NJ Hall of Fame recognizes Phil Petillo, ‘guitar savior’ of the Jersey Shore, with nomination

phil petillo

Phil Petillo, in a vintage photo shown on the petilloguitars.com website.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with a YouTube clip from a Stephen Colbert show from October 2021 (watch below). Bruce Springsteen holds up his iconic 1954 Fender guitar, custom fitted with an Esquire neck and Telecaster body. Then he launches into a typical Bruce bedtime story.

“I’ve played this guitar for 50 years. I bought it when I was 22 years old for $185 on Highway 34 in Belmar, New Jersey, from a great guitar man named Phil Petillo, and I’ve had it ever since. It’s kind of a mutt. It’s made up of two different guitars. But this guitar has been in every club, theater, arena and stadium across America and most of the world. So, it’s been around a bit.”

Yes, the Fender has seen it all. Played it all. And the only reason the Fender is still cranking after a half century is because of Springsteen’s “great guitar man,” a reliable first responder when The Boss would return from the road having once again committed grave Fender abuse.

“Phil Petillo was the man,” says Bobby Chirmside of Middletown, who was Springsteen’s road manager during the glory days, from 1976 to 1981. “He kept those guitars alive and on the road. Bruce would get so hot onstage after playing for four hours that he’d just take his head and dunk it into a bucket of ice water to cool off and the water would go all over the guitar. Mold would build up in the pickups. So Phil figured out a way to waterproof them.

“In ’78 we did, like, 123 shows in one year and we’d come back home to Holmdel for three days and Bruce would be like, ‘Bobby, you gotta get my guitar in, man, the frets need work.’ I know I woke Phil up after midnight many times and he was always right there for us.”

Any day. Any night.

Bruce Springsteen shows Stephen Colbert the guitar he bought from Phil Petillo when he was 22.

You might think that serving as Springsteen’s 24/7/365 guitar hero is enough reason for the New Jersey Hall of Fame to include Phil Petillo among its recently released list of 50 Jersey luminaries nominated for entry into the hall’s class of 2024.

But the fact that Petillo’s selection is not in the category of Arts and Entertainment, but Education and Science, is the first clue that this man was far more than a guitar guru. All those who knew him and observed his exquisite work describe Phil Petillo as a Renaissance Man.

Though Petillo died at age 64 in August 2010, he remains a legend in the music communities near Springsteen’s Asbury Park orbit. But beyond his reputation as a master luthier, he also was a brilliant mechanical engineer, holding 30 patents. Petillo invented a number of precision medical instruments, including a specialized clip used during aneurysm brain surgery; developed alternative forms of energy involving fuel cells and batteries; and worked on classified projects with the U.S. military.

He held a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Columbia University, an M.S. in Industrial Science and Ph.D. in Engineering Technology from La Salle University.

Petillo carried out his dual careers mixing art and science through two companies that operated out of his Herbert Avenue home in Ocean Township: Petillo Masterpiece Guitars and Accessories, with his son David, and Phil-Lu Incorporated, with his wife, Lucille.

“Phil was known as the first person you needed to know to make sure your instrument worked,” says Gordon Brown, an Asbury Park singer-songwriter with the Jersey country-rock duo, Williams Honor. “So after I bought my first guitar (a 12-string Takamine) when I was about 18 years old, I took it into Phil’s shop. I had no idea how things worked. Sure, I had street sense, but a guy like Phil, he was a genius. And for the next two hours he talked about the guitar and how to make it better, like how to improve the intonation and clarity. It was beyond my comprehension.”

This photo, from petilloguitars.com, shows Petillo’s patented fret.

Improving a guitar’s intonation and clarity was behind the craftsman’s unorthodox invention of the Petillo Fret. Petillo’s patent for the innovative system was the first issued for frets since 1800, simply because no one had ever thought about how to improve sound and tuning by altering the metal strips that cross the guitar’s fingerboard. While normal frets are flat and made of a nickel alloy, the Petillo Fret is triangle/pyramid-shaped and made from a stainless steel alloy. Petillo reasoned that a flat fret does not allow the string to rest properly at the fret’s center and that nickel alloy is soft and vulnerable to degradation.

Petillo explained his rigorous process in a 2009 interview with Premier Guitar magazine: “I used to experiment on Bruce Springsteen’s guitars. He was great about it. We tried different alloys. I made frets out of alloys used for airplanes and jet engines. We must have tried 60 or 70 alloys, and we handmade each fret individually in milling machines because my suppliers wouldn’t make me small quantities. After about three years, 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.”

Phil’s son, David, who spent decades learning guitar craftsmanship from his father, now runs the Petillo business in the same family home basement workshop, where the Darkness on the Edge of Town gold record given to him by Springsteen still hangs. David also has taken over the love and care of The Boss’s guitars, and that of other high-profile rock stars.

“Dave is just fantastic. The workmanship is out of the park,” Chirmside says about his mastery of marquetry and exquisite inlaid work with mother of pearl, just like his father. “Dave used to tell me that Phil would say to him, ‘I’m going to show you how to turn a piece (of wood) on the lathe. But before I do that, we’re going to take the lathe apart and put it back together again.’ That was Phil. That’s how detailed he was. And that’s how well he wanted David to learn the craft.”

David Petillo says he is happy about his dad’s nomination to the New Jersey Hall of Fame, but he politely declined an interview, saying he was overwhelmed with work because this is “tour season” for musicians preparing to embark on spring and summer shows.

“Dave is exactly like his dad. He’s carrying on the legacy,” says Brown, who recently had the younger Petillo set up his guitar for an upcoming European tour. “He’s now the go-to guy for me. You walk into the shop and it’s exactly the same as always. I remember I’d walk into Phil’s shop and look around and it would be like, ‘Oh, there’s Keith Richards’ Micawber and there’s Little Steven’s Strat.’ Phil worked with all the top musicians.”

Dave Petillo included this photo of a guitar made for Steven Van Zandt on his Instagram page.

His son is now doing the same. David’s expertise as a luthier can be viewed on his Instagram page at instagram.com/davepetillo, where some of his pedigree clientele and custom-designed guitars are featured. Recent postings include Steven Van Zandt’s Fender Stratocaster all dressed up in a new psychedelic pink/purple paisley swirl that makes you wonder whether you should wear it instead of play it. Another unique guitar taking shape is for Dolly Parton, designed to match the multi-colored pattern of a dress she wore to the premiere of NBC’s broadcast of her film, “Coat of Many Colors.”

But you don’t have to be a marquee star to get the full-service Petillo treatment.

“I still go to Dave’s shop once a month,” says Chirmside. “I’ve got about 14 guitars now. He polishes the frets. They get little knicks in them from playing. He does incredible restoration work. We’re so lucky to still have him.”

“Phil’s nomination to the Hall of Fame makes all the sense in the world,” says Brown. “In our music community here, Phil was the biggest star of them all. We just loved him dearly. It’s important how proud we all are about that family. They are a part of everything we do in our music community. Guys like Phil are even more important than the musicians. They’re the ones who make the instruments playable. Without them, there’s no tour.”

Chirmside agrees. “Phil has a real place in every musician’s heart at the Jersey Shore. He was our guitar savior.”

For information on Petillo Guitars, visit petilloguitars.com.


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