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 (43)

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..
Lonnie Zamarripa August 01, 2017 - 9:42pm
When I bought my first PRS guitar in December of 2017(a Brent Mason signature) and I began excitedly informing my friends, each one replied: oh, the one with the birds? I have loved those inlays since the summer of 2016 when I saw my first PRS GUITAR.
Bill Wendel July 29, 2017 - 7:27pm
Back in the spring of 1980, Paul pitched to me about buying a guitar, "a Dragon, like mine", he said. I misunderstood. From the start, i loved the bird inlays. Paul's guitar had a dragon inlaid along the neck. I thought that's what he was talking about, and so declined. I now know "Dragon" was his unique design, and didn't necessarily mean "not the birds". Paul was raising money for his early patents. Passing on that offer is one of my regrets.
Larry Lowe July 29, 2017 - 4:38am
Best looking guitars in the world. I ordered and received mine in 1996 (Black Cherry-22 Custom with birds and trem). I still love to play it!
Ebizael Roche July 28, 2017 - 8:07pm
I have a Santana lll and I love the birds, I would like to see one with just EAGLES, that's my favorite bird, it would look beautiful.
Nicky langlands July 28, 2017 - 6:08pm
I have had my PRS custom for over 20 years. I would never part with has once twice three times a lady written in gold ink inside the spring cavity.....I recently noticed Lionel Richie has also signed it in
David Miller July 28, 2017 - 4:40pm
I really love how you remember your Mom. That is beautiful. I am not a guitar player or any musical instrument. But I love a true good story. I really love your guitars. Thank you for sharing.
Brian Rainey July 28, 2017 - 1:49pm
I have a custom 24 and use it often, during practice... if I mess up or just loose it... I yell out... "Wrong Bird!!" and everyone laughs... we get playing again...
david braman July 28, 2017 - 1:34pm
I always loved the birds because birds are a perfect metaphor for the uplifting, soaring effect of music
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