When Paul Reed Smith unveiled his first Dragon guitars in 1992, he had a hard time moving them. “No one wanted to order the instruments because I was asking so much money for them. I had to shove orders down dealers’ throats,” he says. Issued sporadically, and in extremely limited numbers, Dragons have since become among the most desirable of modern electrics, even earning pride of place in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C.
Smith began dreaming of a guitar with a dragon-decorated fretboard in the early Seventies, while he was a teenager. After building guitars one at a time during college, he founded PRS Guitars in the mid Eighties and finally had the resources at his disposal to realize his vision.
The most recent PRS Dragon—the seventh in the series—commemorates the company’s 25th anniversary. It sports a sleek double-cutaway body with an African striped mahogany back and a wildly flamed maple top drawn from Smith’s Private Stock. The body is joined to a wide-fat Madagascar rosewood neck and fingerboard with a 24 1/2–inch-scale length and 24 frets. This $20,000 stunner was limited to 60 examples that sold out almost immediately.
Twenty-fifth Anniversary Dragons were made in eight different high-gloss finishes. As on select other PRS guitars, the finishing process involves first hand-staining the instruments to maximize the visual impact of the grain, then spraying on thin outer layers of lacquer. The Dragon shown here is finished in Angry Larry, a color named in honor of PRS manager Larry Urie, whose face reportedly turns crimson when he becomes enraged.
The Anniversary Dragon’s gold-plated hardware includes PRS 14:1 Phase II low-mass locking tuners with elegant ebony buttons, as well as the company’s standard tremolo system. Completing the package is a pair of 59/09 pickups, modeled in 2009 after the humbuckers pioneered in the late Fifties by Gibson’s Ted McCarty, a former mentor of Smith’s. Each treble-position 59/09 receives more winds than its bass companion, to produce a hotter sound.
The current Dragon’s elaborate fretboard inlay work is more complex than that of its predecessors. The intimate view of a snarling dragon—with its bulging eye at the 12th fret and the tail extending onto a rosewood truss rod cover—obscures much of the board like a tattoo sleeve. Those uninitiated in dragon taxonomy might detect an Asian influence, but the inspiration for this particular beast can be found in the 2002 science fiction film Reign of Fire, set in Great Britain and starring Matthew McConaughey as a modern-day dragon slayer. “I’ve always liked English water dragons much better than the Chinese ones,” Smith says.
To design the inlay, PRS commissioned Jeff Easley, the fantasy artist responsible for the covers of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. His rendering was then submitted to Pearl Works, a Maryland-based company that has embellished all PRS Dragons since 1992. Pearl Works scanned Easley’s drawing and used CAD software to deconstruct the illustration into the individual sections that would form the inlays. These included some 300 parts fashioned from more than 20 materials, including crushed opal, abalone shell, and mastodon ivory. Says Jaime Aulson, Pearl Works’ project manager, “These guitars are constantly pushing us to be creative and invent new procedures in order to make them happen.”
It’s not easy to take your eyes off the finished 25th Anniversary Dragon, with its vivid, pearlescent inlays. “The thing that I really like about the guitar is how the fretboard goes 3-D when you stare at it,” Smith says. Combine this uncommon artistry with a highly playable and excellent-sounding modern guitar, and you’ve got an instant collectible.
Photo: Massimo Gammacurta