The Thompson Guitars founder leaves a legacy of high-quality vintage-inspired guitar making.
by Teja Gerken
May 09, 2019
It is with great sadness that we learned of luthier Preston Thompson’s passing on April 11, after a lengthy illness. Preston started building guitars during the early days of small-shop guitar making in the early 1980s, and he went on to fulfill his dreams of building instruments for some of his favorite players not just once, but during two distinct periods of activity.
An avid bluegrass fan, Preston began his guitar-making career at Charles Fox’s School of the Guitar Research and Design Center in Vermont in the 1970s. Like most of his peers at the time, Preston began with original designs, but became interested in American vintage guitars while working at Randy Wood’s Old Time Pickin’ Parlor in Nashville, Tennessee, after completing the Charles Fox program. This interest was further fueled when he struck up a friendship with bluegrass guitarist and vintage guitar aficionado Charles Sawtelle, who owned a collection of old Martins that Preston studied closely. Preston built a style-42 dreadnought for Charles (see the video above, which includes a clip of Scott Nygaard playing that guitar, as well as clips of Peghead Nation demos of several other recent Thompson guitars) and also began building guitars for Peter Rowan, who became, and continues to be, a champion of Preston’s work.
In the early 1990s, Preston stopped building instruments. He moved to Oregon, got married, started a family, and became Director of Marketing for the Sunriver golf resort in Sunriver, Oregon. But after seeing the renewed interest in vintage-style flattops in the mid-2000s, and realizing that many of his early guitars were still being played, Preston decided to give his first passion another shot. Equipped with a new set of business skills, he set up PK Thompson Guitars with business partner Daniel Steward in 2013, and the company eventually grew to include a team of a dozen people.
Almost immediately after returning to the scene, Preston’s guitars grabbed the attention of a new generation of players, including virtuosos such as Chris Luquette, Billy Strings, Trey Hensley, and Molly Tuttle, all of whom became part of the PK Thompson Guitars family. Preston’s presence is felt in every guitar built in the PK Thompson shop. “His instruments are really an extension of himself,” says flatpicker Tim May. “They’re products of his perfectionism, devotion to the history of lutherie, and a love of the process.”
Multi-instrumentalist Laurie Lewis is familiar with both periods of Preston’s activity. “I first became aware of Preston through my friend Charles Sawtelle,” she says. “Charles was a great judge of character, and he really liked Preston and appreciated his guitars. When I played Preston’s copy of Charles’s 1929 Martin 000-45, it was love at first strum. As the current keeper of Charles’s [old] guitar, I know first-hand what an old Martin is supposed to sound like, and Preston’s guitar had, or rather, has, it all. I asked Preston to make an OM-28 for me, and it is such a jewel of an instrument. His attention to detail can be seen on every inch of the instrument.”
I first met Preston shortly after the start of the second phase of his business, and his enthusiasm for guitars and his excitement about his return to building them was remarkable. Preston will be greatly missed by all of us here at Peghead Nation. Our deepest condolences go to his family, friends, and team at Thompson Guitars, who we hope will be able to continue his legacy for many years to come.
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