Paul Reed Smith on the future of guitar: “Every time I think we know enough, something else happens that empties our cup”
Paul Reed Smith is a uniquely successful and influential figure in the world of guitar. A man who founded his own company back in 1985 to realise his radical vision for the future of electric guitar, and in the 34 years since has earned a place at the very top table of our industry. And he’s done it all without ever losing his passion for getting his hands dirty, still as obsessed with refining and improving his instruments all the time.
As we move into the next decade, we spoke to the man himself about the journey PRS has been on over that time, and as the company gets ready to celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2020, what the future might hold for the Maryland firm…
With all the ways that technology has changed guitar building over the last decade, what do you think has had the most significant impact?
“To put it succinctly, precision. Most notably, in CNC (computer numerical control) and metal moulding. When I started out building guitars, it was a slow and laborious process to make a high-tolerance body and neck. Large scale, accurate production – at least at the level of accuracy we aimed for – was not possible with the woodworking CNC machines of the day.
“The modern CNC machine with aerospace accuracy has not only allowed us to make guitars more accurately than we could by hand, but it also allows us to make them faster, which means they are more affordable than they would be otherwise. From a parts point of view, metal moulding techniques have also advanced which is a major contributor to the guitars we can design here in Maryland and the guitars that we can have manufactured under license abroad. Technology allows us to make things the best they can be so that a luthier starts with the best parts to craft the instrument.”
What do you suspect will be the next significant innovation might be in the guitar world?
“I probably look at this a bit differently. Let me explain. Innovation can happen in steps – in my experience, it is usually a summation of steps that play a larger role in pushing the instrument as a whole forward. The whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.
“So, to me, something that has been turning in the industry and I think is about to tip over, is the very real possibility that brand-new guitars will be able to outmanoeuvre classic vintage instruments. ‘Vintage’ guitars can be like unicorns to some players, but if you think about it, those same guitars were brand new in the moments that made them so beloved, so it’s not that sacrilegious of a thought!”
Are there any ‘red lines’ for you when it comes to guitar manufacture that you think will always need to be done by hand or by a human being?
“There are scores of things that are better done by high-tech, computer-driven equipment and there are scores of things that will never be done by high-tech computer equipment. To give you an example of each, cutting out the body shape is perfect for computer-driven equipment. It’s going to cut the same shape every time.
“On the other hand, staining a Private Stock ain’t gonna be driven by a computer. The final check of an instrument ain’t gonna be done by a computer. There are just some things that are too nuanced to not have a luthier or an artist making the decisions, and there are scores of iterations in the middle.”
How has your growing relationship with artists changed the way you approach guitar building and marketing?
“This answer is too complicated to boil down in a few sentences, but I would say Carlos helped immensely with the tremolo and industry acceptance of the birds and carved top. David Grissom made the McCarty and the DGT happen – both vintage-leaning instruments that were a start for us playing more directly in that world. Mark Tremonti assisted greatly with the PRS Singlecut and more recently with amp tone sculpting. John Mayer made the Super Eagle and Silver Sky happen and working with him led to what we’re calling TCI now, which is a way to voice and EQ a pickup. And, Ricky Skaggs, Tony McManus, and Martin Simpson were up to their eyeballs in the PRS acoustic design with us.
“All of those collaborations, and a bunch of friendships and partnerships I haven’t
mentioned, are a part of our process of listening, learning, implementing positive change, and pushing the guitar forward. To give a final example, the Mayer, Tremonti, and Grissom amps would not have happened without their driving force. And the Silver Sky single-coil pickups taught us how to make better humbuckers. In the end, it’s not so much that they have changed the way we develop instruments, we always put a lot of stock in the player’s perspective, but they have all certainly helped us push the goal further and in new directions.”
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As we look forward into the next decade, as someone who has spent over three decades refining the electric guitar, do you think there’s much headroom left in terms of how good an electric guitar can be?
“Every time I think we know enough, something else happens that empties our cup, and I feel like I don’t know anything. This week, for example, Jimmy Herring and I have been going back and forth about pickups and guitars, and I saw him play, actively using brand new stuff, and we were both laughing – in a good way – about the results.
“So, have we reached a zenith? No. Are we really happy with where we are with finish and pickups and guitar making? Absolutely. For us, change is to make things better not just to make things different. My sincere hope is that there are more things that will change in the future, because that means we’re still progressing in our craft.”
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