Here's an excerpt from the October/November 2012 issue of Guitar Aficionado, which is available now at our online store.
By Richard Bienstock | Photo by Justin Borucki
The PRS guitar factory is a nondescript building located some 40 miles outside of Baltimore, in an office park in Stevensville, Maryland. It resembles most of the neighboring structures, save for the initials of company head Paul Reed Smith on one side of its exterior.
But deep within the building’s recesses, off the main factory floor and just down the hall from Smith’s personal office, is a small room that might cause fans of high-end luthiery to be overcome by tears of ecstasy. Known as the “wood library,” it holds PRS’s stock of incredible tonewoods.
“Here’s a beautiful piece of Madagascar rosewood,” Smith says. The 56-year-old founder of PRS is darting about the wood library, gathering the building blocks for a guitar. He grabs a slab from one of many well-stocked shelves and drops it onto a table in the middle of the room before running off. “Now let’s find some ridiculous mahogany that rings like a bell,” he says. He selects a board and raps a knuckle repeatedly across its length, producing a Morse code–like pattern of sonorous chimes. He places it on the table and is off again. “Look at this piece of quilted maple,” he says. “It’s just stupid.” Smith adds it to the pile and disappears behind a shelf. “And here’s a nice piece of curly mahogany for the back,” he says, returning. He sets it down and stands back from the table to view the many species laid out before him. He smiles. “And now we start building an instrument.”
According to Smith, the PRS wood library is the only one of its kind. “Ever seen one?” he asks rhetorically. “Ever heard of one? I don’t think there’s anything else out there like it.” Indeed, the sheer number and variety of tonewoods housed in the small space is mesmerizing. “We had some dealers from Japan in here last week and they nicknamed it the ‘drug room,’ ” Smith says with a grin. “Because to guys who do this for a living, this is pure drugs. The wood in here is the best of the best.”
It could also be said that the guitars built from this wood are the best of the PRS best. The wood library is the point of origin for the company’s line of high-end, often one-of-a-kind instruments known as Private Stock. A Private Stock guitar is a PRS on steroids. It is, for the most part, an individually and consecutively numbered one-off creation that, in addition to boasting the much-lauded PRS tone and playability that has made artists like Carlos Santana, Al Di Meola, and John McLaughlin devoted users, is absolutely stunning to look at. Consider PS# 1292, a double-cutaway McCarty-style model with an intricate Red Tail Hawk relief by Master Carver Floyd Scholz etched into its faded-purple-finished quilted-maple top. Or PS# 2556, whose single-cut-style body sports a curly-maple top finished in a vibrant gold leaf, with an ornate “tree of life” inlay winding from the headstock down the length of the guitar’s Brazilian rosewood fingerboard.
Working with an authorized PRS dealer, a purchaser can customize practically every aspect of a Private Stock guitar, including body shape, scale length, tonewoods, hardware, pickups, accessories, finishes, and many other components. The guitar is then be brought to life by PRS’s highly specialized, 11-person Private Stock team. “It’s an opportunity to build your dream guitar,” says Paul Miles, director of the Private Stock program. “And, generally, everything is custom-made: custom necks, custom electronics, custom carves. We don’t have CNC programs or anything like that for a lot of the stuff we do here.”
Many Private Stock orders also come from high-end dealers who desire instruments that will suit their patrons’ particular tastes. “Dealers come here because they want to create magical musical instruments that their customers will want to buy and that they’ll want to buy quickly,” Smith says. “These are meant to be coveted instruments. The last dealer we had here came in and spent two days going through all the woods, and he ordered 20 guitars in different combinations.”
Private Stock developed in the mid Nineties out of a program called Private Stash. According to Smith, “At the time we were doing a few artist guitars, and I said, ‘Let’s do a guitar every month.’ Everybody thought it was pretty nuts. But I started doing it with Joe Knaggs, who was one of the best craftsmen in the building. We called it Private Stash, because basically we were building these guitars from a private stash of wood—a teeny-tiny wood library. And we did one a month. Those guitars are all in the hands of collectors now, but out of that idea came Private Stock.”
To read the rest of this story and see 11 more photos — plus features on Kevin Costner and Modern West, Jakob Dylan, Norman Harris, Bo Diddley and more, check out the October/November 2012 issue of Guitar Aficionado, which is available on newsstands and at our online store.