Peter Ciluzzi plays music in his dreams. He tells me this as we’re standing outside The Evening Muse in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he has just played a transcendent set. As an unseasonably chilly wind rushes down the street, the guitarist and luthier, who built guitars out of his Provincetown, Massachusetts, workshop from 2006 to 2013, describes his latest dream. It’s an extraordinary one.
“I was on a wooden trolley car and there were steel cables going from the center of the ceiling to the edges of the floor, like a harp,” Ciluzzi says. “When I hit the strings, they played a pentatonic melody with the sound of an Asian stringed instrument—something like an erhu.”
He adds that when he hears music in dreams, the sounds are also visual and tactile. He can feel the music that he’s writing. These dream compositions don’t come often, but when they do, the 43-year-old player embraces them and incorporates them into new songs. He’s released two albums of original solo guitar tunes, Music Without Words in 2008, and Still Without Words in 2016. He plans to release a new collection early next winter.
Earlier in the evening, sitting onstage at the intimate club, Ciluzzi tells the audience, “I like music that falls between the lines.” He’s just finished playing “Soliloquy,” a viral sensation that has garnered nearly 7.5 million streams and downloads on Spotify. Ciluzzi hunches over a guitar he built in Provincetown, and launches into his next number. It’s one of his rare covers of the evening—an improvisation based on Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Trenzinho do Caipira” (“The Little Train of Caipira”). When Ciluzzi finishes the whirlpooling, side-winding bossa nova, the audience remains hushed for several seconds, as if they’re spellbound, before launching into applause. “In case you’re wondering,” Ciluzzi says smiling, “this is as much fun as it looks.”
How did you develop your playing style?
There were always lots of street musicians in Provincetown, where I grew up. When I was a kid I thought they were cool. Hearing them made me want to learn to play. I started with the classic rock canon. I was drawn immediately to the instrumental acoustic stuff—Jimmy Page and some Pink Floyd. Around the same age I had a summer job in a restaurant, and one of the managers had a lot of music by Michael Hedges. Once I found Hedges, I was catapulted into a whole new realm. I jumped immediately into much more complex compositions and technique.
Why did you start repairing and building guitars?
I’ve always been a tinkerer, interested in fixing things and taking things apart. When I was 15 or 16, I realized that if I adjusted the guitar, it would be easier to play. When you’re not putting as much effort into the mechanical function of the instrument, it frees up everything. The hands get more relaxed; you can play soft and subtle, which encourages a wider range of dynamics.
I approached building guitars the way I learned how to write music. I slowly took them both apart and explored how things were put together. I learned most of what I know about music from listening, and I learned about guitars by playing and fixing lots of different kinds of instruments. Then I spent close to a month at Charles Fox’s American School of Lutherie. I built a guitar with him. I think there are as many ways to build a guitar as there are guitar builders. Since studying with Charles, I build in his manner. He uses a lot of jigs and a lot of stuff that he invented, which is in guitar shops all over the world—like the side-bending machine, and different jigs for putting a radius on a fingerboard. Fox incorporates what he calls a super-rigid rim, in which the sides have extra-thick curved linings and extra-large neck and tail blocks. That creates a structure that makes it possible for the back and the top to be braced much looser, without compromising the structural integrity of the guitar.
I opened my shop in Provincetown in 2006. What I learned after attempting to build professionally for several years is that building guitars and selling them are two completely different careers and skill sets. Touring, recording, and promotion take time and money, and after several years I had to decide where I wanted to focus my energy and finances. I closed my workshop in mid-2013, but I continue to work on instruments when I can at home.
What elements make a guitar good?
With regard to woods, I use maple, mahogany, and rosewood for the back and sides. For the top woods, I use spruce and cedar—woods with a nice, tight, straight grain, and nice tap tone. It’s possible to build a superior-sounding instrument from average wood. It’s also possible to build a not-so-great sounding instrument out of really expensive wood. The way the thing is built is really important. How you do the bracing really affects the sound.
I lean toward bracing lightly because I like a much more responsive sound. I like a hot response that has a lot of bass, a lot of treble, and good sustain. I love the sound of a smaller body. I think it has a beautiful balance, especially when recorded or amplified. You can turn the volume up a little bit and really hear the complexity of the tone.
What guitars are you touring with?
Right now I have one of mine, which is spruce and rosewood. I’m touring with two other guitars, too, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time changing tunings, onstage. I keep each guitar in a different family of tunings. The second guitar is a Breedlove. It was built in 1996, when Breedlove was a much smaller company. I’ve done a lot of writing on it over the years. The third guitar is a Loar that I keep in standard tuning, and use for the jazz tunes and improvisations that I throw into my set.
What is your default tuning for your guitar and the Breedlove?
For the main tuning on my guitar the notes are C# G# E F# B E, which open is a C# minor 7th suspended chord. It’s just a tuning that I found. The Breedlove tunes lower overall. That one’s in C G D G A C, which would be the same tuning as the Michael Hedges song “Bensusan.” One other tuning I use on the Breedlove is D A D F C E.
You’re mostly known for your own compositions, but you’re also recording arrangements and improvisations of existing jazz and classical tunes. What drew you in that direction?
I feel like I have a number of distinct musical personalities. I’m also a huge fan of the kind of music that is in between genres: all of David Grisman, Bela Fleck, and Mike Marshall—the world of plucked-string improvisation. I’ve also been a student of improvisation and jazz guitar. I love playing all kinds of material. Some of the fingerstyle stuff began to get attention about ten years ago. I decided to focus on that, because that’s where I was getting the best response. What I love more about performing now is that I can throw some of these improvisations in with my fingerstyle pieces. I think it works well in a live format.
Regarding composition, you’ve said that one of your goals is to tell a story without using words.
Yes, to me the story element is very important. In the world of instrumental guitar, there are so many different approaches. To me the compositional substance is important, but technique and execution are equally important. There are all these different facets of a piece of music that make up the whole. I try to start with something interesting enough to develop into a piece that tells a story and takes you somewhere.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.