Strings attached

Father-son duo craft world-class guitars in Kaukauna workshop

Posted on Apr 1, 2016 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

It’s said every song tells a story.

Bruce Petros can tell you the story behind the instruments that play the songs. One of his favorites is the story of “the tree.”

“The tree” refers to a tree from Central America that mystified the loggers attempting to harvest the old-growth mahogany. On the first attempt, the tree refused to give itself up, slithering down the side of a ravine when cut and frustrating all attempts to pull it out.

After several years, the tree finally yielded. When properly worked and polished, the grain pattern produces a lustrous, tortoise-shell effect which can be found on many of the guitars and ukuleles hand-crafted at Petros Guitars in Kaukauna.    

“It’s almost all gone now,” Petros says, holding one of guitars he has crafted from the rare wood. “It costs about $5,000 a linear foot, but it’s beautiful.”

It sounds even better.

Spend a few moments in the Petros workshop in Kaukauna and you’ll hear a few more stories like “the tree,” as well as see the hand-crafted alchemy that transforms blocks and planks of wood into high-performance acoustic guitars and ukuleles with sounds coveted by musicians. 

“They are definitely a bit more balanced and really have a great mid-range sound,” says Macyn Taylor, a Milwaukee-based guitarist who uses two different models of Petros Guitars during her shows. “They are exceptional for finger-style guitar, which is what I play.”

Former child prodigy promotes the brand

Taylor was first introduced to Petros Guitars when visiting her brother at Lawrence University. She visited the workshop and showroom and played some of the guitars. Her skill at playing even drew Bruce’s wife to the shop — an event considered a rarity.

“I was 12 at the time, and the level of a Petros guitar was not a good fit,” says Taylor, referring to the cost.

About a week after the visit, Taylor received an email asking if she and her family would be interested in an endorsement deal in exchange for a guitar. She has been representing the brand since.

With price tags approaching nearly $45,000, a Petros guitar may not necessarily be the choice of your average musician. However, they can be seen in the hands of high-end performers such as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Buffalo Springfield founder Richie Furay, Appleton-native and Paul Simon’s music director Mark Stewart and Christian musician Jim Cole.

Bruce and son Matt even built a custom guitar for Paul Simon — delivered through Stewart.

“I love building spec guitars,” Petros says. “I’m always coming up with new stuff. I just love to experiment.”

For Petros, the journey to master luthier (maker of stringed instruments) began in 1972 during a summer spent working for the National Park Service on a dude ranch. While he played guitar and worked as a tour guide, he was using the summer to wrestle with his parents’ desire he attend college and with knowing he wanted to follow a different path.

A $15 guitar kit settled the debate.

“I went to college for a year, but I was never a big fan,” Petros says. “Then on one trip, I bought the guitar kit, put it together and it worked. That’s when I realized what I wanted to do.”

Petros Guitars was born. It hasn’t always been a smooth trip, but it’s been a career-adventure that enabled him to marry, buy a house and support a family. It’s a trip that also included a six-year detour rebuilding church organs, a job that eventually ended when they ran out of organs that needed work.

“They were magnificent to work on, though,” Petros says.

But it is the guitars that have always sounded the sweetest notes for him, personally and professionally.

His son Matt, who watched his father building guitars almost as soon as he could walk into the workshop, joined Petros in 2000. With the exception of a few years during the Great Recession, the pair have been crafting guitars together ever since.

Petros Guitars expanded its workshop in 2015, adding additional workspace as well as a larger showroom for its guitars.

Along the way, Petros has experimented with guitar design, created his own custom-tools and jigs for building instruments and in 2015 received a patent for Purflex — a flexible purfling material used to decorate guitars — which he developed to replace traditional materials.

That’s opened up a new line of business for Petros Guitars. 

A focus on the high-end market

At some point early on — he doesn’t recall exactly when or if he really made the decision consciously — Petros opted against competing in the general consumer market with its guitars and instead focused on creating instruments for high-end players. It meant he would sell fewer guitars, but with the prices they command, it also meant he didn’t have to sell more.

“It’s certainly easier to make them, but it’s a lot harder to sell enough of them,” Petros says of the general consumer market. “We’ve lost a lot of guitar makers over the years.”

By concentrating on the top end of the market, Petros has quietly built up a loyal following of players over the years, with nothing more than occasional advertising in industry magazines, though the Internet has been a marketing boon for the company.

“One of my secrets is longevity,” Petros says of his low-profile approach.

Bob Pedersen found his first Petros guitar quite by accident. An accomplished player of both guitars and ukuleles, Pedersen was browsing in a local music store and discovered a used Petros hanging on the wall.

“I had never heard of them before,” says Pedersen, CEO of Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin. “I took it down off the wall, played it and fell in love.”

Pedersen now owns — and “plays like crazy” — a newer model Petros guitar and a Petros ukulele. Like Taylor, he loves the tonal qualities of the instruments, as well as the beauty of their craftsmanship. He also loves the stories behind the instruments.

The Tunnel 13 model Pedersen currently plays resonates with historical footnotes.

Tunnel 13 refers to what is considered the last great train robbery in the American West, the 1923 robbery of the Southern Pacific Oregon-California Express. As the train made its way through the Siskiyou Mountains in southern Oregon, it slowed as it entered Tunnel No. 13, allowing three train robbers on board. When the robbers could not gain access to the mail car, they blew it up using dynamite. However, they used too much and destroyed the car and killed the guard.

A 2004 fire in the tunnel resulted in a renovation and the replacement of the redwood timbers used in its original construction — timbers from old-growth redwoods that simply cannot be cut today.

Petros secured some of the timbers to build a guitar he christened the Tunnel 13, a design that enabled him to keep selling guitars during the lean years of the Great Recession. The model lists for $13,000.

“That wood is probably close to 2,000 years old,” Petros says. “It’s great to release that sound.”