Best Years for PRS Guitars + Years to Avoid! (Complete Guide)

Author: James Potts | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Paul Reed Smith guitars are one of the leading manufacturers of high-end guitars in the world today, coming in at a close third behind Fender and Gibson.

PRS is a well-established and respected company, with an ever-growing catalog of electric guitars (and basses, acoustic guitars, and amps too!) made with high-quality materials, attention to detail, and handmade craftsmanship.

You may be wondering if there is a specific period where PRS were producing better guitars than at other times, as it is well documented in the cases of Fender and Gibson that standards can fluctuate throughout the lifespan of a company. With the changing of owners, budgets, and design specifications, the end product can be massively affected.

Let’s take a look at PRS, their guitars, and if there are really more years that are more desirable than others.

The Early Years of PRS 1985 – 1994

PRS guitars began when luthier Paul Reed Smith, who had formerly worked at Alembic and made custom guitars for Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia, set up shop on his own. It was a one-man operation at first, just PRS in his Maryland workshop, making guitars for local musicians.

He used to hang around at gigs, trying to force his guitars into the hands of musicians in the hopes they would play them. And, believe it or not, it worked. The first ever PRS guitar was played by Ted Nugent, and he’s not the only one who was an early supporter. Peter Frampton and Al Di Meola were also persuaded.

It was in this era that the first official PRS guitar was created – the Custom 24. He debuted it at the 1985 NAMM show, and it was a hit. So much so, that PRS went from making about one guitar a month pre-1985 to hitting their 1,000th guitar in 1986.

Many believe that these early models are the ideal PRS guitar, and it’s largely due to this small-scale manufacturing process, as it allowed the craftsmen to have much more control over every small detail.

PRS guitars in this era were made with certain details that fans believe earn them a place in the ‘best’ of PRS.

Pickups Made In-House

PRS were making their own pickups and winding them by hand in the early years. This meant they had total tonal control over each and every guitar they produced.

Everything Hand-Cut

There was no need for any kind of mass production in these early days, so every PRS guitar was made entirely by hand – even the routing on the bodies was done without machines. Fans believe these early models have a higher level of craftsmanship and attention to detail than later machine-cut models lack.

Best Locking Tuning Pegs

Locking tuning pegs are not unique to PRS guitars, but some fans found that the fittings on these early PRSs were head and shoulders above the rest. There are even some who believe these PRS tuners have been copied by other brands like Fender, Sperzel, and Schaller.

Headstock Design

The angle of the headstock on these early designs is perfect for facilitating lesser tension, making the guitar more enjoyable to play and sound great.

High-Quality Materials

Paul had built up a stash of high-end tonewoods over his years of building guitars for himself, and this meant when the time came to start producing guitars on a larger scale, he had great materials to work with. All the fingerboards were made from the finest Brazilian rosewood and the bodies and necks were from mahogany with curly maple tops.

Expansion and Manufacturing Developments 1995 – 2007

Because these early models were so well-made and desirable, there was of course an explosion in demand for PRS guitars. This meant that making guitars by hand just wasn’t feasible anymore, and the company expanded into a larger factory in Stevensville, Maryland.

Because of the insanely high demand for PRS guitars, the company was actually unable to meet that demand for almost a year until it got on top of its order backlog.

In 1994, former Gibson CEO Ted McCarty joined PRS as a consultant, which further influenced designs and production techniques, as well as a signature model, the McCarty.

Some highly praised models also came out in this era, such as the Dragon I, II, and III. They featured a non-vibrato stop-tail bridge, a wide 22-fret neck, and new pickups. The most noticeable thing about the Dragon series was the departure from the classic PRS bird-design fret inlays and the replacement of them with a dragon design.

There was a limited 100 guitar run of each model and they remain highly desirable today. In the year 2000, PRS released the Dragon 2000, a super-limited run of only 50 guitars that featured more pronounced curvature and an extreme 3D dragon inlay on the body.

It was also in this era that PRS started designing and using their own hardware such as bridges, tuners, tremolos, and pickups.

One of the major changes in the manufacturing process that was implemented in this era was the use of CNC machines to cut and rout guitar bodies, as opposed to doing it all by hand.

For some, this was a step in the right direction – to continue to innovate and improve quality using whatever techniques were available. To others, it signaled a digression from the original handmade style that made PRS guitars so unique and desirable in the first place.

Change in Heel

One of the big changes in the design and build of PRS guitars was the extension of the heel where the neck joins the body. Some attribute this to McCarty’s input and his design ideals imported from Gibson.

For many, it is not a major issue, but some see the extended heel as an ugly design flaw that makes the current line of PRS guitars less desirable and playable.

The old heel design featured glued-in necks, whereas the current heel design necks are glued-on, resulting in less stability. Set necks are also claimed to have worse tonal capabilities than other affixing methods, due to glue having a dampening effect on sound transference.

Continuing to Innovate 2007 – Present

PRS, in opposition to other companies like Fender and Gibson, is not rooted in the past due to traditions or long-standing histories featuring many famous and ground-breaking (at the time) guitars.

This allows them to continually innovate and improve upon their designs using the latest technology and design methods.

The use of machines and computers to aid in the design and manufacturing process is welcomed by many guitarists, who claim that their recent output is their best yet, and only continues to improve every year.

Of course, there are a few purists who prefer things done the old way, and who object to the use of machines in what was once a strictly handmade guitar company.

Final Thoughts

PRS is a company that is constantly growing and innovating and keeping on top of the latest build techniques. This has resulted in them gaining a huge following and a dedicated customer base. Their consistent use of high-quality materials and commitment to producing high-end guitars has cemented PRS firmly as a respectable company.

Their introduction of an SE (student edition) line in 2001 also offered those on a budget a way into owning a PRS guitar, although these guitars are made overseas and are so of course looked down on by many who prefer the strictly American-made ‘boutique’ models.

Regardless of your opinions on when the best years were for PRS, it’s true (as it is with every company) that there is no clear answer. The best way to decide if a guitar is right for you is to just play it. Try out as many different models from as many different years as you can. With PRS, I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised with guitars from all years.

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About James Potts

James is an amateur guitarist and home-recording enthusiast. He loves all things music related - writing songs, playing in a band, and finding the best ways to listen to it. It all interests him, from the history of acoustic guitars, to the latest Bluetooth headphones, to his (ever-growing) collection of vinyl records.

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