Interview with a Luthier (i.e. Someone Who Makes Musical Instruments—in this case, for Arcade Fire, Spoon, and The National)

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The following is a digital expression of an interview from The Believers 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 Coxs guitars, and the requisite slideshow of fetishistic guitar pix.

—Adam Baer

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfUx7I1yf0g]

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.

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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.

BLVR: The National was the first band, I think, to spread the word about your wares.

RC: Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National have been really enthusiastic about my guitars. The National’s previous record was recorded in a garage behind Aaron’s house. I would drop by every couple weeks with a few guitars for them to demo. The Dessners are famously particular in the studio, and they ended up using a few of my guitars on the record. I think that’s what really gave me the ego boost to start a business. Aaron and Bryce also told many of their friends about my guitars. Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire has one, and Sufjan Stevens has a couple of my guitars as a result of the Dessners’ enthusiasm. I’ve been very lucky.

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Richard Reed Parry playing old style guitar with Arcade Fire in Helsinki.

BLVR: Do you advertise? Do you send someone to, say, SXSW?

RC:  I’m too bone-headed about running a business to send a rep at SXSW. Business is good so I’ll be able to hire somebody soon that’s more business-minded than I. In the beginning, my 19th century business model felt pretty “art project.” Slowly it’s transitioning into something viable. I do host free in-store events at the shop. I co-hosted a record release party a couple weeks ago and BBQ’d four pork shoulders. I was keeping a blog for a while but that’s in cold storage right now. Writing well takes time and there’s none left at the end of the day. I’ll post staccato blurts to the Facebook monster. I had to draw the line at Twitter. I love the Internet but it has put so many great small shops out of business. Many of my regulars get greeted with a hug.

BLVR: How does it feel to make an instrument and send it out into the world?

RC: It feels great. It’s almost a better feeling, though, to repair instruments that were left for dead and turn them into something playable and great-sounding. When I started the business I thought it was going to be just me making my guitars, but I quickly learned that most folks don’t have two thousand dollars to spend on a custom guitar, which is really cheap for a custom guitar, by the way. So the shop became the St. Jude of guitars. Over the past two years I’ve restored countless smashed guitars that I’ve picked up.

BLVR: Do you ever miss something you made, sold?

RC: Never! I posses no musical talent, so I couldn’t do anything with it anyway. This is not false modesty. The only gear I covet is my 1964 Fender Princeton Reverb amplifier. It sounds so good and helps me sell guitars. All guitars sounds great plugged into my Princeton. The only other thing I miss is a mid-1960s Magnatone M8 amplifier. Greg Kurstin bought it. I think he used it for bass on the new Shins record.

BLVR: Do your instruments have a specific sound or sound profile? Something you aim for?

RC: The more I build and restore guitars, the more I realize that each instrument is a unique entity. Of course, guitars wired with certain electronics will be brighter sounding or louder or whatever, but within those parameters there’s a lot of room for variation. It’s often pleasantly counterintuitive. I just wait until the guitar is done to judge its sound.

BLVR: Do you make guitars to fit people’s specific wants and needs?

RC: I really try and avoid that. I much prefer to build guitars on spec. Partially because I don’t want to deal with expectation, and also because I don’t know exactly what a guitar is going to sound like until it’s done. Sometimes you have to pat certain guitars on the back, and say, “It’s ok, it happens.” They’re not always good. Play before you pay is a shop rule!

BLVR: What might an acid rocker want versus what a jazz guitarist might want?

RC: I don’t know! Maybe an acid rocker would want a secret compartment to smuggle his acid through LAX? I really don’t know. Maybe a young metalhead with a soft tuft of a mustache is looking for a pointy guitar, but he’s got a much different criteria going on. Again, I’m trying to promote the idea of playing a guitar first. eBay is great for getting a new guitar but it’s like buying pants or shoes online—it doesn’t always work. Also, guitars sound different in the hands of different musicians. Someone will come into the shop and make a guitar sound terrific, and someone else will make a guitar sound only so-so. Some people have a lighter touch than others.

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Alexi Murdoch playing at the shop.

BLVR: Can you tell if someone is playing one of your guitars simply by listening to a few notes?

RC: Absolutely not! Let’s face it. Great songs are engendered by song architecture and not by gear. A good musician can conjure interesting sounds from any guitar.

BLVR: What, down to the nuts and bolts, is an electric guitar?

RC: A misnomer, really. You plug the amp into the wall, not the guitar. Electric guitars have metal strings at tension. Near the strings is placed what is called a pickup. A pickup is a magnet with a copper coil wrapped around it. A plucked string interrupts the magnetic field, which creates a signal. That signal gets sent to an amplifier which make it louder. The rest is a mystery.

BLVR: Could I make a guitar out of stuff in my house?

RC: Bring that Hello Kitty bed frame over to my wood shop, and we’ll make it happen.

BLVR: What’s an “old-style guitar,” as you define it?

RC: I like to think I build guitars around pickups. Pickups are like vinticulture. Something that’s really simple but has infinite variation. I also like to think that I’m building the proletarian custom electric guitar. Most custom guitars are way more expensive than mine. I’m trying to get them into the hands of working musicians.

BLVR: How do you make a guitar, step-by-step?

RC: I start with a board and split it in half. I then re-glue them together side by side. This is called book-matching. This is so the grain of the wood is symmetrical. I do this twice so that I have a front and back panel for the guitar. Knots are a good thing to avoid but they occasionally get worked into the design. You don’t really need that much wood to make a guitar so there’s a lot of flexibility when sourcing wood. The great woodworker James Krenov says he doesn’t use sandpaper. I use a lot of sandpaper.

BLVR: Why don’t you make acoustic guitars?

RC: I think that they would be terrible. And they’re such a different animal entirely. Making an electric guitar, if you have basic woodworking skills, is very easy. Brian May of Queen made his famous ‘Red Special’ guitar from a mantel, I think.

BLVR: You use found materials. How? Why?

RC: I use found wood for my guitars exactly the way I would use newly sawn lumber from a lumberyard but the found stuff is always better because it’s older. All the great hardwood lumber is gone, really. Everything is being cut before it matures. Seasoned lumber takes on moisture more slowly, and soughs off moisture more slowly, which makes it more stable. It’s also better to use wood that’s already lumber rather than cutting down trees. I built a guitar for Bryce Dessner, one that Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire stole, that was made from cherrywood and once a shelf in a cabin that the avant-garde composer Harry Partch spent a summer in. Hardwoods like mahogany and cherry are preferred but I’ll try anything.

BLVR: Where do you find this stuff?

RC: Dumpsters are great! It’s amazing what gets tossed out. I recently found a 100-year-old mahogany board in a dumpster that would’ve cost about $80 to $100. Salvation army furniture is a great resource, the occasional find in a friend’s garage. When I lived in NYC, cast iron buildings were constantly being gut renovated in and around Soho, and 12-inch-by-12-inch-by-25-foot Civil War-era pine-beams were always poking out of dumpsters. Criminal! But that wood smells incredible when run through a saw! When you’re building electric guitars you don’t have to be too picky.

BLVR: Are there benefits to using these guitars versus using new factory models?

RC: Not really. Just that a handmade guitar is going to have a much different feel that something that came off the assembly line. All my guitars are different so they have that going for them. You can buy new guitars that sound and play great for well under $500. How the economics of this are possible and who’s being victimized in their production is beyond me.

BLVR: What is your favorite guitar, if you have one, and who owns it?

RC: I built one a few years ago out of wormy chestnut with 1959 Danelectro pickups and a 1960 Silvertone neck that is owned by Chan Marshall. It’s just bare wood with no lacquer or paint job. It looks and sounds great. And to have a musician as peerless as Chan Marshall playing it is hard to beat.

BLVR: Who is your weirdest customer?

RC: The very first customer who walked through my door was John, the Satanist. Pentagram necklace. Dressed in black. Greasy hair. Smelled very Barnyard. Immediately, I started thinking about how I could get out of this.

BLVR: Do people come into your store and play “Stairway to Heaven?” And if so, what happens to them if they do?

RC: I think that’s only happened once in the two years I’ve been in business. Mindless noodling is really tedious. If someone plays an actual song, “Stairway” is fair game, they’ve scored some points. Pretending to receive a call on my cell sometimes silences folks, but not always. I’ve thought of buying some earmuffs, like the ones used by the guys who operate jackhammers.

BLVR: Do you play guitar?

RC: Very poorly.

BLVR: I own many instruments, but my violin just turned one hundred, and that means a lot to me. Do you believe it’s important for people to build relationships with physical instruments?

RC: Yes. Instruments, your car, plants and trees, your books. You have to develop a relationship with your instrument or else it goes to shit. Instruments that aren’t played regularly get out of whack. I’ve heard of investors buying pricey violins and choosing a lucky musician to play them for five years while their investment appreciates over time. They then snatch them back and sell them for a profit. This is also why I’m suspicious of super-pristine vintage instruments. It sometimes means that they’re not any good—nobody wanted to play them.

BLVR: Can instruments be haunted?

RC: I would like to think so.

See more pictures of Cox’s guitars.

Adam Baer is a writer and musician in Los Angeles who has contributed to The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and other publications.