Peter Rowan’s first Preston Thompson guitar is still his go-to touring instrument.
The bluegrass musician met Thompson “sometime around 1982.” At the time, Thompson was a budding guitar maker, or luthier, and had recently studied and made copies of two Martin guitars owned by another bluegrass musician, Charles Sawtelle of Hot Rize: a Martin 000 from 1929, and a 1937 Herringbone Dreadnought. Thompson had a chance to play the 000 copy at a show in Winfield, Kansas, and was hooked.
“We talked, and Charles went back and forth, and I said, ‘OK, this much,’” Rowan said. “Preston was speaking to Charles — he was like the go-between; he was like the midwife. Finally, Preston came up with a price, and it was certainly a fair price. And I hadn’t bought a guitar in a long time, and I had three kids at the time, but I wanted that guitar.”
Since then, he has taken the guitar Thompson built for him to India and Europe; he recorded with the instrument in the Czech Republic. Recently, he brought the guitar in for a tune-up at Preston Thompson Guitars in Sisters, the business Thompson owned from October 2013 until his death April 11 at 62 due to complications from a surgery for pancreatic cancer.
“These are epic objects, and definitely some things that came from his hands to my hands for me to make music,” Rowan said. “There’s a bond there between Preston Thompson and myself in that his hands made the instrument and played it — he was a good player. It’s in my hands now, so there’s a legacy there that means a lot to me.”
That meeting with Rowan and the earlier one with Sawtelle were key events in Thompson’s development as a luthier. The copies he made of Sawtelle’s guitars became the template for the instruments Preston Thompson Guitars makes today — instruments played by young bluegrass luminaries such as Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle and Trey Hensley, as well as longtime players such as Rowan, Arlen Roth and Laurie Lewis.
Thompson’s family — including wife Julie Thompson and daughter Piper Thompson — friends and employees remembered his close attention to detail in his luthier work, and the quality of the instruments that came from it.
“Nobody does it anymore, either; nobody takes the time to do what we do in our guitars, or what Preston came up with anymore. You don’t see it anymore,” luthier Scott Salgado said.
Gareth Jenkins, a luthier who has been with Preston Thompson Guitars since the beginning, said Thompson had a deep knowledge of the instrument.
“He had an encyclopedic memory of Martin minutiae,” Jenkins said. “He could tell you what week of what year they put a certain kind of brace in a guitar, that kind of thing. So he could really relate to customers that way.”
The man behind those guitars was soft-spoken with a “gentle soul,” as his business partner, Preston Thompson Guitars co-owner Dan Stewart, put it. Despite his exacting standards, he was a hands-off boss, allowing employees to show their skills. Nearly every employee at the shop called him the best boss they had ever had when asked about Thompson.
“He, for me, completely reinspired my love for building instruments and my desire to want to learn how to build instruments,” luthier Joel Chadd said. Chadd is known locally as a folk musician, formerly of the group Trailer 31. “He just had a passion that I had never experienced before with building guitars.”
Thompson was born May 2, 1956, in Dallas, Texas. At 18, he left to study history and biology at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, according to Julie Thompson.
Shortly after, he attended the School of the Guitar Research & Design Center in Vermont for a couple of months in the 1970s — his first foray into guitar building. He studied with luthier Charles Fox, who today builds guitars and teaches luthiery in Portland.
Thompson continued to build guitars while living north of Dallas (this was around the time he met Sawtelle and Rowan, according to Stewart), and eventually moved to Nashville, where he worked at Randy Wood’s Old Time Pickin’ Parlor. He moved to Tumalo in 1984 and continued building guitars out of his home until about 1988, when he began working in marketing at Sunriver Resort.
He met Julie at around the same time at a party at a mutual friend’s house.
“I always like to say I fell in lust really,” Julie said. “We met each other — we got married after only knowing each other for four months, and we were together for close to 30 years.”
Julie said she fell in love with his honesty and his brilliance.
“He was adorable; he had these blue eyes; he was tall and thin,” Julie said. “And he was smart. He was brilliant. He just knew things about everything — trees, books, whatever you’d ask him (about). He had this habit of whenever we took a walk, he would pull something off a tree and eat it, and I’d go like, ‘You’re crazy; that could be poisonous.’”
After working at Sunriver Resort for 14 years, Thompson moved on to marketing positions at Combined Communications and Black Butte Ranch. He started building guitars again in 2009.
“Everybody was using the internet and people were trying to get in touch with him saying, ‘I have one of your guitars,’ or, ‘Are you still building guitars?’” Julie said. “There was so much interest. He asked me, ‘I’m gonna go back to building guitars; would that be OK for you?’ And I loved it.
“It was probably the best two years of my life, having him home and upstairs, and I came home from work and there he was and he was happy,” she added.
Thompson built a guitar for Dan Stewart in 2011. The two became friends over the next two years and began planning what would become Preston Thompson Guitars.
“It’s something that he always wanted to do; (it) was more his dream to get out there with the better known names in the business,” Stewart said.
Jenkins, who previously worked out of his own shop in Forest Grove, was one of the first luthiers to join Thompson.
“What he doesn’t get credit for, and what really was in many ways his main focus, was the creation of a sustainable business,” Jenkins said. “And he had the expertise of being a builder, but he also had the expertise of being a promotional person from Sunriver, Black Butte Ranch. That was his job there, in promotions. And so he was able to brand and promote and connect with people in a way that helped create this.”
Rowan summed it up: “I would just say that he had goodness — that’s what I would say about Preston,” he said. “He had real goodness in him, and that’s a sweet thing.”
A public memorial will be held for Thompson at 4 p.m. Saturday at The Belfry, next door to Preston Thompson Guitars.