The Story of the PRS Bird Inlays

Filed Under Electrics / History

PRS First Bird Inlay Guitar

The PRS bird inlays are one of the most recognizable trademarks of our brand, but you may be wondering, why birds? We chatted with Paul Reed Smith about the history behind his decision and why it has stuck with our company for 32+ years.

My mother was a bird watcher,” said Paul Reed Smith.

When Paul was a young boy, his mother would take he and his siblings birdwatching, and occasionally to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Paul recalled, “At the time, the Smithsonian allowed you to take out a record like a book from a library, we would get records of bird songs and listen to them. At night, we would listen to the birds in our rooms with the windows open, these were nightbird songs, whip-poor-wills.

My mom really knew and loved birds and exposed us to them,” he mentioned. “One time there were a few starlings in our backyard and my mom went off, she said, ’This is going to be a problem, those are scouts.’ We said, 'What do you mean?'  She said, 'They're searching for a place for the entire huge flock.' In the next few days, sure enough, thousands of starlings were in our backyard terrorizing every other bird in the yard and eating everything. My mother called it, she knew what was going to happen. She called them flying rats. It was loud and raucus and we watched them fight with the cardinals and the robins.

In April of 1976, 9 years before the official foundation of PRS Guitars, Paul was 20 years old and was building a guitar for rock musician Peter Frampton. “When it came time to put inlays on the fretboard,” Paul said, “I didn’t even have to think about it, I just went down to the store, bought a bird guide, and started designing inlays.

^ Paul Smith holds the first guitar with bird-inlays, built for Peter Frampton in 1976. 

Some of the birds were tricky to get right, so Paul invited a few friends over to help him draw some of the more difficult birds. “The ones that took the most revisions and thought were the 15th, 17th and 21st fret birds. Still to this day, people refer to the 24-fret bird as a ‘flying turtle,’ (which I can't see). It’s really an owl on a stick.

Starting from the nut the birds are:

  • Peregrine falcon
  • Marsh Hawk
  • Ruby Throated Hummingbird
  • Common Tern
  • Coopers Hawk
  • Kite
  • Sparrow Landing
  • Storm Petrel
  • Hawk Landing
  • Screech Owl On A Branch (24-fret models only)

^ Peter Frampton's 76' PRS was purchased back by the company and now resides in the West Street East Museum Room at the PRS factory in Maryland. 

Paul cut these first bird inlays for Frampton's guitar from old pearl piano keys, cut by hand with a fine-tooth saw. Paul soon filed paperwork to copyright and trademark his unique design. The original paperwork is kept in a large fireproof safe in his office. 

Over time, the PRS bird inlays have experienced a number of re-draws and artistic variations, but the foundation of Paul’s original designs have remained consistent.

^ George, a PRS employee, places and glues birds into our fretboards by hand.

It’s amazing how many versions we have done and how people pick their favorites,” Paul says. “The hollow J-birds are beloved as tattoos."

Here are some other variations of PRS bird inlays over the years:

Paul mentions, “A lot of people have contributed over the years and continue to contribute to these designs. I love it.

When Paul is out at clinics and meeting customers, he will often come across folks with "the birds" tattooed on themselves. He always takes a picture and has us post them online.

I never thought people would order the bird inlays in any quantity” Paul recalled. “In 1985 we offered birds and moons, and I thought only 25% of orders would be birds. That's not what happened, and I never really understood it until I realized why they caught on, birds are in everybody’s backyard. There’s something about them that works - they are animals that fly and have real grace. I’m grateful that the world accepted them.

--

If you're also a fan of the birds (but maybe don't want to tattoo them on your body), check out some PRS shirts & straps with birds on them!

Comments (33)

Tony August 28, 2017 - 11:52am
It's taken forever, but I finally completed my goal of PRS with all the different inlays. My latest, a Brushstroke 24 in Whale Blue! Can't wait to show them off in the Forum pages :)
Anne Whaples August 26, 2017 - 1:15pm
My son has worked at PRS for a number of years. Every time I see a band, I look at the guitars the musicians are playing. I usually recognize the head stock, but I always recognize the birds! That Paul did this as a tribute to his mother is awesome.
Dr John Roseman August 25, 2017 - 12:40am
My first PRS was seen at the Fall Philly in 2012. Met Jack from Northeast Music. We e-mailed back & forth until he sent pictures of a Private Stock Santana Retro. Made a flight to the airport near his store. He picked me up, I had 1-1/2 hours to examine and play it. He took me back to the airport with guitar in hand. Next in line is the 594. Coming to the factory for this one. Dr. John, North Lawrence, Ohio. (Paul, Thank You for what you've done for the industry )
Frank Greco August 24, 2017 - 6:02pm
What PRS model is pictured on the left side of the copyright application? It looks like a raw Santana model... really nice.
Chris lizon August 23, 2017 - 11:19pm
After playing strats and les Paul's over the years I finally got a Paul Reed Smith custom 22. I love it so much I'm looking for a custom 22 or 24 with stop bar tailpiece the birds area beautiful touch to help this guitar to stand out even more than the cookie cutter starts and lespauls. Eagles would be awesome too Mr. Smith.
Tim Storm August 23, 2017 - 9:00pm
What a way to honor your Mother! Love the story behind those inlays. I own mostly Gibson's but now I see a PRS in my future!
Nigel Vine August 23, 2017 - 8:36pm
I was really fortunate to meet Paul at PMT Manchester where I was trying a PRS SE Santana, in fact he was actually stood behind me while I was miles away, happily playing Santana's 'Flor d' luna' in my own little world in 2013 3 days before I bought my work of art SE Santana which I have finished off by inserting a 'beautiful abalone mosaic Golden Eagle descending on its prey'
Andy August 23, 2017 - 7:57pm
I bought my first PRS in 1985. I ordered Pearl black with moon inlays. It came with birds as an unexpected upgrade. I still have it: 5 0007.
Edo Leonardi August 23, 2017 - 6:40pm
My Prs is a Custom22 with rotator PU selector. Love it and she still my main guitar forever. Thank u Paul
Victor Freeman,Sr. August 23, 2017 - 6:24pm
I purchased my 1st from Bill Brooks @ WMC in Wheaton,Md. It is the Prism Al D model. The next 3 Paul Schein sold me also WMC Wheaton, Md. Incredible necks and attention to detail. I ordered the last one a narrow hollowbody 12 in obsedion...absolute work of art.
charles rafael August 23, 2017 - 5:38pm
was sad when the birds went on the SE models....always felt you had to pay for the honor have them
Mark Ulloa August 23, 2017 - 5:25pm
I love my PRS guitar, but what makes it really stand out is that instead of birds on it it has bats, and everyone who sees it think it's the coolest thing ever.
Pete Carpenter August 23, 2017 - 5:05pm
The Birds complete the majesty that is a PRS. There's only one thing that can replace a PRS Bird inlay IMHO. Mark Tremonti's name on the 12th fret of my original Tremonti Signature and on the same fret on my Tremonti Tribal #93. Thank you Paul for the early inspiration of the Birds and the early wisdom of supporting Mark Tremonti.
Paul Flood August 23, 2017 - 5:04pm
We have three Paul Allender PRS special editions with the special birds. Serpentine colour one each in purple green and red. One each set up in EMG, split coil, and conventional Telly coil. This story should have included those birds are even better and actually help me actually play better. Cheers Paul (of course)
Bruce Herrmann August 23, 2017 - 5:03pm
I spent some time as a boy not far from where Paul grew up, though a few years earlier. My mother was a bird watcher as well and not fond of Starlings...until she found a young one in need of care. She adopted "Lucky" and he lived in and around the house for a year or more. Her opinion of Starlings softened a bit after that. I would imagine that my old friend Larry Sifel might have had something to do with the birds on PRS guitars as well. Gone but not forgotten.
Elvis W August 23, 2017 - 4:55pm
I've just always loved the design. It's strictly an aesthetic thing for me. I have 4 PRS with birds and wouldn't have them any other way.
Adrian Thomas August 23, 2017 - 4:54pm
Most of my PRS Guitars have Birds,only a couple have Moons! My Oldest,an '87 has Birds! Being from DC, that's what drew me to them!
michael s August 23, 2017 - 4:48pm
Birds are awesome... I loved them at first sight in the nineties. I don't even like dots anymore. Has to be blocks or birds or anything except dots. I've passed on several used CE24 and McCarty models because of the moons...
Art Walker August 23, 2017 - 4:39pm
Bought my first PRS Custom in April 1987 (4 digit serial number) from Paul Schein at WMC in Wheaton, MD. Now I have 14, and still looking....
Turtle August 23, 2017 - 4:39pm
I fell in love with the bird inlays because they were so different than the dots or blocks that so many other guitar companies use. When it came time to order a cap from PRS (I have a cap from every guitar manufacturer that I have ever owned a guitar from), I chose the birds cap without hesitation. I still get asked if I am a bird watcher when I wear that cap. Sometimes I tell them it's a PRS cap. Other times, I just tell them, "sort of," and laugh a little inside.
Lance Nuckolls August 23, 2017 - 4:36pm
I met Paul near Chicago in 1995 at a local dealer about a month after I had bought a used 1990 LE (my first PRS). After meeting him that same day I went into serious debt with a 1995 C24 and 10th Anniv Artist III (#69). Still have them plus many more "birds" since then... all are "players".
Daniel Garnon August 23, 2017 - 4:27pm
I have a 2002 McCarty model - it's my favorite guitar, for looks and design but also for quality of sound and feel. I always go to it first and play it every day, in my band or on my own. I think the birds design is beautiful, and a main signature of the PRS model - you can always spot a PRS right away by the birds. Thank you Paul for my beautiful guitar and for what you've done for the music world. Danny
Eric Files August 23, 2017 - 4:27pm
Great article and pics of the PRS birds! I appreciate Paul sharing the origin as it relates back to his mom's love of birds. PRS guitars are my favorites by far - they are works of art and great craftsmanship... but they fuel my guitar acquisition syndrome disorder!!
Jean Gauvreau August 11, 2017 - 1:09am
To bad you dont offer any moon option....
Francesco G. August 09, 2017 - 9:47pm
I bought my first prs custom 24 in 1987 and I still have it . It has birds inlays and I Love it. To me birds mean freedom. Im one if your first customers in Italy.Thank you Paul..
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