John Pilla Guitar Woodstock

John Pilla Guitar Woodstock

John Pilla Guitar Woodstock
John a “few” years ago

John Pilla’s internet footprint is a small one and what there is is usually associated as a guitarist with Arlo Guthrie. The reason I am doing a piece on John is because he played with Arlo at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

John Pilla Guitar Woodstock

Incidental references

There are some incidental references such as that made by Dr Eugene Beresin from a June 2012 Psychology Today post: “Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I spent a number of years working as a member of the grounds crew for the Philadelphia Folk Festival. As a teenager, I went to the Philly Folk Song Society, frequented the Main Point, and took guitar lessons from John Pilla, who backed up Doc Watson and Arlo Guthrie among others. In fact, I bought my first real guitar through John who got it from Fred Neil. John said it was an old beat up 1935 Martin, but I found out much later it was really made in 1956.”

John Pilla Guitar Woodstock

John Pilla Guitar Woodstock

All Music dot com

John’s AllMusic credits are also mainly associated with Guthrie, but not just as a guitarist. Pilla has also done photography for albums (e.g., Eric Andersen), engineered albums (e.g. 3 Penny Needle), and produced many of Arlo Guthrie’s albums. The site has a similar description of John’s discography.  And an news article from years ago: John Pilla, also a native Philadephian, has, in his nine years as a guitarist, evolved from rock ‘n roll player to one of Philadelphia’s finest folk guitarists. John, who is also a songwriter, has just made a record with Doc Watson (who performed at Central last year) and it due to be released shortly. Previous to his becoming a solo performer and his work with Doc Watson, John was a member, along with Jerry Ricks, of the Johnson City Three. Locally, John has appeared at the 2nd of Autum, the Second Fret, and the Main Point, where he is now appearing with Doc Watson.

Bethel Woods

Bethel Woods has a piece on Arlo Guthrie at its site which includes Pilla. Apparently, John died in 1988 of a heart attack, but if anyone has any more recent or expanded information about John, please comment below or email to

John Pilla Guitar Woodstock

In 2024, John’s son Chris posted a comment for this post. It’s below, but perhaps readers don’t always get to those.

I’m including his comment here as well because someone might have another personal story about John and Chris can see it. A kindness that would certainly be welcome.

My name is Chris and I am John’s son. He and my mother divorced while I was very young and I didn’t reconnect with him very much until I was in my late teens and he was finding out about his heart condition. I love reading some of these because I get to know him a bit more with each story.

Guitar Woodstock, 

27 thoughts on “John Pilla Guitar Woodstock”

  1. John has worked with several notable artists since Woodstock. He produced several Chaka Khan tunes and ventured into heavy metal. It’s not my thing and I can’t remember the bands, but he did some notable work. I was privileged to hear a bit of a rock opera that he produced. Patty La Belle sang the lead and it was quite powerful.

    1. You must be referring to a different John Pilla. The John Pilla we are talking about here was Arlo Guthrie’s producer, arranger and most importantly his best friend. John was working with Arlo right up to the end of his life when he died of a heart attack while waiting for a heart transplant in 1988.

      1. I was acquainted with John from my working at the Main Point. He was an important fixture in the Philly folk scene.

  2. The third member of the trio was Jay Roseman. John once quipped at the Main Point that I had been every where he stopped for a drink of water for several years!
    At one of the Philly Folk Festival he introduced me to “the guy who was replacing Chad Mitchell.” I was so focused on John, I barely caught John Denver’s name.
    Of his compositions I will always remember “Do You Know What It’s Like to be Lonely.”
    He introduced me to Doc, John Hurt and Arlo.
    I will never forget him!

  3. Late one Sunday night, circa 1968-70, on Gene Shay’s Philly radio show “Folklore”, John led a performance of “(In the) Big Sur Country” in the studio. I think it might have been a weekend when he was backing someone at the Main Point (Doc?), and after hearing a few bars, I recorded it with a mic in front of the radio, to my old Sears reel-to-reel. The tape’s long lost, but it was a beautiful performance, as I recall. Anybody else record it, who might still have a copy? John was a Philly legend around that time. I still wonder if that was him playing one of the Martins in Zapf’s one time …

    1. I don’t have the interview, but remember it. I do did learn a song from my tape of it. The song is “There’s no you”

    2. I remember that show on Gene Shay’s program. He also did a version of “If I Were a Carpenter” and explained the drop D tuning he used. I sang his version ever since. Recorded it , but sadly can’t locate it. But I did learn “There’s no you”. Sang it for awhile in the seventies maybe eighties. Always liked the break in the middle where John went from the sad minor chords to a major C syncopated chord for a brief happy memory in the song then back to main sad lonely feel of the song. Saw John a few times at “The Fifth String” in Weastville NJ. Might have been on a double bill with Danny Starobin. Philly was such a great music scene back then. Brings back so many memories.

  4. Small world… I’m from Philly and met John, a dear friend, when I was 15. He was often backup guitar for Doc Watson and others at the Second Fret. I went to every Philly Folk Festival since the Society’s first! Joel Schulman was one of the founders. I was married to Jay Roseman, who grew up next door to Gene Shey.
    John had heart disease, needed a transplant, lived with my sister and b-I-law, docs at HUP, died while awaiting a new heart. John was wonderful, extremely talented and he’s sorely missed.

  5. 1st Arli concert I attended was 1970 Mesker Amphitheater Evansville, IN. Linda Ronstadt opened for Arlo. John was in his band that night. Much later ca. 1979 John appeared with Arlo on WCVB channel 5 on the program 5 All Night Live in Boston. They came on well after midnight. John was quite a flatpicker.

  6. I first learned of John in the mid ’60’s when he backed up Eric Anderson at the Main Point. A year or two later, when I started working there, John had become a regular, even when he wasn’t performing. I no longer live in the Philly area,and only learned of his passing about 10 or so years ago.

  7. A reprint of a 1993 article about Doc Watson in the current Acoustic Guitar (Sept/Oct 2020) brought back memories of my 1st year of grad school at U Penn (1965-66.) While there I attended a Doc Watson performance with John Pilla playing backup at a small venue on the corner of Walnut & 40th, a half block away from my apt. An unforgettable live experience of both musicians’ skills!

  8. Does anyone know where I might get a copy of John’s song “Do you know what it’s like to be lonely”. He wrote it when we were living together in 1068 or 69. I had it in a hand write song book and can’t find it. Was it ever published? I miss him so.

    1. I miss him also Sherry . It’s been 34 years since he’s gone,
      and I’m still here.!
      Sorry I can’t help you with a copy of his song ( I heard him sing, but never asked about.)
      To take some of the Hollies song title, ,”He ain’t heavy , but he WAS my brother.”

    2. I sang “There’s no you” for years after hearing it on a Gene Shay Folklore interview. Did John ever record an album?

  9. Jon was my guitar teacher when i was only 14. He encouraged me to visit the Main Point where he was performing with Doc Watson. He brought me downstairs to the basement, which served as the backstage, and there he introduced me to Doc and Merle. I will always remember shaking hands with Doc!
    And so i began frequenting the point eventually performing at the open mikes hosted by Gene Shay, and he encouraged me too, getting me my first solo paid gig at Cabrini College. jon made a difference, quietly providing some good direction in a kid’s life.

  10. My name is Geoffrey Myers. I built Longview Farm, the studio where Arlo made several recordings. I got to know John pretty well. I have a guild 12 string that he gave me. The soundboard was badly warped. I took it to Phil Petillo, a well known luthier in NJ who changed the tuners and did other work to make the guitar playable. I later had it completely restored by Pat O’Donnell, master luthier in Stuart Fl. He delivered the guitar to my house in Sebastian. Arlo, my neighbor at the time, came by to check it out. I have a vid of him playing it somewhere on my computer.
    When he gave it to me John said that he had played the Guild at Woodstock. They were all pretty wasted having broken into the champagne stash before the show so he might have been mistaken.

  11. I met John in Wildwood NJ. He was hanging around the Lonesome Traveler coffee house. Always remember his song, The Bells.

  12. He was an extraordinarily nice man. He was my brother’s teacher. He once spent some time lifting my spirits when I was down. I was surprised because I hadn’t thought he had much relationship with me. I visited him in the hospital when he had his first heart attack at age 33, as I recall. He was philosophical about it. We all came from Philly. He introduced me to Arlo once.

  13. John and I both worked at Triangle Publications in Philly in the early ’60’s . At that time he was performing at the Second Fret with the Johnson City 3. We hung out together a few times and he opened up the folk music world to me. Basically I remember that he was kind. He understood people. You never forget him.

  14. I remember John from the Gilded Cage in the 60’s. I was a guest at his wedding and have often wondered what happened to him. So sad to hear of his way too early death.

  15. My name is Chris and I am John’s son. He and my mother divorced while I was very young and I didn’t reconnect with him very much until I was in my late teens and he was finding out about his heart condition. I love reading some of these because I get to know him a bit more with each story.

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