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Phil Sylvester Makes Guitars That Should Be Mounted on the Walls of Avant-Garde Art Galleries

“As long as you’re building it, you might as well make it interesting.”

Phil Sylvester

Pheo Guitars

Age: 65

What does he make? Guitars that should be mounted on the wall of an avant-garde art gallery.

Above all else, Phil Sylvester wants to make a great-sounding guitar. But the way he sees it, "As long as you're building it, you might as well make it interesting."

That's an understatement. The instruments he makes under the imprimatur of Pheo Guitars—a reference to his childhood nickname—combine his background in visual art, architecture and mathematics with the instrument he's played since he was a Beatles-worshipping teen. His favorite creation is the "Slip Cat," which takes a Cubist lens to a '60s Melody Maker guitar until it looks like two continental plates drifting apart. Others are festooned with metal studs, old photo prints and anarchic splotches of paint. His amps are even odder—he's known to nest speakers inside hot plates and hair dryers.

Sylvester typically begins with a vintage electric that's unrestorable or unplayable. Then he'll "tear it apart and rebuild it"—sometimes saving just the neck, other times the head or the pickups—until he's created a machine that's simultaneously new and old.

Sylvester's allergies to certain solvents mean he's producing fewer guitars than before—four or five rather than 12 or 13 a year—and he prefers raw wood to the chemical finishes usually found on electric guitars. Given how hewn together his instruments already look, it shouldn't make much of a difference.

He hasn't counted any famous clients yet, though he hopes David Hidalgo of Los Lobos might swing by someday. But selling his wares, in general, isn't much of a concern.

"I make all the instruments for myself," Sylvester says. "And if anyone likes it, they buy it."

FIND IT: Search Pheo Guitars at reverb.com/marketplace.

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