Paul Reed Smith explains exactly what makes a great electric guitar – including the exact amount of time it should sustain

Paul Reed Smith speaks onstage at The 2020 NAMM Show in Anaheim, California
(Image credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images/NAMM)

As part of its new, tone-themed issue, Guitarist sat down for a chat with someone who knows a couple of things about good guitar tone, Paul Reed Smith.

Last year, Smith made waves with his comments on tonewoods – he vehemently disagrees with the notion that they have little to no effect on a guitar's sound – and expounded to Guitarist about how tonewood factors into a guitar's tonal equation.

Along the way, he offered his view about what makes for a great-sounding electric guitar in general, what makes for a bad-sounding one, and the exact – and we do mean exact – amount of time an electric should sustain.

"A great electric guitar is harmonically rich and bright on the low strings, thick-sounding on the high strings, and rings about 45 seconds," Smith told Guitarist. "A very poor electric guitar is bassy on the low strings, tinny on the high strings, and rings for about 16 seconds. No pickup is going to fix that!" 

The master guitar maker was responding to a question centered on the theory he'd previously gone on record disputing – that only pickups can alter a guitar's tone, with tonewoods factoring little into the final sound.

At the end of the day, Smith says, tone "is a complicated equation that tonewoods are a part of."

Paul Reed Smith holds a PRS guitar

(Image credit: Future)

While we're on the subject of sustain, last month, Smith joined Alter Bridge – a band led by PRS signature artists Mark Tremonti and Myles Kennedy – onstage in Silver Spring, Maryland for a performance of the band's song, Rise Today.

Playing a PRS Paul's Guitar, the legendary luthier unleashed some bluesy bends that sang so much that Kennedy was compelled to walk over to his mic and exclaim to the crowd, “Listen to that sustain!” 

To read Guitarist's full interview with Smith – which features plenty more of the PRS head honcho's tonal wisdom – pick up a copy of the April issue of the mag at Magazines Direct.

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Jackson Maxwell

Jackson is an Associate Editor at He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.

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