A Conversation with Reuben Cox
Interview by Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran
Images by Rachel Garcia
Video by The Singer and The Songwriter, filmed inside Old Style Guitar Shop
“If there’s a guitar that’s just sitting there in the shop,
and then someone gets up on stage who really knows how to play,
there’s this magical transformation. They’re just
—Reuben Cox dead things until someone picks them up and uses them. ” — Reuben Cox
Sound Affect is a conversation series that explores the various ways in which different artists, fans, creators and consumers affect each other and the Los Angeles music scene, deliberately or unconsciously.
RACHEL GARCIA AND THU TRAN
Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran are the LA-based band The Singer and The Songwriter. Their debut album What a Difference a Melody Makes is available now. Find more information at www.thesingerandthesongwriter.com
How long have you had your shop?
Reuben Cox: Four and a half years. It’s five years on April Fools’ Day. It has been such a blur of work. And since moving to Los Angeles five years ago, where there are no seasons, I can’t remember when things happened. Some milestones you think just happened last year but it actually happened three years ago.
How did you pick this location?
RC: My daughter was six months old, I knew I was going to open a shop and I would stroll her around, and found this strip. It wasn’t listed online or on Craigslist, there was just a sign in the window. And it was really scuzzy. I opened up the same month as the coffee shop on the corner, there was a failed BBQ restaurant there before. This spot was a bit down and dirty, but it turns out it’s a really lucky location because the 101 exit is right around the corner, so even if you live in North Hollywood and there’s no traffic you can get here in less than 15 minutes. We get Silverlake people obviously and Los Feliz people, so it’s in a pretty good location that is all by luck. The main criteria in the beginning was that it be cheap.
How did you start this business?
RC: I’d never opened a business before and I did it uber grass roots. I started the business with $15,000, instead of taking out loans, which is kind of impossible. I thought if I crashed and burned, I’d just get a [photography] teaching job again, which is what I used to do.
How did you come to live in Los Angeles?
RC: We moved here from New York, we lived there for 20 years. My wife works in the music business for Beggars Group, the label that umbrellas Matador and 4AD and XL and they asked her to open a West coast office. And in the ever-shrinking music industry, there’s really no vertical or horizontal movement unless someone dies basically, so we couldn’t say no to that.
And I was tired of art schools and students and school politics, and I did a lot of editorial photography, shooting pictures for magazines, and this was my semi-graceful way of bowing out of having to be a digital photographer because I’ve always preferred shooting film. I’d been working on guitars as more of a hobby.
How did you learn how to build guitars?
RC: I was working at two different art schools in New York. They both had sculpture shops there, so I had these two really good wood shops and metal shops at my disposal. I could cast bronze if I wanted to. And just by tinkering on guitars as these objects. And maybe if the creative juices weren’t flowing as a visual artist, I could interlope in these sculpture shops and work on guitars.
And I went to art school so you were expected to get a handle on materials and I’d always been kind of a tinkerer. I took apart things as a kid.
I build electric guitars, I don’t build acoustic guitars, so you can take a countertop and make it a decent sounding guitar. Acoustic guitars are getting into violin making it’s a much more refined skill.
How do you define “good sound”?
RC: That’s a hard question. It often times depends on the application. Sometimes a cheap guitar can be great for the application. The more I’m around instruments; they’re all unique entities. With electric guitars, and when people claim they know why a certain guitar sounds the way it sounds, I don’t really believe them because some of it is such a mystery. It’s just like a glass a wine is rotten grapes – it’s the simplest thing in the world – but there’s a zillion different kinds of wine, and there are all varying degrees of complexity. It’s the same thing for musical instruments.
That’s what keeps it interesting for me is that I’m constantly surprised. You put something together and it sounds good, or you build something and it exceeds your expectation.
Different guitars respond differently to who’s playing it. Some people have a lighter touch, and the guitar responds that way, some people strum really hard, and that strangles some guitars.
Is there anything you’ve made in the shop that you love too much to sell?
RC: I’m not really a good guitar player. I can strum a few guitar chords. And I never had a band. It’s much more of a pleasure to place these things in the hands of people who actually know how to use them. The way the business has been built up caters to “real” musicians; people who are actually in bands and touring and recording. There are a lot of guitar shops that have racks and racks of very expensive guitars that are being bought and sold as if they’re rugs or paintings. And that’s fine, it’s a very interesting thing to collect, and it’s nice to sell an expensive guitar and make a lot of money.
But it’s more of a reward when I saw Cat Power at the Hollywood Bowl last weekend opening up for The Pixies, and there’s a guitar I built sitting on stage. That feels pretty good.
Speaking of Chan Marshall, she had these two old Danelectro Silvertone guitars. One was her very first guitar that she’d played and recorded with extensively, that tipped over and the headstock broke. The other was her second guitar that just played hundreds of shows and on all her records. And I wanted to get those out of whatever closet they were in to fix them because I knew I could. So I got to fix these instruments, which was interesting. There are semi-iconic indie rock bands that I like that I’ve made guitars for, that I’ve heard on records. That’s really fun on the techie end.
“When you’re doing it case by case,
each one is a unique experience
so you’re always surprised,
instead of settling on a style of
guitar that people like, and
making that over and over again.”
— Reuban Cox
If you’re familiar with a musician’s music – do you change the way you work to match their style?
RC: Maybe not their sound. If you’re doing a setup on a guitar, it’s not black and white. It’s not like needing new tires on your car where there’s very little gray area: you just take off the old ones and put the new ones on. But you try to be as empathetic as you can. It’s always case-by-case.
What’s your process like for hunting down the right materials?
RC: Since it’s for the most part used and vintage and old, I’m just kind of at the mercy of the guitar gods. And since LA is so vast and people have attics and garages and there seems to be more of an accumulation of stuff, whereas in NY you have to kind of pare things down, space wise. There’s a lot of stuff out there. I guess the idea is to build or modify or restore instruments to the point that they’re as playable and usable as possible – that a “real” musician would want to use it, whereas some vintage instruments that are worth tens of thousands of dollars aren’t really playable. And sometimes that means kind of violating them. But it’s never a 1940’s Martin guitar that’s worth a ton of money – some of this stuff that’s worth a little bit of money – like taking an archtop acoustic guitar and cutting holes in it to put pickups in it becomes a way more usable instrument. And it sounds great. And when you’re doing it case by case, each one is a unique experience so you’re always surprised, instead of settling on a style of guitar that people like and making that over and over again. It’s a bit more frustrating when having to source some of this stuff, but now that the shop has been in business for almost five years, I have a bit more of a network of people. And people bring me stuff that they want to sell.
Where do you gather your materials?
RC: It’s pretty much all sourced locally. Occasionally, I’ll source something online off eBay. I have this one friend who does quite well, who buys on eBay and then resells on eBay. He just takes a better picture of it. And he knows that I work on stuff so occasionally he’ll send me a link and say, “Here’s this guitar that’s busted and cheap.”
I know some estate sale people. Flea markets are great. That’s how I learned how to fix guitars more fully, was buying broken cheap guitars at flea markets and fixing them up. When I was getting the business off the ground, I was trying to make it more interesting so I could make a bit of a profit off of it and jump start the business by putting pickups on the guitars. In the beginning it was just kind of sink or swim.
And a lot of the repair work I do now, I learned after the business started. The first two or three years were pretty stressful. I had a vocabulary of wood working skills prior that I built other things that easily translated to guitar stuff, like I knew how to use a table saw. But the first few years was stressful because someone would bring in a guitar and (shrugs), but I never destroyed anyone’s guitar.
Anything ever stumped you?
RC: Occasionally if it’s a weird active pickup or someone brings in one of those six-string basses with batteries – sometimes I’ll just pass on it because the circuit board is fried, and I can’t really do anything with it. The first time I did a re-fret was on a 1959 Jazzmaster, which is a pretty valuable instrument, so I had to just go for it.
Finish work I don’t really do because I’m not really set up for it, so there’s some stuff that I’ll pass on. I had to figure it out.
Does this job affect how you hear guitars in songs?
RC: If there’s a guitar that’s just sitting there in the shop and someone gets up on stage who really knows how to play guitar, there’s this magical transformation. They’re just these dead things until someone picks them up and uses them.
What are you listening to right now?
RC: I’m pretty omnivorous with music. I really love classical music: symphonic and chamber music. And I like indie rock, old country music, and jazz. Pop country is a little tough. And once in a blue moon I like to tune in to radio stations because songs are so genetically engineered in the way that high-end Katy Perry pop stuff is. Pop country and pop music like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga is such a cultural mirror. Just where most people’s heads are – it’s dark. [laughs] There’s one, I think it’s a few years old, this country song with these hilarious lyrics. I think the chorus is “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m good once, as I ever was” which should be like a Harry Nilsson song, that got away.
Tell us about these tables…
RC: I haven’t lured anyone into my web with those yet. I’ve got these tables that I built lap steels into it. I had all these early 50’s Rickenbacker hardware that I’d been wanting to use it for a long time. I’m at flea markets a lot and I started looking for desks and I thought it be good to have these songwriter’s desks. And they actually sound really good because the whole piece of furniture resonates. But they’re still here – I should put some chips and salsa on them.
Editor’s Note: Thu’s main guitar on stage and off is a piece that was restored and modified by Reuben – a Sherwood Deluxe Archtop Acoustic guitar from the late 1940’s with added Japanese Teisco Pickups from the 1960’s, a vintage tailpiece from a 1950’s Gibson ES-175, and Bakelite radio knobs from the 1930s.
Old Style Guitar Shop
510 A N. Hoover Street, Los Angeles, CA 90004