LEFT: This Ergo features cocobolo back and sides, a Honduran mahogany neck, and a Gabon ebony
fretboard, in addition to an elevated fingerboard and a compound cutaway that gently twists the
surface away from your fretting hand and brings it flush with the tapered heel. RIGHT: Fox’s patented
unibody design features back and sides with a Brazilian rosewood exterior, an aircraft-foam core,
and a three-ply laminate interior.
Fox credits his extensive training as a teacher with helping him discover simple, efficient ways of working that also happen to increase accuracy, consistency, and quality. His newest project, the Ergo, is a gorgeous expression of the state of the art from his extremely well-versed perspective. With a wedge-shaped body, Laskin arm rest, elevated fretboard, closable side port, removable access panel, compound cutaway, and stunning good looks, it’s what many players would call a “dream guitar.”
We caught up with Fox recently between a three-week trip to southeast Asia and a two-week intensive guitar-making class.
Ergo—with all its functional details, like side ports that can be opened or closed—is a stunning piece of craftsmanship. How did it come about?
It took shape in 2005. The aim was to take a number of significant new guitar-making trends—Linda Manzer’s wedge-shaped body, the late Tom Humphrey’s elevated fretboard and negative-pitch top, Grit Laskin’s side sound port, Abe Wechter’s removable access panel, Jeff Elliott’s compound cutaway, etc.—and combine them with things I’d been exploring. Things like monocoque/unibody construction [Ed. note: Monocoque designs support the stresses put upon them through their exterior shells rather than through interior bracing], braceless double-top steel-string soundboards, removable necks, and so on. The idea was to synthesize these elements in a form representing my own take on the state of the art. One motivation for the project was the challenge that its unusual architecture posed. I was bored with the more-or-less conventional construction I had worked with for so long, and I needed to shake things up and stretch a little. On a different note, I wanted the Ergo Noir, with its piano-black soundboard, ebony binding, and red pinstriping, to at least hint at life’s erotic dimension. I don’t know how clear that is to everyone, but for those of us who are of a certain sensibility, she is a sexy beast.
The Charles Fox-designed Universal Side Bending Machine has become a go-to tool for
acoustic luthiers all over the world.
The Luthiers Mercantile catalog offers the Fox Universal Side Bending Machine, the Fox Bridge Clamp, and a few other tools you created that have pretty much become workshop standards now. Can you tell us a little about how they were developed and whether you’ve got tools in the works?
It’s satisfying to contribute something useful to one’s craft. Today’s rich approach to guitar making is the result of contributions from hundreds of luthiers thinking “What if . . . ?” As a teacher, I’m a bit more public than my inventive colleagues, and my students go on to share with others what they learn from me, which helps account for the modest influence of my innovations. Regardless, I have this reputation as a tool maker—the Jig Meister—and my approach to guitar making is certainly weighted toward the use of simple, easily made devices that make the work more efficient, accurate, consistent, and, of course, of higher overall quality. I teach jig- and fixture-design principles that others can apply to their own needs in their own shops.
As a teacher, I’m motivated to create ways for beginners to tackle challenging tasks and achieve high-level results. The now ubiquitous Universal Side Bender was a response to such a need. The mother of that invention was the nightmare reality of eight or 10 students at a time scorching and breaking guitar sides right and left as they learned to bend them on a hot pipe. An example of a now-common process that came from my shop is the practice of installing trim work dry, with all the miters and other joints nice and tight, and then using thin CA [cyanoacrylate] glue and capillary action to secure them while they are taped in place. One design feature I’ve introduced is the classical guitar’s modern double-top technology adapted to the more rigorous demands of the steel-string guitar. There are many others, some now so deeply embedded in the craft that today’s luthiers might imagine them to be part of some timeless tradition. It must be said, though, that good ideas don’t come from nowhere. I credit whatever gift I have for creating tools to a giant in that field, Michael Gurian. His work introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about and relating to the craft and literally changed the course of my career. The late, great guitar maker Richard Schneider is another mentor whose personal example had a profound impact on my relationship to my work.