We look behind the scenes at the Paul Reed Smith factory in Stevensville, where world-famous guitars are built for some of the biggest names in music.
Some of the most treasured guitars being played by musicians today are being built from a factory on Kent Island. Carlos Santana, Neal Schon, Mark Holcomb, John McLaughlin, Zach Myers, Mark Tremonti, and Alex Lifeson, to name a few, all currently play Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars.
The newest person to be added to the list? Grammy award-winning musician John Mayer, who recently collaborated with Paul Reed Smith to create “Silver Sky,” a vintage-inspired instrument that is both familiar and uniquely PRS. The new electric guitar was launched in March 2018, and according to Jack Higginbotham, chief operating officer at PRS Guitars, “The development process for this guitar was very long — three years in the making. You never really know until the product goes live what is going to happen. It was more than we ever imagined it would be.”
According to Paul Reed Smith, PRS Guitars founder, “By paying attention to the details, we were able to create an instrument that John is very pleased with and that we are very proud of.”
Quality has always driven Paul Reed Smith, since his humble beginnings in his workshop in Annapolis. Smith founded the company in 1985 based on rediscovering what quality electric guitars should be. He recognized in the 1970s and early 1980s that guitar makers had lost their way.
A lot of guitars got sold in the early years, and PRS became known as the “doctor and lawyer guitar company,” as the guitars initially were very expensive to build.
According to Higginbotham, who started as a sander with the company in 1985 and grew to become its COO, “We wanted to expand our offerings and customers after that, and our SE Series guitars, introduced in 2001, brought a new, younger audience to PRS.”
During the recession following 2008, PRS again got creative with its product development. In 2013, the company announced its S2, or Stevensville model electric guitar, which retails for $999 to $1,749.
“This covered a price point we weren’t in, and once again we got a new customer base. We wanted to attract the working musician — the “Indy” crowd — which included people ages 18 to 30 years of age. This line gave us a lot of work to do, and set a good foundation and platform for the future growth of our business,” Higginbotham said.
Today, the PRS team in Maryland includes nearly 300 highly-skilled craftspeople who design and build a wide variety of musical instruments and gear for worldwide distribution, including electric, acoustic, and bass guitars, as well as boutique-style guitar amplifiers from entry level to absolute premium in the market.
The company now is covering all the price points, with electric guitars ranging in price from $499 to $100,000. In 2017, PRS Guitars had revenues over $50 million — the largest in the company’s history.
At the core of the company’s mission is its desire to continually refine its craft. Higginbotham said, “You have to have a good design element and good fundamental physics when making an instrument, but if you don’t have a mass of people who care about the quality of the instrument and the end product, you just have a shot at something being good, instead of something you are confident in being good. The Mayer guitar, which retails for $2,299 is a high value proposition — every element of the guitar has been thoroughly thought through many, many times. It’s phenomenal value in an instrument.”
Higginbotham estimated that 75 to 80 percent of PRS employees are musicians, but 99 percent of the staff are enthusiastic about music and excited to be a part of the music industry. He said, “Everyone is quality assurance at PRS — we did it before Ford did it. The first thing every employee does when building a guitar is to check the person’s work before them.”
The result at a recent trade show in Europe was the proof in the pudding — about 180 buyers in Europe were interested in PRS guitars. PRS Europe now has warehouse and office space in Cambridge, England, and distributes its products throughout Europe, from Spain to Scandinavia.
PRS guitars also are extremely popular in Asia. The company strives to have a 50/50 split between domestic and export sales, in order to keep the business safe as things are changing worldwide.
“We have good partners around the world — our distributors, retailers, and the end users. That is what makes our world go around — good partnerships,” Higginbotham said.
Now, with 9 to 10 months of orders to fill from the recent successful launches, Smith said, “We have recorded the record and now we have to go on tour. We have to make the guitars for everyone without any detriment to the quality. Instead, we want to increase our quality.”
Higginbotham echoed Smith, saying, “We push the boundaries of quality and innovation. Paul is an innovator. We are good for the industry because we are challenging ourselves every day, which challenges the industry every day.”
Judy Schaefer, director of marketing at PRS Guitars, said, “What hasn’t changed over our 33 years is that it has always been about a group of passionate people coming here every day to make the best guitar they can make. What has changed over the years are that the price points have grown to appeal to a lot more people, and our style has expanded and grown, too.
Whether you buy something that costs $700 or $7,000, you will feel completely happy with what you have for the money you spent on it.”
According to Smith, materials, design, construction, and electronics all play an important part in today’s PRS models, but the overall experience ultimately is what matters most with a PRS guitar.
“You have to make it look right, sound right and feel right,” he said.
“Paul hears things we don’t hear. He hears things in decibels. He has a vocabulary, an experience, and a natural proclivity to hear what others may not hear with guitars,” Schaefer explained.
“I have no idea how each of your family members sound, but in a blindfold test, you could tell me who each one is. I couldn’t.” He adds, “When it comes to the sound of different makes and years of guitars, however, I have an idea. It comes from my exposure to guitars and my love for them,” Smith said.
Smith reflected about the company’s current success as the third largest electric guitar manufacturer in the US, saying, “I like the people in our industry and I love guitars. I am very dedicated to the people in the building. It’s my job to care.”
He added, “We did lots of innovative things to stay alive over the years. Right now, we need to worry about the game we have got and doing it very well.”
PRS Guitars is selling an experience and not just a guitar. To learn more about PRS guitars, come to Experience PRS 2018 on June 8 and 9 in Stevensville. The Experience starts on Friday with the exclusive Signature Club Cocktail and sales floor preview hour, followed by an open-to-the-public concert featuring the hottest PRS artists. Saturday will include informative clinics, new products, gear demonstrations, interactive displays, jam stages, factory tours, and artist performances culminating with an awesome star-studded concert. When touring the PRS factory, you can expect to get a firsthand look at the processes, instruments, and amplifiers from raw wood or blank chassis form to finished guitar or amplifier. Experience provides a unique view into not just the work at PRS, but the people building PRS. Experience started in 2007 as a thank you to PRS customers. Dealers now are invited to sell guitars at the event — the only time the public actually can buy a guitar at PRS. Public registration is available now at www.prsguitars.com.