Scott Ball / Rivard Report
At Goofy’s Bar and Grill in Canyon Lake on Friday night, guitarist Bill Middleton launched into a cover of the Marshall Tucker Band’s hit song “24 Hours At A Time.” As Middleton energetically strummed his acoustic guitar, the chords cut right through the din of electric guitars and drums backing him up.
“I can swear to you that’s the finest parlor guitar I’ve ever heard,” said Jim Colangelo, a guitarist from Wimberley and fan of Middleton’s band. “There isn’t any bigger sound than that guitar.”
Middleton’s guitar was custom made by Neil Peterson at his Peterson Acoustics wood shop in Bandera, using wood from an old piano given to him by a friend. The 1901 piano had been left outside in the elements for years and couldn’t be brought back into a playable state. Its Sitka spruce soundboard was salvageable, though, and Peterson realized it might make a perfect guitar top, the most important element in an acoustic guitar’s sound.
“We’re taking something that’s basically used up its useful life as a piano to give it a new life as a guitar,” Peterson said. The idea is catching on, he added, and he plans to continue a new line of “piano guitars,” as they’re being dubbed by Middleton and other players.
“To me, it’s almost a spiritual thing,” Peterson explained of converting old, unusable pianos into shiny new acoustic guitars. “It totally lived the life that it was made for originally, and now it’s getting a new lease on life.”
Middleton, who goes by “Bear,” agrees that the first piano guitar, which he’s nicknamed “The Cub,” has spiritual qualities. “That guitar is anointed. It’s spiritually anointed. There’s nothing else like it,” he said.
Peterson made a second guitar for Middleton, dubbed “Mama Bear.” He makes a point of seeing his guitars in action in Middleton’s expert hands. “I’ve been able to go watch him play several times. It’s just amazing hearing the sound he’s getting out of these guitars,” Peterson said.
The sound quality of a guitar depends on several factors, including its wood's density, age, and type. (Woods like Sitka spruce and Port Orford cedar, used for string instruments, are called “tonewoods” in the trade.)
Overhearing Middleton talk about his “Cub” during a break between sets at Goofy’s, Colangelo chimed in to explain what sets it apart from any other guitar he’s heard.
“What happens to the wood is all the sugars and what they call ‘volatiles,’ over time evaporate,” Colangelo said. “Right now, some of the most valuable instruments are 1930s and 1940s Martin acoustic guitars.”
Old wood has gone through natural chemical changes that can help make it more resonant, Peterson concurred, and such processes cannot be rushed. Modern guitar makers try, he said, citing major companies like Taylor and Martin, which both have new lines of “torrefied” wood guitars.
Torrefied wood is “basically baked in a oxygen-free environment, to mimic the aging process,” Peterson said.
“So these 100-year old piano woods already have that accomplished, and have the additional benefit of having vibrated and made music for years,” he said.
“He’s onto something with that deal,” Middleton said of Peterson’s piano guitars. “The wood’s already aged, and the soundboards in those pianos have vibrated for 100 years.”
That tonewood gains sound quality by resonating music for a century or more is not a far-fetched idea, according to some experts. One reason Stradivarius violins are renowned for their incomparable sound quality is due in part to their wood having resonated music for many years, causing a “freer vibration.”
Such vibration is audible when Peterson pinches and taps tonewoods cut from several old pianos he’s salvaged. Unlike regular woods that simply make a tapping sound when rapped with a knuckle, these aged, vibrated woods emit a clear tone, almost like a rung bell.
“From my experience in tapping and listening to woods, I’ve never heard anything like these,” Peterson said, standing near piled cuts of non-aged, non-piano-wood cedar, mesquite, maple and other woods he’s used to build more than 75 guitars over 14 years.
Bandera singer-songwriter Hollin McKay is Peterson’s friend who brought him that first 1901 spruce soundboard. He’d bought the piano off Craigslist, then lent it to a friend in Austin when it fell into disuse. After a few years, McKay asked for it back, but learned it had been left outside, exposed to the elements.
McKay could not bring the damaged instrument back to life, but he thought his guitar-making friend might be able to make use of it.
“I intended to get the wood to Neil to see what he could do with it,” McKay said. Eventually, “he did exactly what I had in mind,” McKay said.
McKay later heard of an old piano sitting atop a burn pile nearby. “I basically told [Peterson], 'Look, you need to come get it now, or its going to be ashes,'” he said. The Sitka spruce soundboard from that 1904 Cable piano is now cut to size for a P-100 model Peterson guitar, awaiting its owner.
Peterson has four other piano guitars in the works or on order from his luthier’s shop, and should have no trouble finding unusable pianos to recycle into more guitars. For example, the web forum PianoAdoption.com recently listed 24 old pianos in Texas – “free to a good home” in most cases.
But Peterson hasn’t had to look far. One recent morning, he and an assistant drove their cabinetry truck to two locations in Bandera. Andra Adrian had heard of Peterson’s project and offered an old piano no longer in use at the Gateway Fellowship of Bandera church.
“We finally found a home for it,” she said, explaining that a piano tuner told her it would cost more than it was worth to get it back into playing shape, as is the case with many older, neglected pianos.
As Peterson loaded the piano into his truck, Adrian told him, “We’re glad it's going for a good cause. I can’t wait to see the guitar that you pull out of it.” Peterson noted that, given his backlog and the meticulous process required for building a guitar, it might take a year or more for the guitar to be produced.
“Now we go from a church to a bar,” he said, hopping back in the truck to salvage an old piano from the Longhorn Saloon.
Though long a Bandera music destination, the Longhorn is under new ownership and is being almost entirely rebuilt. Its old piano had been in storage in the barn down the hill, and had been through several floods, said Wesley Odlozelik and Daniel Schmidt, who worked on the buildout as Peterson loaded the piano.
Noting the onetime popularity of the Longhorn as a music venue, regularly featuring stars like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, “there ain’t no tellin' who’s played on it,” Odlozelik said.
“It was in here for a while,” Schmidt said. “It’s a survivor, we know that.” Of its new life as a guitar, he said, “it’s gonna have that sound. He’s just waking it up again.”
Whether the wood in Peterson’s new guitars carries the ghosts of old piano chords is anyone’s guess, but McKay said the sound of Middleton’s guitar made from his old piano is unmistakable.
“I was amazed when I played it. It had a tone to it I had never heard before. I was thrilled that it worked out the way it did,” he said, hoping one day to have Peterson custom-build one for him.
Word is getting around among musicians and luthiers, Peterson said, mostly via his YouTube postings of him, Middleton, McKay, and his sons building and playing the guitars.
While Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was well-known and wealthy during his lifetime, Peterson is just beginning to carve a name for himself in the guitar-making community. He hopes a big-name musician like Jerry Jeff Walker might one day soon play and endorse his guitars.
“I think we’re onto something here,” Peterson said. “We’ll see what happens.”