As far as American made electric guitars go, few will question that Gibson and Fender (or Fender and Gibson) rule the roost. While many great USA guitar companies exist, or did exist, PRS is the only company that was able to come up and compete with the big boys. In fact, PRS themselves are now one of the big boys of American guitars.

It wasn’t easy to become a contender in the big leagues. In fact, it still isn’t. There are many fine guitar makers, but few have the brand recognition, worldwide respect, or artist roster boasted by the big two (…make that three, right Paul?).

From a young age, Paul built guitars in his Maryland home. He started tinkering in the middle of the 1970s and spent 10 years honing his skills, building strictly for the love of the craft and for the love of the guitar itself—not fanatical gain. His garage was a far cry from the state of the art factory that Paul now resides over, like a modern day “Willy Wonka” (said with complete respect to Willy and Paul). Touring PRS’s factory is like a trip to the chocolate factory, minus the green creatures and narcissistic golden ticket winners.

Paul Reed Smith’s love and enthusiasm are ever present, as anyone who has seen him at work can attest to. It took all of that, plus talent, great ideas, and a little luck to get to where he is today. Heart’s “Magic Man” Howard Lesse and “Motor City Madman” singer/wild man Derek St. Holmes were early players and supporters. But one of Paul’s most important early champions was not as instantly receptive. Nonetheless, that particular “Guitar Monster” has a few PRS models named after him today. This superstar player made Paul work hard to gain his acceptance. He is the man who helped introduce PRS to the world.

Who else could this be besides the legendary…Carlos Santana.

Carlos Santana’s PRS Guitars

Carlos Santana is a man needing no introduction, even if you are not a guitar player. Back in the day, Paul was a true and earnest fan of Santana, and wanted him to play one of his beloved creations. It wasn’t an easy start, according to Paul. The short version of Paul’s “Santana” story goes something like this…

The first guitar Santana got came as a loan from Howard Lessee of Heart, at Paul’s request. Santana believed the instrument was an act of God, not to be duplicated. Apparently thinking that somehow entitled him to it, he told Paul he was going to keep it—but he did also mention he wanted a two pickup version.

Paul went to work, creating a guitar with two pickups. Santana loved it and returned the loaned guitar, in favor of the newly made instrument. This second guitar was another surprising stroke of luck or act of God, Santana said. But he did again mention something it was lacking—the fact it had no tone control. So Paul went to work on a third guitar made to Santana’s specs.

Santana unknowingly played the third guitar, complete with a tone pot, right in front of Paul. He continued complaining about it having no tone control. Paul pointed out the tone control on the newly finished guitar, arising Santana’s ire. To Santana’s amazement, he was playing a different guitar, built with tone control, not the “Act of God” he had been playing. Santana could not tell the guitars apart until he looked in disbelief at the tone control, where there was none before.

It took a few guitars built of fine quality and some deep perseverance on Paul’s part to convince Santana that he was in fact a great guitar builder, not a lucky kid that was “once or twice, graced by god.” And so the Santana signature model was born, with hard work, talent, great design and persistence. Oh yeah…and a tone control.

The Santana model that started it all had roughly the same silhouette as the Gibson Les Paul Special. It had a 24.5″ scale length (unlike most 25″ scale length PRS guitars nowadays), two Duncan humbuckers, and an arched, flame maple top with abalone stripes separating the seams, for a unique and beautiful look. Unlike a typical humbucker arched flame top, the PRS Santana was equipped with a Fender-style tremolo system.

The first Santana was also equipped with a two octave, 24-fret neck, which was unorthodox for a guitar with somewhat traditional appointments. Inlayed on the handmade, long heel neck, were the now infamous PRS “Birds” inlays. I asked Paul where the “Birds” idea came from and he was kind enough to tell me—his mother loved to spend time watching birds. As he was telling me this, we were standing right outside his Stevensville, Maryland factory. At that moment, something flew over us, and I pointed upward at a large bird in flight. “No,” Paul said “You are looking at a ‘Turkey buzzard.'” Ooof! It took me a few minutes to get my foot out of my mouth, but Paul smiled. After all, we were in Paul’s very own form of Wonka land.

Santana models have developed and continued in many styles and models, from import, up to top of the line Private Stock, and some great versions are available today. 

PRS Custom 24

The Santana custom-made guitar (a version of what used to be called a Golden Eagle), ignited Carlos Santana’s on going love for PRS, but it was the Custom 24 that woke up the rest of the world. The first orders went to Washing music and Sam Ash. It was 1986 when I saw the Custom 24 for the first time, at the Hempstead Long Island Sam Ash store. I had the same reaction as the rest of the world soon would – Whoa! What’s that?

The new Custom 24 had roughly the shape of a Strat, the arched flame top of an old Les Paul, a trem bar, and those dang buzzards (no, not really buzzards) on the neck. It was pretty hard not to fall in love with at first glance. There was a solid black one right over the door. Sure, the flame maple tops were spectacular, but even the solid black guitar was a beauty of form and function. I’d find out later, this was to be called a “Standard 24.”

Some models had dot inlays, in place of birds. A closer look revealed a crescent moon on a circular background. I was to discover these actually are called “Moon” inlays. Up close, the subtle detail was clear. Such was this case with much of the PRS Custom 24. As beautiful a guitar as anyone could ask, but so much more than meets the eye when explored up close. The PRS Guitar (in the early days, the Custom 24 was “The PRS Guitar”) could be bought right off a hook, in one of the shops that was forward thinking enough to carry the soon-to-be world renowned brand.

But PRS was more of a “custom shop” than a one size fits all builder. A rainbow of colors were available, including the very rare, “Bonnie Pink” on the Standard 24 – a color inspired by a bathroom tile sample from a PRS employee named Bonnie. “Bonnie Pink” is certainly a better name than “80s toilet tile pink,” and it shows the lighter side of a serious builder. Like I said, he is part Willy Wonka. Aside from the color choices, hardware color was also an option.

Flame maple top PRS guitars have always had a remarkable figure in the wood (nowadays, to assure you get the most figured top offered on a Custom 24, you can order a “10-top,” which features wood hand selected from the more figured wood available in PRS’s stockpile). The versatility of early Custom 24s was partially due to the early electronics setup – a volume knob, a “Sweat” switch toggle, and a 5-way selector, tastefully hidden as a 5-way rotary knob.

The rotary allowed for full humbucker sound (more of a Gibson flavor), tapped coils, and in-and-out of phase tone (more Fender flavored). The Custom 24 also features a thin, fast neck, with a full two octaves (i.e. 24 frets—its right in the model name, ya know). In a time when imported guitars started biting chunks out of “in-flux” Gibson and Fender market shares, up comes a new premier homegrown builder, with a guitar that has classic elements of Gibson, and Fender, yet is anything but a copy.

The PRS Custom 24 offered innovation enough to be called not only an excellent alternative, but a truly new guitar type. It can be an addition to a player’s collection of classics, or replace them. That has caused it to maintain its prominence over the years.

Bravo, PRS. You have done the impossible. 

PRS Singlecut & Singlecut Tremolo

Picking three models of guitars, from a company with more innovative new models than I can count, is not easy work. Every PRS model has a unique offering – such as the 513, with its 5 pickups, 13 settings, and special “Klingon-style birds” (yes, I am a Star Trek, Kirk-era geek, but these are Paul’s words).

Longtime friend and Paul Reed Smith band-mate, playing in his band The Dragons (yes, Paul plays…a lot), showed me a prototype PRS Singlecut before it became the icon (gulp…I hate that word, but it’s true in this case) it is today. It looked a bit like the single cutaway Les Paul, but at the same time, it’s unmistakably and staunchly PRS. Sure, it has a single cutaway, like the world famous Les Paul model, but the PRS contours give it up quite fast to anyone familiar with guitars.

It sounds deep, rich, and biting, but lacks the versatility of the multifaceted PRS guitars that came before it. The control layout mirrors the control layout Gibson was using – independent volume and tone for each humbucker, and a three way toggle. In others ways, it’s PRS to the core, with Birds or Moon inlays, and choice of hardware color. PRS’s rainbow of translucent finishes over exquisite flamed maple or solid colors, all look fantastic on the PRS contoured top. It has a great rounded profile neck, reminiscing of 50’s classics, and a touch of unmistakable PRS feel. A compensated wraparound tail is offered solely on the first 3 years of the initial 4 year run, helping deliver the now infamous PRS biting attack.

Arriving (maybe a tad too late) in 2003 was the game changer – the PRS SC Tremolo. The SC trem is PRS to the core. Aside from the obvious tremolo system, the control layout is more in line with what the PRS player is accustomed to. The SC Trem now has a slightly thinner body depth, and features the single volume and tone control layout, with pop up coil-tap.

The now-decidedly-less Gibson style SC caused some trouble in 2004. The team that ran Gibson at the time felt the PRS SC model bore too much resemblance to the Les Paul model and sent some men in suits with all manner of paperwork to PRS, telling them to “knock it off.” The PRS SC’s production was suspended, until a higher court overruled the cease and desist order. Soon the PRS SC was back on shelves, in its unchanged 2003 style.

The PRS SC Tremolo, ended its Core run in 2007, but it’s far from the end of the road for the SC. Aside from the Core model Mark Tremonti signature, the PRS SC has morphed from its original basic styles, into the SC245, Stripped 58 (stop tail and PRS bridge), McCarty SC 594, Wood Library editions, Artist Package model, and more. The PRS SC marked the first radically different design since the company’s birth 15 years prior. From 2000 to the present day, the number of models and choices has been ever growing. Paul Reed Smith and his namesake guitars are steeped in tradition, and home-style comfort. At the same time, PRS is looking ever forward and are exciting as wanderlust.

Previous articleSamson Resound VX8.1: Everything You Need to Know
Next articleMartin Dreadnought Junior 10E Acoustic-Electric Guitar
Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.