Making magic, a PRS guitar is the tool of the stars

Made in Maryland
Posted at 7:59 AM, Oct 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-17 12:31:21-04

Made in Maryland is a monthly segment by ABC 2's Cassie Carlisle, showcasing local unsung trades. If you know a company fitting this description email

Sitting in his award winning Stevensville, Maryland guitar factory, surrounded by his most prestigous guitars, Paul Reed Smith took us back to his college days.

At St. Mary's College, Smith went to the music director with a bag of wood, curious how to make a guitar.

The director replied, 'You make that into a guitar, I'll give you four-credits and we'll do independent study.'

"I want to use your room as a guitar factory, he said okay and moved into my room (Reporter: Are you serious?) dead serious, and we built guitars all summer," Paul Reed Smith said smiling.

During the summer between semesters, Smith went home and propositioned his brother.

His love of music, inspired by his brother and The Beatles.

He and his brother spent two months making guitars, the first of thousands for Smith.

Smith then pitched his guitars to local bands when they came to town, working out the kinks.

After years of perfecting the design, and testing his guitars when he played gigs, Carlos Santana came to Merriweather Post Pavillion.

Santana edition of PRS guitar.

Smith saw his chance, urged a tech to let him show Santana his guitar. He was met with a swift 'No.' Smith then suggested the tech bring the guitar to Santana, to which the man replied, "You're not afraid I'm going to steal it?"

Smith said "No," and thought inside, "We're talking about the beginning of my career, No! Take the guitar," he chuckled.

Moments later, another person comes out of the room and ushers him in. 

"I had a dream that if I could get Carlos Santana to play one of our guitars, my life would change. It happened all night on late night TV one night, I went out on the street and nothing changed, nobody treated me any different," Smith said.

While he says his guitar only got him an appointment with big companies, it's what his guitar creates that keeps him going.

Jack Higginbotham giving ABC 2 a tour of the PRS factory.

What he and his brother did by hand, is now a blend of unique machining and craftsmanship in the factory.

The root of an award winning guitar is in the trees, found and brought to Maryland from around the world.

Behind a heavy door in a in the back of the factory is a temperature and humidity controlled room where stacks of wood wait to dry.

"So if you look at what looks like there are probably cars or something inside of these bay doors, what really they are, are heating rooms," Jack Higginbotham, COO of PRS Guitars said.

The heaters suck water out of the wood, creating a stable material to work with that will not warp, no matter the climate.

Higginbotham explains this is arguably the most important part of the process, "The moisture in the wood robs the tone, it kills the vibration, just like listening underwater."

Then, to the chopping block.

"We cut it in half that's called book matching, because you fold it together just like a book when you're done, you match your curl up," Higginbotham said lining up two squares of wood with the wood's shining tiger stripe reflecting in the light.

The neck and body go through different machines, cut and carved to precise measurements.

Newly stained guitar bodies hang to dry.

Most of the machines were taken from different industries, like aerospace and metal-working, and adapted to PRS's needs.

"All the jigs and fixtures that're in here, we design and we make them," Higginbotham said.

The body of the guitar then goes to the artists, who meticulously sand the guitar body to a pearl finish.

"A guy finishes building a guitar, he puts his initials in it and you sign each one," Higginbotham said.

Artist screws turning keys onto guitar.

Then, the guitar comes alive, a light stain makes the tiger stripes leap off the front and gorgeous eagles soar down the fretboard.

A tribute to Smith's mother, an avid bird watcher.

Adorning the head stock, carved letters of Smith's signature, from ivory-like material.

Electronics, made from scratch in the factory are then installed to make the guitar sing.

Artists complete a sound check.

Then guitars go to another room, where employees ensure it's perfect, marking any small scratch with a white squiggle.

A birthday tag tops the masterpiece, with the names of  those who gave it life.

Artist examines guitar in assembly.

As for the man who dedicated his life to the guitar.

There's something magic about them, when you're sitting on the couch with a guitar you love, there's no pain and when you put it away there's no hangover, there's something wonderful about them," Smith said.

Smith will continue making magic and thanking his employees for creating music right here in Maryland.

Paul Reed Smith Guitar, Santana edition, signed by Carlos Santana