Craft guitars: Reuben Cox's Old Style Guitar Shop has National appeal
The moment Brooklyn indie rockers the National caught their first big break could be a matter of debate. Perhaps it was earning a top-10 debut with last year's “High Violet,” or maybe it was further back in the mid-2000s when Beggars Banquet opted to sign the terse adult rockers. Regardless, Reuben Cox is indebted, as his Silver Lake guitar shop is one, in some ways, built by the National.
A freelance photographer and lifelong student up until about one year ago, Cox built guitars in his spare time. More hobbyist than guitarist, Cox's approach was not too unlike that of the train enthusiast who studied the inner workings of locomotives outside of his day job. An advantage Cox had over the average part-time craftsman, though, was direct access to rock 'n' rollers, as his wife is a high-ranking employee in the Beggars family of labels, which includes such indie stalwarts as Matador, Rough Trade and 4AD.
So when Cox delivered his handmade guitars to the National free of charge, the band members were at the very least obligated to be polite.
“I just told them I had been working on all these guitars and asked if they wanted to borrow them,” Cox said. “I'd drop off a few. They would keep one, and say, ‘We're not so interested in this one.' Then I'd show up with two more a few months later. There's probably five or six guitars of mine in their rotation now, and they made it on ‘High Violet.' They're very serious when they're recording, and that gave me an ego boost to go public.”
Late in 2009 Cox's wife, Miwa Okumura, began plotting a move west to Los Angeles to open up an Echo Park outpost for the label group. Cox's part-time gig in the photo department of Cooper Union's art school was easily jettisoned, and the relocation to Los Angeles made opening a guitar shop a reality, as rent for his homey, porch-adorned wood space at 510 N. Hoover St. is a cool $650 per month.
“The only way to open a shop in Manhattan or Brooklyn is to go in with guns blazing and major capital,” Cox said. “This is so grass roots. My daughter had just been born, and I was driving around looking for strips like this. I would just stroller her around and knock on doors.”
Aside from Highland Park's Future Music, Cox's Old Style Guitar Shop is one of the few outposts dedicated to refurbished, vintage and handmade guitars beyond the Westside's storied guitar shops. His handmade instruments sell for about $1,200 or $1,500, and the likes of Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens and Holly Miranda are among Cox's regular clients.
“I am trying to make the proletarian custom guitar,” Cox said. “Most custom guitars are $4,000 or $5,000 and only anesthesiologists or criminal defense attorneys can afford them. It's way more of a thrill to see a working band playing these on stage.
“I try to keep them at $1,500 and below, but that's kind of problematic,” Cox continued. “It's neither cheap nor expensive. You can get a great new guitar for $800, but each one of these is unique. Each one sounds different.”
Cox's guitars are built from found parts, Salvation Army-bought furniture, auctioned materials, broken pianos rescued from Dumpsters and even some wood procured from the home of local rock survivor Carlos Guitarlos. A few nicks grace one of Cox's creations, but he isn't interested in smoothing them out. The blemishes are courtesy of Dave Kilgour, a beloved New Zealand underground rocker who borrowed, free of charge, the Cox guitar.
“That excites me,” Cox said. “If you're a musician or a songwriter, and you pick up some brand new gleaming thing, it's different than something that has a story or a past.”
Those who keep close tabs on the store and its mailing list may even luck into an impromptu show, as the National played a full set to fewer than 50 people last spring.
And though Cox just hired his first employee and has expanded his offerings, selling cheaper refurbished guitars, vinyl from artists who buy his instruments and the occasional banjo, mass expansion isn't in the plan.
Cox compares Old Style to a “weird junk shop,” one with “guitars and a pool cue, records, and you have to wonder, ‘Are these for sale? Not for sale? What's going on here?' It automatically embeds a certain kind of clientele.... But it's not for everyone. If you're a working musician and you need this guitar cable now, there's Guitar Center.”
IMAGES: Reuben Cox crouches among the goods in his Old Style Guitar Shop in Silver Lake; A sampling of Reuben Cox’s custom-built guitars, all made from found or recycled wood. "I use different stuff every time, so each guitar sounds different. I don’t even fully know how it will sound." Credits: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times