It’s been 50 years, but Peter Stokes can still hear folk-blues musician Chris Smither’s Epiphone Texan in his mind. When the guitar’s sweet and mellow tone filled the Turk’s Head Club in Boston in 1965, it was like nothing the 16-year-old had ever heard.
“His guitar sounded like gold from Mount Olympus,” Stokes said. “So I ordered the exact same model from Gibson. Well, six weeks later, it arrived in the mail, and it sounded like [expletive].”
How could two essentially identical guitars sound so different? Answering that question became a lifelong obsession for Stokes, today Boston’s most renowned guitar repairman.
Working from a cramped shop on Boylston Street since the 1970s, Stokes has built a reputation as the guy who can make any guitar sound like a million bucks, an old-school craftsman in an era of do-it-yourself online instructional videos.
Generations of Berklee students — and superstars — have entrusted their beloved Stratocasters and Les Pauls to Stokes. He replaces worn frets, solders faulty wiring, and fine-tunes neck tension. Stokes is also a master woodworker, well known for his ability to bring smashed-up guitars back from the dead.
The work is mostly a matter of passion, not business, for Stokes. Record keeping is informal. Prices, though fair, sometimes appear to be made up on the spot.
Stokes, 66, got his start while a student at the University of California Berkeley, where he apprenticed at a guitar shop before returning to Boston and eventually founding Broken Neck Guitar Repair.
When U2 guitarist The Edge destroyed his favorite axe in a fit of rage while on tour in Boston, Stokes got the call. Just hours later, he had screwed and glued the splintered pieces back together, good as new. As Stokes remembers it, the band’s grateful roadie told him: “We make way too much money. Just bill us any number, it doesn’t even have to be logical.”
“But I told him, ‘The bill is the bill. It’s the same for everyone,’ ” Stokes recalled.
That unpretentious attitude is perhaps Stokes’s defining characteristic. He cuts his own hair; he’s been riding the same rusty bike, frozen in one gear, since college. And despite his expertise, he doesn’t turn his nose up at cheap guitars. The best players can make any model sound good, he believes.
An intellectual omnivore with a bone-dry sense of humor, he relishes dishing out wisdom and bantering with his customers.
“I do work for everyone from grandmas to Grammy winners,” Stokes said. “People are fascinated with the big names, and maybe it’s good for promo, but I treat everyone with the same subtle disrespect.”