This week Dream Guitars was invited to visit Paul Reed Smith Guitars, universally known as PRS, in Maryland. We went to check out their brand new line of acoustic guitars, and to select some spec’s for custom orders. With us were Paul Heumiller, the award winning owner/collector of Dream Guitars, Steve Dembroski who handles sales, James Condino, a veteran luthier, and myself, Kitty Savage, who had the honor of filming the entire trip (coming soon!).
We drove up the eight hours from the rolling mountains of North Carolina, and arrived at a seaside hotel just six miles from the factory. After a great night of dinner and jamming on Paul’s prized Somogyi guitar, we settled in to rest up for our exciting meeting.
In all honesty, we didn’t know quite what to expect from our hosts; perhaps a 15 minute tour of the factory and a handshake from Paul Reed Smith himself? This would have satisfied us, but our minds were all blown by the reception of PRS to Dream Guitars’ visit. Not only were we given complete tours of the acoustic and electric workshops, but Mr. Smith took every free moment he could to make us feel welcome, getting to know us all personally, and picking at James’ brain about his refined selections of woods.
Paul R. Smith’s genuine love for his craft, music, and business were obvious. His face lit up while pulling out acoustics fresh off the line, letting us play some of the guitars completed just thirty minutes previous. Many of these acoustic guitars are already reserved by legends like Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, and Ricky Skaggs, and to date, there were only 290 completed by the time of our visit. So naturally, we were curious and honored to test drive these new puppies.
[[[ Steve Dembroski tries out a fresh PRS acoustic ]]]]]
Steve Fischer brought us for a tour of the acoustic shop. We walked over fly paper to enter the humungous factory, and were surprised to see only about ten young men working on the guitars at different stations and phases of construction. Each luthier was working diligently, focused intensely in his duty. Although they were very intent, however, one received the impression that none were rushed; each step of the way was addressed with thoughtful skill, a kind of awareness necessary to achieve the highest platform of acoustic precision and aesthetic beauty. Additionally, as we learned by speaking to some of these gentlemen, it was clear that those who work for PRS are grateful and appreciative for their position with the company. This impressed all of us at Dream Guitars who value a committed workforce and personal fulfillment.
Still, these guys are new to the acoustic guitar game, even after a legendary run with high-end electric guitars. And many electric manufacturers have put out acoustic lines that have failed to impress. So how does PRS hold up in the game? Well, for one, they’ve created perhaps the loudest acoustic guitar available, averaging +5db louder than many other high-end acoustics. Also, they are highly directional with their sound, and have 2 9v batteries powering a proprietary Active McIntyre Feather pickup system from inside. The elegant beauty of PRS aesthetics maintain their reputation for creating the most beautiful guitars on the planet, and the selection of woods is of high quality’s zenith. Each acoustic we tried out had a fabulous palate of frequency, with stunning bass, full mid-range, and sparkling high’s. One could lightly fingerpick, then burst into rough rhythms without a tinge of distortion or tonal fluctuation. PRS has truly harnessed a great acoustic body and through they’re new, they’re kicking ass.
Mr. Smith also brought us into his amp area, where he requested a few of his favorite models to be pulled out. While ripping the intro to Jimi Page’s “Purple Haze” through a small green stack, Paul burst with excitement. “It sounds exactly the same as Jimi’s! The tone is great!” He was thrilled with the sound of the smaller green amp called the 25th Anniversary. He also bust out a paisley covered Original Sewell cab and head and jammed out some blues before shifting the guitar around the circle for everyone to try out for themselves.
After all this we were served lunch by Tina Benson, PRS’s gracious sales director. She led us into the wood library and after lunch let us roam through the library for the best pieces of wood we could use for custom PRS acoustics. We were thankful to have James Condino’s expertise through this process, as he has been building guitars since he was thirteen years old and has a world of knowledge and acoustic intuition to share. Paul R. Smith was happy to see James sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library, pulling out rosewood necks and hitting the side of each piece with his kunckle, testing its resonance. “If it rings when it’s raw, it’ll ring when it’s built,” James explained. Paul R. Smith was certainly appreciative of this nurtured perspective, and the two spoke about different motivations behind drilling holes as compared to gluing, and which woods worked best for acoustic instruments.
[[[ Here James tests the resonance of the wood ]]]]]
After a full day at PRS, and after completing two custom acoustic orders for Dream Guitars, Paul R. Smith invited the group to his favorite seafood restaurant for dinner. We relaxed for a couple hours, absorbing the unique experience of the day, then headed over to Cantler’s Diner. Paul is an enthusiast of Maryland’s seafood, and suggested we try the cherrystone clams and crabcakes. “You’re in Maryland, do as we do in Maryland,” he advised. We were all happily satisfied with the meal and when we were done, Paul began telling us about his personal studio and newly made speakers. He invited us to come back to his home to check it all out, and how could we refuse?
We arrived at Paul’s home and met his beautiful wife Paige, whom he showed an obvious amount of love for. He then showed us an old reverb unit used for Elvis, and I could help but be reminded of being a child and having friends show off their new toys. He led us up into his home studio, an Cathedral ceiling room about 400 sq ft. and adorned with dozens of glass and ceramic dragons he’s received as gifts. Paul then took us behind his monitor station and let us listen to the sonic range of his homemade speakers, referencing an old Police CD. He pulled out a collection of microphones and had us all listen to the different tones of each one. I personally favored his RCA 77 ribbon mic, which had a great warmth to it that reminded me of old jazz singer recordings.
[[[Paul Heumiller tries out microphones in Paul Reed Smith’s home studio ]]]
Paul admitted that a recent trip to a producer’s home humbled him about his own studio, so he had come home and sold everything to start over. This explained some of the excitement for his new gear and showed that even a great mind like his could be taught new lessons- which is perhaps why his products rank so high, for without questioning oneself one could never learn or improve one’s methods. Indeed Paul challenges the perception of a big-headed monster CEO many would assume for a man of his success. He is one who is still intensely involved in the steps of his work, one who communicates respectfully and directly with his staff and clientelle, and he is a genuinely funny, passionate, curious character. It was a real pleasure being in his company and seeing what excites him day to day in his life and work (wherein the line is so fine). We think he had a great time with us, too, as in our leaving he complimented Dream Guitars as being “cut from the same cloth.” In fact, after this very full day, Paul invited us to meet up again in the morning so he could show off some of his personal collection of prized guitars. You don’t have to twist our arms into a good time!
On Day 2 of our adventure we woke up early and excited. We got over to the factory by 9am and were given a complete tour of the electric guitar workshop, where over a hundred employees were working. Michael Gaitley led us through each step of the process, and again we saw the committed focus that would give confidence in the end result. It was cool to see more women in this workforce, who were either sanding sides into smooth perfection or who were assembling the electronic components. Every once and a while Paul would pop into our tour, show us some new thing, then dip out and remind us to come see him before we left.
[[[ CC machines cut most parts of the acoustic and electric guitar bodies ]]]
After our tour we landed in the wood library with Tina again and completed our designs for 3 custom acoustics, while confirming we’d take two acoustics home with us(now for sale!). Paul came in with a ’59 Les Paul and one of his own electric models, and demonstrated the uncanny comparison of tone for both guitars. He is a luthier who definitely looks back at history, and not so much at contemporaries, to achieve his mission of making rocking guitars. He is inspired by the rocking tones of Les Paul and Jimi Hendrix, and has the genius and motivation to recreate those sounds for future rock stars. After we all had a go on his prized collection, we wrapped things up and got ready to hit the road. Paul gave us all a warm goodbye and it was clear that a personal and business relationship had been laid in gold. We fully appreciate PRS’s generosity at giving us the inside-look into his facilities, and are looking forward to carrying more of his exquisite designs. Perhaps a PRS Dream Series is in the works? Stay tuned and find out!
[[[ James Condino checks out an electric model’s body in the factory ]]]