February 2017
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Builder Profile: Fodera Guitars

Builder Profile: Fodera Guitars

LEFT: Anthony Jackson setting up a customer’s AJ Presentation.
RIGHT: Jackson’s personal Anthony Jackson Presentation.

Though spending an entire day sifting through the wood selection may seem excessive to some, it’s not even close to the amount of time invested in the development of the Anthony Jackson Presentation, a $20,000 5-string contrabass dreamed of by the great jazz bassist when he was only 13. Fodera says this was the most involved bass build in the company’s 29-year history, by far. Jackson spent literally hundreds of hours at the shop, refining and sculpting what would become his signature model. But he’s not picky just about the actual instruments he uses himself: Whenever Jackson is available—and without compensation from Fodera—he comes in to personally set up each of the signature model basses being sold to clients.

But just how do you sell a $20,000 instrument? According to DeSalvo, it’s not as hard as you may think. “Remember this is not a production instrument situation,” he explains. More than 30 hours can go into a single bass, with some requiring 80-plus hours of labor. So despite selling basses that are as much as a decent car, Fodera isn’t flush with cash. In fact, the business ethos at Fodera is not entirely intuitive—but that’s because it’s about the art and craft of luthiery, not business efficiency. The company could raise its profit margins and cut corners on construction to get more basses in the hands of more players, but Fodera refuses to sacrifice quality for profit. DeSalvo says the “wow” factor a customer gets when he/she plays a Fodera bass is more important than bottom line.

“We figured out that we were actually losing money on some of our models,” DeSalvo says. “With materials and build times, it really was a difficult road in that we had these amazing instruments, and the business side of the operation was falling short. It’s no secret that our customer service was not the best. Our build times were at the 39-month mark for a custom bass. That was tough. We had to get that number down to a reasonable amount of time and heal the reputation of the company.” Since then the company has delegated office and customer-service duties away from the shop floor, and build time for a custom bass now hovers around 14 to 15 months.

Part of this move toward efficiency and sustainability the introduction of the Standard line, which consists of handbuilt instruments that are made in small batches with standard features and options. Fodera says this approach is a nice way to close the divide between mass production and custom builds. The several hundred instruments they produce a year positions them closer to “boutique” than “mass-produced.” Of course, they would like to see sustained growth, but in a way where they can have enough skilled artisans coming up through the ranks to continue the rich building tradition. “It’s funny, we don’t worry about things like product mix or pushing demand or sales forces,” says DeSalvo. “A lot of our time is spent assuring that our products can be made at this level after Vinny and Joey have stopped building.”

The NYC Pipeline
Vinny Fodera’s Brooklyn connection aside, keeping the Fodera factory in NYC has been vital to the company’s growth, progress, and development. There is obvious sentiment attached to having always been based there, but the real value is that New York is a massive touring and entertainment hub. “Not a week goes by where we don’t have a pro player come by,” DeSalvo says. “When they play in town or close to us, they pop in and try some things, and we listen to their feedback.” Players have been known to sit for hours in the shop, and everyone at the factory welcomes it. Factory tours aren’t available, but with enough notice, a bass player can come by the shop to test new offerings.

It is this constant evolution that fuels Fodera’s success. When it comes to ideas on design or build techniques, DeSalvo says every one of the 17 employees has a voice. Feedback from the aforementioned visitors isn’t taken for granted, either. Luminaries such as Marcus Miller, Reggie Young, and Victor Wooten have given input that altered new models. “That’s why we’ll never move,” says DeSalvo. “Sure, we could be in Pennsylvania for a lot less money, but we wouldn’t have these crossroads that are invaluable to us.”

Fodera prides itself on following instinct, not trends. The company has never been fashion conscious—it’s more about making a difference than making a lot of instruments. Building a bass that helps bring out the best in a player is the primary focus. “People have asked us why we haven’t built a factory and started making 50,000 basses a year,” says Fodera. “But that’s already being done. It’s relatively easy to make tons of anything. Small batches are the hard part.”

In all, it’s a soul-stirring process for the luthier. “It’s a full-circle type of thing for me, knowing that I’ve created something that will, in turn, inspire someone to create their art,” he says. “That’s extremely satisfying— that’s why I do it.”

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