By Jim Rizza
Since the birth of the Akkadian oud in ancient Syria over 4,000 years ago, the quest for musical Nirvana using vibrating strings stretched over fingerboards and wooden resonating chambers has been a passion for some. The very few who have succeeded in this quest have been blessed with extraordinary feel, creativity and ingenuity. Theirs are creations driven by the passion for producing those purest of tones, those throaty, resonant notes that inspire and delight, sounds that speak to the heart. From the oud, to the lute, to the modern guitar, this quest for that combination of the perfect woods, cut, shaped, braced and joined in just the right way, to get just the right tonal quality, projection and playability has been the purview of those superlative craftsmen we now refer to as master luthiers.
The skill, dedication, and experience required to accomplish this are not trivial. In earlier times, the true master luthiers passed on their knowledge and techniques to apprentices over the course of many years of close, working association. It was a tradition that extended to many, highly skilled pursuits, but none more romantic nor more revered than the making of fine musical instruments.
That tradition lives on in the guitar shop of Bruce and Matt Petros of Petros Guitars. Bruce Petros, master luthier and founder, has been the creative force behind Petros Guitars since 1972. During that time, Petros incorporated an impressive array of innovative features and construction techniques into crafting a limited number of exceptionally fine, completely hand-made guitars each year.
I spent some time with Bruce and Matt Petros in their shop not long ago. I was eager to learn how they managed to produce such consistently great guitars.
Bruce Petros began my education on the Petros art of making guitars by explaining why pre-stressing the top of a guitar is so important. This, according to Petros, is the single biggest factor in producing the extraordinary treble notes that are the hallmark of Petros Guitars. By creating a slight arch in the top (braced to a 30 foot radius), the clarity and distinctiveness of the guitar’s highs ascend to new levels. In addition to the elegant, symmetrical bracing Petros meticulously incorporates, and by using only the finest woods, the pre-stressed top makes these new levels possible. This feature, Petros explained, also adds stability and strength to the top, so Petros guitars are less susceptible to changes in the action when exposed to varying humidity and temperature levels. Finally, the Petroses significantly thin the edges of each top around its entire perimeter. This enhances the ability of the top to vibrate more freely in a way that brings out those low fundamentals.
The bridge plate system is another place where tone, structure, and stress are accounted for in a new way. Although the bridge is also a brace, Petros explained, the top can use some additional support for all that string tension. So Petros uses hand-selected spruce instead of the usual, sound-damping hardwood at this tonally sensitive area of the guitar’s top. A small, ebony pin plate to support the ball ends of the strings is then added. This Petros design culminates in a bridge plate system that has less mass and more strength while significantly enhancing the steel strung, acoustic guitar’s tone.
The backward tilt bridge and saddle is another feature unique to Petros acoustic guitars. This design attribute is near and dear to my heart because I had a similar idea when working in a classic guitar luthier’s shop many years ago. To see it applied was especially gratifying for me.
With this design, the break angle of the strings is equalized. This puts significantly less stress on the saddle and bridge than the standard straight up and down design which has been known to break the front of the bridge off on occasion.
A fully compensated saddle is also an absolute must for perfecting a guitar’s intonation, Petros warned. This is especially true for alternate tunings. This means shaping the top of the saddle, so the point where the string breaks over the saddle is exactly right for the string’s diameter, tension, and height.
Petros explained it this way. Although the 12th fret is theoretically halfway between the nut and the saddle, the string is stretched whenever the player presses it to the fret. This makes the note go a bit sharp. The following factors further influence the amount the note goes sharp:
The diameter (or gauge) of the string. The bigger the string, the more it goes sharp. Petros cautioned me to keep in mind that the windings on wound strings don’t count. It is only the core of the string that stretches. Therefore the B string is actually larger in diameter than the G string and, as a result, goes sharper when pressed to a fret. That is why the B string compensation is further back on the bridge saddle than the G string.
The tension of the string. Longer scale lengths (the distance between the nut and bridge saddle) need more tension to bring a string up to pitch. The more tension there is on a string, the less it goes sharp with additional stretching. Strings with less tension go sharper proportionally with additional stretching. Short-scale length guitars need less tension to bring the strings to pitch. Therefore, short-scale guitars need much more compensation and are more troublesome. Any scale length when tuned down (the normal direction for alternate tunings) requires more compensation because of the lessened tension. Most of the time, Petros uses a scale length of 25 ½ inches but has recently introduced a 24 ½ inch short scale option.
The height of the string. The higher the string, the more it stretches as the player pushes it to the fret and the sharper it becomes. Petros’ backward tilted bridges and saddles uniquely compensate for this. As the action is raised at the bridge saddle, the saddle actually goes back and up, thus “compensating” for the higher action by increasing the string’s vibrating length. Petros compensated saddles are strobed a couple of cents flat on the bench at standard string height and tuning. This is done, Petros explained, because in the real world, players stretch the strings more than in the controlled manner done on the bench. Top-quality bone is the standard saddle material for Petros guitars.
Neck construction is another area of innovation for Petros Guitars. Petros necks are constructed with two, end to end, flip-matched high-quality pieces, Honduras Mahogany. This technique counteracts any tendency a board might have to warp in a particular direction. In addition, it creates a very classy look at the heel. The Petros’ then laminate a veneer between the neck and the fretboard. This makes for a functionally strong yet visually attractive neck.
Real, dovetailed neck joints are becoming less and less common in acoustic guitars. Petros says that is for reasons of production convenience. The Petroses, from their many years of experience, believe in the integrity of this joint and use it on all Petros guitars even though other types of joints are easier to make.
The final feature of the Petros neck that I especially appreciate because of my large hands, is found in the unique design of the fingerboard. The board’s edges taper out rather than being perpendicular to the fret board face. This enables Petros to take nearly 5% more wood off the neck while still creating lots of room on top for a better feel, less playing fatigue and great articulation.
Petros attributes the success of his acoustic guitar innovations to the fact that he is very much a self-made luthier. Petros believes that if you want creative, new ideas for resolving any complex challenge (like making an exquisite guitar), seek input from those who have had no background or prior experience with such challenges. Petros says he was such a person over 40 years ago when he began making his dream of creating the finest guitars a reality. He came to luthiery with a deep, innate talent and a great feel for woods but no prior training in musical instrument making what-so-ever. He had no pre-conceived notions of “how things should be done.” As a result, Petros was able to bring fresh new thinking to guitar making that, over time, resulted in the creative features described above and an exceptionally ingenious workspace design.
Now Bruce’s son, Matt, is moving into the “first chair” at Petros Guitars. Matt Petros’ commitment is to carry on the Petros “Passion for Perfection.”
In the best tradition of early European apprenticeship, Matt Petros, Bruce’s thirty seven year old son, began as a full time apprenticing luthier in the year 2000. But Matt’s real beginnings in his father’s shop go back over thirty one years to when he was just six years old. It was then that Bruce first noticed Matt’s natural feel, his innate talent for working wood. Bruce nurtured and encouraged Matt’s obvious talent.
Today, Matt Petros would be much more aptly described as a protégé than an apprentice. As the reins of Petros Guitars are slowly turned over to Matt, Bruce Petros says, “Matt now consistently demonstrates a great feel for what is required to produce an outstanding guitar. He’s got it. I still try to challenge him from time to time, but that’s gotten harder to do as each year passes. He is my equal in just about every step of guitar making and has brought his own flare to some, which has made him even better at those.”
Bruce Petros will remain involved with Petros Guitars “forever,” he says. “People occasionally ask me when I plan to retire. I just smile. I ‘retired’ over 40 years ago when I first started doing what I truly love – making guitars. As Matt takes over more of the day to day responsibilities for Petros Guitars, I’ll be freed up to do more creating and innovating.”
For example, because of Matt’s mastery Bruce has had the time to develop a new, flexible purfling that has revolutionized this decorative aspect of instrument building. For over 400 years purfling designs have been limited. The construction of purfling remained unchanged during that entire time. And that construction has made purfling very difficult to bend. With the advent of Bruce’s new patented purfling product, called Purflex®, hundreds of new designs are now possible, all of which are extremely easy to bend and apply. Builders of ukuleles, guitars, harps and sitars have been using this new product with great delight and energetic enthusiasm.
In addition to the purfling innovations, Bruce has also developed decorative back strips, engraved tuner buttons, truss rod covers, end pins, bridge pins, rosettes, position markers and strap buttons. (For more information on Purflex and these other innovations see www.purflex.net for more details.)
Even more recently, the Petroses have introduced arm bevels and pierced sound port rosettes.
Although not a huge fan of arm bevels, the amount of requests have convinced the Petroses to include them as an option. The top of a guitar is the key to the quality of its sound and therefore must remain as free to move as can be. So the Petroses have insisted on keeping the bevels as small as possible and designed them to be situated more on the side of the guitar than on the top. This provides a balanced trade off; an improved level of player comfort while still preserving as much top as possible.
On the other hand, the Petroses recognized the considerable benefits of side ports. Side ports provide the player an actual sound monitor. In addition they relieve more internal air pressure thus allowing the top to move more freely. This has the effect of increasing volume and bass.
However, the Petros sound port, like so many other aspects of Petros guitars, is unique. It’s not just a hole in the side of the guitar. Once again, Bruce went his own way and developed a series of laminated, pierced matching inserts, each adding a decorative flare to the port as well as enhancing strength.
Currently the Petroses are building an impressive addition to their shop. The new space, Bruce says, will allow them to, “Stretch out and stimulate our creative juices.”
Matt’s presence made all of these innovations and improvements possible.
The Petros “Passion for Perfection” is made plain to those guitarists who have had the great good fortune to play a Petros guitar. There is a mysterious, elusive quality that, to my experience, only arises during the playing of a truly great guitar. The Spaniards refer to this quality as duende, the “spirit within.” For me, as a serious acoustic guitarist for over 50 years, this quality is rare indeed. Yet Bruce and Matt Petros manage to infuse their guitars with this evocative “spirit” with reliable consistency.
But the art of making guitars this good is NOT common-place. For those of us who swoon over guitars that sound and play as good as Petros’, we can be grateful that the Petros “Passion for Perfection” is being passed on from father to son.
I played six of Petros’ most recently completed guitars while at their shop, which is tucked neatly underneath the Petros’ living quarters in a spacious, handsome white house in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. Even in their newness, each guitar was extraordinary, captivating. That playing, coupled with my newly acquired understanding of the ingenious techniques, the masterfully designed workspace, the skill and care applied to each of the many steps in creating a Petros guitar, made it clear that it was this entire collection of creative thought and effort, along with Petros’ complete dedication to quality, that manifests as the art of the Petros father/son luthiers. Through this art the Petroses manage to consistently make guitars in which the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.