Paul Reed Smith has the kind of success that could make you, well, a bit jealous.
He started making guitars in Annapolis almost 40 years ago and has grown the business into PRS Guitars, one of the top brands in the world.
Now made both at a factory on Kent Island and overseas, his guitars are what one review called “one of the most high-quality and consistent brands out there.” The walls of his building are filled with photos of famous musicians around the world playing what he makes, or standing with Smith and one of his instruments as a way of saying thanks, I appreciate what you do.
The success has given him a pretty good life. He lives in a waterfront Annapolis house, and one of his guitars is featured in a new Historic Annapolis museum exhibit telling the city’s history over 400 years.
So, when someone tells you that Smith put together a new band during the COVID lockdown, or that they will launch an album of new music Thursday at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis – you could be forgiven a little cynical sigh.
Another rich famous guy playing music.
But PRS Eightlock is more than that. It’s a musical cauldron – three drummers on stage, three guitarists and a bassist punctuated by one very soulful singer. Just finding a place for them all on stage requires a bit of whiteboard planning that looks like a basketball coach’s diagram.
It’s also a celebration of regional music. Because Smith loves the music he and his bandmates are performing with the passion of someone who thinks deeply about music. It’s the music of their youth growing up in the Washington D.C. area, GoGo, and the music he wishes was part of his youth, Baltimore Funk.
So, as they launch Eightlock, Smith has settled on just the right way to describe his newest musical venture: a highway that connects two regional sounds and brings them to audiences around the world.
“Baltimore has its own style, and D.C., has its own style…” he said on a recent afternoon in his office above the factory floor. “I wanted to, you know, expose the world to this music. And so we're really 295. We’re like the Baltimore Washington Parkway connecting the two towns musically.”
To do that, Smith assembled greats with roots in each musical tradition. Most of them have known each other for a long time, sought-after professionals who have played with a variety of bands over the years. They’ve spent the last year at the guitar maker’s home studio, perfecting and recording 10 songs. Most, Smith wrote with lots of contributions from band members along the way.
This isn't Smith’s first musical venture, but it is certainly his biggest. Eightlock has signed on with a national booking agent, Mint Talent Group out of Chicago. It was formed by four agents laid off during the pandemic, who bring a massive roster of talent ready to get back in front of audiences.
And the group hired Brett Steele as its national manager, a figure with 30 years in rock, jazz and fusion.
The tour started last month at The Hamilton in D.C., and is adding small club dates as venues reopen. But In April, Eightlock will perform before 20,000 people at The Forum in Los Angeles when they open for the Grammy-winning band Mana.
"This is different. This is serious business," Smith said. "They begged me for a long, long time to take it seriously and put everything I had to it. It is like being in the middle of the cauldron."
“Listen, I adore this group of musicians.”
Eightlock’s drum section includes a who’s who of funk and jazz.
Dennis Chambers is one of the most sought-after jazz fusion drummers playing. He has performed with both Santana and Parliament-Funkadelic, the funk collective headed by George Clinton. Greg Grainger studies music at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and went on Whitney Houston’s 1988 world tour. Smooth jazz artists Acoustic Alchemy and Kim Waters both rely on artistry. Ju Ju House is one of the most famous musicians to come out of Washington, playing with the Godfather of GoGo Chuck Brown.
The guitar section is equally well-sourced from regional music too, with Michael Ault from the Washington area, Bill Nelson from Baltimore, and Smith. Bassist Gary Grainger, who started performing with his brother Greg in 1950s Baltimore, is on bass.
Mia Samone, a jazz-funk vocalist who’s been singing in front of audiences since she joined her church choir at age 3, rounds out the group.
All of them have been playing together and in other bands for years. Some have toured regional clubs with Paul Reed Smith Band.
But the idea for Eightlock – Smith explains the name as eight musicians locked together – was born out of teaching. Together, members of the group started teaching master classes on guitar and drums and performing at Maryland Hall in Annapolis four years ago.
The school was popular and returned a little bigger the next year. Then in 2020, COVID shut down Maryland Hall and live performances across the country.
“All these people were all teachers at the school because we all wanted, always wanted, to teach and when COVID happened we were going to cancel it,” Smith said. “We had a phone call and for some reason, nobody wanted to cancel.”
Instead, the school expanded online. Tyler Larsen, founder of the music website Music is Win, and well-known LA guitar instructor Tim Pierce helped spread the word online.
“It did really well. Actually, there were more people signed up the first year because they were so stuck at home and had nothing else to do,” Smith said.
More students meant bringing more musicians to teach, including guitarists John McLaughlin and Bill Evans. As the online school progressed, there were lots of discussions among the teachers about music and where it comes from. Then Smith had an idea.
“And I finally said to Dennis, I said, Why don't we honor our own music?”
The result was an experiment on the stage at Maryland Hall, where nothing else was going on. A manufacturer by trade, Smith looked at it as building a prototype. Central to the concept were those three drums, representing D.C., Baltimore and a little New Orleans.
“So we rent Maryland Hall, and we put everybody on the stage and we do this tune for me, so I can hear it," Smith said. "Everybody thinks it was wild. I'd never had three drummers on stage before.”
It was good, and true to the bones of the music they wanted to play.
“I grew up on the rock side of the D.C.-Baltimore thing, and there was a rock side, but there was all this wonderful funk GoGo thing going on on the other side that I just adored,” Smith said.
Chuck Brown let the guitar maker play in his bands from time to time. He wasn’t as good as the professionals, but it was a start. It was a first taste of what it can be like to play with masters.
“Oh, did I fall in love with music? I loved it. But, you know, we live in the land of the drummers… You know, God, these drummers, these drummers can play. And they don't play like anybody else. They play different. And it's captivating to listen to them play.”
Smith has known these musicians for years, not only as a player himself but as the man with the great guitars. He’s part of the music industry. He’s seen how accomplished they are, performing in groups and in styles in ways that are better known.
“I've been begging them to do this. Let's support our own music,” Smith said. “And they agreed and, you know, they said over and over and over again, how do we get it to sound like us and not like, you know, something else?”
Physically, that whiteboard was involved. Musically, Smith describes it as all three drummers playing different parts, like a puzzle coming together. Greg Granger plays the New Orleans part, House plays the D.C. part and Chambers provides the Baltimore party.
Next stop was the studio at Smith’s home, to record what happened in that on-stage experiment. After playing it, the musicians – all of them veterans of bands and live performances and recording sessions – just looked around at each other and agreed.
Let’s do another one.
“So, it was never a decision to do 10. It was, let's do another one. Let's do another one,” Smith said. “Every one was a test, every one was to see how we feel everyone was to figure out what to happen. And then we realized we needed a full record.”
The results will be released this month, with audiences at the Rams Head Thursday getting the first recordings. Although Smith’s bands have released other CDs, this is the first time he’s brought in a professional mixer to give the recording the professionalism present in the music.
Smith is confident Eightlock's self-titled new album will find an audience. He thinks two songs, in particular, will find plenty of airtime on streaming services and radio.
Though the recording master won’t be finished for a few more weeks, Smith is so convinced he’s got a hit he’s handing out memory sticks pre-recorded with music and is trusting the audience not to put it online.
Smith also is sure there’s an appetite for live music that will make the coming months joyous as clubs and other venues start to fill again.
After almost two years behind COVID lockdowns, the scene Eightlock will be entering is bound to be different. Most musicians, the ones pursuing it full time, make their living from playing in front of a crowd of people.
Without the ability to do that, more than a few have had to cobble together other work during the worst of the pandemic.
It’s different for Smith. He’s got PRS Guitars and the success it continues to bring. Guitar sales rocketed while people were stuck at home. He knows he's lucky that way, and has shuffled work to musicians around him who need it most.
He understands the difference in other ways, too. He figures his guitar making matured in his 20s, while his playing is only now reaching the sweet spot.
“Look, they're professional musicians, and I'm an expensive hobbyist. I'm trying to become a professional musician, and don't think they haven't tried to whip me into shape. These people are geniuses. You think it's easy to be considered the best drummer on a planet? You know, that's how many drummers are there, 10,000? There’s only one who's the best.
“There aren't that many guitar makers, but there are so many musicians. So it's not so easy. How's it different for me? They're my teachers.”