In the mid-Seventies both of the guitar industry’s giants – Fender and Gibson – had lost their innovative edge and much of their corporate prestige. Both companies had been taken over by large corporations, and profit margins started to push quality control into the background.
Many discerning guitarists were starting to subscribe to the notion of ”They’re not making ’em like they used to”, which left the doors wide open to Far Eastern copy guitars, as well as to small boutique makers.
PRS Guitars, just like Hamer Guitars, took Gibson’s classic solidbody designs as a basis for their ”modern vintage” models.
With PRS Guitars it all started with a young Paul Reed Smith converting one spare bedroom at his childhood home into a workshop in 1975. By the next year he had already moved into a small workshop in Annapolis, and started attracting customers such as Ted Nugent and Peter Frampton. His first guitars were based closely on the double cutaway Gibson Les Paul Special, but featured humbucking pickups.
A few years down the road Paul Smith added fancy flame maple tops into the mix, and he managed to sell four of these guitars to Carlos Santana. Santana’s signature PRS models are still based on these original guitars.
But Smith wasn’t satisfied with simply producing refined versions of past Gibson-classics, so he set out to develop the ultimate solidbody guitar.
By 1985 Paul Smith had finalised his vision and started his own production facility. At the NAMM shows of 1985 Smith unveiled the PRS Custom 24 – the model that has defined the whole brand to this day. The new guitar ingeniously combined the best features of a Gibson Les Paul Standard and a Fender Stratocaster, as well as including many of Smith’s own improvements – not least the smooth and reliable PRS-vibrato and his own (Schaller-made) locking tuners.
The PRS Custom 24 combines Gibson-style materials and construction with a Fender-like outline, balance and (in most cases) a vibrato bridge. Added into the mix are a middle-of-the-road 25-inch (63.5 cm) scale length – about halfway between the softer Gibson (24.75″/62.9 cm) and the harder Fender (25.5″/64.8 cm) scale lengths – as well as two PRS-humbuckers with coil-splits.
Originally the Custom 24 came equipped with two knobs and one mini-switch. The knob closest to the bridge pickup was (and still is) the master volume control, with the second knob actually being a five-way rotary pickup selector, and not a control pot. The mini-switch was called the Sweet Switch, and served in lieu of a regular tone control, by giving you a set tone with rolled-off highs.
The Sweet Switch was replaced by a regular tone control around 1989, and these days many Customs also feature a regular five-way pickup selector.
Over the years PRS have changed many details in the construction, harware and electronics of their guitars, but the Custom 24 still carries the essence of what PRS Guitars are all about – it is a beautiful, yet practical quality instrument. Or as Carlos Santana put it in an interview with Paul Reed Smith a few years ago: ”It’s a guitar that gives you no excuses not to play to the best of your abilities.”