The man obviously makes some exceptionally delicious
guitars, but Paul Reed Smith is also a fervent
player with a talent for writing expressive and moving
songs. Although his day job has kept most of
his band’s performance dates limited to trade shows
(and his company’s annual PRS Experience events), he has managed
to share stages—and trade licks—with extremely transcendent
guitarists, as well as release five albums, The Paul Reed Smith Band,
Look at the Moon: Paul Reed Smith Nashville Sessions, Jenna’s Eyes, Paul
Reed Smith Dragons, and Paul Reed Smith Music.
When it comes to music, Smith is in an almost constant state of
awe and enthusiasm. When he’s not evangelizing PRS Guitars, he’ll
talk excitedly about his favorite albums, bands, musicians, and recording
sessions. It’s obvious how much he loves great players and great
music, and the depth of his melodic lines shows that he has absorbed
a lot of beauty from the bands and guitarists he loves. He’s also quite
a defender of the faith.
“I once went to a Jeff Beck concert, and people were in tears all
night,” Smith explains. “And as I’m leaving the venue, some guy
says, ‘I didn’t like the drummer.’ I wanted to kill him. Because when
you experience these graceful and perfect moments, you leave it
What was the first electric guitar that you bought yourself?
It was a three-quarter size Gibson Melody Maker. But the guitar that
taught me a lot about building guitars was a ’53 Les Paul. It taught
me about neck shape and other things. I would make a guitar, and learn was I was doing. My mother bought
that Les Paul for me, and she kept it in a
closet for a year until I paid for it by mowing
lawns. What she didn’t know was that I
used to sneak it out of the closet when she
wasn’t home. You’d do the same thing!
And I wonder what guitars you’re now using
for your personal music projects?
Yeah, well it’s not as easy as you’d think.
Let’s just say that my favorite guitars have
been getting nicked off me. I’ll get one that I
think is magic, and then somebody powerful
in our industry ends up nicking it off me—in
a good way. Here’s the deal: They can’t make
another one. I can. Lately, I’ve been playing
these new PRS violin-finish prototypes.
Is it the same with amps?
I didn’t always use PRS amps, of course.
I’ve had a Dumble, a few Marshalls, and I
used Koch amps for a long time. Now, I
played an original Doug Sewell [PRS amp
designer] prototype on the record I did at
Ricky Skaggs’ studio [Look at the Moon: Paul
Reed Smith Nashville Sessions], and I used a
PRS Dallas amp, as well. Recently, I’ve been
using a prototype of the PRS recording amplifier
that I love. But I’ll say that if I thought
another amp sounded better than what Doug
Sewell makes for me, I’d use it. I’m loyal to
the PRS brand, but I’m also very, very loyal
about making sure my music is the best it can be. Having said that, if I played through
another amp that I liked better than a PRS,
I’d want to know why real fast.
I’ve never seen you perform with a pedalboard
anywhere on stage. Do you ever use effects?
I plug straight into an amp and play. I
don’t even like having a tuner between me
and the amp. The way I tune up is, I’ll unplug
my guitar from the amp, plug it into a tuner,
and then plug the guitar back into the amp.
Any reverb, echo, or other effects are added
at the console by the recording engineer.
What gauge of strings do you prefer?
I use a .010 set. As [Texas blues guitarist]
Bugs Henderson said, and tried to teach me
when I was young, “I floss with .009s. What
are you using them for?” [Laughs.]
What started you on your journey as a guitar
It was when my brother brought home
Are You Experienced by Hendrix. From my
point of view, it was, “Who is this guy with
two eyes on his shirt?” But I opened the
record and listened to it before my brother
could play it. That was huge, and I would
say watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan
Show was a big deal, as well. The
records I grew up on were The Allman Brothers
Band Live at Fillmore East, Humble Pie’s
Rockin’ the Fillmore, all the Jeff Beck records,
and all the Santana records. I particularly
like Santana III. I thought that was an
What was your next step? How did you start
developing as a player?
I saw a guy play this beautiful vibrato. It
was at a pool party, and his vibrato was
extraordinary. His name was Rob Izzy—the
best player in town at the time. I wanted
that vibrato so bad that I sat in my bedroom
for three weeks until I had it. I had a really
cool vibrato before I could play a pentatonic
What was it about that vibrato that affected
you so much?
It was so emotional. And a great vibrato
divides the guitar players that sound good
and the ones that sound extraordinary.
How do you approach your solos? What do you
typically go for?
I work some stuff out, but I pride myself
on trying not to play anything exactly the
same way twice. Michael Jordan used to say
that he’d let the game come to him. The Bulls
would be behind in a game, and they’d interview Jordan at halftime, and he’d say, “The
game will come to us.” That’s kind of the
way we play. You have to let yourself go until,
at some point, it’s almost like watching
somebody else playing. I don’t like to think
about it. As a matter of fact, if people try to
tell me what to play in the studio, it upsets
me. That’s not where I’m at. I’m literally in
this non-verbal spot, and you’re asking me
to think, when it really is about letting go
and watching what happens. I don’t know
how to describe it. I find myself hearing
somebody singing while I’m playing a solo.
All these bizarre, out-of-tune notes are going
off in my head, and I realize that it’s me humming
along to what I’m playing.
I also think that you have to ride on the
back of the rhythm section. If the rhythm
section is doing its job, the musicians are
changing chords under you so that what
you’re playing sounds more beautiful. Harmony
is almost like a horse you can ride. If
your band is sensitive to where you’re going,
it’s like being on the back of a thoroughbred
running a race. It’s wild. A really good example
for me is Jeff Beck’s solo in “Cause We’ve
Ended As Lovers.” It’s so beautiful. You
almost don’t know where he and the band
are going to go.
What about tone?
If how I hear it in my head isn’t fitting
the track, I’ll change the sound a little bit,
but mostly, I don’t even think about it. I just
try to get bass frequencies that don’t overwhelm
the note, a midrange that’s not peaky
in any way like a wah pedal, and some treble,
but nothing that sounds harsh. I also
like to use a lot more gain than people would
typically think, but I don’t want it to sound
buzzy at all.
How much time do you make available to
Working 60 hours a week doesn’t leave
a lot of time to play. That’s emotionally hard.
Everyone in my band wishes we could play
more. But I do get to put my hands on a lot
of guitars every day, and I write a lot of tunes.
You have played onstage with some incredible
guitarists. Is there any fear at all when you
realize you’re trading licks with a legend such as
I like being around good musicians. I find
it invigorating, and when they’re really
extraordinary, I go kind of crazy. I feel like
I’m watching something spectacular, and I’m
just absorbing the moment. But I get nervous
like everybody else. The first time I ever
played with Carlos, I played every lick I knew
in 45 seconds. That was an interesting experience!
But I’d much rather have gone out
and horribly failed, than to have not tried at
all. That’s really my motto.