The time Paul Reed Smith built Santana a guitar
Long before PRS guitars became the mainstream brand that it is today, Paul Reed Smith was just another luthier, living in the Baltimore area, and hoping for his big break.
Carlos Santana, on the other hand, was a guitar god and household name with exacting demands on his band, his crew, and his guitars.
When the two met, history was made. But it wasn’t easy.
Paul Reed Smith, small-time luthier
In the 1970s, Paul had honed his craft, making his guitars by hand and selling them to musicians. He made a deal with each artist he built a guitar for: if they didn’t absolutely fall in love with the guitar, they didn’t have to buy it. He was so good, however, that this was seldom if ever an issue.
By this time, he had build custom guitars for clients such as Al DiMeola, Ted Nugent, and Howard Leese. While these were certainly talented musicians, the luthier he needed more star power to really grow his business.
Around that time he found out that Carlos Santana, one of the biggest acts of the ’70s, was playing a show near Baltimore. Paul went to work.
Carlos Santana, big-time rock star
He built Santana a custom guitar, went to the show, and gave it to one of the crew members to take to the rock star. A few minutes passed, and the crew member came back to take Paul to the guitarist.
Carlos was playing the guitar backstage and seemingly loved it. He ordered a custom electric with curly maple top on the spot, but he wanted to play the guitar Paul brought in the show that night to verify it could handle the stage.
At the concert, Santana strapped Paul’s guitar on and began to play. After just a few notes, however, he ripped off the guitar in disgust and performed the rest of the song with another instrument.
After the show, Santana complained to Paul Reed Smith that his guitar didn’t sound good through the live rig and told him, “The deal’s off.” Paul begged and pleaded Santana to give him another chance, blaming the pickup in the guitar for the issue. Reluctantly, Santana agreed.
“An accident of God”
Rather than build Carlos a new guitar, however, Smith called Howard Leese (from the band Heart) and asked if he would lend Santana his guitar. Howard said yes, and the guitar went off to Santana.
Paul called Santana’s tech a few days later and discovered that the guitarist loved the guitar and wanted to keep it. He tried to explain that the guitar was borrowed, but to no avail. Carlos came to the phone and informed Paul that he would give the first guitar back, but not this one — it was too good.
Paul later stated he told him, “This was an accident of God; we’re done…except I need a spare. Maybe one with a tone control knob.”
When the new guitar was finished, he brought it to Carlos’ show. His tech gave it to Carlos during sound check. He could not tell that this was a new guitar until he looked down and say the new tone knob — it felt and played identically to like the first one. “Another accident of God,” he said. And then he proceeded to order another new guitar.
Paul Reed Smith, bonafide guitar maker
He subsequently ordered several more guitars from Paul, and after the fifth one, he finally told Paul, “Okay, you’re a guitar maker.”
Paul Reed Smith earned Santana’s respect the old-fashioned way — with lots of hard work and superb quality. That respect paid dividends to both men. Santana received upper-echelon-quality guitars, and PRS found its superstar.
Paul and Carlos became friends and supporters of each other after that. Santana played PRS guitars from the late 1970s onward, while Paul launched his now-famous company.
The PRS Santana signature guitar
In the mid 1990s, the two men worked together to finally release Carlos’ guitar to the public. The original model was only offered from 1995 to 1998, but the Santana line of guitars still continue to roll off the production line to this day.
Paul says that Carlos made him earn his respect, but one he got it, Carlos became his biggest fan. Smith has stated that Santana calls him every Christmas to thank him for his work, and he sends him flowers on his birthday.
Although the two men’s relationship started out rocky, their combined love of music and high-quality guitars helped start one of the top brands on the market today. PRS players around the world — and I’m one of them — owe a debt of gratitude to what these men have accomplished.