The greatest repairpeople are those whose work is invisible. If done right, a perfect repair disappears completely, leaving behind nothing but a story. Last week, the community of luthiers mourned the loss of the great Frank Ford. The legacy Frank leaves behind is much greater than just the story of his work—it is also a legacy of community, innovation, education, and friendship.
A legendary repair luthier, Frank also co-founded the venerable Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California, where he continued to work for the rest of his career as head of one of the country’s most esteemed instrument repair shops. Frank’s never-ending curiosity and ingenuity led him to create and refine techniques that have become standard practice in shops across the country. It’s easy to forget that the world of steel-string guitar is fairly young compared to that of the violin-family instruments—and thus, the techniques for repairing them have also evolved much more recently. Early solutions for neck resets and broken headstocks often did more damage than good, and many poor instruments suffered from these first-generation repair approaches. Frank was one of the foremost living bridges between the early, Wild-West days of guitar repair and today’s more sophisticated approaches—and, indeed, we have him to thank for many of the methods that have made modern repair more reliable, successful, and discreet.
A self-taught machinist, Frank developed ingenious tools and mechanisms far beyond the average luthier’s repertoire. Unsatisfied with the low ratio of traditional banjo tuners, Frank developed a brilliant cycloidal gear tuner, preserving the classic appearance of vintage tuners while vastly improving their smoothness and accuracy. Not content to simply put up with the specifications of commercially available machines, he was quick to re-machine, modify, or in some cases completely redesign, these tools to better suit the task at hand.
For myself and countless other repair luthiers, one of Frank’s greatest contributions was his truly astounding website, Frets.com. Long before DIY website engines and digital cameras, Frank began photographing and documenting his most complex, unique, and challenging jobs, as well as the best examples of everyday repairs, creating an encyclopedic archive of photo essays that guide the luthier through all phases and nuances of the repair. His site remains one of the internet’s most valuable and complete resources on the many topics of guitar repair—and it illustrates perfectly one of Frank’s greatest gifts to our community: his pages teach not only the methods of repair, but also the theory and concepts behind those methods.
If a tool didn’t exist to do a particular job, Frank would design and build one, and document that process as well. As the saying goes, Frank taught us all how to fish—his lessons lead the reader towards ways of problem-solving that open doors well beyond the repair at hand. The site also includes shop tours and personal insights into his long relationships with other guitar builders and factories, illustrating the sense of community that is one of the hallmarks of modern American lutherie. Frets.com is a master class in instrument repair, and Frank gave it to the world without charging a dime.
As an employer, Frank was beloved by all who spent time in the Gryphon repair shop. Upon his passing, the universally shared sentiment was that Frank cared for his friends and colleagues as much as he did the vintage guitars that he so lovingly looked after. He leaves behind an enduring legacy of techniques, an immensely valuable and carefully documented body of knowledge, a community of admiring colleagues, and countless vintage guitars which might have been long-gone to history if not for Frank’s expert repair and restoration.
Frank’s work was done behind the scenes—indeed, many who brought their instruments to Gryphon for repair likely didn’t realize that he was one of the country’s very best. However, in repair shops everywhere, his memory and his creative spark will continue to help us all carry on the work he began when he opened Gryphon in 1969, keeping our guitars alive for the next generation. May he rest in peace.