By: Brady Lavin with Rick Landers
Stepping into Paul Reed Smith’s office, my eyes immediately were drawn to the framed photos on the wall nearest the door. There were shots of Smith with Carlos Santana and the legendary Ted McCarty, past president of Gibson Guitars. To the right stood a small troop of electric guitars without pups and a PRS acoustic nearby. It wasn’t the pristine office one might expect to find in the corporate headquarters of an internationally known senior executive, but one of a working man. The pickup-less electric guitars appeared to be projects in mid-shift, waiting for Paul and his PRS team to rummage through their collective mind and come up with new ideas or solutions to creative challenges. Smith appears to be a restless man, who’s never quite satisfied and always has something cookin’.
During our interview he was thoughtful, enthusiastic, laser-focused and questioning, asking me questions. I never felt like I was a cog in his series of interviews that day, but engaged in a give and take conversation that was anything but a one-way street. Our interview was more like a pipeline of ideas, insights and a feedback loop where Paul pulls you into his orbit.
This was all amidst all the hoopla of Experience PRS 2011, the fifth annual trades show hosted by Paul Reed Smith Guitars. The show draws together PRS dealers and distributors seeking to strike deals and push product out the door to prospective buyers around the world; gear like the line-up of SE acoustic and electric guitars and the new SE amps series. The visitor list included world-class musicians like multi-Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs, master jazzman Al Di Meola and the progressive metal group, Opeth. Experience PRS 2011 pulled together a broad spectrum of the PRS family, a group that has one thing in common – a passion for music and guitars, especially the fine axes that roll out the factory doors in Stevensville, Maryland.
We talked about outside influences on internal processes, Experience PRS, Orianthi, the risks involved in entering new markets during tough economic times, as well as all things music.
Brady Lavin: The economy has been tough for everybody, but PRS has been taking a pretty aggressive strategy that seems to be panning out so far…
Paul Reed Smith: You have a Sylvester Stallone voice, did you know that?
Brady: I did not know that, but I’ll take it as a compliment! [All laugh]
Paul Reed Smith: Go on. It’s deep! Go on.
Brady: How do you temper that aggressive tendency with return on investment to keep your risks low and keep PRS in the black?
Paul Reed Smith: That’s a pretty sophisticated question… You’re asking how you balance entrepreneurship with good budgeting. You can’t make money without taking risks, real entrepreneurs know that. You have to use your intellect and your guts to figure out if it’s the right move. You make a lot of decisions when you only know 65% of what you need to know to make the decision. It happens in your business ’cause it happens in all business… When you turned your internship into a job, you weren’t more than 65% positive it was the right thing to do, right?
Paul Reed Smith: But you used your intellect and your guts to figure it out. We’re not talking about anything different. You don’t have to look too far inside yourself for the same answer. That said, there’s a whole pile of people at NAMM who have the same booth every year, and nobody’s in their booth. I don’t understand that. You’re supposed to have new stuff and be working on new projects. “What’s new this year?” you know? It’s a huge thing.
How do you do it? Just by working through each moment with intelligent and the most experienced people as you can as your feedback loop and just working with people. It’s painful. But, we worked through it somehow, by selling all the wood we had hoarded away for 10 years for a rainy day. It was a rainy day. We put it all up for sale. That worked. We whipped out the stuff that we would never have sold. It’s now all up for sale now . It changed our attitude about everything. Does that answer your question?
Brady: Yeah, I think it does. You mentioned NAMM and people having the same booth every year…
Paul Reed Smith: Well, we have the same booth every year, too, but we try to have new products.
Brady: And you’ve done that every year. What kind of advantage does having this event, Experience PRS in September instead of Summer NAMM?
Paul Reed Smith: Time out. We weren’t selling any guitars at Summer NAMM. None. I went to Indy. I went to Austin. I went to Nashville. I wasn’t selling any guitars. It’s a lot of money to spend and not sell anything. We finally said, “That’s it. We’re done,” and we started our own trade show. That’s what this is. It’s a single-manufacturer trade show. Risky! And expensive! Risky and expensive. Really risky. Just the artist fees are not small. These guys don’t show up for free. These tents cost money, the buses cost money, the food, it’s just expensive. It’s creating its own problem ’cause nobody buys anything before Experience, ’cause they want to see what you’ve come out with. That’s not cool.
There’s just so much good and bad about it. On average, it’s more good than bad, but Winter NAMM is where the game’s played, and Frankfurt is where the games played. It wasn’t being played at Summer NAMM. This is our 5th year right? I’ve lost count.
Brady: Yep, it started in 2007.
Paul Reed Smith: At the end of the first one, literally people… all they wanted to do was sit down and talk to the artists about what they’d experienced. They wanted to chew on the bones of what happened. “What just happened? What just happened?” And people tailgate these things, are you kidding me? Right? So the reason I said “Time out,” is we weren’t selling anything at the summer show, and as I understand it last summer’s show was a desert.
Brady: I was there, yeah.
Paul Reed Smith: Was it a desert?
Brady: It was a bit desert-y, a little arid. [Laughs] It also has to be more fun to do this, to have this party in your backyard…
Paul Reed Smith: Fun? [Laughs] Watching Cactus… well, Cactus didn’t play, but a version of Cactus played one year. That was fun. Watching last night was fun. Having to take ibuprofen is not fun. Way too much to do, not enough time. You’re only doing the triple A list, and nothing else makes it. There’s stacks and stacks and stacks of stuff we haven’t tended to.
Just keeping track of what we sell is not easy. The water’s moving really fast. Is it fun? Yeah, last night was a hoot. My mom was here, singing. That was fun. I don’t know, some of it’s fun, some of it’s just work. The people have a good experience, that’s probably the most enjoyable part. Did you have a good time yesterday?
Paul Reed Smith: Great, so then we’re doing our job. Did you see me put the straight jacket on the guy?
Brady: Oh yeah.
Paul Reed Smith: Did you see us get two thousand people start arguing?
Brady: Yeah, we were a part of that.
Paul Reed Smith: The back group was completely dysfunctional.
Brady: Yeah, I think people were too spread out.
I don’t care. There were so many business leaders in the room, I would think they would try to lead, but they stayed out. If you could scream loud enough you could win. And the guy about the washer on the switch, that was awful.
Brady: What was that?
Paul Reed Smith: He asked, “What happened with the washer on some of the switches and not others?” I told him to get a life. I said, “How did it play? How did it sound? Did it do its job? Was it a beautiful guitar? How did it make you feel when you played it? You’re gonna ask me about a washer? You can shut up.”
Brady: [Laughs] Were there any products that you thought might be sleepers that have really come off the shelves?
Paul Reed Smith: Yeah, I think the JA-15 is a sleeper that’s gonna do really well. The Quatro’s a sleeper and they’re doing well. The NF-3 and DC-3… the DC-3 is a sleeper that’s doing really well. Yeah, there’s lots of ‘em.
Brady: That’s encouraging. So I heard you talking about the Lacey Act last night but I was kind of far away and didn’t hear….
Paul Reed Smith: I wasn’t talking about the Lacey Act. I was talking about the compliance policies here with the government are as good as anybody in the industry, maybe better. We are way working with them.
Brady: Since the act was updated in 2008, have you done anything differently?
Paul Reed Smith: Yeah, done a lot of things differently. The rules are changing. We’ve changed some of the inlay materials away from abalone. Changed a lot of things. Everybody’s doing their job, it’s fine.
Brady: Do you guys have any new endorsers?
Paul Reed Smith: Wyzard’s here from Mother’s Finest. Dave Weiner was here, from Steve Vai’s band. There’s lots of new people here. Did you see the Robert Lee Coleman thing?
Brady: Yeah, we put up a short story on it that night.
Paul Reed Smith: Anybody look Robert Lee Coleman up on the web to see what he’s been on? He’s been on a whole bunch of James Brown records.
Brady: Yeah, I did the Wikipedia thing, checked out what he’s done. He’s a great player. So, any new developments in the PRS band?
Paul Reed Smith: Yeah, Davy Knowles has been singing with us. Derek St. Holmes is back in Ted Nugent’s band, which is awesome for him. Just awesome. Ted’s happy, he’s happy. Derek needed to be with Ted again, he just needed to be. This woman Mia Simone was singing last night. It’s like going to heaven. That’s heaven. Were you here for “Since We Ended As Lovers,” the Jeff Beck tune last night? It was unbelievable.
Brady: How did you get hooked up with Davy Knowles? Did you see Back Door Slam?
Paul Reed Smith: Our president, Jack Higginbotham introduced us, and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s actually a very bright, emotional cat. He literally stood there after Robert Lee Coleman played and said, “I can die and go to heaven now. I don’t have to live another day,” ’cause there’s not a lot of them left. There’s not a lot of Muddy Waterses left. That’s old school.
Brady: Down and dirty.
Paul Reed Smith: Yeah, down and dirty. And by the way, the swing was, instead of [sings a traditional swing rhythm], it’s “didit, didit, didit…” The tightest swing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. It made my arm hurt when I met him. Look, when you swim with sharks, don’t get bit. If you get bit, don’t bleed, and if you bleed don’t show anybody. I didn’t bleed, I didn’t show anybody anything, but my arm hurt when he was done with me. He schooled me big time.
Brady: Where was that gig that you played with him?
Paul Reed Smith: There’s this big oyster event that happens at Old Ebbitt’s Grill in D.C. every year. It’s a huge event, and he played at that. We were like two fish from different ponds trying to figure each other out.
Brady: Your sound is very smooth and fluid, and he’s got that jerky, down and dirty style… It seems like it might be difficult to mesh the two.
Paul Reed Smith: No, I wish I could play like him and he wishes he could play like me, I’m sure.
Brady: Orianthi is a PRS guitarist…
Paul Reed Smith: She’s now playing in Alice Cooper’s band, and she’s in the middle of recording a record with the guy from the Eurythmics [Dave Stewart] at Blackbird Studios.
Brady: What do you think about her playing with Alice?
Paul Reed Smith: It’s awesome! We sent her a guitar covered in blood! She said, “This is very goth, man. I need a bloody guitar.” She played it on Leno.
Brady: The new SE amps really seem like a great idea for you guys, expanding into lower price points. What’s your target buyer for those?
Paul Reed Smith: Somebody who needs an amp. What’s the difference between a glue-on neck and a bolt-on neck? One’s glued in and the other one’s bolted on. It’s not complicated. They sound kinda halfway in between PRS amps and Diesels; it’s somewhere in the middle there. It’s a pretty good-sounding amp. There were a lot of endorsers the first night that plugged into SE amps ’cause that’s what was on stage, and they said, “I’m fine, don’t touch it.”
Brady: SE stands for Student Edition, and I have…
Paul Reed Smith: Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. Where’d you find that out?
Brady: I read it somewhere, I don’t remember.
Paul Reed Smith: You’re a journalist; do you believe everything you read?
Brady: No, but when it’s all I can go on…
Paul Reed Smith: I saw something on TV once, and the next day’s headlines in the paper completely warped what I’d seen. I’d witnessed it myself. Everybody witnessed the same TV show, and that’s not what they printed the next day. I saw something brilliant, and they slagged it. It was awful. By the way, the news in Europe is not the same as the news in the United States on the same issues. Alright, what was the question? I got lost.
Brady: You mentioned, I think it was the first night, that with the SE guitars, some teachers are recommending them to their students, and that’s how a lot of the business is getting done.
Paul Reed Smith: That saved the SE business. That’s not the way it’s going on now, but it saved it.
Brady: That’s exactly what happened to me. My professor recommended it to me, I tried a bunch of guitars out, and I went with the SE semi-hollow 22. How did that come about, with the teachers recommending the SE’s to students?
Paul Reed Smith: They were with their students in the store trying to find the right guitar. They weren’t advertised to, we didn’t ask them to do it, we just figured that… Look, you’re a guitar teacher, you got fourteen kids. Three of ‘em need a new guitar. You gonna tell them to buy something that works or something that doesn’t work? You’re trying to teach them how to play guitar, right? I just figured it would find its own way. It worked, it worked. The guitar teachers are in a bad position. It’s impossible to teach somebody on something that doesn’t work or buzzes or sounds bad. No matter how hard they strum it, if the D chord doesn’t play in tune, they’ve got a problem on their hands.
Brady: The new V12 finish, when did that come out?
Paul Reed Smith: Last year, one year ago. You weren’t here at the Experience 2010. We were sawing guitars up and sending the pieces into the audience to show how thin the finish was. That was fun.
Brady: Was there a backstory or a “eureka moment” where you knew you had exactly what you wanted?
Paul Reed Smith: Yeah, I remember the eureka moment. I was sitting on the stairs, downstairs in the lobby, they handed me the guitar and it sounded better than any other one of that model I’d ever played. I looked at the guys, I welled up and said, “I’m in.” And I walked away.
Rick: So it’s the sound, it’s not so much the look. It always gets back to tone. You’re like Eric Johnson.
Paul Reed Smith: Well, eighty percent of information is brought in with people’s eyeballs, but in the end you either sell it or don’t sell it depending on how it sounds. It’s a guitar! We’re trying to be guitar makers. And people are surprised, but I just think its normal, regular old straight logical thinking. “You’re a pretty eccentric, eclectic guy Paul. We agree with what you’re saying, but…” Why’s that unusual? Shouldn’t it be how it sounds?
Brady: Yeah, back to basics.
Paul Reed Smith: Yeah. I mean, with race cars, it’s whose car drives faster and handles better with the same amount of fuel and same tires. It’s not complicated. Do you know about this guy who changed baseball? He was trying to figure out who to hire for a team and he decided only one statistic mattered: the percentage of the time they made it on base. He didn’t care if they got walked every time. He didn’t care. As long as they got on base. Every other stat is garbage. He changed the way people scout in baseball completely. If you got a guy who can’t hit the ball, but all he does is walk, put him on the team. I saw a 60 Minutes piece on him. It just makes sense. [In a nerdy voice] “But you don’t understand, It’s the ERA versus the..” No. How many times you get on base. Home runs don’t matter. None of it matters. Get on base. If you hit a home run, you’re on base. If you get a single, you’re on base. I don’t know, to me, guitar making is the same way. It’s a different analogy.
Brady: Do you remember his name?
Paul Reed Smith: Yeah, the guy on 60 Minutes who changed baseball. [Ed. Note: His name is Bill James]
Brady: [Laughs] I know with PRS you tend to stick to what’s out now, but I was reading about the SE line of acoustics and I saw that there were some plans for some acoustic-electrics. Could you elaborate on that?
Paul Reed Smith: No.
Brady: [Laughs] I thought I might try.
Paul Reed Smith: Let me think about it… No. No I can’t do that. I’d be doing it before I told my reps and my distributors. Look, we tell you guys within minutes of when something happens. Or ahead of time very often, trust the press very often. And nobody’s violated my trust except once. I did an interview completely off the record about what I really thought, and they printed the whole thing. But it was a guy I had a really good relationship with.
They brought me the magazine thinking I was gonna be livid, but I realized there were too many pages about PRS and not enough about other manufacturers. I realized that if he did it, they would have fried him if he didn’t print something very controversial. So I called up and asked, “How many guitars did we sell after that?” More than we ever have from a magazine article. Ever. So I called him up and told him “Great job.” He said “I was in a bad spot,” and I said, “I completely get it. Great job.” And he’s here. Ah, no he’s not. He was here. He came earlier.
Rick: How do you figure out the correlation between the article and selling guitars?
Paul Reed Smith: Cause you can track it.
Rick: How do you track it?
Paul Reed Smith: You call the dealers and ask them how many guitars they sold after an article came out. It’s the same way you track baseball.
Rick: How do you know that was the cause?
Paul Reed Smith: ‘Cause they said it was. These guys do it for a living. If you own a store and I call you an ask you, “How many guitars did you sell after the article came out?” and you say it went up significantly the next day, am I supposed to believe you or doubt you?
Rick: Believe me, because they should know their customers. They should be talking to them.
Paul Reed Smith: The article closed people. There are some very complicated things in our business, and that’s not one of them.
Brady: So I saw you playing the last two nights, it looked like one of the new PRS boutique amps.
Paul Reed Smith: Yeah, the MDT. Did you like the way it sounded?
Brady: Oh yeah, definitely. Can you elaborate on the process of designing and building those with Doug Sewell?
Paul Reed Smith: We’ve been taking amps apart and rewiring them and putting them back together for four or five years now. He’s a wonderful partner, he’s a gifted amp-builder, and he just flat out knows what he’s doing. He shows all the signs of being the Mack Daddy of amps. That’s what he wants to be. He wants to be Mack Daddy, but he’s not gonna tell you that. He’s gonna tell you that he’s trying to make his customers happy, himself happy and me happy. He does that, and we’re home.
Happy is not such an easy thing with an artist. These people don’t use a piece of gear easily. I mean David Grissom has a collection of vintage amps that would make you die, and he’s using PRS amps on his new record? That’s great.
Brady: The story about Duane Allman’s amp, I think it was Peter Denenberg was telling a story about using dentist mirrors to figure out the specs. Can you tell us more about that?
Paul Reed Smith: [Paul draws a rough diagram of two resistors on a pad of paper.] There was a part in the amp, actually two of them, side by side. The value was underneath, written underneath. We had to put a dentist’s mirror underneath so we didn’t have to unsolder and resolder it.
I’ve never seen a value like that in an amp ever. Not ever, not even close. I mean, the amp was not a Super Lead. It was a 50 Watt something else. And we started getting giddy. The prototype [of the PRS HXDA, unofficially based on Duane Allman’s amp and Jimmy Hendrix’s Plexi with switches between both settings, although you will never hear PRS folks use their names when talking about what the HX and DA stand for] is upstairs, and it sounds exactly the same as the original amp. As Derek Trucks [who owns Duane Allman’s old amp] said, “It’s a little eerie.” It sounds like Duane Allman playing through it. It’s a wonderful amp. Have you tried the HXDA?
Brady: I have not, I’m planning on getting do it down in the amp demo room later today.
Paul Reed Smith: Do “Foxy Lady” and “Whipping Post”!
Brady: We saw Nick Moroch demoing it, and when he switched to the Hendrix, it was like, “Where is he?”
Paul Reed Smith: It’s pretty cool. Amps are more to our sound than people think. I just always thought it was the guitar in your hand. There’s a reason there’s a whole group of people out there trying to clone Plexi’s. They’re smart. It did sound like an old Plexi, right?
Paul Reed Smith: That’s good. If you actually believe that, we win. Go tell everybody that.
Brady: So the SE Angelus, didn’t you first play it over the phone for Ricky Skaggs?
Paul Reed Smith: We worked hard on the design for the prototype. When the prototype got here, I heard it was in the building, and nobody had brought it to me. I said, “What am I, chopped liver? Don’t I get to play the guitar?” So I get to play the guitar, finally, and I strummed it. I said, “Wow. That’s the best overseas acoustic I’ve ever heard.”
Then I call Ricky and I go, “We’re gonna make SE acoustics. It’s gonna be good!” So, I put the cell phone on the table, put it on speaker, and played it, and he goes, “Oh, Paul.” You can hear pretty well on speakerphone. We live in interesting times. I had somebody at a jam the other day, a sing-a-long in my house, pulling the words up on their cellphone in seconds. It’s a different world.