Judging from her anecdotes of life on the road with the likes of Prince and Jeff Beck, bassist Rhonda Smith has earned the confidence with which she took the stage Friday before a group of fellow musicians and music fans.
"I had probably 200 songs I had to learn in a lot less time than I wanted to, off a boom box in a hotel," she recalled of touring with Prince, before launching into a rendition of "Mountains."
Smith was among the artists chosen to perform and talk at Experience PRS, an annual gathering staged at the Paul Reed Smith Guitars factory in Stevensville. The two-day event draws more than 3,000 attendees, up from about 2,200 last year. Now in its seventh year, it attracts gear-heads, guitar distributors and garden-variety PRS fans from places as disparate as Texas and Germany, to try new instruments and equipment and hear artists perform and speak.
For the company — known for its high-end, American-made guitars — the real star of the event was its new midpriced S2 line. The Maryland-made instrument is its response to the mid-price guitars that competitors like Fender and Gibson have been making overseas for years.
"We wanted a new guitar, at a new price point, to attract a new customer," PRS President Jack Higginbotham said, perched on a stool in front of rapt devotees packed into a tent. "Stylistically, it appeals to a lot of indie players out there ... we tried to not make it just another version of what we do. We're looking to diversify our business and diversify our customer base."
Artists, too, lauded the S2. Blues guitarist Davy Knowles said he instantly fell in love with it. "I was actually wondering if I could swap out the guitar I was using at the time for it," he said, laughing.
The day featured a variety of equipment demonstrations. Emil Werstler, guitarist of metal band Chimaira, showed off a seven-string model, a guitar commonly used for sludgy, heavy metal riffs.
"I'm not primarily a seven string player," he said. "But for the band I'm in, it's what we do, and it's a good excuse to explore the instrument … obviously, it can do more than just 'chugga, chugga, chugga, but that's what I'm into because it's fun and the kids dig it," he said before ripping into a metal riff.
Company founder, CEO and namesake Paul Smith walked around the grounds checking up on people, cracking jokes between sets and hanging with his favorite artists.
The bigger-name guests this year included Brad Whitford of Aerosmith. Rick Landers, journalist and CEO of Guitar International from the D.C. area, noted that previous years' lineups have featured the likes of Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin. But he was still happy to return for the factory tour and other attractions.
Among those attractions was the collection of custom shop guitars, with a myriad of finishes, lacquers, pickups and inlays. Standing neatly in rows on the factory floor, the guitars were tested, photographed and purchased by collectors and guitar enthusiasts alike.
Still, even the factory tour focused on the S2. Walking attendees through the process of making a guitar, Higginbotham demonstrated how engineers managed to cut costs without cutting quality by using fewer materials and simplifying the customization process.
Experience PRS continues Saturday; tickets are sold out.