Technotes Online > A passion for PRS guitars

A passion for PRS guitars

Issue #11
March 01, 2004

All of the reasons I have this thing about the guitars Paul Reed Smith calls "the new classics."

This 1997 example of the original Santana is finished in "Santana Yellow" and sports a gorgeous flame maple top with what is generally called "ribbon curl." Note two mini-switches and zebra-bobbin humbuckers, as well as the abalone purfling on the body.

I have been playing guitar since the late 1960s and there are probably very few guitar models that didn't pass through my hands at one time or another, including instruments that today would cost a small fortune. Like a 1954 Gibson Les Paul Custom, a 1956 Fender Esquire or a 1962 Gretsch Tennessean. All of us traded instruments on a fairly regular basis, and tracing who had what and when was like looking at a family tree of the bands that were popular in South Florida back then.

Many's the time I would walk into the North Miami Armory on a Sunday night and see someone playing a Gibson SG Special I used to own, or an old beat up Eko 12-string. Little did we suspect that our passion for guitars would soon turn into nothing short of obsession - at least for some people.

As late as the 1970s and early 1980s, you could still hope to stumble onto a prize find at a local pawnshop, but eventually, pawnshop owners started thinking that *everything* that came through the door was a "rare bird" and started pricing almost all the name brand guitars far out of reach of us "normal musicians." Seeing a battered 1988 Epiphone Les Paul hanging in a seedy, hole-in-the wall with a $3,000 price tag was good for a laugh (and it, as well as others like it are probably still there).

With a tight flame pattern, this 2001 Santana II in black cherry now has a more standard three-position toggle switch, as well as a sweet Brazilian rosewood fretboard.

In the mid 1980s, I owned only one guitar, a 1981 Gibson ES-335 dot neck reissue - probably one of the first quality reissues the company built. See, back in the late '70s and early '80s, American guitars had hit a speed bump. Guitar players felt that the big companies just weren't building them like they used to. And for the most part, that was true, though occassional gems would slip out of the shops.

Even now, I see guitars that were built back then that are just plain awful, with sloppy workmanship and lousy playability. Heck, I owned one for a short time and was both thrilled and relieved that someone actually wanted to buy it from me (he liked the color).


With the advent of the synthesizer in the early 80s (and in particular, the Yamaha DX7), the electric guitar actually took a back seat for a while in modern music. You needed a really bright tone to compete in the same sonic space as a digital synth, and that eventually led to the birth of the so-called "Superstrat" - hybrid guitars whose high end could break glass and damage eardrums in equal measure. Note: I am not specifically talking about *Fender* Strats here, but a whole bunch of similar, three-pickup guitars from companies like Jackson, Charvel, Ibanez and yes, even one or two from Fender, before the employees banded together and bought the company and began building instruments that would eventually return Fender to its lofty position of one of the best in the business.

But in the mid-80s, working out of a small workshop in Annapolis, Maryland, Paul Reed Smith began producing small numbers of guitars that seemed to combine the very best attributes of both the legendary Gibson Les Paul and Fender Statocaster. He called the guitar, very simply, the PRS Custom and officially showed this instrument at the Winter NAMM Show in 1985.

Now inexplicably discontinued, this Custom 22 came standard with three Seymour Duncan P-90 "Soapbar" pickups. Note the five position blade switch and the Michigan maple" flame top in blackburst.


Now most guitar players probably first became aware of Paul's work when he designed and built a custom-made instrument for Carlos Santana, but he also built one-offs for other top players like Al DiMeola, Ted Nugent and Howard Leese of Heart. Still, Paul will probably always be most closely associated with that very first flame-top guitar he built for Santana, and to this day, Carlos tours with a handful of spectacular PRS guitars. I'm pretty sure nearly everyone saw the stunning PRS Carlos played on the "Supernatural" music video.

But despite the distinctive look of the "Santana" guitar, the 1985 PRS Custom was somewhat of a different design. It sported a one-piece mahogany body and neck and was capped with a distinctively contoured flame maple top, which immediately called to mind the fabulous 1958-60 flame-top Les Pauls. Yet the body shape was more along the lines of a Strat, perhaps mated with a double cutaway Les Paul Junior.

In short, at a time when other companies were trying to find guitar designs and sounds to compete with the proliferation of digital synths, the Paul Reed Smith Custom actually looked more like a classic design from the late 1950s or early '60s, and this was where Paul's instruments got dubbed "The New Classics."


I was lucky enough to be at the 1986 Winter NAMM Show and clearly remember my jaw dropping when I stumbled upon the small display of PRS guitars. They were unquestionably gorgeous instruments, but in the mid-80s, dealers were not falling over each other trying to buy up as many of Paul's guitars as they could. Remember that the Superstrats were all the rage then, and dealers tend to order what customers are buying, so while everyone around me "oohed and ahhed" at the PRS Custom, they weren't whipping out their check books - yet.

And perhaps that's a good thing, as Paul's shop would have never been able to build enough guitars had everyone at the show wanted to order a dozen or more - in fact, they're still often hard-pressed to keep up with existing orders, but refuse to cut corners to get the instruments finished and on their way. Certain models are back ordered for months.

After that, I pretty much stopped paying attention to guitars altogether and concentrated on building up my own company, Stratus Sounds. At the time, I already had a fairly large library of samples for the Sequential Circuits Prophet 2000 and was soon working on libraries for the Akai S1000 and the Kurzweil K250. That kept me pretty busy until the early 1990s, when Kurzweil introduced the K2000. In fact, it was at the 1992 Winter NAMM Show as a guest of Kurzweil that I first met Chuck Surack (though I had already been a Sweetwater customer for over a year). Eventually, I went on to work closely with Chuck on custom libraries for the K2000 and began writing my first Tech Notes column for the new Sweetwater newsletter, *Sweet Notes*.


In 1994, because of personal reasons, I had to move to Tallahassee, Florida. Not long after arriving, I came up with one of my best ideas: To create the biggest and best collection of electric and acoustic guitar samples, which eventually led to "Ultimate Guitars," the first CD ROM library to receive a perfect score from Keyboard magazine.

While doing my homework for this collection, I met Morty Beckman, who was then selling vintage guitars locally and now runs a number of guitar shows nationally. I also started to attend some regional guitar shows, and my very first was the Winter 1995 Jacksonville Vintage Guitar Expo. And that's where I actually got the opportunity to actually pick up and play a PRS Custom.

Now inexplicably discontinued, this Custom 22 came standard with three Seymour Duncan P-90 "Soapbar" pickups. Note the five position blade switch and the Michigan maple" flame top in blackburst.

The instrument was dated 1986 and had a gorgeous two-piece flame maple top in what PRS calls "tortoiseshell," but the dealer who had it on sale called it "root beer." The fretboard was a wonderful piece of what looked to me to be Brazilian rosewood and had the now-famous abalone bird inlays and the controls included a volume control, a five-way rotary knob for pickup selection and, instead of a tone control, had what PRS called a "sweet switch." Instead of binding the body, PRS simply left a small strip of natural maple around the outside of the guitar, and it looked very stylish. I picked it up and immediately knew this was a very special instrument. It was almost as if that very guitar had been built specifically for my hands. Then I looked at the price tag, which was $1500.

Any serious guitar player today knows that a 1986 PRS in mint condition for $1500 - even back in 1995 - is a bargain, but I had just moved cross-country and for one of the few times in my life, decided to play it safe financially, so I passed. I know that someone out there - maybe even someone who is reading this column - owns and loves that guitar and will probably have a good chuckle over my lack of good judgement. Hmm, okay, let's call it what it was: A monumental blunder on my part. Where is a time machine when you need one.

In what seems to me an odd twist of fate, it turned out that my new next door neighbor was a guitar player and a serious collector and he owned a number of great Gibson and Fender guitars, but the one guitar he said he loved the most was a 1993 cherry sunburst PRS Custom, which just happens to be the guitar on the cover of the "Ultimate Guitars Musician's Guide" and the only PRS I sampled for the collection.


To make a long story short, I knew I had to have a Paul Reed Smith guitar of my own, and by 1995, PRS was making a number of models. The original PRS Custom, which was a 24-fret instrument, was renamed the Custom 24, and shipped with a wide-thin neck (which reminds me of a wonderful Gibson SG Custom I once owned) and a vibrato tailpiece.

The Custom 22 was (no surprise) a 22-fret version that most often shipped with a one-piece stop tailpiece and a wide-fat neck (a bit smaller than the 1958-59 Les Pauls). The pickups were different on each model: Dragon pickups on the Custom 22 and an HFS in the bridge position of the Custom 24 (which stands for "hot, fat and screams") and a Vintage Bass in the neck position. The trademark bird inlays were an option on either model, as was a highly-figured flame or quilt maple "10-top," which is the best top you can get on a production model PRS without going the next step up to an Artist Series.

Both guitars lost the sweet switch and gained a proper tone control, but retained the five-position rotary switch which allowed the guitars to produce a fat humbucker tone, as well as credible Strat-like tones - your classic glossy bridge / middle and neck / middle combinations.

At about the same time, the company introduced a third guitar which was dubbed the "McCarty" model, named after Ted McCarty, who was president of Gibson between 1950 and 1966, and as such, was running the company that produced such classics as the Les Paul, the ES-335, the Flying V, the Firebird and many more. The first McCartys shipped with what PRS called Michigan maple tops (actually fast-growing red maple) over slightly thicker mahogany backs and Dragon Bass pickups in the bridge and neck position. After 1995, the pickups were redesigned as McCarty bass and treble pickups and picked up a bit of additional high end. Switching for the McCarty was changed to the traditional three-way toggle, but pulling up the tone control swiched each pickup into a single coil mode.

There were several other models being introduced, including the limited edition Dragons (with incredible inlay work on the fretboard), Artists and Rosewood Limited. But the guitar that most caught my personal fancy was the PRS Santana. Yes, I have been a fan of Santana's signature sound since the late 1960s, but also was knocked out when I saw him live on stage playing his original Paul Reed Smith guitar. What a gorgeous guitar and that sound - stunning!

The original limited-production Santana guitar was released in 1995 at a list price of $6000, and only in Santana yellow (though later in a few bursts and solid colors). In keeping with the original design, this guitar included two mini-switches which Carlos preferred for selecting the pickups or putting the instrument into standy mode.

This particular instrument was discontinued in 1998 and was replaced by the special order Santana II ($8,000 list), which varied in having the basic three position toggle switch rather than the mini-switches, and most of these also shipped with gorgeous Brazilian rosewood fingerboards.

More recently, PRS has introduced hollowbody versions of its McCarty models (some with piezos in the bridge for a pretty convincing acoustic sound), as well as the PRS Singlecut, a two humbucker pickup model with (as you might guess) a single cutaway. Oddly, a three pickup version of the Custom 22 (with Seymour Duncan "Soapbar" P-90s) did not sell well and has been discontinued. I bought one and I think it's a great instrument, and that leads me to . . .

This is #313 of a very limited run of Artist IIIs in the mid-1990s. The flamey big leaf maple top is finished in dark cherry sunburst. The wood looks different from whatever angle you might look at it. Paua abalone birds and neck purfling add the finishing touch.


I'm not too proud to admit my weakness for Paul Reed Smith guitars - their premium woods, their craftsmanship and (of course) their sound and playability have all contributed to my subsequent purchase of several PRS models.

True, I might have resisted the temptation, but in about 1995, on one of my extended stays at Sweetwater, I spotted a PRS Artist III in dark cherry sunburst with a tight pinstripe flamed maple top. At the time, I thought it would be impossible for the PRS people to build a more gorgeous instrument. I was wrong. On the next trip I opened up a case and inside, gleaming like a jewel, was an original Santana with a gorgeous curly maple top in Santana yellow. Okay, I had to have that one!

I now own more than a few PRS guitars. Well, if you want to get technical about it, the bank owns them, at least until I pay them off. Are PRS guitars for everyone? Not really. For example, the Santana models have a neck that many say "is about as fat as a tree trunk." That's okay, as I love big, fat necks, but they're not to everyone's taste. And there is something to be said for owning either vintage or more recent recreations of the classic Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Guild guitars of the 1950s and 60s. Another down side to owning a spectacular guitar is this: Do you really want to take such a stunning instrument out to a gig?

I've shot some photos of the PRS guitars in my own collection, as well as a few from the Sweetwater vault. With my hectic schedule, they simply do not get played often enough, but I have committed myself to picking up one of the PRS models and playing at least 20 minutes a day.

I think you'll agree with me: The guitars of Paul Reed Smith, a company that is now located in Stevensville, Maryland, are beautiful examples of just how art and science can come together and create something with real magic in it. If you've dreamed about a PRS of your own, Sweetwater now carries a very nice assortment, so you should call your Sales Engineer right now to see exactly what's in stock.

As you'd expect, guitars enter our warehouse and sometimes are shipped out the very same day. PRS guitars are always in high demand. So don't waste another minute. Whether it's a bright and bold dark cherry burst Custom 22 or a McCarty model in a sweet amber finish, you just can't go wrong with one of these guitars.

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