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 alone.”
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 player?
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 extraordinary record.
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 scale.
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 practice?
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 Carlos Santana?
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.