When it comes to guitars, not all brands have the illustrious histories of a Martin (founded in 1833) or a Gibson (1894). Leo Fender introduced his first solid-body electric guitar in 1950, Guild didn’t get started until 1952, and Taylor has only been around since 1974.
PRS Guitars, though, is the real newbie on the block, founded a decade later, in the mid-1980s, by Paul Reed Smith. Prior to starting PRS, Smith had been making about one guitar a month since college, where he made his first six-stringed instrument. In his spare time, he played his handcrafted axes with local bands, which paid even less. But whenever a big-name act came to town, Smith would bring a couple of his guitars to concerts, ingratiate himself with the roadies, and try to get a pre- or post-show audience with one of his guitar heroes.
It was Carlos Santana who gave the young luthier his big break in 1976. Santana liked what Smith was doing (Smith had brought along a guitar he’d just built for Peter Frampton) and hooked him up with Ted McCarty, who was the president of Gibson when the Les Paul, Flying V, and other Kalamazoo classics were introduced.
McCarty became a trusted mentor, and thanks to his guidance and Smith’s talents, it wasn’t long before artists from Al Di Meola to Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction) to Neil Schon (Journey) became fans of PRS Guitars.
Because PRS is still a young company, words like “vintage” don’t quite apply to used Paul Reed Smith instruments. Still, collectible models include the Custom 24, which was the first guitar that Smith took to a trade show in 1985. The 513 was so named because it featured five pickups and 13 distinct sounds. With its classic f-holes and natural finish, the PRS McCarty Hollowbody from the 1990s is considered another prize, as is the single-cutaway Modern Eagle.
Beyond the models and the exquisite sounds they deliver for some of the best guitarists on the planet, PRS Guitars are also gorgeous to look at. Woods such as quilted and curly maple are routinely used, as is korina and swamp ash. Snakewood, ebony, and rosewood are often found on PRS fretboards, which are frequently inlaid with everything from abalone to onyx to mother of pearl.
Then there are the finishes, which include a variety of “bursts” (charcoal and tobacco, to name but two) and eye-popping colors like aquamarine, raspberry, and emerald.