Paul Reed Smith Blows Against the Empire

By Cliff Rhys James | Photos by Derek Brad

(Luthier: One who makes and/or repairs stringed musical instruments such as violins or guitars.)

In this highly refracted world, Carlos Santana and Ted Nugent probably don’t see eye to eye on much when it comes to life, religion or politics, but the two famous guitar slingers do agree on one thing: Paul Reed Smith designs and builds the slickest playing, most luscious sounding, aesthetically pleasing guitars money can buy. Terrible Teddy, or The Motor City Madman (two of Nugent’s many sobriquets) may have been one of the first of the high profile psychedelic string benders to embrace Smith’s creations and Carlos Santana is perhaps the most universally acclaimed guitarist to do so, but the play list of legendary ax men who insist on PRS as their main ride is a long and illustrious one that grows over time like the hands of a clock turning.

From the classical arpeggios of formally trained acoustic musicians to the cool sizzle of jazz guitarists, and from signature rock riffs that turn listeners into writhing air guitarists to the wrecking ball crunch of speed metal shredders; PRS Guitars deliver the kind of sonic effect sought by virtuosos, head-bangers and journeymen alike.

“People get ready, there’s a train a comin’…”

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Stick a pin in Yorba Linda on a wall map of Southern California. Draw a straight line out from that point for a scaled distance of twenty miles. Call it a radius. Now swing it 360 degrees so it describes a circle. For twenty one years I spent a lot of time inside that circle living in the community’s rolling hills amidst the spangles of an incandescent sun and the ever present rustle of palm trees. There, on silky smooth summer nights saturated by the sweet scent of Jasmine and with klieg lights carving up the darkness like a 1939 Hollywood premier, I could look out at the Disneyland fireworks far off in the distance. At times there was an otherworldly feel to it – like some nocturnal dreamscape rising up into wakeful reality.

Anyway, in the movie Field of Dreams, the main character played by Kevin Costner obeys a voice that whispers to him, “Build it and they will come.”  My personalized corollary to this, especially at is applies to musical pioneers is, “Build it and Cliff will come – probably later rather than sooner, but eventually he’ll make it.”

That was the case with each of my belated visits to the lost and forgotten shrines of the original prophets of Boom in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Fullerton and parts of Los Angeles, California where the names of Adolph Rickenbacker, George Beauchamp, Paul Bigsby and Leo Fender still echo, however faintly, down the dimly lit corridors of time. They were the searchers and seekers; the guys who set out to renovate sound and expand the echo; the advance scouts probing for passageways on the electric frontier.

For the longest time I never realized these pioneers awoke each day to go about trying and failing and then trying again and failing again until at last they succeeded inside that twenty mile radius. Hell, like most folks, I knew the Beach Boys created Southern California’s surf music vibe only thirty odd miles west of me. And I knew that not too many years later everyone from country / folk rockers to lizard kings, and from psychedelic trippers to the bluesy vanguard of the British Invasion would cruise up and down Sunset Strip between the Whiskey a Go-Go and Laurel Canyon on that magical mystery tour. But it took me awhile to discover where decades earlier those latter day luthiers and seminal electron boys tore it up each day trying to decode the future.

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Which is a long way of saying – now that I’ve moved back to the Mid-Atlantic States, I’ve come for one of my belated visits to a shrine – only this one isn’t lost and forgotten. This one is a flourishing temple of tumultuous expression in Stevensville, Maryland. Or wait! Maybe it’s a not so secret laboratory where modern day alchemists turn common everyday materials into rare and sparkling gems; where the wizards of wood and steel harness free electrons to conjure up the magic and ride the lightning. Okay, okay… you see, I’m pretty sure Paul Reed Smith heard the same voice as that Costner character because sure enough he built it, and sure enough they came – lots of them from all over this highly refracted world. And now, later rather than sooner but better late than never, I’ve come as well.

How long does it take for the great wheel to go around? Let me drill down a bit to explain. Burning through the restless generations of two centuries over all that raw land rolling across this American continent there’s been a long line of musical trailblazers. They were a driven together and driven apart mix of tool and die men, scrappy business promoters, poets, musicians and electron freaks all powered by a hungering spirit. And like all prophets before their time shunned by the reigning kings of history, they stumbled down that lonely road of discovery to freedom’s beating heart. For some it was the road to ruin – the kind of heavy attrition that implodes into bankruptcy when those in dogged pursuit of a dream run out of time and money. For others it was a road of reward. For many that road led one way – west to where the nation shouldered up to the Pacific.

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But unlike their 16th and 17th century European ancestors, these latter day luthiers were neither the deferential nor reverential kind. They were never content to grind away at the margins of inherited tradition. No, this enterprising crew was something else and nothing if not bold. They were a hurtling high speed train load of idiosyncratic perfectionists called by fate and compelled by larger forces to live out their lives at the sonic intersection of art and science – of music and technology. And just when everyone figured all was quiet on the western front, these mavericks delivered heavy ordinance down range on an unsuspecting culture. I call it the original shock and awe campaign that shattered the peace between the two great world wars and challenged the established order of music, of culture, of just about everything. It was time for Ludwig Van Beethoven to roll over in his grave because Johnny B. Goode was fixin’ to dial it up.

When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, a slow dawning realization took hold. They had not only captured thunder and lightning in a bottle and called it the electric guitar, they’d lit off the wildfire of rock n roll that burned coast to coast before leaping the North Atlantic fire break to ignite blazes in Britain and eventually most of Europe. These were blows against the empire – serious blows.

“And it burns, burns, burns – that ring of fire…”

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Today many of those pioneers are described by trendy business strategists and buzzword addicts as “DISRUPTERS”. Who would a thunk that this enterprising band of string benders and vacuum tube geeks laboring away in the analog star chamber of a Post WW I world amidst the 60 cycle hum and buzzing static would later be celebrated in B Schools as Disruptive Innovators?

Some were willful dreamers, others skillful schemers, but they all shared an urgent need to seize the audible world they’d inherited and jack it up with the big sound of something bold and new – with all that crackling power. They were a strange brew standing astride the chasm that divides musical genres – that separates the status quo from the great unknown. And if they were haunted by questions, they were also fortified with enough true American grit to dig down deep and discover the answers.

In man’s never ending search for meaning, they found theirs in building the better beast and in composing the soundtrack of our lives – even if it was heavily distorted and overdubbed. The basic tool kit consisting of two items was simple enough. The first was an amplifier / speaker. The second and most subversive tool of all was looked upon by some as the weapon of choice, but by others as the preferred instrument of redemption. For all of them it represented the cranked up, fully charged, electrified future. It lit up the radar screen and set off all the alarm bells; it upset the neighbors and in the days before and after the thermonuclear Jeanie escaped the bottle it scared hell out of the Russians. And no wonder, in the right hands it sounded like the unleashed hell-storm of a ball turret gunner in a B -17 hosing down Messerschmitt’s with all nine yards from his twin 50 calibers. The guys who strapped it on to ride the lightning called it an Axe, but to everyone else it was the electric guitar.

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This lineage, it’s a messy meandering one strewn with the wreckage of failed attempts and blind runs down dark alleys, of miscalculation and confusion because that’s the nature of discovery. It’s also nature’s way of dishing out challenges to all comers regardless of discipline or domain who would seek to upend the status quo. “You see the immensity of all this?” Nature seems to taunt. “You want some of this immutable mind boggling stuff present at the creation that is matter and energy and musical vibration all bound up by the weight of history? Come and get it – if you dare.”

Well…Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp dared; they lit the fuse in Los Angeles. And F.C. Hall dared; he pushed the envelope in Anaheim. Leo Fender, he dared as much if not more than most and by God he pulled the trigger in Fullerton, Ca. where they named a street after him. And after Orville Gibson built the launch pad way up in the north-country of Kalamazoo, Ted McCarty blasted off into outer space. They both dared – big time.

And so does Paul Reed Smith; he dared while wandering around Bowie, Md. in his flower child days with a handful of wood and a head full of dreams. And he dared even more when he set up a one man shop in Annapolis to crank out his creations one guitar at a time. Eventually he double dog dared fate itself when he moved the whole arsenal east across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Stevensville in 1995 and built a fortress from which to take on the world and deliver blows against the empire.

 

In the few photographs I’ve seen of Paul Reed Smith, he’s always smiling back at me in a warm and friendly way. He appears easy going and content like one might readily picture a man who has not only survived but thrived in a lifelong labor of love. In the hard fought sweepstakes of life – he’s a winner. There almost seems to be a soft glow of serenity enshrouding him in those pictures. The casual and relaxed air, the graying short cropped hair, the wire rimmed glasses behind which his intelligent eyes sparkle with a look of bemused enjoyment. And first impressions leading to second impressions being what they are, it’s all too easy for some to picture this smiling man as soft spoken, reserved, perhaps even unassertive.

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But I have my doubts. I have a working hypothesis which I’ve repeatedly tested against observable reality over a lifetime of encounters. It posits that deep in the interior reaches of hardworking and friendly men like Paul Reed Smith there’s a bubbling cauldron – a fire in the belly that won’t be denied. That beneath the pleasant smile lies a man who has been, like tempered high tensile strength steel, annealed by the heat and pressure, and quenched by the fire. That’s not to suggest that he’s hard or mean spirited. I don’t mean that at all. What I do mean is that Paul Reed Smith is not easily displaced from the trajectory of his will. That’s my hypothesis anyway and I’m here today meeting him for the first time to test it.

Jeanne Nooney, Public Relations & Events Coordinator for PRS is taking me on a fascinating one hour tour of their production facilities. She’s a very hospitable well-informed guide and ready source of answers. (Full Disclosure: in a previous life I managed several factories for a famous Fortune 50 company and so I have an experienced eye for manufacturing processes.) On the one hand I find state of the art industrial gear like Computerized Numerical Control machine tools that rough cut the wood stock and temperature controlled industrial ovens that drive the Chesapeake Bay area’s high humidity down to 6% or less in all processed wood.  If there’s an element of engineered precision and automated production – this is it. At the same time Jeanne leads me through department after department where specialists and job shop type craftsmen lovingly customize each guitar on individual work benches. Here small batches of like models are broken down into single instruments for detailed hand work. This is the place where a long list of PRS perfected innovations are built into each and every “axe” that carries the PRS headstock signature. It’s where art meets science – where the ready to go kinetic energy gets wound tight – where blows are delivered against the empire.

But almost without exception I encounter something here that strikes me as clearly outside my past experience with production facilities; everyone seems intensely absorbed and genuinely committed to what they’re doing in a friendly, dare I say almost joyous kind of way. This place is like a home for an extended family of craftsmen, crafts-women and music lovers from across the generations and genres for whom this is much more than a paycheck. Jeanne and I stop to observe a….is he a craftsman? Or maybe he’s an artist. Actually, I quickly conclude he’s both and he’s applying a beautiful rich hand rubbed color coat to the guitar body which makes the wood’s natural grain pop to life. Even after I tell him he reminds me of Ozzie Osbourne he never looks up. He continues on expertly rubbing gorgeous color into the wood for another ten or fifteen seconds before finally smiling and saying, “I’ll take that as a compliment.” Jeanne tells me that he’s personally created and customized many of the blends.

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Moments later in what I call the “winding department” I quickly inspect the custom built machine that winds various strands of copper wire around the iron core to create the guitar pickups – the electromagnetic devices that start the induced conversion of vibrating strings into sound. This is home of the hum bucker, as well as other kinds and styles of “pick-ups.”

The tour ends in the clean and quiet room where each guitar is final inspected, briefly played and expertly tuned before being laid tenderly in a customized case for shipping. You see, when you buy a PRS guitar you can take it out of the case, walk on stage, plug in and rock. Or, you can sit down on all by yourself in your kitchen and noodle away.

Waiting in the hallway outside the closed door to Paul’s office, my mind wanders back over random bits of article research: his involvement in charitable causes like raising money for cancer research with Johns Hopkins Medical Center; the fact that he built his first guitar because he wanted to play but couldn’t afford one; his relentless striving for guitars that “look, feel and play like a million bucks”; his absolute insistence upon instruments that, not unlike the people who play them, “are as alive as they can possibly be.”

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Then, the door suddenly flings open. When I see Paul Reed Smith in person for the very first time he’s coming at me like, well, like a hurtling high speed train. Veering off at a slight angle so as not to run me over, he sails past a group of us in the hallway with that big eyed grin of his saying to everyone and no one alike, “Hey, you wanna’ hear a great sounding guitar?” But of course it’s a rhetorical question and besides, he’s not waiting for an answer. “Follow me,” he shouts excitedly. And so we do; Jeanne and I and several others fall into line like box cars behind a locomotive and the next thing I know we’re all standing inside a room where some master luthiers are talking in hushed tones. Paul grabs the guitar and starts picking and strumming it. His eyes swim with delight and the grin on his face spreads wider. “Yeah, that’s beautiful,” he murmurs. He powers through some chords, throws a few licks into a brief solo and then holds the instrument up vertically, spinning it this way and that showing off the rich and resonant sustain. Now he’s asking questions in rapid fire succession, but most of them come down to “how did this happen?” A master luthier mumbles something about starting out with thicker material and then……but it gets lost in the buzzing excitement of multiple conversations among the disciples of sound. Paul’s on and off the cell phone while this unfolds but obviously pleased with it all. Then, he turns to leave. We’re following him out when he says back over his shoulder, “Better make another one just like it because that one should stay here.”

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A minute later we’re in Paul’s office where I find myself sitting at the end of a long conference room table. Jeanne is on my left and Paul is to the right. He eyes me up now as if for the first time, then looks at the digital voice recorder I switch on and says, “Okay, this interview is over!” Thank God he’s kidding and we all laugh, me especially with a sense of relief. So I start out by saying, “This is a true story and if you haven’t heard it before you’ll enjoy it.” Paul rocks back in his chair, glances over at Jeanne and decides to listen. “Neil Young was once asked by a music journalist to name the top ten rock guitarists of all time.” Paul stares intently at me. Now I’ve got his attention. “So Neil thinks for a moment and says, ‘it’s like a ten story building and maybe I’m on the 7th floor but guys like Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – those dudes are on the 8th and 9th floor.’ But when the journalist says, ‘Neil, can I assume by the absence of his name that you’d put Jimi Hendrix on the 10th floor?’ Neil says, ‘no man, Jimi’s in another building all by himself.’” I chuckle with self-satisfaction because I like telling this story and besides it naturally segues into my next question which is, “So tell me Paul, how would you rank the rock guitar makers, the luthiers of all time?”

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Paul pauses for a moment to gather his thoughts then leans in and says, “No, No – Jeff Beck is on the 10th floor!” He’s still back on Neil’s building because it’s important to him and wham, things are suddenly spiraling off into the spontaneous give and take of two people with similar interests but different views. It’s a riff I always find delightful. “Neil isn’t on the 7th floor anyway,” Paul says, “unless he’s there as a songwriter in which case he may be higher than that.” Then he gradually unpacks his unique perspective which leads to his version of the ten story building. I hear names like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley. I agree with some and disagree with others. B.B King and Little Richard and Chuck Berry are names we agree on, even if we don’t agree on which specific floor they occupy, all of which prompts Jeanne to interject saying, “you two aren’t really talking about the same thing.” She’s right.

Moments later while quickly touching upon the early country rockers around the L.A. scene like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield I suddenly blurt out, “Good God, I just realized who you look like – Roger McGuinn – you know, Turn, Turn, Turn – Eight Miles High and all that.” Paul immediately counters, “Nah, people say I either look like Peter Frampton or Weird Al Yankovich.” Laughter erupts. I can’t believe it. “Weird Al?” I gasp, “no way. Frampton maybe, or I can even see Michael Caine the actor in a stretch but not Weird Al.” But Paul’s rolling with the Weird Al thing, “I’m telling you,” he continues, “a guy came up to me just last week on the street and said, ‘hey Weird Al, I caught your show two days ago.’” Another charge of laughter goes off in the room.

The good natured ribbing meanders around until we’re arguing over a late 60’s T.V talk show during which the host said to a guest named Jimi Hendrix, “so tell me, how does it feel to be the world’s greatest guitarist?” I recall Jimi saying, “I wouldn’t know, you need to ask Roy Buchanan.” Paul’s version of this is that Jimi said, “I wouldn’t know, you need to ask Rory Gallagher.” So back and forth we go, Roy Buchanan – Rory Gallagher – Roy Buchanan – Rory Gallagher, and as our voices rise in volume with each retort it occurs to me that maybe I’m pushing things a wee bit too far here. I mean like, I just met this guy and I’m a guest in his office and this IS after all THE Paul Reed Smith!  And besides all that, are those footsteps of security guards I hear careening down the hallway? Are they bearing down like a sworn in posse to haul me out of Paul’s office? Who tipped them off? Of course! Sonuva……. it could’ve only been Paul or Jeanne. One of them must have pressed a hidden button under this table?  Treachery abounds.

“Never mind Gallagher and Buchanan,” he says in mock exasperation, “That was then, this is now. And in the here and now the best guitarist breathing is Derek Trucks.” Ah hah, he’s talking about electric blues slide guitarists I conclude and then before I can throttle back my impulses I’m leaning in pointing and saying perhaps a bit too loudly, “No way man, Trucks is good, he’s damn good, but he’s no Sonny Landreth.” But Paul’s having none of it, “Derek Trucks, period, end of story,” he says with steel in his voice. So back and forth we go again: Derek Trucks – Sonny Landreth – Dereck Trucks – Sonny Landreth. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I’m going off the rails again. Why am I being so argumentative, so provocative? Dear God, forgive me, but I love this – this iron on steel thing of one man sharpening another and how it causes the fiery sparks of what someone once called constructive conflict. It’s good strong stuff.

But – uh oh! Paul is up on his feet moving toward a land line phone. Is that a stare or is that a glare? I’ve finally done it – he’s calling security. I knew it. No wait! He’s thrashing around in what I thought was a state of agitation but maybe it’s visceral excitement because now he’s hunched over his computer. He’s stabbing frantically at the keyboard and sliding his mouse around and then suddenly – BOOM – a super-sonic wall of sound rocks the room. You guessed right, its Derek Trucks tearing it up on a bluesy riff. Fiery sparks and billowing smoke pour from Paul’s monitor; that’s how righteously hot Truck’s playing comes through the ether. Okay – okay, maybe it wasn’t actual set off the fire alarm kind of smoke, but it sure seemed like it because I swear to God Derek was burning the place down!

Alright… maybe, just maybe Trucks is better than Landreth, but I’m not admitting that to Paul Reed Smith thank you very much. After all, he said Neil wasn’t on the 7th floor – didn’t he? Damn right, I heard him and I’ve been a big Neil fan since the unheeded days of my wasted youth when I was slammin’ gears in a 67 VW Beetle between Cumberland, Md. and College Park playing a boot legged version of Cinnamon Girl on a bulky 8 track tape machine slung beneath the dashboard. Paul leans back in his chair and for a moment his eyes close and his head starts bobbing and that big grin is spreading across his face again. In fact everyone is smiling and nodding. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds of smokin’ hot electric blues rock riffs fill every nook and cranny of the room until Paul re-enters the here and now. He bolts upright in his chair, punches a key and just like that the music stops.

He glances at his watch, then over at Jeanne; he looks at me, then back to Jeanne and now once more at his watch. Everyone is on their feet and I hear something about them being late for Paul’s next appointment. I’m shaking hands around the table and heading for the door when I hear Paul say, “That was unusual. It was different but I enjoyed it. I don’t know if you got anything there you can use for an article, but that….yeah that was different.”

Downstairs I thank Jeanne for making it all happen and again shake hands good-by. Walking out I steal a last fleeting glimpse around the lobby at the big colorful posters of Santana as well as some of the lesser guitar gods. On the drive home I glance over at my unused list of interview questions lying on the passenger’s seat. Then, half laughing and half cringing I think back to the point in the interview when I actually likened Paul’s self-described visual retention and photographic memory abilities to those of an autistic savant! Did I really do that? I shake my head at yet another example of my over the top hyperbolically absurd humor which was thankfully insufficient cause for my removal.

Still, I’m glad I didn’t do down that worn road of structured questions leading to a conventional narrative in the service of one more “been there – seen that” kind of article. A peerless subject like PRS deserves a novel approach, or at least a valiant attempt at one. I’m not sure if Paul feels the same but I suspect and hope he does. I think he gets it. (Hell, at least he never called security on me.) After all, he built a successful life and career challenging the orthodoxy. He’s a disrupter of prevailing wisdom and a challenger of all the old assumptions. He respects tradition and understands the weight of history, but refuses to be hemmed in by it all. Besides, about 240 employees are grateful that he’s cut from that rare cloth. And so am I.

For some reason another quote from Neil Young glides through my mind:

“It was back in Blind River in 1962

When I last saw you alive.”

I lose the thread when my cell phone goes off. I decide to ignore it and let it ring. Out of some lost place where memories gather I dredge up an old line from Hunter S. Thompson about swooping bats and Barstow which sets me to laughing out loud. The phone stops ringing and when it does the song returns:

“Long may you run

Long may you run.

Although these changes have come.

With your chrome heart shining 

In the sun

Long may you run.”

I decide that Neil was singing about PRS, the keeper of the flame to whom the electric torch has been passed. Rickenbacker, Gibson, Fender –God Bless em but those guys are all gone now. Yet there’s one still among us for whom this gig remains the ultimate, intensely personal double dog dare. And based upon my personal encounter today, the fire has not been extinguished, not by a long shot. He’s still delivering blows against the empire.

And now there’s nothing left to argue about. Paul Reed Smith – Long May You Run.

To learn more about PRS guitars please visit their website at: prsguitars.com

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3 thoughts on “Paul Reed Smith Blows Against the Empire

  1. I recently purchased a PRS Santana SE model here in Ireland. In the past, I have owned a Gibson Les Paul DeLuxe and a Fender Strat, however this PRS is the best electric guitar I have every played. Congratulations PRS on making fantastic guitars.

  2. PRS guitars are world-class, and Paul Reed Smith is a top-flight luthier, enterpreneur and an absolute gentleman. However, the author seems more interested in talking about himself. The article is SUPPOSED to be about Paul Reed Smith and his guitars, NOT about Cliff Rhys James.

  3. I’ve owned two PRS guitars, and loved both of them. Unfortunately, I got in financial straits and had to sell them both. I really wish Paul would find it in his heart to give this broken-down old man, living on what is about to become a fixed income, one of his marvelous instruments…but then, don’t we all?

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