Entrepreneur Paul Reed Smith Talks About Guitars, Experience PRS 2012 and the American Dream

By: Rick Landers

Paul Reed Smith – photo credit: Rick Landers

Just off the Chesapeake Bay, PRS Guitars holds it’s annual Experience PRS trade event and Paul Reed Smith is swamped with a calendar that’s loaded up for the three days.

I wanted to talk to him about the trade show, his new products, as well as gather up some insights regarding his experience as a successful businessman.

By all accounts, I reckon guitar builder, Paul Reed Smith, has experienced all the trials and tribulations, adrenaline surges and “yes!” moments that one can expect as a successful entrepreneur.

And, from all indications the crests and troughs of running a business in a competitive market will be a road he’ll travel for a long time.

As a young man, Smith built guitars that incorporated the best features and design characteristics of electric guitars that he grew up playing, and it’s now a well-known story about how he approached Carlos Santana and persuaded him to test-drive one of his early PRS guitars.

More than two decades later, Paul and a solid staff of business colleagues run the highly respected and very successful, Paul Reed Smith Guitars, out of Stevensville, Maryland.

Back in 2007, Paul and crew came up with the idea of starting a company-centric trade show, where they could bring together PRS guitar enthusiasts, celebrity artists, dealers and international distributors and members of the music industry media, together under one tent. He named the event, Experience PRS, and it has now become an annual event and a tradition. And each year, he invites guitar masters to play that have included Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy, Neal Schon, John McLaughlin, Mark Tremonti, Ricky Skaggs, Tony McManus and many more world-class performers.

Still, the main purpose of a company is to sell it’s goods and Experience PRS is an event where invitees bring along their wallets and purses and lay down bucks for PRS guitars that are destined for the domestic and international markets. You can’t run a company with a party that has no revenue generation purpose, and as much fun as Experience PRS has proven to be over the years, the business must be profitable for this particular American Dream to be realized and sustained.

During the Experience PRS 2012 trade show, I had an opportunity to meet with Paul and talk about his company, new PRS products, John McLaughlin and Neal Schon, and the American Dream.

Before our interview opened up he introduced my photographer, Mike Davis, and me to jazz master, John McLaughlin, who Paul had been commiserating with him about guitars.  John and I spoke briefly, before he bad to bolt. Paul’s administrative assistant, Sharon Arnold, and PRS Marketing Manager, Judy Schaefer, sat in and Paul gamely and graciously, pulled them into the conversation.

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Rick: On occasion, when my wife and  I are driving past small strip malls I’ve said, “Each one of those small businesses is a dream, somebody’s dream.”

Paul Reed Smith:  You know what blows me away? When I take the train from here to New York City and I see all the ‘something and something’s’ buildings with holes in them, and that was somebody’s dream at some point. It’s an empty shell now. That’s the same experience, but when I see the dream is dead, I find that very interesting.

Rick: The American Dream is all over the place.  I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but from everybody else that I’ve talked with, you basically have the American Dream in hand. What would you tell people who have dreams or are in the process of trying to figure out how to start a business, as far as the work ethic involved to actually get traction; to get the business going, the tough decisions and risks that are inherent and moving from one level to the next, and what about the role of luck?

Paul Reed Smith:  [To Sharon Arnold] Do you have those pictures from yesterday? The ones in the blue folder, dear. [To Rick] It didn’t go just exactly that way. That’s what you’re talking about?

At this point, Paul points to a couple of photos of a much younger Paul Reed Smith, holding some of his first guitars…

Rick: Yes, exactly.

Paul Reed Smith – photo credit: Mike Davis

Paul Reed Smith:  You’re talking about that moment. I don’t even know who that kid is. How do you know at that age? That’s the thing I look at and just go, “Huh?”

That’s very similar to what we make now. The bird inlays, the scoop, the carve, where the knobs were, the bridges, the tuning pegs, the outline, the neck shape, all that. The dream wasn’t to have a company or any of that. That wasn’t it. The company was built to get the art to survive, because I wasn’t making enough money. My tax returns were $15,000 a year. It was awful.

The dream wasn’t like you think, but to be a guitar maker and quit college and go against my, at the time, father’s wishes – although he was very proud of me when he died – was the dream. I wanted to be a guitar maker. That’s cool. That’s fine.

To make Carlos Santana’s guitar was a dream. To make John [Mclaughlin] a guitar; big dream. I never thought in a million years that the leadership I provided in that room would be part of the deal. I just didn’t know.

I’d go up to the mic by default, because who else was gonna do it? I guess I could say, “Hey, Jack [Higginbotham]. You announce all the bands. You do this.” But, it just seems like the right thing to do.

We live in America. The dream is that anybody can come to these shores and make something. That’s what this entire country’s built on, right? And our forefathers said we have the right to be in pursuit of happiness. We will never catch it. We can chase it. We want the right to chase it. Don’t stop us from chasing it, but we’re smart enough to know we’ll never catch it. So as a society, when we catch something, we have a party because it’s mercurial. It’s over the next day. The dream’s there and then it’s not there anymore.

I’m sure John’s dream was to become a professional jazz musician, but he’s not sitting there now. Although looking at the pride in his eyes and the strength in his eyes last night, watching that band play behind him, was something else. They all know who the boss is. There’s no question, but he doesn’t run it that way.

So, somebody has a dream. I teach this in the schools. They have to have 50 qualities of determination and courage and love and trust and understanding, how to enroll people and God knows how many other things. They’ve got to get an education and they’ve got to be dedicated. Huge amount of love and dada dada da. There are 50 qualities they’ve got to have on one side. If they have one quality like apathy, it kills it. So it only takes one quality to kill it; it takes 50 to make it happen. It’s a complicated little equation.

We’ll interview the kids in a school. Tell us all the things that make your dreams come true and they’ll fill the board. Tell the one thing that scuttles them and they’ll fill the board. So, it has to be all of those and none of those.

If you find a human being whose kid has died, you’ve probably found a very depressed human being. You find somebody’s dream’s died in their arms, you’ve got a depressed human being on your hands. It’s not so easy. All these people that have opened these stores, the five out of seven that don’t make it the first seven years, you’ve got somebody whose dreams died in their arms. That’s not so easy.

Sharon applied for a job four times here and was turned away and tackled me in the parking lot twice and said she wanted a job [All laughing] and went around HR. That’s what she did. [To Sharon] You went around HR, okay?

For her, we’re talking about salt of the earth, Eastern shore, church-going, loving mother, wife; salt of the earth, Eastern shore meets hippie [All laughing] who wanted to make guitars. I get that strength. I’ll give you an example, and [to Sharon] don’t take this the wrong way. It’s not meant that way. It’s not Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s Pennsylvania Deutsch. It’s a mispronunciation. It’s German, an incredible work ethic people that come from middle Pennsylvania.

We’ve got a lot of people like that around here. I get that piece. She’s the most diligent person I ever met, although she’s got competition sitting over here now [Laughter as he turns to Judy Schaefer] . That’s a whole ‘nother thing. [To Sharon] You do have competition sitting over here now.

Sharon: I know!

Paul Reed Smith:  So, it’s gonna take everything they’ve got and my advice to them, I guess, is what you’re asking, is that they find somebody who’s been there before. If you want to play like John McLaughlin, go find John. If you want to play like John Coltrane, go get “A Love Supreme” and live with it. John told a story today that he lived with that CD for a year until he started the beginnings of understanding what John Coltrane was doing. Wow, what a story. What a story.

Paul Reed Smith – photo credit: Mike Davis

I never really understood why John’s music was what it was until he explained where it comes from. He’s a jazz musician who grew up on John Coltrane and was trained by Miles Davis, to get way more out of him than he thought was ever possible. He was taught that he had way wider boundaries than he ever imagined. That was a fascinating conversation.

I wanted to understand what he thought about this very high-level thing. He doesn’t think it’s high-level. He thinks of it as a culmination of himself and his training. Fascinating conversation. Absolutely fascinating. Actually taught me something about leadership today. But, if they want their dreams to come true, they’re gonna have to lead that dream to live. It’s not so easy to do.

Judy’s dream, she wanted to get her master’s degree in education. [To Judy] That was your dream. In English, so you could be an educator. And everybody at the college she was at was against her doing it and she figured out how to do it. That was powerful. [Turns to Sharon] You graduated high school two years early?

Two years early! They wouldn’t let her go to college because it was too young to go to school. S,o she became the person who helped all the engineers at BG&E. That would be Baltimore Gas & Electric. I’m sure you guys could tell some more stories. Are you doing the dream that you had?

Rick:  Yes, but the biggest dream was marrying my wife (Laughter). Marrying someone who was fun and had character. She has great character.

Paul Reed Smith:  That’s great. You know something? That’s a great dream to have. Have a partner to do life with, that’s just a hoot and there’s nothing boring about it. I understand something about that.

Rick: What about luck? Where does that play?

Paul Reed Smith:  I don’t buy it.

Rick: You don’t?

Paul Reed Smith:  No, I don’t. I think if you believe in it…I don’t buy it. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t serve you. “I’ll wait till luck happens.” Ha ha! No, that’s not gonna work. I think Star Wars is much better, which is “May the Force be with you.” How come the culmination of John, and this whole thing happens at the same time as the culmination of Neal [Schon] and they’ve been wanting to play together for years. They were kings on the stage last night. You had Neal there. Brent Mason. John, Gary [Grainger], the bass player in John’s band and the keyboard player, oh my God! There were so many kings around last night.

And you got to watch Gary Grainger assemble what he grew up on. He did a perfect representation of the chaos and the power of the music that happened in his childhood. I’m never gonna see Sly and the Family Stone, but that’s the closest you’re gonna come. They recreated…Sly Stone would have been proud.

Rick: Yeah, it was amazing. They were just movin’ and shakin’.

Paul Reed Smith:  The whole stage was moving. There were so many people on stage.

Rick: How did that band come about? Was that Gary’s dream?

Paul Reed Smith:  Gary did it. Yeah.

Rick: So, we all have dreams.

Paul Reed Smith:  Yeah, right.  I thought it was powerful.

Rick: It was, and a great tune to be playing, as well, so it got people moving around.

Paul Reed Smith:  Who else can sing “Boom Shaka Laka Laka, Boom Shaka Laka Laka” and get away with it?

Rick: Only in the shower. Speaking of dreams, when you look at one of your earlier guitars – you had earlier guitars than this. I think I saw maybe the second one you built. It was in your archives. Is that like, “We’ve come a long way, baby”? What does that bring to you?

First guitar Paul Reed Smith built – photo credit: Rick Landers

Paul Reed Smith:  It’s just like being a musician. The first thing you’re doing is a cover. I had to make Les Paul juniors. I had to do a cover tune. You don’t get to write your own song first. You’ve got to learn “Proud Mary” first, right?

If you look at the numbers and the years, you can see the transition and the education. First, I had to do a single cutaway neck joint, then I had to do a double cutaway neck joint. You’ve got to walk a slow road. That whole transition and how it moved along is all up there.

Rick: What about the seventh string? That’s an SE model, and I didn’t look at the pricing, but isn’t that more of an entry model?

Paul Reed Smith:  Yeah, but so what?

Rick: I’m just wondering why you chose the SE, the seven, as an entry model, when most of the time, it’s like high-end jazz players are playing seven-strings.

Paul Reed Smith:  No. The big interest in seven-strings right now is amongst young people. Emil Werstler from Chimera and he’s the guy that picked up the seven-string and had at it. He’s a jazz musician. He’s gonna play jazz tonight, but that’s not where his interest in the seven-string is. Seven-string is a tuned down, new guard rock thing, isn’t it?

Rick: I remember Roger McGuinn, he had a seven-string Martin that he’s played to get that twangy sound.

Paul Reed Smith:  Yeah, this is much  more about tuning down and playing distorted through a big, heavy amplifier.

Rick: Well, that’s more fun. [Both laughing]

Paul Reed Smith:  I’m not sure it’s more fun, but I understand and I’m with you.

Rick: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Tom Peters, the management guru. He wrote In Search of Excellence years ago. He used to talk about sticking to the knitting and…

Paul Reed Smith:  The 10,000 hours thing was the brilliant part of that book.

Rick: Yeah, I read the book in the ‘80s. He actually worked in my office as a young Navy lieutenant years before, was working on his PhD, left the Navy and wrote the book, and now he’s Tom Peters. I would consider you a guitar guru and you’re building guitars and you’re now building amps. You’re kind of sticking to, at this point, the ‘guitar knitting’. Do you foresee that you will open that up a bit and become a stringed instrument guru where you’re building mandolins, building banjos and other stringed instruments? Or do you want to stick to the knitting and stay with guitars? I’ve seen a mandolin that you all built a couple of years ago.

Paul Reed Smith:  Joe [Knaggs] built it. I don’t understand the mandolin well enough to make a really high-level instrument, although I do understand bass well enough to make an instrument of high enough level that John McLaughlin’s bass player is gonna mind meld with that thing, and body meld with it, the rest of his life. He thinks that’s the best instrument he’s ever picked up. Working with Gary, with us pushing back against each other, we got there.

Working with Doug Sewell and David Grissom and all the other guys, I’ll get there. I don’t know about the banjo. I suppose I could get with great banjo pickers, but I don’t know enough about it to be able to do it.

Now Leo Fender and Tim McCarty didn’t play guitar, but they interviewed every guitar player alive to figure out what the right neck shape was, pickup system, etcetera. And Leo was always playing around with amplifiers.

I don’t think we’re gonna do banjos, but we are making acoustic guitars and I would say that the pigeonholing that we’re not allowed in the acoustic guitar business is almost over. We’re on the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine this month. If they were poor instruments, that would be one thing. You were there when we compared [our PRS acoustic] to the ’68 D-28?

Rick: Yeah. I heard you talking about it.

Paul Reed Smith:  That comparison’s astounding. I could pull out a PRS acoustic and the D-28 right here and you’d hear the difference right on the spot. The reason I get these old instruments that are holy grails is you can’t fight a memory, but if you’re actually doing it, you can fight it.

Rick: This is a word you don’t hear very often these days, but I find it honorable that you’ve been able to merge or couple your ambition with your altruism.

Paul Reed Smith:  That’s not how it started. Laura was working here and she got a call from Hopkins Children’s Oncology. Would we donate a guitar? So, of course. There’s nothing worse than a kid having cancer. And we had guitars we couldn’t ship, so we would do seconds, the B-stock. We got a call back that it was the most animated auction of the night. We did it again. That’s cool. Laura hired Judy. [To Judy] Laura didn’t hire you. I hired you, right?

Judy Schaefer: Right.

Paul Reed Smith:  We get a phone call from Michael Hibbler at Hopkins, “We want to do a golf tournament.” I said, “No, guitars and golf don’t go together. No.” He says, “Oh, no, you don’t know.” I say, “No, you don’t know,” and he said, “No, you don’t know. We’re gonna do this and that’s the way it’s gonna be.”

So we go to the first golf tournament and I get in a golf cart and go backwards. They’re going this way from hole 1 to 18. I’m go 18 back to 1 and thank everybody for coming and bring a fishing rod. That’s how it started. I was dragged kicking and screaming into it.

Now all these bands start playing. Vertical Horizon plays. Derek Trucks’ band plays. All these bands play. We begged Neal Schon to do it last year. He couldn’t do it. Begged him again; he couldn’t do it. This year he said, “Okay, we’ll do it.” Pardon me, we have to rent Raven Stadium? Is that what you just said? Do we have to rent RFK Stadium? So, we hired The Lyric Opera House,  which is 1/10th the normal number of tickets that they sell.

For us it’s a prideful moment of not having to get a last-minute hole in a schedule on a tour, although that’s the only way they’ll play, if they have a gig this night and that night and this day is open. It’s a travel day, they’ll do it. That’s the only way they’ll do it. They’re having to send a whole ‘nother semi of equipment here and it just goes on and on and on. Did you see him play last night?

Rick: Yeah, he was great.

Paul Reed Smith:  He was ferocious.

Rick: I was hoping for more songs, but he was great.

Paul Reed Smith:  He was ferocious. I called him this morning, I said, “Neal, you were ferocious.” He said, “That’s the way I play every night.” I said, “You know something, Neal? Back it up. I’m trying to tell you you played spectacularly. You were ferocious last night. No matter how much you say afterwards, I want you to at least hear me.” He says, “Okay, Paul. Thanks.”

In his mind he’s just got to gear up to do that every night. He’s got to be ferocious. That’s what they’re paying to see. There was a lot of ferocity on the band last night. I don’t know if that answers your altruistic question, but I think it did.

Rick: I found it kind of interesting that you’re now kind of matching your guitars with your amps. The maple and the color scheme. How’d you come up with that? It’s a great idea, sort of building desire.

Paul Reed Smith:  80 percent of information is bought with people’s eyeballs and we finally figured out a way to do it. Like anything, you take Soundcraft consoles, the series 1, 2, 3 and 4, they were learning as they were going from their customer base, right? We’re learning as we’re going from our customer base. Brad Whitford and Neal Schon, when they got their amps, both looked and said, “They look like furniture, Paul.” That’s cool.

The paisley – we tried to cancel it. It won’t go away. It’s with us to stay. I don’t know. It seems fine. I think it adds a real touch of class to the whole Tolex thing. It works. It’s a simple panel that works. The whole box is impossible.

Rick: It looks good.

Paul Reed Smith:  To do the corners well is almost impossible.

Rick: You’ve got the faceplate.

Paul Reed Smith:  Boogie’s doing a good job of doing all that, but I think it just kind of turned out graciously.

Rick: With this year’s Experience PRS, how many people showed up?

Paul Reed Smith:  Supposedly 2600, but there haven’t been that many here yet. I would say there’s been maybe 2,400 here.

Rick: I thought last year was 2,500.

Paul Reed Smith:  No, it was 2,200 or something, and about 1,800 got here in the rain. They shut the Bay Bridge down.

Rick: That’s right. The rain was pretty bad. And 750 the first year, I think in 2007. So, you’re pretty satisfied with how this is moving forward and evolving, opening up new products and selling guitars as well?

Paul Reed Smith:  Yes. We’re selling guitars. That’s good. I think that the best thing that’s going on here is that what happened last night, I’m not sure will ever be forgotten. That should burn into people’s brains and hopefully they’ll spread the news of what happened.

As Tom Wheeler said, “Where in God’s name will you ever see Tony McManus open up for Neal Schon and end up with John McLaughlin? That’s just not gonna happen. That is the rarest bird you could have possibly seen happen.”

I was giddy when they started playing “I Want to Take You Higher”, from that moment on, everybody was drop-jawed. All the musicians were just astounded. There was an electricity and the high-level energy back there, and then John walked in when Neal Schon was playing “The Star Spangled Banner” and he was fascinated. He thought it was beautiful. Neal was ferocious last night.

Rick: Oh, he’s amazing. And I was surprised when McLaughlin was playing. I saw Tony McManus come with a camera and he’s down in the pit taking pictures of him.

Paul Reed Smith:  Are you kidding? John’s a king. John’s a king. And Tony’s a king. There were a lot of kings around last night. And that’s not to take anything away from all the other musicians that supported this whole thing, but with all due respect, it is John McLaughlin. By the way it’s ‘McLaughlin’. I asked. He said it’s been mispronounced his whole life. “Come on. It says ‘laugh’. It’s in the word.”

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Rick: Good, I’ll remember that.

Paul Reed Smith:  Do you know about this Chase Manhattan ad that’s out?

Rick: No.

Paul Reed Smith:   It’s a big deal. There’s a black and white TV ad where they’re trying to promote a new color card and they’ve used our guitar to do it, so the guitar is the color of the card. It’s working for them and, oh my God, is it working for us. My son called me and said, “Dad, you can’t believe what happened this morning!”

Rick: That’s great. I saw you a couple of weeks ago. You were at the Steve Vai gig at the Howard Theater. Steve was good. And who was the guy playing the PRS guitars?

Paul Reed Smith:  Dave Weiner.

Rick:  I was up in front and said, “That’s one of Paul’s amps.” I was in the balcony when you came on stage.

Paul Reed Smith:  Steve [Vai] took me aside downstairs and told me he thought we were doing a better job than anybody else. So pleased! He’s got a PRS he’s using all the time, but as an Ibanez endorser, he uses Ibanez for all his live stuff.

Rick: Kind of part of his brand at this point.

Paul Reed Smith:  Not a PRS endorser, although he does have a [PRS] guitar he loves.



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