Interview with a Luthier (i.e. Someone Who Makes Musical Instruments—in this case, for Arcade Fire, Spoon, and The National)
The following is a digital expression of an interview from The Believer’s 2014 Music Issue that I conducted with Reuben Cox. Cox, who grew up in a log cabin, is a luthier who focuses on building guitars with found wood and electronics as well as refurbishing aged guitars. Before he opened Old Style Guitar Shop, in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Cox worked as as art and editorial photographer, with credits from the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. In 1993, Cox began making guitars as a hobby. His guitars came to the attention of the music world after the National began to perform with them. He has since sold guitars to members of Arcade Fire, Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, and other notable musicians. Disclaimer: He has fixed my Gibson. Enjoy the following conversation as well as some videos of artists performing with Cox’s guitars, and the requisite slideshow of fetishistic guitar pix.
The National playing “Fake Empire”at Old Style, which has become something of a magnet for musicians and spontaneous shows.
THE BELIEVER: Why did you transition from photography to making guitars?
REUBEN COX: Working on guitars takes a lot less brainpower than making an interesting photograph, so I guess you could say it began as my “golf.”
BLVR: What tools do you use?
RC: I have a wood shop a few miles away. I use a table saw, jointer, planer, band saw, and the hand tools you’d expect to be lying around. I have a small tool chest and medium-sized mess here at the desk by the cash register. The feng shui is terrible.
BLVR: For some people there is a fetishistic attraction to electric guitars. What do you think that’s about?
RC: Well, the top part is shaped like a penis, and the bottom part often looks like Jayne Mansfield’s waist and tuchus, so there you go. But like a plastic surgeon who’s popped in thousands of implants, I’m numb to it. Seriously, though: I think some guitars have songs inside them and others simply don’t. It’s unexplainable.
BLVR: What skills do you need to build and repair guitars?
RC: I repair whatever comes through the shop—acoustic and electric guitars, the occasional violin, pump organ. I got a baby to feed, you know! I generally say yes to everything that comes in for repair. I build only electric guitars, though, which is a very different skill set. To build an electric guitar, basic carpentry skills will get you to the finish line.
BLVR: How did you learn woodworking?
RC: My father is an architect, and I have memories of going to job sites with him as a kid. Also, watching him build an addition on our house, or just watching him fix a screen door, was formative. I also attended art school for undergrad, and you’re expected to get a handle on materials in that sort of program.
BLVR: Did you have to read books on the subject or apprentice with a master like the violin luthiers of seventeenth-century Italy did?
RC: I didn’t read any books. I think an accomplished violin-maker would probably regard what I do as fairly entry-level. My spiritual instrument-making ancestors are blues musicians who nailed a wire—often from a screen door—to the side of a house and played with a bottleneck. Bo Diddley’s homemade guitars, too.
BLVR: Would you accept an apprentice now?
RC: Sure, I’ll take an apprentice. I’d probably be pretty self-conscious about it, though, as I’m self-taught and am certainly doing some things pretty backward. I’d really just like someone with a trust fund and a lot of time on their hands who would like to hang out in a shop and glad-handle customers.
BLVR: How did you get your guitars into the hands of influential musicians?
RC: My first “good” guitar was finished in 1995. I sold it to Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf, whom I knew through my brother, Chris. Before I sold Eric a guitar, I tagged along on his south-east tour one summer taking photographs. He’s since bought a few more. My lovely wife, Miwa Okumura, fills the Lee Krasner/Martha Washington role. She’s amazingly supportive and also is the head of East Coast operations for Beggars Group. Beggars umbrellas a number of great record labels including Matador, XL, and Rough Trade. When Miwa goes to bed, I take a flashlight and copy phone numbers out of her Rolodex.