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 make the obvious double entendre, then drew the audience’s attention to something more subtle. Each guitar nut had a distinct sonic property. One was made from plastic, which Smith compared to the material linking a toilet to a septic tank. It landed with a dull thud. Another was made of bone, and had a greater resonance when it hit the floor. The third was constructed from a proprietary material, and sounded even livelier.
Smith looked up at the crowd. “It makes a difference what the materials are,” he said. Moments later, he walked over to one of the acoustics that his company, PRS Guitars, makes. “So now I’m going to play with the theory,” he said, strumming the instrument. “It’s sustaining longer than most electric guitars. Can you hear that?”
Over his four-decade career as an instrument maker, Smith has approached the guitar, which he refers to as an “applied physics device,” with scientific rigor. He has scrutinized the impact that even the smallest component, like the nut, has on sound. He has analyzed the best Fender and Gibson designs to arrive at his own style of high-performance electric guitar, and in so doing succeeded at crafting a lineage of instruments known for their imposing voice and easy play coupled with trademark cosmetics such as gemlike finishes and bird-in-flight inlays that have transformed the electric guitar into a luxury good. In more recent years, Smith has given the acoustic guitar a similar treatment in PRS’s collection of custom and mass-produced instruments.
Like many guitar makers, Smith, now in his mid-60s, had a modest start. The son of a big band leader turned mathematician, Smith grew up in a musical home, taking up the ukulele when he was four. At home his mother sang and played a nylon-string guitar, which he appropriated for learning Beatles songs. Smith got serious about the guitar as a means of coping with teenage life, but he couldn’t afford the expensive instruments favored by his favorite groups. “I had no choice but to build my own,” he says by 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 to repair guitars while working in a shop in Washington, D.C. He briefly studied at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, but dropped out to focus on building guitars and playing in bands. Smith became a fixture on the local scene and soon developed a clever strategy: after completing a guitar, he would tote it to a venue and ingratiate himself 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 much more excited by the instruments I was making than by my guitar playing,” Smith says.
By 1985, on the strength of his high-profile clients, Smith was able to move from tiny shop where he’d been working and living to a proper factory with a staff of guitar makers. The mid-’80s was a rough period for the major electric-guitar manufacturers, both in terms of brand identity and quality control. But PRS, with its new designs and consistently fine craftsmanship, established itself as a top player on the electric market. Smith was so persnickety about quality that he was known to destroy guitars that weren’t up to snuff. From the outside, it seemed that Smith had solidified his reputation as a lasting instrument maker, but he wasn’t satisfied.
“They say it takes 10 years to get good at something,” Smith says, “but it must’ve taken me twice as long.”
Smith had always loved acoustic guitars. As a young repairman, he had become intimate with acoustics by rebuilding guitars that he says were “smashed in anger.” At trade shows, he was well-known for checking out all the best new acoustics. “I enjoy the form immensely—this combination of guitar making, beauty, and physics,” Smith says. “Even more than electrics, acoustic guitars are physics 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 have a puny sound. Segovia’s instrument is doing a much better job of transferring force into sound energy.”
In the early 1990s, PRS briefly flirted with acoustic guitar making in a collaboration with the 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 capture the sound that 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 heads Fender. Smith was blown away by the instrument. “Larry played two notes on this tiny guitar, three inches deep with maple back and sides, built in the 1800s by Antonio Torres,” he says.
“When I heard it for the first time, it was so beautiful that I instantly welled up. The guitar was just exploding with tone, so much louder and with more bass than any other acoustic guitar I’d ever heard. I was confounded.”
To understand how the guitar worked, Smith had it X-rayed. Based on his findings, Smith says, “I came to the conclusion that, although he didn’t know it as such, Torres was thinking of the guitar as a kind of speaker cabinet.”
Smith knew then that his own steel-string acoustic guitar designs would borrow structural elements from Torres. He enlisted the luthier Steve Fischer to arrive at a model 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 the traditional steel-string, PRS uses a back that doesn’t move; it’s locked in place with large but lightweight mahogany braces. To extend Smith’s metaphor, the soundboard is the diaphragm and the back is the cabinet.
The same basic design principles are used on all PRS acoustics, from the Angelus, Tonare, and Parlor models in the Korean-made SE series, of which around 2,000 total are made per month, to those select few, two dozen or fewer per year, built primarily by the luthier Austin Harris inside the Maryland factory’s Private Stock department. Smith has never actually built an acoustic guitar himself, but he takes a hands-on role with the one or two acoustic instruments the company makes each month. “At this point, it wouldn’t be a good use of time to sit in the back of a shop and work on an acoustic; it would take away from my role as a leader in working on new projects,” he says. “But I have my hands on every guitar we make, and I even keep a master bracing pattern right here in my office. I might be the managing general partner of PRS, but not a single acoustic leaves the building without my playing it.
“Hold on a second, let me grab a guitar,” Smith says. He pauses to retrieve a nearby Angelus and tunes its sixth string to D before launching into some aggressive playing. “This thing is probably distorting your phone. It just sounds like a rocket!”
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Though Smith’s description may sound like hyperbole, more than a few top-shelf players agree with his assessment of the power and tone of PRS’s acoustic guitars. Two of those players are the fingerstyle wizard Tony McManus and singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne.
“One day several years ago,” LaMontagne says, “my friend brought over a PRS acoustic guitar and took it out of the case. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so weird! The headstock is odd—what’s going on here? But as soon as I started playing it, I just lost it. All that stuff I was missing was there. It was so present [with a] really beefy low end, and yet I wasn’t losing anything on the high end. With every other guitar to this point, I felt like I was getting one or the other.”
After distorting my phone, Smith picks up his Angelus and, in a nod to Torres, plays a brisk passage in the E Phrygian mode. “The guy had it right,” Smith says, “and we’ve left a lot of his theories intact in making our rockets.”