If you like electric guitars as well as birds, you know that the insanely playable Paul Reed Smith guitars provide a lovely intersection of these two things. Many of the instruments produced by this company, named for the master luthier that founded it, use bird images for the fretboard markings.

We bought our son a “513” model PRS as a graduation present years back. It is a stunningly beautiful, blue double-cutaway that seems to connect itself to your body and soul when you touch it. It even makes me feel like I know what I’m doing. Oddly, for all the time that he has had it, I never once thought to look carefully at the fret inlays to see if the birds were just abstract designs, or accurate depictions of specific species – and if so, which ones. Perhaps it is because once you pick it up, you cannot really think about anything except the sheer pleasure of holding it and hearing it speak. But recently we had a closer look at it and it spurred me to do some reading on the history of the bird inlays.

Our son Alex’s prized axe

PRS guitars are legendary for their quality and workmanship. Legend has it that Smith has taken some of the slightly inferior instruments that his luthiers have produced and sawed them in half, rather than let them be sold under his name. All the more impressive is that he was self-taught at the art of building such complex and exacting machines.

His mother, it turns out, was a birder, so he was exposed early and often to the avian world. Of making his first custom guitar at age 20 for Peter Frampton, Smith said, “When it came time to put inlays on the fretboard, I didn’t even have to think about it, I just went down to the store, bought a bird guide, and started designing inlays.”

Here are closeups of the birds, going down the neck:

3rd fret
5th fret
7th fret
9th fret
12th fret
15th fret
From left to right, birds on 21st, 19th, and 17th frets

Here I put them together and labelled the corresponding fret position. Below that, I have listed, in random order, the names of each inlay, per the PRS website. Quiz time…

Cooper’s Hawk____ Sparrow (landing)____Common Tern____ Kite____Storm-petrel____Peregrine Falcon____Hawk (landing)___ Marsh Hawk (Northern Harrier)___Common Tern____

Scroll down for the answers.

As for the names from the PRS site, we have five explicitly-named species. But we can identify two more, since the kite is clearly a Swallow-tailed, and the length of the feet on the Storm-petrel suggets a Wilson’s. (I’m assuming the field guide he consulted was for the USA, and that because the year was 1976, the only field guide available then would have been Peterson’s.)

That leaves the two landing birds. I see no way to tell what kind of hawk inspired that image, and the sparrow bill is the only problematic feature in the entire set. Too long and thin for a sparrow, it looks like a very short-billed hummingbird to me. A minor quibble considering just how accurate and aesthetically pleasing he made them overall, and how perfectly they fit the vibe of the instrument.

Here is the article at the PRS website with more details about the history of the bird inlays.

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