often refer to ourselves as family, and this time has absolutely proven that out.”

Pushing onward

As part of that 35th anniversary, PRS released a variety of striking instruments, several of which paid homage to the brand’s most iconic instruments. But where many guitar makers seek to faithfully recreate the past down to the last screw and paint flake, PRS’s treatment of its classic designs always comes through the lens of bringing it up to date – the notion that Smith would countenance a reissue of a guitar that didn’t take into account the learning he’s gleaned since is an anathema.

“What if I asked you to play the same set, in the same way, that your earliest bands played at a good gig?” he poses. “When I ask people that, I usually hear the same answer; ‘But I’m a way better guitar player, bass player, etc. then I was back then. I can play the same songs, but I’m going to play them differently. I am going to play them better.’ We feel the same way about guitar making. Paul Reed Smith

We have learned so much over the last 35 years, and we’re still practising our craft and making guitars, but philosophically why would we not apply everything we have learned? We’re not done creating, and there is no need to go backwards yet. In addition to that, I would argue that many of the ‘replicas’ that are being made don’t necessarily capture the magic their most perfect historic examples embodied. Often, they’re just not the same in the end. We choose to focus on pushing the art forward.”

One of the 35th Anniversary guitars that exemplifies this approach is the latest Dragon – a stunningly ornate instrument that Smith first created in 1992, the Dragon has become one of the brand’s most famous and beloved guitars. It’s also clearly one that means a lot to Smith, as the stunning 2020 treatment (complete with Frostbite Dragon’s Breath finish) demonstrates.

“I’ve just always liked English water dragons,” Smith explains of the guitar’s enduring fascination for him. “From the beginning of the Dragon guitars, it was always a mixture of pushing the art of inlay forward while pushing for excellence in guitar design from a guitar maker’s point of view. And, I think this last one was beautifully designed. Jeff Easley, Paul Miles, and I were up to our eyeballs in the Dragon design, and Jaime Aulson and her team at Aulson Inlay executed it brilliantly. Our wood team sourced all the beautifully narrow-curl maple tops. It was truly a team project.”

Live and kicking

As a founding partner of Guitar.com Live there are various performances, panels and events taking place over the course of the show that PRS is heavily involved with, but perhaps the most intriguing is A Guitar Building Masterclass with Paul Reed Smith – a chance for attendees to learn about Paul’s guitar making ethos straight from the man himself. Paul Reed Smith

“The thing that keeps me fascinated is how deeply interactive all the parts on a guitar are,” Paul explains of that philosophy. “The nut, the bridge, the tuning machines, the strings, the pickups, the finish, the wiring… everything. You can get every process, every decision, and every part ‘right’, but if you put a rubber nut on the guitar, it’s all for nought. It’s a cumulative event. There are no shortcuts to making a magic guitar.”
Of the event itself, Smith is clearly enthused by the potential of his masterclass, and for Guitar.com Live as a new kind of guitar show, to help reframe some of the online discourse about the instrument.

“I think it’s important for people to have a vocabulary to talk about guitars. There’s a lot of keyboard courage on the internet, but this should give people some solid fundamentals of guitar making,” he says. “I am also very curious how the industry engages with this event. It’s a first of its kind with respect to some of the virtual aspects, and the artists that are participating are very impressive. I mean Carlos Santana, Cindy Blackman Santana, Vernon Reid, and John McLaughlin all on a panel together – forget about it. That’s genius-level guitar insights. Not to mention Mark Tremonti and all the other artists who are showing up.”
In closing, we ask Smith to look back on his last 35 years of guitar building – from his earliest days in the industry right up to the present day with PRS as one of the world’s premier guitar brands – is there a highlight?

“There’s not one moment,” he insists. “And while I might be expected to name something very positive here, I have to say the thing that I am most proud of is how PRS as a company and a family has faced challenging times. Whether that is guitars mounting in inventory in the late 1980s, the lawsuit around the Singlecut at the turn of the century, the recession of 2008/2009, or COVID-19, we’ve always had an amazing tenacity and integrity to see us through, and I am very proud of that.”

Paul Reed Smith’s Guitar Building Masterclass will take place at 5.30pm PST on 2 October at Guitar.com Live. Register to attend for free at guitar.com/live.

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