It’s getting harder and harder to do. The
quality is not the same. The wood you find
today is kiln dried. When I started in this
business, we had lists of wood suppliers in
Europe, in the northwestern United States,
Canada and Alaska, who you could call up
and get wood with certain grain structures for
a particular type of instrument. There were
companies in Europe that would search for
wood that was one-hundred-fifty years old, or
more. We had a place in Italy that had spruce
from the 1650s. I still have some. Back then,
the wood was air-dried, aged and stored.
Wood technology was an art and science.
Now, I don’t even think it’s taught anywhere.
I remember writing to these guys outside of
Rome that had a warehouse full of spruce
and maple beams from old cathedrals and
buildings. These big pieces of wood were
sitting there for hundreds of years. There are
only two places in the world we go to now
to find unusual materials, and they’re telling
us they’re getting ready to close down. I’ve
been stockpiling wood since I was sixteen.
We have a tremendous amount of wood,
some of it from D’Angelico’s shop. We also
have some Brazilian rosewood that was cut
in the late 1800s.
Petillo’s stash of Brazilian Rosewood
You’re unusual in that you hold multiple
degrees in engineering. How has your
education helped or influenced you
in building and repairing guitars and
We’re going to revolutionize how instruments are made and built. This does not
come from anything other than mathematics and the study of material science and
the nature of things. We’ve had acoustic
testing done on some material at Fort
Monmouth. We’ve learned that when certain things are added to each other, the
response is the generation of incredible
harmonics. We know how; we just don’t
know why yet, but we know how to do it.
We’re working on the why.
Detail of Petillo Masterpiece; German Quilted maple top
with blue and orange sunburst
We’re going to come up with a new type
of instrument that’s going to look the same
as a normal guitar, but with materials that
you would never expect, and radical bracing
structures. The acoustic output will be like
nothing you’ve ever heard before. That’s not
too far off; probably this year.
We’re finding new applications for this material. The military has an interest in it as well
for use as armor plating. The cool thing
is the serendipity of the unexpected; the
Installed and polished medium jumbo Petillo frets
experiment that goes haywire and something
new comes out of it.
You have definite opinions and theories
about frets in particular. In fact, you have
a patent on your fret design. Could you
explain that for us, please, and how did
you arrive at your conclusions?
Conventional frets are flat on top. [Writer’s
Note: Petillo frets are reversed triangular in
design]. When you push down on the normal
fret, the string doesn’t rest in the center of
the fret; it’s off closer to your finger, which
causes intonation problems. Multiply this
error by the number of frets you have. You’ll
have a huge problem, and wonder why your
intonation is out all the way up the fretboard.
My fret patent was the first one issued since
the late 1800s. Nobody ever thought of it.
Frets have usually been made of nickel silver, but they wore out too fast, so we went
searching for material that wouldn’t wear out.
I asked myself, “If I have less surface area,
what would work?”
I used to experiment on Bruce Springsteen’s
guitars. He was great about it. We tried different alloys until we found the stainless
steel alloys we use today. I made frets out of
titanium and alloys used for airplanes and jet
engines. We must have tried sixty or seventy
alloys, and we handmade each fret individually in milling machines, because my suppliers
wouldn’t make me small quantities. After
about three years and all these alloys and
experiments, we found a proprietary stainless
steel alloy that was obscure. We modified it
a little, and that’s what our frets are made of
today. It’s similar to conventional 18-8 or 304
stainless. We actually found out that ivory
was the greatest material you could use for
frets. It’s so musical sounding, but the problem is that you’d have to refret the guitar
every three months because ivory doesn’t
last, even with nylon strings. We came up
with a metal that had the characteristics of
ivory. It retains its durability and luster, and
it has qualities that are very similar to natural
products like ivory.
You have also developed a new type
of pickup. Can you explain how it
works and what were your theories
behind its development?
It’s the Acoustic Sensor. Most of the acoustic
guitars you see have a strip, a piezo electric
or piezo-impregnated plastic strip element