The ULTIMATE Guitar Practice Routine
Just show up every day, and I'll tell you what to play!
Tony:Tony Polecastro here from The Acoustic Letter today and it is a very special day on The Acoustic Letter. Today with us in the Acoustic Letter studios, which look pretty good, is Mr. Paul Reed Smith. Yes, we had a Stella on display. I have a master luthier here who builds incredible guitars. They look incredible, they sound incredible, and we’re featuring the Stella today. I wore my red shirt for the occasion.
Paul:We are featuring the PRS acoustics today. The Stella is there because that’s where a lot of people with no money start with the guitars, and we are in cowboy country and that is a cowboy guitar without the painting, and the idea is one day to grow up and not have to use the Stella anymore, that would be the idea.
Tony:Did you start on a Stella?
Paul:No I didn’t, I started on a hilo, which is something you’ve never even heard of, and it was the cheapest piece of junk ever and I learned Day Tripper on it. My mother had it because her old acoustic had gotten stolen. Somebody broke into our house and stole this beautiful old nylon string that she played, and they replaced it, they didn’t have a lot of money at the time, they replaced it with a very inexpensive guitar, and that’s where I started.
Tony:It was a hilo.
Paul:It was called a hilo, which is good luck finding one, even under a bed falling apart.
Tony:When was your introduction to guitar as an instrument, acoustic guitar, whatever it was, when was the moment where you’re like, I can do music.
Paul:Look, my parents were mathematicians and musicians, so it was kind of an interesting household to grow up in. My brother brought me to a store the day the Hendrix record, the first one was released, and there was a picture of this guy on the front of the album cover with two eyes on his shirt and he had a ‘fro and the two white guys said ‘fros, and he said these guys are huge in England, and we need to buy this. I said fine. It was cellophane, it was record, there was cellophane on it.
I came home and my brother left, I took the cellophane off and listened to it. When I got to where he experienced, I was hooked, I was done, I had never heard anything like it in my life. It blew me away. When the Beatles came out my mother came home with Meet the Beatles, “This is an important thing in our history.” I saw Ed Sullivan when they played. I was just too young to have seen Elvis play Heartbreak Hotel on the Jack Paar show. I was just a little bit too young, but that whole Beatles thing and the Hendrix thing and all that, I was immersed in it.
I was too young to go to Woodstock, I was 13, my parents wouldn’t have let me go to Woodstock. Had I been 15 or 16 I might’ve made it.
Once I heard it it was so emotional, it had such a new energy to it, there was a whole new thing. Music goes through that. They had these big bands with too many people and then Elvis shows up and he can do with three. Then the bands get really big and it cuts down to Nirvana. Over and over it gets too big and then it cuts back, and then it gets too big and it cuts back and then it got too big and Jack White shows up and does it with two people. It just happens over and over and over again and the guitar always seems to be in the middle of it.
Paul:It’s a wonderful instrument. What it really is is a harpsichord where you can change the length of the strings with your hands. You’re not playing keys. It’s very intimate because you’re actually … You’re touching the thing that’s vibrating. The next most intimate instrument is singing, and then after that it’s guitar, it’s wonderful.
The thing I like about it is in Animal House when the guy comes down and smashes him over the head, he’s singing to her on the stairs trying to get laid, and he says shut up, I don’t want to listen to this and he smashes the guitar. That is what the guitar is, right?
Tony:It’s true, it’s true.
Paul:It’s a wonderful instrument. Why would I not be enthralled with it? It just seems stupid to not be enthralled with it.
Tony:In your world, you’re a guitar maker, and you’re a guitar player, too.
Paul:When I took a guitar I made to Washington Music Center, which was the place in our area, if I opened the case it grew to a crowd. If I started playing, people ran, and that’s an exaggeration but not much of one. I had to pay attention to the feedback of the world which was we’re very interested in these instruments you’re making, we’re not interested in hearing you play.
Now I’m in a band with the Grainger Brothers which is to die for, and you and I were noodling around with taking Norwegian Wood and mixing it with the Allman Brothers and that’s fun.
I mean come on, that’s just music, right?
Tony:It is, it’s ridiculous. I did not expect to sit down and immediately start playing.
Tony:It’s funny, you get us in a room and it’s okay, let’s noodle, and it just started and it’s awesome.
Paul:The other thing is he’s not going to tell you is that Norwegian Wood was the first tune that he ever learned so he always goes back to that …
Paul:I said you just play a little Norwegian Wood and then I explained to him it’s about burning the lady’s house down, he goes yeah right, so I look it up on Wikipedia which you can do now, and that’s what it says on Wiki about burning her house down.
Tony:I did not know it was going to be this full lesson of just music stuff. This was … When you went to Washington Music Center, this was an electric guitar.
Paul:That I had made.
Tony:Correct. When did this whole thing, and by “this whole thing” I mean acoustics, happen?
Paul:I met a guitar maker who was just starting, Steve Fisher, and he had a guitar that I thought had the seed of something special in it. We got our hand on a Toros. I’m telling you the Toros was the father of the guitar and we were able to x-ray it, and the question was what was he thinking not how did he brace it. What he was thinking was a double-diaphragmed instrument. He was thinking tight on the back, loose on the top.
Tony:That was cool.
Paul:Well let’s do it to the other guitar, right? It’s tight on the back, tight on the sides and loose as a goose on the top.
Tony:Whereas a lot of instruments are the same note on the top and the back. You don’t get energy from nothing, so if the energy is coming out of the back it’s not coming out of the front, and he was thinking projection. He was thinking. I mean that should be a lot louder. There’s no compressor that you’re going to be having on this filming.
Tony:Well you said we’re not going to edit anything.
Paul:I said we get this in one take, I did say that, and if he edits it I’ll kill him, right? The people watching this want to hear the mistakes. They don’t want to hear some edited thing, they want to hear it.
Tony:Oh they’ve heard mistakes.
Paul:Let me show you something. So this is what a Toros would do. I can’t shut it up. What you’re trying to do is make a force, which is me hitting the string, and having it interrupt the sound, and the old man was thinking speaker cabinet, he was not thinking double-diaphragmed instrument. He wanted all the sound to erupt out of the top. When we realized what he was thinking, we were able to come up with an X-brace, which keeps the top from pulling up, and the fan braces in the back, which is the way old nylons were done.
If you don’t dry the woods right, those fan braces don’t stop it from cracking. If you have X-braces this way across the back, it’ll stop it from cracking, but if you’re not worried about that, oh my God, it’s a whole new ball game. This thing is harmonically rich, there’s bass, there’s mid-range, there’s treble, it almost sounds symphonic, right?
Tony:That’s one thing I notice. We’ve reviewed a couple of your guitars now, and the tonal package, the tonal offering is very complete and it’s very full, but it’s also … For lack of a better term, I use the word non-traditional. Is that the goal? Traditional, I mean when people hear a big guitar, a jumbo-size guitar, they expect a ton of volume and just yah in your face. This is way more than in your face. It has the volume, but it has this depth of tone and this kind of nuance that I don’t necessarily hear all the time.
Paul:The idea was for it to be really loud, really harmonically rich and nothing deadening anything, so that when I’m doing that with my arm, I mean that would be like a rubbery paint, you know, and trying to deaden it, but it’s not doing that. The idea was if you played phrygian or you played minor, or you played major, it would evoke the emotion of that scale, right?
Paul:Ray Lamontagne got his hands on some of these guitars and he said Paul, it’s making me play different. I was with John High yesterday, he’s got some of these, he goes they’re making me play different.
I wanted it to just be harmonically rich. Look, the Martins and all those guitars are my teachers, so I have nothing but beautiful things to say about them, but I wanted it to be more like the Toros, whih was all the sound was erupting out of here, there was a beautiful big bass note, and the top was actually vibrating, whereas this is locked up.
Paul:Now that this is not going to be edited, we have to go to video two because I’m being told by the videographer, this is over, we are done, good job.