Bridging (no pun intended) the gap between engineering and music
What makes a guitar magical? Why do certain guitars feel 'right'? Why do some instruments seem to sound better than others of the same type? Why are some guitars totally bulletproof for a lifetime of playing, while others seem to refuse to stay in tune no matter how many setups you try? As it turns out, it’s not magic; it is science that makes a guitar wonderful. Many (if not all) musicians spend tons of time and money in the pursuit of finding that magical instrument. And in the case of Paul Smith, he has dedicated his life's work to this very quest.
You can’t have an amazing guitar without some equally exceptional engineering and building. Paul Reed Smith has devoted his life to decoding what makes certain guitars magical while finding a way to reproduce this recipe each time, on every instrument. Rather than simply just following norms and conventions, Paul set out to find out why some guitars had “it” - and why so many others did not; and in his quest he created some of the very finest guitars the world has ever seen.
Paul possesses a unique and intense obsession for the smallest of details, and it was this philosophy of design that allowed the instruments he built to enter new territory in terms of tone, reliability, diversity in use, and even aesthetics. If you’re reading this now, you likely know the name Paul Reed Smith, as his 35 years of revolutionary guitar making has made PRS the Mercedes-Benz of the music world. Yet there is another name you should know- a name that was a huge part in the history, strength and reliability of these guitars we all know and love today: John Mann.
John Mann worked as a Machinist at Westinghouse Electric and was also an avid guitar player in his own right. John’s passion for Paul Reed Smith Guitars in particular, goes back to (literally) the very beginning of the PRS story itself! Paul and John have been working closely together since 1978, when they first met at Paul's one-man West Street workshop in Annapolis, MD. At that time, Paul was designing and building his first guitar for Carlos Santana. They soon began collaborating on many pieces of the puzzle that Paul was piecing together that would become the ultimate magical guitar.
Like so many stories in music, the history of how John met Paul is truly fascinating. In John’s own words:
“I first met Paul Reed Smith at his West Street shop, in Annapolis, Maryland in late summer of 1979. This meeting is what set me on the path to becoming guitar bridge / hardware designer and manufacturer. I was given an old beat-up Gibson SG, as a gift, which I tried unsuccessfully several times to restore and re-finish. I was introduced to Paul through a cousin of mine, who was a friend of Paul and familiar with his work. Through this introduction, Paul restored the SG back to its original glory. When I arrived to pick up my guitar, Paul and I exchanged some conversation.”
As Paul Smith began learning more about the shortcomings of existing guitar designs, one large flaw he noticed was that the existing bridges of the time (and much of the hardware overall) were not adequate enough to meet his demanding specifications. But taking his requests to any shop seemed to fall on deaf ears. Machine shops had a hard time understanding how to take 'musical/guitar' ideas & demands, and translate it into a physical product that behaved as a musician wanted. So, he turned to his close friend, skilled machinist, and most importantly- guitar player John Mann to find a way to make something far superior to the status quo- something worthy of the name PRS, something that only a guitar player could understand.
Often times, in the design and manufacture of any product, there can be a severe disconnect between artists and engineers in translating an idea and concept into something that is both real as well as reliable. This very disconnect was prevalent in many guitar designs of the mid/late 20th century across a variety of brands. While some very early builders/designers got it right “the first time” (circa the late 1950s), there were many years that were considered “well below average” in terms of sound, quality, and overall build due to the nature of not enough engineers working in the right businesses to build the right parts to make truly magical instruments that musicians could rely on.
Paul knew that if he needed parts that were superior to everything that had been done before, he would need to make his own. But his skills as a guitar builder were more in the world of woodworking. For these crucial metal components, he needed an engineer, and not just any skilled machinist, he needed someone who understood the needs of an artist as well. John Mann was the ‘Mann for the job’ as it were - possessing a unique blend of skills that let him interpret Paul’s artistic and musical wishes and demands, and in turn, produce his own engineering artwork in the form of the very best custom guitar hardware you could find anywhere.
“When Paul learned that I was a Engineering Tech / Machinist at Westinghouse Electric, that was the beginning of our guitar work related relationship. Paul knew what was wrong with various aspects of the (then) current guitar designs. But he was having problems getting local machine shops to build parts to his specs. Part of this problem was a communication barrier between a young guitar builder who didn’t know engineering terms and machine shops who didn’t understand guitar building terms. Being involved in both of these worlds, I bridged that gap. When Paul presented me with a set of problems, I could “translate” the guitar problem into an engineering problem, and then together, we would develop a solution.”
It wasn’t long after this, that these cutting-edge pieces of hardware were installed on every instrument. In fact, Carlos Santana was the very first artist to use a Mann Made bridge on his original Paul Reed Smith Guitar back in 1979!
Paul and John ultimately designed the patented PRS Vibrato bridge system that is now known as the standard for PRS guitars the world over! Paul bartered with John for some of the early design and manufacturing work with one of the very first PRS Santana models that he built by hand himself, the very guitar you will see right here in this video:
“Given my history as a tinkerer, everything I ever had, I took apart as a kid. But not this guitar. Everything still works flawlessly.” John Mann, in regards to this very special Santana PRS, made by hand, by Paul.
Fast forward to recent times, and John now runs a store and shop known appropriately as John Mann’s Guitar Vault (which “has the largest selection of PRS Guitars under one roof in New England!”)
This PRS Signature Dealer, carries a wide selection of over 100 guitars including Private Stocks, Wood Library, and Limited Edition Core models (Maryland made), as well as a selection of Bolt-On, S2 and SE models. The Vault also carries PRS Amplifiers, and of course it only seems right they they would have the largest selection of PRS Parts and Accessories.
John Mann is still hard at work building and innovating, and offers a vast selection of user-upgradeable hardware for just about every PRS, as well as other guitar brands! In fact, even modern 21st century djent machines like the Holcomb SE, can be retrofitted with these easy to install parts!
If you’d like to hear a modern example of this amazing hardware in action, check out this shootout between a stock SE bridge and the MannMade drop-in brass replacement:
So, if you’re ever in the mood for a road trip, or find yourself in New Hampshire, make a point to go visit this amazing guitar shop that has some honest roots with some of the finest instruments on Earth.
“My mission is to produce state of the art parts that improve upon original designs yet retain the original concept. The quality must be second to none. All my parts are typically designed to retrofit existing hardware with no modification to the existing instrument. The design must improve tone, functionality, playability, feel and look." -John Mann
By the way, if you’ve ever wondered about proper technique to use when restringing a Core PRS with locking tuners (Phase II and III) - you’ll definitely want to see John Mann himself teaching you his ways!