Master Luthier, Engineer,
Scientist & Inventor
BY BOB CIANCI
There are people who fix guitars, and then
there are luthiers, masters of the art of building and repairing fine stringed instruments,
artisans who dedicate themselves to the
art and science of their work. Names like
D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Stromberg, Loar,
Favilla and Diserio come to mind. And most
certainly, Phil Petillo, master luthier, inventor,
engineer, scientist, innovator and perennial
seeker of knowledge falls into the same category with those great names. To put it mildly,
Phil is quite a unique guy.
opinions. Indeed, I felt privileged to be sitting with him, discussing the art and science
of guitar building, repair and much more.
things I’d built. He’d give me advice and tell
me what I did right and what I did wrong.
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you
begin playing guitar, and what was the
spark that ignited your musical fire?
You worked with James Diserio, John
D’Angelico’s godson. How did he influence
your own ideas about guitar building?
Located in Ocean Township, NJ—“down the
shore” as we say in the Garden State—Phil,
and his son David, himself a guitar builder
and master of marquetry and inlay work, run
their operation from the basement of their
home. The atmosphere is lived in. Guitars,
tools and parts are everywhere. Customers
come in regularly, bringing instruments for
repair. A genuine D’Angelico guitar sits
on the workbench in the process of being
repaired. Wood scraps and sawdust cover the
floor, and the walls are decorated with newspaper and magazine articles that have been
written about Phil over the years. There’s
an autographed photo of Elvis Presley and
a picture of Phil with Bruce Springsteen. A
platinum album of Springsteen’s Darkness
on the Edge of Town hangs nearby, next
to a thank you note from former First Lady
Nancy Reagan. Also hanging on the wall are
Phil’s degrees: three Bachelors of Science, a
Masters, and a Doctorate, as well as other
I started playing when I was in sixth grade
after hearing a guitar on TV. I had friends who
played, and I took some lessons. When I was
in eighth grade, I had a teacher named Bill
Gray who was a really neat guy. When we’d
have bad weather, we’d stay inside and he
was talking to me one day about my hobbies.
I told him about my shop at home and how
I made things out of wood and metal. I was
going through the encyclopedia in Mr. Gray’s
class and came across information about people making musical instruments. There were
instrument makers in my father’s family.
In addition to his luthiery work, Phil has
pioneered and refined medical and surgical
devices that have saved save people’s lives,
done restoration work for museums and
groundbreaking work on hydrogen-gener-ating devices and other scientific apparatus.
Dr. Petillo currently boasts a mind-boggling
twenty-nine patents, with seven more in the
works. Despite these accomplishments, Phil is
a modest man, yet proud of his achievements
and his work, and not afraid to express his
I started studying and learning more, and
attempted to build a classical guitar. I bought
a guitar kit from a place in New York City
called Wildwood, on East 57th Street. They
introduced me to John D’Angelico and his
godson, Jimmy Diserio, as well as Chuck
Wayne, the jazz guitarist. I started making
instruments and got better and better at it.
John D’Angelico was kind enough to show
me things. I used to go to his shop in downtown Manhattan on weekends and show him
Interior, Petillo shop
Jimmy was a really interesting, humorous guy,
always telling jokes. When I first met him, he
was renting a space on 58th Street, in the
back of a photographic studio. He influenced
me a lot. Together, we pioneered and perfected the cutaway classical guitar, which was
an insult to the classical guitar industry. They
didn’t like it at all. It was heresy (laughs).
There had been cutaway classical guitars
going back the 1800s, but we perfected
them to the point that the guitars were
sounding very good. A lot of people starting
buying them, even the guys who were beating us up and bad-mouthing us. We had a
huge back order list. We made over four hundred of those cutaway classical guitars.
What issues are there today in getting
wood to make guitars?