What is Art? Who is an artist? Does an artist work for his own
Phil Sylvester from Pheo Guitars seems to have the answers to these questions. Their interesting route passes through the essence of art applied to the construction and re-construction of an instrument: from the visual to the roots of sound.
Behind the ‘crazy’ look of Pheo Guitars, there’s the experience of an artist engaged in activities related to create, practice and experiment with instruments created to be played, where the heart of their sound finds his roots in the recycled wood from broken or un-restorable vintage instruments.
Phil answered to the 10 questions we ask each guitar-maker who draws our attention for his artworks and it was a real pleasure to read his point of view about the fine art of guitar-making.
1. GUITARS EXCHANGE: How did you end up becoming, or start out as, a luthier?
Phil Sylvester (Pheo Guitars): I’m a visual artist who, long ago, was a professional guitarist. I have always been interested in great guitars and after painting for about eighteen years I decided to try an experiment to see if I could make a guitar the same way I make my paintings, building it, tearing it apart, rebuilding it, again and again until its sound, action, and appearance were exceptional. It worked and I was hooked. For nearly twenty years now, guitars have been my main focus as an artist.
2. GUITARS EXCHANGE: What inspires you to design and manufacture a new guitar?
Phil Sylvester: With most of my guitars, I’m experimenting to understand what makes great guitars great. I’m constantly trying variations in materials, structure, and electronics to sort out what really matters. Many of my most recent builds include recycled instrument wood and vintage electronics. I’ve also been exploring how to make collapsible guitars for travel that match the performance of the very best conventionally structured guitars. My interest in serious travel guitars stems from my having had a superb Gibson L5CES crushed by the airlines when I was a young musician.
3. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Do you look for a given sound for any particular reason?
Phil Sylvester: As crazy as my guitars look, my goals are actually very conservative. I’m trying to match the performance of the very best guitars of the 1950s and early 60s. I’ve owned them all and know how truly exceptional they sound. They are my benchmark. It isn’t easy to make a new guitar that sounds as good as a real 1954 Tele or a 1959 Les Paul. That quest is one of the reasons I’ve begun experimenting with recycled vintage instrument wood and electronics.
4. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Select one and talk about: soul, jazz, blues, rock, pop…or other.
Phil Sylvester: I love soul, or rather rhythm and blues. It carries everything, aspects of jazz, blues, and rock, all rolled into really moving dance music. Many soul bands, Prince’s for instance, use musicians that are as good as one would find in the very best jazz groups and they are using all that skill to create a pocket so deep that you drown in it.
5. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Are you a jobbing artist or a solitary artisan?
Phil Sylvester: Actually, I’m neither. I am an artist. I build my guitars for myself, to satisfy my own curiosity. Each instrument is one of a kind. I don’t make repeated models and don’t take commissions. Just like a fine art painter, I make my work for myself and if someone likes it, great.
6. GUITARS EXCHANGE: What was the last record or CD you bought? And listened to?
Phil Sylvester: I just bought the live record of Donald Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue. Pretty much anything Fagen is a part of is worth listening to in depth.
7. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Electric or acoustic?
Phil Sylvester: I have built everything, flat tops, arch tops, semi hollow and solid bodies, but where I have the most to offer is in electrics of all sorts. Mastering great acoustic design depends upon tweaking the parameters of a repeated design, over and over. I’m the wrong personality type for that kind of work. Also, I play electric far more than acoustic, so I am much more attuned to how electrics perform.
8. GUITARS EXCHANGE: What is the secret behind your choice of wood?
Phil Sylvester: I try to find woods that are reasonably light and that really ring, woods that work together as an ensemble to create a complex and lively response. These days I particularly like really old instrument wood that has been played for years and years, wood from instruments that are broken or have been so radically modified that they aren’t worth restoring. The thing is, Fender and Gibson used the same great woods on their student instruments and lap steels that they used on their master grade instruments and there are many of the student instruments around in compromised states.
...AND TWO HANDS
9. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Why should we consider luthier-crafted guitars as a viable option to guitars made by the large manufacturers?
Phil Sylvester: I believe a good musician could make great music for a lifetime using mass manufactured guitars. These days, even some of the least expensive electric guitars are really well made. Luthier made guitars can be more inspiring, more responsive, more subtly beautiful sounding, easier to play, but at such great cost because of the labor involved. And despite the higher prices of luthier made guitars, I don’t know a single luthier who actually makes a good living. I guess I would say that luthier-crafted guitars are not really a viable option, but we make them anyway because we love our work and some crazy people love guitars enough to buy just enough of what we make to keep us going.
10. GUITARS EXCHANGE: Who plays your guitars? Who would you like to have play your guitars?
Phil Sylvester: Everyone who has bought a Pheo is a real player. They buy my instruments for the sound, not to hang on a wall. Two great jazz players in Salt Lake City are using my instruments, Joshua Payne and Peter Jensen. I would love to have David Hidalgo choose one of my guitars as a main instrument. He’s a phenomenal player with great spirit and great tone, but what really appeals to me is his aesthetic and attitude as an artist. He shoots for what I shoot for.
Official Pheo Guitars website: http://www.philandjoanworld.com