Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Chapter 11. THE REVENGE OF THE NERDS
In 1975, the Detroit-based guitarist Ted Nugent was on fire. He had just released his first solo album, and it was screaming up the charts thanks to FM hits like “Stranglehold” and “Hey Baby.” Although Nugent didn’t drink or do drugs, he was widely acknowledged as one of rock’s most outrageous characters. Like a modern Tarzan, he often performed his hard rock anthems in a loincloth, and was known to whip out a bow and arrow for a little target practice onstage when he grew tired of soloing on his ’62 Gibson Byrdland. In other words, the self-proclaimed “Motor City Madman” was a wild and formidable presence.
The only thing more outlandish than Nugent, however, was the sheer audacity of a geeky nineteen-year-old named Paul Reed Smith, who bluffed his way backstage at a concert in Baltimore to show the rocker a guitar he’d built by hand.
“I remember meeting Paul vividly,” said Nugent many years later with a laugh.
He was a classic nerd—a gawky, snot-nosed kid with glasses. I let him backstage because I knew that some of the greatest amplifiers and guitars came from mad scientists in their basement.
What really got my attention was the neck on his guitar, which was spectacular; it beckoned you to explore and play. However, at the time, I was so addicted to my Gibson Byrdland it would’ve taken a miracle to make me switch, but I commissioned him to make me a guitar anyway.
As for Smith, he had tried his best to put on a good show for Nugent, but later admitted the whole time his knees were knocking:
I mean, how would you feel if you were a teenager trying to talk to a wild man like Ted Nugent? I was totally intimidated, but rock stars were the only guys with enough money to buy my early guitars. I didn’t have any other choice but to pound on their doors. I was charging two thousand dollars for guitars, which at the time was crazy.
Without their support, I had nothing. So I made a deal with Ted. If he didn’t completely fall in love with the guitar that I built, he didn’t have to buy it and he would get his deposit back. That’s how I got him, and many others, to talk to me.
It was a promising beginning for what would be a long, hard road to creating one of the most successful American guitar companies since the heyday of Fender and Gibson. Over the next decade, the nervous youngster would rise up and be the guitar industry’s David, hurtling rocks at the establishment and shaming them back into respectability.
“It was Paul Reed fucking Smith that forced Gibson and Fender to get back into the game,” said Nugent.
Yes, Paul’s guitars were wonderful, and yes, the guitar playing community now has a wonderful spiritual relationship with Paul and his creations, but more importantly he was an American alarm to Gibson and Fender, that they were dropping the ball. And here’s the beauty of it—they responded. In the late eighties, they realized that this kid was kicking their ass, and they finally started making really good guitars again.
LIKE MANY GIANT slayers, Smith heard destiny calling early. At sixteen he started tinkering with guitar building in high school woodshop, but by his senior year it had become something of a full-blown obsession, when he landed part-time work as an instrument repairman at Washington Music Center in Maryland.
During his employment, he was often shocked by what he saw. It was one thing to fix an older instrument that had fallen into a state of disrepair, but more often than not he was being asked to fix up brand-new instruments that had been shipped directly from factories.
“There were immense quality problems,” remembers Smith, echoing sentiments expressed by many guitarists of the era. “Often frets weren’t properly finished or leveled, necks weren’t straight, and polyester was slopped everywhere. To me, the pre-CBS Fender versus CBS Fender wasn’t anywhere near as big a deal as the quality nightmare going on in 1974. Even though I was pretty young, I saw an opportunity. I didn’t see myself as somebody who was going to change the guitar industry, but I could see how I could make a difference by doing things right.”
After graduating high school, Smith went to St. Mary’s College to become a mathematician, but after eighteen months he knew it wasn’t for him. In his last semester on campus, he made a deal with a resident music professor: in return for four academic credits, Smith would buy wood from a violin maker and make a guitar. “I built my first ‘real’ guitar in the basement of the art building.” The single-cutaway Les Paul Junior-style guitar, now on display in the entrance hall of the present PRS factory, was a promising start, but Smith knew it wasn’t going to set the world on fire.
He had a vision, though. He dropped out of college, moved back in with his parents, and began building and repairing guitars in his bedroom. He quickly outgrew the space and began scouring the historic area of Annapolis. He dreamed of renting a hippie palace where people could watch him build guitars. Instead, his lack of funds led to a minuscule garret apartment over the top of a bar called the Happy Buzzard, a place so small he had to wipe wood chips off the bed before he went to sleep at night. And there was one other major problem.
“I was so mad,” said Smith. “I called my landlord and screamed, ‘You rented me a haunted room and didn’t tell me!’ He innocently replied, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it’s never hurt anybody.’ ”
The place wasn’t ideal, but it was a start. And now that he was officially a guitar maker by trade, Smith began to deeply consider what he had seen as a repairman. Not only had he witnessed a drastic decline in the production of modern electric guitars, but he had also seen his share of beautiful vintage instruments from the golden era of the fifties, and wondered how he could improve upon their greatness. His overarching dream was to create a guitar that could provide the tones of both a Stratocaster and a Les Paul, and have a look, feel, and playability that would compete with those classic instruments.
“I would say very early on I had a theory that an electric guitar was an acoustic guitar with a magnetic microphone on it, and that the acoustic sound of solid-body guitar made a huge difference to the electric sound. You can put the same pickups on a ’69 Telecaster as on a ’53 Telecaster and they’ll sound different, therefore the acoustic sound must have some impact. Everybody seemed to miss that point.”
From there, Smith, a former math student and son of two professional mathematicians, started doing what came naturally: rigorously analyzing every aspect of how electric guitars past and present were constructed. He began questioning every design decision made over the last thirty years. What were the tuning pegs and nuts made of? How was the truss rod installed? How was the bridge anchored? How much water was in the wood of the body? The intensely intellectual young man studied all the instruments he repaired for clues—what made them tick and what made some ring out with glorious clarity while others sounded dead as the dodo. If the tone of a great electric guitar started with its inherent acoustic sound, he reasoned, there must be a code he could crack to make his instruments among the best ever made.
“I learned I could test a good electric guitar with a stopwatch,” explained Smith. “A solid-body guitar that rings for ten seconds without an amp is simply not as good as a guitar that rings for forty-two seconds.”
As Smith was sorting these and other puzzles, he continued to relentlessly pursue famous musicians to try out his guitars. Emboldened by his success with Nugent, in 1976 the young builder finagled his way backstage once again, this time convincing Peter Frampton to commission a guitar. Frampton was perhaps the biggest rock star on the planet at the time, due to his smash live album Frampton Comes Alive!, which sold six million copies in less than a year. Selling him a guitar was a coup that would generate Smith an immense amount of publicity and credibility. Realizing the magnitude of the commission, Smith worked doggedly to fashion his greatest instrument yet, a beautiful mahogany guitar that would be “the seed from which all subsequent production PRS instruments would grow.” In addition to its lightly arched top, double-cutaway, and ornate headstock with Smith’s now famous eagle logo, the fingerboard would also feature the logo as inlays, becoming his signature feature.
Before he handed over the instrument to Frampton in May of 1976, he took the finished guitar to a show at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, featuring a double bill of the jazz-fusion band Return to Forever and his personal hero, Carlos Santana. After showing some roadies his creation, they introduced Smith to Return to Forever’s guitarist Al Di Meola. Impressed, Di Meola immediately ordered an electric twelve-string with a built-in phase shifter (a device that alters an electric guitar’s signal to create a dramatic “whooshing” sound, often compared to a jet plane in flight), a guitar he would use on the title track of his commercially successful 1977 solo album, Elegant Gypsy. Smith was also introduced to Santana, who also played the Frampton guitar but, much to Smith’s disappointment, was less enthusiastic.
Santana, however, recognized that there was something different, and perhaps exceptional, about Smith and his guitar. “His bright eyes were filled with hope, possibilities and opportunities,” said Santana.
He had this beautiful cherry red guitar, but it had a different cherry finish than anything that I’d ever seen. He was very gentle, but persistent. At that time I was with Yamaha guitars, and I had some very disappointing experiences with Gibson, so I wasn’t really as receptive as I should have been, but nevertheless he persevered. His tenacity made me realize that he was invested in something that he believed in. For me, even more than the guitars, it was his vision. How can you describe the intangible? Well, you could say, “It’s a man’s dream.” And he had this vision about what he wanted to do that was very contagious. What I remember about that first guitar is that it sounded like a tenor. It had a very rich, low, masculine tone; a belly tone, like the great Italian opera singer, Pavarotti.
The guitarist was intrigued, but he stopped short of ordering an instrument. This was both a crushing blow and a motivation for Smith to redouble his efforts to make something so classic and undeniable that even Carlos Santana, the guitarist with one of the most gorgeous tones in music, could not resist.
Over the next few years, Smith continued to improve and collect a high-profile clientele that included Nancy Wilson and Howard Leese of the rock band Heart, but he often struggled to make ends meet, regularly returning to repair work so he had enough money to put food on the table. Up to that point his guitars were made primarily of mahogany, a functional but unremarkable wood. It sounded great and was fine for the working guitarist, but it lacked the visual impact he desired. Smith longed to create something that evoked the greatest electrics ever constructed—the Gibson Les Paul models made between 1958 and 1960. Part of the appeal of those instruments was their elaborate curly-maple sunburst arched tops. But prime maple was neither cheap nor easy to come by.
As if by providence, Smith discovered that a friend owned an antique dresser with curly maple drawer fronts, and, seizing the opportunity, he asked his pal if he could have the wood. His friend shrugged, and Smith went to work stripping the furniture. The first guitar made from the dresser was stunning.
In the fall of 1980, Smith once again went to a Santana show and slithered his way backstage armed with one of his mahogany guitars, this time featuring a fanciful dragon inlay and P-90 pickups. At first Carlos refused to see the guitar maker, but after a sympathetic roadie insisted on showing Santana Smith’s latest creation, the guitarist had a change of heart and let Smith in.
“When I walked backstage, Carlos was already playing my guitar,” remembered Smith. “Every note was feeding back in a completely controlled way. That was his test. He looked at me and asked if he could play it onstage that night, and I certainly wasn’t going to say no. Then he started looking through a scrapbook I had with me. He came across the first curly-maple-top guitar I had made for Heart’s Howard Leese and his eyes lit up and he said, ‘That’s the kind I want.’ ”
A commission from Santana was a major victory for Smith, but when he returned to his workshop he had a dilemma. He wanted to get a guitar to Carlos as quickly as possible in case the rock star changed his mind, but he knew it would take him at least a few weeks to make a new one from scratch. Suddenly, he had a brainstorm. Leese was due to send his maple PRS back for some maintenance, so Smith persuaded him to send it to Santana, who had just started to record his Zebop! album.
“Carlos got the guitar and plugged it in and immediately started recording the album with it,” said Smith. “When I called his people to see how he liked it, they said I couldn’t have it back. I had to explain to them that it was Howard’s guitar, but they could borrow it until I could make a new one. However, while discussing the specifications of his new guitar, Santana insisted on an improvement. He wanted me to add a vibrato arm that stayed in tune. I agreed, but as soon as I hung up I thought, ‘How in the fuck am I going to do that?’ ”
Santana was adamant that he didn’t want a complicated locking system, like the Floyd Rose tremolo made popular by Edward Van Halen, so Smith had to quickly figure out an alternative. He came up with a solution that included the installation of a nut that used miniature rollers on each string to reduce friction, locking tuning pegs, and a brass bridge. Together they worked like a charm.
Santana was impressed, calling it “an accident of God.” Carlos then dared Smith to make him another that was equally good. Four guitars later, each of them brilliant in its own way, Santana finally acknowledged Smith’s superior skill as a luthier, admitting sheepishly, “Well, I guess they weren’t accidents of God.”
“Carlos made me earn his respect,” said Smith. “He was in the position where he could play anything he wanted to. Nobody could tell Carlos Santana what to like.”
WITH SEVERAL OF the world’s most respected guitarists endorsing his instruments, Smith’s reputation began to spread. Magazines such as Guitar Player and Musician were beginning to take note, and with momentum on his side it was time for him to finally step up and realize his earliest ambition: building a game-changing guitar that could provide the tones of both a Stratocaster and a Les Paul without copying either.
While his guitars from this period still had the Gibson Les Paul Special double-cutaway shape, they featured a few significant changes that were Smith’s own innovations, most notably the guitar’s fretboard length. Most Gibson electrics had 24¾-inch scale necks, while Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters have 25½-inch scale necks. Smith opted for a 25-inch scale to make a guitar that felt comfortable in the hands of Les Paul and Fender players alike. He was shooting for the middle, because he felt “guitar players wished there was something in the middle.”
“You had your Gibson players and your Fender players,” recalled Smith. “Fifty percent played one and 50 percent played the other. If you only made the Gibson guys happy, and if only one of two of those guys liked the guitar, you still only had 25 percent of the market. I knew if I didn’t draw the line down the middle and combine the best features of the Fender and Gibson, I was dead.”
And the middle was what Smith continued to aim for when he finally got around to designing a new and distinctive body shape for his instruments. In 1984, he thought long and hard on what he wanted. As a starting point he took a Fender Strat shape and a Gibson Les Paul Junior shape and drew them on top of each other and averaged the lines. Everyone agreed the result was aesthetically horrible, so he spent the next two years revising the shape until finally arriving at the modern PRS at 3:00 a.m. one morning after a long and wearying evening of sanding.
The double-cutaway body shape with an elongated horn on the upper bout became the foundation for the PRS Custom. It was a triumph of long hours, hard work, persistence, and design.
But Smith was at a crossroads. He realized that in order to make a living as a guitar builder, he needed to either sell his designs to a major manufacturer or start his own company to manufacture them. In 1985 Smith was ready to go national, and with the help of an investor he formed a limited partnership, raising $500,000 in capital. PRS Guitars was born.
AT THIS POINT in the story it certainly would be fair to wonder how a traditionalist like Smith was getting so much attention. After all, wasn’t this the eighties—the era of MTV, garish colors, Frankenstein contraptions, and instruments made out of synthetic materials? It would seem that a guy who wanted nothing more than to make an instrument worthy of Leo Fender or Ted McCarty would be all too easily overlooked.
Well, yes and no.
As the electric guitar matured and gained in popularity, it was only natural that styles, tastes, and trends would diversify. For every iconoclast like Steve Vai or Ned Steinberger, there were large numbers of conservatives that loved every last thing about classic Telecasters from the fifties, or old Gretsch White Penguins. Pointy guitar merchants like B.C. Rich may have been grabbing the attention, but there was also a groundswell of craftsmen like Smith, and West Coast builders such as Tom Anderson in Newberry Park, California, and Valley Arts Guitar in North Hollywood, who more closely identified with the aesthetics of founding fathers like Ted McCarty and Leo Fender.
And guitar makers weren’t the only ones suspicious of the newfangled instruments being produced by Ibanez or Jackson. There was a whole new crop of players who also felt more comfortable playing either vintage instruments or new ones that felt vintage. In 1983, blues sensation Stevie Ray Vaughan recorded his debut with a battered and bruised 1963 Stratocaster. Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats—a true darling of MTV—appeared in his videos with a 1959 Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 model. And most punk rockers, like Joe Strummer of the Clash, who played old Telecasters, had zero interest in a new guitar with a fancy paint job or a locking whammy bar.
While most agreed that Gibson and Fender had hit the skids, there were different ideas on what to do about it. Builders and dreamers such as Paul Reed Smith and Edward Van Halen had opted to make new instruments, but many players simply started digging through garages and yard sales and under their dad’s bed for older instruments that were made when the companies truly cared. And, thus, the vintage guitar market was born.
Before the vintage guitar market caught fire in the eighties, it had been the domain of a small handful of guitar geeks. Some of these obsessives went on to become famous musicians themselves. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, and Joe Walsh were just a few of the young kids that figured out, way before anyone else, that these older guitars possessed something today’s guitars lacked, and they would buy them and often resell them as a way to make money and make friends with the musicians they regarded as heroes.
Nielsen told journalist Tom Beaujour that when he started buying guitars from the fifties and early sixties, most people didn’t understand why. “They were just ‘used’ guitars, not ‘vintage,’ and it was a great time to start a collection if you knew where to look…You could go out to the country and maybe a farmer would have a Gibson Firebird under the bed. He’d say, ‘Well, I don’t know what it is, but I don’t want it anymore because it only has five strings left on it.’ ”
Gibson Les Pauls were an area of particular interest. He recalled selling one to Jeff Beck in 1968. “I had gone to see the Jeff Beck Group play in Chicago. After the set, I saw Beck’s roadie pick up a Les Paul…The guy grabbed the guitar by the body, dropped it, and the headstock snapped off. I pushed my way backstage and told the band’s road manager, ‘Jeff probably doesn’t know it yet, but his roadie just accidentally broke his guitar. I’m a guitar collector, so please take my number and give it to Jeff in case he needs something.’ ”
Soon enough Nielsen’s phone rang and he was on a flight to Philadelphia with six guitars. “[Jeff] picked out a 1960 Les Paul with a Bigsby on it, and gave me $350, which was the going rate for those at that time. And then Jeff and I stayed up late into the night and played guitar, which for me, of course, was worth more than anything.”
Joe Walsh, who would later become a superstar as a solo artist and lead guitarist with the Eagles, was another early collector who recognized the value of guitars made in the fifties, and made it his mission to search high and low for spectacular used instruments long before it was fashionable. Like Nielsen, he gained a reputation as a go-to guy for hard-to-get instruments, and soon some of the biggest names in rock and roll came knocking on his door when they were in need of something special.
It was Walsh who provided Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page with his ’59 sunburst Les Paul, one of the most iconic instruments in rock-and-roll history.
In April of 1969, Walsh’s early band, the James Gang, was touring with Led Zeppelin when he heard Page was looking for a new instrument. “Jimmy was still playing the Telecaster that he played in the Yardbirds,” said Walsh.
He was looking for a Les Paul and asked if I knew of any, because he couldn’t find one that he liked. It turned out I had just acquired two of them, so I kept the one I liked the most and sold him the other one. I gave him a really good deal, about 1,200 bucks. I had to hand-carry it and fly out to New York to give it to him. So whatever my expenses were, that’s what I charged him…but again, I just thought he should have a Les Paul for godsakes!
But the man perhaps most responsible for spreading the gospel of vintage was George Gruhn, owner of the world-famous Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee. Had the course of his life run just a little differently, Gruhn might well have been a professor of herpetology (the academic study of reptiles). As it was, he became the undisputed dean of the vintage guitar trade, an expert whose opinion is often sought and cited, and whose vintage guitar shop at 400 Broadway in Nashville became a mecca for rock stars, well-heeled collectors, and guitar aficionados of every stripe. Among these pilgrims, Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars—cowritten with Walter Carter and now in its third edition—is still revered as the collectors’ bible.
“I could joke about it and say that my specialization in reptile behavior has helped me deal with certain dealers or musicians,” Gruhn said.
But that’s not really true. What my zoological background did was give me a systematic way of looking at guitars, which I view very much as being alive. And they fit very nicely in a taxonomic system, which is what I’ve developed in my books. I look at guitars in the same way a herpetologist studies reptiles and amphibians. You look at their structural features and you study them in their environment. Guitars evolve over time in their design as they adapt to an environment that includes social, demographic and technological changes, not to mention musical and economic trends.
Although his Nashville shop was often populated with snakes, lizards, and a parrot, Gruhn’s pets never kept guitar collectors from his door:
Billy Gibbons has bought over 100 guitars from me since 1970. Rick Nielsen has bought over 100 guitars from me, also going back to ’70. I have other customers who have been buying from me ever since the mid-Sixties, before I even had a store. They keep coming back for more. Basically I only lose customers when they get senile or die. My basic business plan for the future is to outlive them all. My uncle Otto lived to be 105 and I’m just 65 now. So that gives me another 40 years of sales. I don’t have a retirement plan. How do you retire from a hobby?
Gruhn traced today’s lucrative market for vintage American guitars back to the folk music boom of the late fifties and early sixties. It makes sense that devotees of old-time musical traditions would also value instruments with a past. Folk is what first got Gruhn hooked on guitars in 1963 while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Searching for a guitar he could use to play traditional music in the style of the Carter Family, he went through a Conde Hermanos classical from Madrid, a circa-1920 Gibson Style O, and a 1937 Martin F7 archtop before lighting on a Gibson L-5 signed and dated by Lloyd Loar. For this, he paid the princely sum of $400 at Sid Sherman’s music store on Wabash Avenue in Chicago.
“On a college student’s income, that was a lot of money,” he said. “But that guitar today would be worth 50 or 60 thousand dollars.”
In essence, Gruhn began dealing to support his growing vintage guitar addiction. “I have never been an electric player,” he said. “I’m only interested in acoustics. But I found that, for every guitar I wanted personally to collect I’d turn up 50 more that were terrific deals even though I didn’t want them for myself.”
In those pre-Internet days, Gruhn would source guitars through classified newspaper ads, college bulletin boards, and a few Chicago stores, such as the Fret Shop, that sold used and vintage instruments. “I don’t claim that I created the vintage guitar market,” he said. “There were folks like John Lundberg in California who were already dealing to some extent, as well as Harry West in New York and Tom Morgan in Tennessee. But I was certainly one of the first to write about it extensively. When I started in ’63, you couldn’t get as much as a Martin serial number list. There were no articles. No books.”
Gruhn’s early vintage guitar articles appeared in small bluegrass publications such as Muleskinner News and Bluegrass Unlimited. But with the advent of professional guitar journalism in the late sixties, his name became ubiquitous. During the same period he moved on to graduate studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville by which point he was dealing heavily. On summer breaks, he’d make the round of folk festivals down south, selling vintage guitars. It was around then that he made the sad discovery that one day dawns upon many an earnest grad student: there just aren’t a lot of jobs, academic or otherwise, for people with advanced degrees in specialized fields like herpetology.
Then one day he received a phone call that shaped his destiny. As Gruhn recalled:
At the end of 1968, probably in December, I got a call from Hank Williams Jr. at my apartment in Knoxville. He’d heard from Sonny Osborne, of the bluegrass group the Osborne Brothers, that I had a bunch of old Martins, and he was looking for those. I told him a bit about what I had. He said, “I’ll be there in four hours.” Well, there was no interstate between Nashville and Knoxville in ’68. It was all winding, two-lane mountain roads. Normally you couldn’t do it in four hours. But Hank did. He was driving a Jaguar E, which doesn’t have much hauling capacity. So he bought three guitars. He didn’t have room in the car for more. But he said he could be back the next day with a bigger car. He came back with a Cadillac Eldorado and bought as many guitars as that car could hold.
He said he didn’t know of anybody who had the sort of stuff that I had. And if I ever wanted to come to Nashville and set up in business, he’d have an apartment waiting for me and help me get started. It seemed like a good idea. I dropped out of school and moved to Nashville. For a couple of years, Hank Williams Jr. was the best customer I had. To a considerable extent, he was supporting me just by buying guitars that he personally wanted. But I was also still actively wheeling and dealing. I remember selling a Dobro [brand guitar] to Duane Allman in 1969. At that time, a fancy Dobro was only $350. And Duane paid me at the rate of $50 every other week. Music was not a lucrative career for him at that time. The part of his career where he had any money was very brief.
In 1970 Gruhn opened his first shop, at 111 Fourth Avenue North in Nashville, near the corner of Fourth and Broadway, about a hundred yards from Gruhn’s current location and right behind Ryman Auditorium, then home of the Grand Ole Opry and country icon Johnny Cash’s influential network TV variety show. “All the performers who played the Johnny Cash TV show came into our store,” said Gruhn. “We had vintage stuff they found fascinating. Back then there weren’t any stores nearby that were selling vintage instruments. And serious musicians weren’t interested in new stuff because it was crap; 1970 was a low, low point for new instrument quality. So we met Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Joni Mitchell, Derek and the Dominos, you name it.”
Gruhn has always been notoriously underwhelmed by rock stars, and is famous for failing to recognize even worldwide musical icons when they walk into his shop. “I could care less about them,” he shrugged. “For instance, Metallica comes in here anytime they’re in town. They buy. Do I know the guys? Not really. My employees know who they are. If James Hetfield walked through the door, would I know who he is? No.”
In a way, however, Gruhn’s indifference to musical trends was his strength. He’s never catered to any one genre or style of musical instrument. “I’d starve to death if I had to rely on country players alone,” he said. “If you walk in my shop, you’d never know what kind of music I was into.”
Gruhn has flourished down through the decades, moving to a bigger shop in ’76. At the dawn of the nineties he brought guitar historian Walter Carter into the fold to assist in the creation of the first Gruhn’s Guide. “It’s organized like a zoological field guide,” Gruhn explained. “One of the most influential books in my life was the Schmidt and Davis field guide to snakes, which was published in 1941. The identification keys used for guitars in the Gruhn’s Guide were very much modeled on the Schmidt and Davis field guide to snakes identification keys.”
Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars was first published in 1991, and recently went into its third edition. “It’s very much changed,” said Gruhn. “It not only expands on the first and second editions; there’s also reorganization.”
The store moved to its third and present location in ’93. Gruhn Guitars now resides in a 13,000-square-foot, four-story building at 400 Broadway in Nashville. The showroom occupies only about a quarter of the total space. Gruhn needed a good deal of room for storage and also an extensive repair shop where newly acquired guitars are painstakingly but unobtrusively restored to pristine condition prior to sale.
“In nature, almost all the most successful animals have a body that’s quite a bit bigger than their head,” Gruhn philosophized. “Characters in political cartoons are the other way around—the head is bigger than the body. A business that’s built like a political cartoon will fail, whereas one that’s built like a real live animal will thrive.”
Which Gruhn has done. His single largest sale, of which he’s quite proud, was a guitar belonging to pioneering country guitarist Maybelle Carter, which sold for $575,000 and now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
THE FIRST MODELS mass-produced by Paul Reed Smith Guitars in 1985 were the Standard, Custom, and Metal, none of which was cheap. The mahogany Standard sold for $1,150, while the Custom, with its curly-maple top, and the Metal, with its custom graphic finish, went for $1,350. (By comparison, that same year a Fender U.S.-made Vintage listed at $750, and a Gibson Les Paul Standard sold for $999.) Despite the expense, the guitar community quickly embraced Smith’s instruments, enthralled with their attention to detail and handiwork.
The timing for the company couldn’t have been better. By the end of the eighties, several factors had paved the way for PRS Guitars’ success. To begin with, many of the kids who started playing in the sixties and seventies had grown up, finished college, and had well-paying jobs that gave them enough disposable income to indulge in their rock-and-roll fantasies. Even if they were never going to play Madison Square Garden, they could buy a custom-quality instrument worthy of such a gig, and Paul’s handsome instruments fit that bill perfectly. Their beauty and stellar craftsmanship were so evident, you could display one in your living room like a piece of fine art, and many players did. It was a signifier.
The general guitar consumer had also become much better educated, primarily due to the rise of monthly magazines such as Guitar World, Guitar Player, and Musician, which breathlessly covered the most recent trends in the musical instrument industry. Smith became the poster boy for those publications—the shining beacon for integrity and commitment to excellence. And, while he could’ve gotten cocky, instead he doubled down on his reputation as a white knight.
In the early eighties, Smith’s restless and inquisitive mind led him to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Virginia, where he pored over the classic designs of Gibson’s early electrics. While attempting to unlock the secrets to those instruments, he kept stumbling on the name Ted McCarty.
“I thought, who’s Ted McCarty?” Smith laughed, marveling at his own ignorance.
Then I realized he was the guy behind most of the instruments I loved and respected…We first met in 1986, and I wanted to know everything. I asked him what glues he used, how he leveled fretboards, how he dried them, why he made the Explorer and the ES-335. Instead of being annoyed, Ted got a little emotional and said nobody had asked him those questions in years. It was unbelievable, so we hired him as a consultant and I tried to download as much of his vast knowledge as I could before he passed away in 2001.
McCarty had faded into obscurity, and Smith was determined to change that in a very public way. McCarty had never had a guitar with his name on it, so in 1994 Smith decided to honor his mentor with a special instrument that incorporated everything that McCarty had shared into a standard PRS instrument. Although the former Gibson president did not contribute any specific designs—his eyesight was too poor by then—his fingerprints were all over it.
The 1994 McCarty guitar became a defining moment in the ongoing growth and success of Smith’s company, and in many ways is a milestone in the history of the electric guitar. By channeling the spirit of one of the great pioneers into a modern design, PRS Guitars showed the guitar world a way to move forward without tossing out all that was good about the past. He also demonstrated, once again, that you could create a quality, mass-produced product and still turn a profit. As Nugent noted earlier, the once-gangly youth raised the bar for American guitar makers with a vengeance, and woke them from their stupor.
Still, you can’t please everyone.
Many modern rock and rollers were derisive of Smith and his squeaky-clean guitars, dismissing them as slick and expensive instruments for yuppies and lawyers. “I’m no guitar snob, I’ll play anything. But you’d never catch me dead playing a Paul Reed Smith,” Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong once spat.
If you were a humble rock musician who couldn’t relate to a gleaming PRS or to the garish instruments created for hair metal musicians, or couldn’t afford a skyrocketing vintage guitar, what were your options? Some started to double back to Fender and Gibson, who were making better instruments than they had in recent years. But for many others, there was yet another option.
Jack White and his thrift-shop 1964 Montgomery Ward Airline