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SHORE FIRM GOES VIRTUAL IN LATEST GUITAR VIDEO GAME

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paul Reed Smith Guitars, the Eastern Shore manufacturer that has made guitars for Carlos Santana and other high-profile musicians, will have two of its models featured in the newest version of the popular Guitar Hero video game.

The models will be among several guitars that gamers can choose to "play." Guitar Hero Smash Hits, the latest version of the game, will be released Tuesday.

The PRS guitars to be featured are the Custom 24, which is the company's top-selling guitar, and the SC 245, a vintage-style electric guitar.

"Guitar Hero has become such an institution," company founder Paul Reed Smith said in a recent statement. "My kids love it. And it has done amazing things to bring awareness to so many people. I think it is really cool we're a part of the new release."

Although PRS guitars are popular in their own right, Guitar Hero can help further the exposure and name recognition of the small company based in Stevensville, just over the Bay Bridge, marketing experts said.

"In the broad sense, it definitely gets the name of our models and our guitars in front of people that may not be aware of them," said Rebecca Eaddy, public relations and media manager for the company, who said this is the company's first venture of this kind.

Marketing experts said that brands often resonate better with consumers when they "interact" with them rather than just see them on a billboard or in a magazine. Guitar Hero involves players trying to play along to popular songs while amassing points.

"I think it's absolutely huge for them," said Ryan Goff, social media marketing director for MGH, a communications company in Owings Mills. "It's a great way to reach that 18-to-35 demographic. It's really interactive. It's not just seeing a billboard. It's getting to play the guitar."

Eaddy said the company hopes the exposure helps to boost sales.

"We certainly hope they increase," she said. "It's not something that we've ever done before, so it's hard to gauge that."

Video games like Guitar Hero reach more people than movies, particularly among young adults. The percentage of Americans who play video games is now 63 percent, outnumbering the 53 percent of people who have gone out to the movies in the past six months, according to results from a survey released this month by market research firm NPD Group.

A relative newcomer, Guitar Hero has risen quickly to the top-five video game properties of all time in terms of dollar sales since launching three years ago, according to NPD Group. In January, Guitar Hero III became the first video game to pass $1 billion in sales.

"The franchise reinvigorated the entire dance/music genre of video games and really sparked the phenomenon, which now includes the Rock Band franchise as well," said NPD analyst Anita Frazier. "Teaming up with popular video game franchises is increasingly becoming a marketing tool for all sorts of companies, and it's even better when there is such a natural fit with the base premise of the game."

Eaddy said Activision/RedOctane, the company that produces, markets and sells Guitar Hero, first approached PRS Guitars about being included in the video game more than a year ago. She declined to reveal financial details of the transaction, including whether or not PRS is being paid for the placement.

"Of course, everyone was immediately excited," Eaddy said.

Guitar Hero Smash will include some of the most popular songs from other versions of the video game, including Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s and Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, according to the company's Web site.

Recordings include Queen's "Killer Queen," "Them Bones" by Alice in Chains, "Nothin' but a Good Time" by Poison, Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name," "I Wanna Rock" by Twisted Sister, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts' "I Love Rock 'N' Roll," Heart's "Barracuda" and Guitar Hero III favorite DragonForce's "Through the Fire and Flames."

PRS Guitars recently expanded its headquarters with an 84,000-square-foot addition. The company, which employs 290 people, has also recently moved into other products, including acoustic guitars and amplifiers, in a time when many companies are cutting back because of the slow economy. PRS Guitars got its start in 1976, when Smith would repair guitars from a room he rented above the Rams Head concert venue in Annapolis. He would make guitars in between repairs.

Santana begin using the guitars in 1980. The guitars have also been played by Axl Rose of Guns & Roses, Michael Bolton and the groups Creed and Linkin Park, among many others.

PRS Guitar facts

* Founded by Paul Reed Smith, who made guitars in a room he rented above Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis

* Carlos Santana started playing the guitars in 1980

* Smith opened his first factory in 1985

* The company invested in an 84,000-square-foot addition to its building last year

* Prices of guitars range from $600 to $25,000

* Employees: 290

* Annual sales: $38 million

Source: Music Trades Magazine, Baltimore Sun archives, PRS Guitars

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