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 him 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 (52)

Debbie H February 03, 2020 - 6:57pm
Today I went to look at electric acoustic guitars at my local guitar shop (I’m getting one for my 50th birthday) and spotted one of yours. I was drawn by the birds having recently written a song called ‘Starlings’. Love your story, I can see why they didn’t make it onto your guitars! I think I will buy one anyway!
Phillip Spivey December 14, 2019 - 12:02am
Back in 1992 I had a Gibson Les Paul Studio and a Fender American Strat. Went to a music store for some strings and there in a glass showcase was a 1992 PRS Custom 24 10 Top. It took me a week to decide to part with the asking price but when I did I have never looked back. It is still my number one after all these years. 3 or 4 years ago I bought a Paul’s Guitar with the Brazilian Rosewood fretboard. They just don’t make them any better. I sold the Fender and the Gibson after they sat in their cases for a year or so.
Artie July 18, 2019 - 2:57pm
I love my PRS Silver Sky. The biggest compliment I get is in the tone,feel, color (Dodgem Blue), and last but not least is the birds inlays. I wouldn't trade this guitar for anything.
Dan C May 06, 2019 - 11:51pm
I recently picked up a 245 SE.....How? Answer me this one question. How the hell does this guitar I paid just over $800 USD out play my 2014 Les Paul Studio in tone and feel? I'm extremely impressed! I needed to do a minor set-up and there is a minimal amount of fret buzz still around 13-15 on my B string but it's nothing a little more adjustment won't fix. I was reluctant to buy a guitar at this price point but once I played it up against more expensive guitars the choice was actually pretty clear. I'll definitely be a lifetime customer!
Arturo Rodriguez March 15, 2019 - 1:21pm
I just recently bought the PRS John Mayer Silver Sky and when people see it, The first thing people notice is the bird inlays. This guitar is such an amazing piece of art. When you talk about craftsmanship at its finest, PRS is at the top.
Patrick McGurk December 01, 2018 - 5:21am
Why don't the birds fly the other way....emanating outward from the guitar...just like the notes being played???
Ed Mili October 27, 2018 - 11:49pm
I have a PRS SE 24 custom and a PRS Angelus A40E. Being primarily a Gibson and Fender player since 1954 I never really gave PRS instruments much of a thought and I'm from Maryland born and raised. I took a chance and ordered the 24 custom just to see what PRS guitars were all about. The craftsmanship, playability the tone, the balance, the articulation, the Dynamics we're so amazing and its ability to cover just about any genre of music made me go and buy the Angelus acoustic guitar. Paul you are a genius and I apologize for being such a stubborn player of other types guitars until I was finally smart enough to buy my first PRS! What I'd like to really thank Paul for is making PRS instruments available to players who aren't wealthy and can't afford the 10 top or core models. Yet still make a PRS guitar that is absolutely Superior especially at that price point. That is a tremendous contribution to the guitar playing World.
Stephen Liori October 22, 2018 - 8:01pm
I just bought my first PRS, 1997 PRS McCARTY with Old School bird inlays. It is a beautiful instrument that sounds amazing. This guitar just gets the best out of me!
Ryan opfer September 21, 2018 - 6:52am
My wife and I visited PRS in Stevensville, Md in July 2018. Being a fan of Paul’s guitars prior to arrival, I never comprehended the care and attention that went into every instrument. It did not feel like an assembly line of a mass produced product. I saw artists at work, each participating on their portion of a masterpiece. Oh! And make no mistake. The birds are very cool. It defines PRS.
G,R, June 17, 2018 - 2:01pm
That's so cool. I love PRS.
Bud Warren April 12, 2018 - 9:07pm
I have a PRS Sanatana SE Serial number D01622. I was wondering .... every other PRS guitar I have ever seen has birds on the fret board ... Mine does not. Does this mean mine is a fake or whay were the Birds not included on this model ... and question could the birds be added / inlaid?
Kiki January 24, 2018 - 9:03pm
Just got my se standard 24. It's a gift from my father, i wish i can get the blue ones. But tobacco sunburst is great too ( no one prs colorway looks crap hahaha) even i've got the cheapest one and its still looks amazing :) I only have cort x-6 for 5 years, and when i play my prs... I feel a big improvements, playability, tone, neck, it's just great for me. I like the single coil switch, not twangy as strat but it's ok, not a big deal for me. And the humbucker not too warm like my cort. Overall i love this guitar, even i wanted the classic vibe tele before, and i'm not regret it.
Michael Gentis January 08, 2018 - 1:49pm
I like others, went for years with Gibson's and Fenders. A few months back I bought a SE 24 Standard, which played as well, if not better than any guitar I own... I now own 13. So I ordered a PRS CE 24 Custom. I am THRILLED! I will never sell any of them. Thanks Paul, you the man.
Nate Akadia November 06, 2017 - 11:55am
No need to say anymore than.. Thank u Mr. Paul Reed Smith for making amazing guitars.
Paul Devitt October 13, 2017 - 10:26am
I have four PRS guitars, all with birds and all are amazing musical instruments and works of art. My 2015 Vela does have what appears to be a very small Gold Hummingbird under the lacquer on the back of the neck (approx. behind the 5th fret). I didn't notice it until I had owned the guitar for 6 months or so. I had to take photos and zoom in to really see the detail. I like it; I think it adds some character to the guitar. I searched online but didn't see any other similar references. I did buy it used in near mint condition so I am not sure if the guitar was originally a B-Stock because of this 'bird' on the back. To me, this all adds to the appeal of PRS guitars.
Rajesh Pereira October 12, 2017 - 3:17am
I have 2 custom 24s and 1 Santana SE.. I am a wildlife photographer and quite often photograph birds ..I am thrilled to hear about the story of the bird inlays.. And glad to know SE models have the bird inlays too. Rajesh ( Dubai)
Jeff Stahl October 09, 2017 - 8:09pm
. . . Forgot to mention in my last comment about the two PRS guitars that I just bought. One was a P24 and the other one is a Custom 24. Both ten tops. I love em!
Jeff Stahl October 09, 2017 - 7:58pm
I hope someday I can get to the factory to see where these elegant pieces of artwork are made. And I hope someday to meet Paul and shake his hand because I would like to thank him for making such a beautiful and extraordinary instrument for all of us to enjoy. I played my first PRS only a couple of months ago. I now own two that I have bought in the last month. I will be getting more! Thank you guys at the PRS Factory for doing what you do!
Terrance Raintree October 03, 2017 - 10:03pm
I play PRS guitars whenever I go to music stores. I love them! Someday when I have the money I definitely will buy one.Hopefully soon, very soon.
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!
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