Every luthier has an interesting backstory, but I have yet to encounter one who came to the profession—or approaches it—quite the same way as Reuben Cox, owner of Old Style Guitar Shop in Los Angeles as well as a guitar maker and repair tech. Whether working on guitars for Jackson Browne, building a rubber bridge for an instrument powering a Taylor Swift hit, or setting up some kid’s cheap acoustic, Cox keeps chasing a sound—and inviting the world along for the ride.
From the woods of North Carolina to a magnet math and science boarding school to an art degree in New York City and a career teaching at the college level, Cox says he never even dreamed of opening a guitar shop until he decided to take the plunge—smack in the middle of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Oh, and throw in the fact that he designed his first instruments from a template he created by blowing up a picture on a Kinko’s copying machine.
And yet it all makes perfect sense. A self-confessed music obsessive and guitar lover who realized early in life that he wasn’t going to be a musician, Cox started building instruments as a hobby, using the art-department resources and the woodworking skills he developed while making field cameras.
Informed by his curiosity about sound, openness to unconventional materials, and democratic embrace of affordable guitars, Cox, the subject of the 2022 documentary Really Good Rejects, has become an unlikely celebrity among artists and producers. Some play his distinctive semi-hollow electrics, while others, like Bob Dylan, Phoebe Bridgers, and many more, play the guitars that he has modified with rubber bridges. I chatted with Cox from his L.A. workshop to learn more about his unconventional path in the music world.
How did you become a luthier?
It happened by entirely by accident. I used to live in New York City and worked in a couple of art schools teaching, and also worked as a photographer. I always had an interest in music and guitars.
Working at Cooper Union and Sarah Lawrence College, I had access to the sculpture shop. So just as a hobby, I was able to learn how to make one specific kind of hollowbody electric guitar. I would make one or two a year.
Did you play in bands?
I’ve never been in a band. As a teenager I got a guitar, and Mother Nature quickly let me know that I was in possession of no notable musical talent. I had the good sense to move on from that. But I’m a big music obsessive and have always loved guitars.
Why did you decide to go to Los Angeles to start your business?
My partner at the time worked for a record label, and they asked her to move to Los Angeles so she could open up a West Coast office. As the tagalong spouse, I had to give up a pretty good setup in New York, with teaching jobs, darkrooms, sculpture workshops, and all that. But I was also kind of burned out on art schools and lazy students, institutional politics, etc. In the hysteria of the move, I just decided to open up a guitar shop. I thought, If I crash and burn, I’ll just knock on the door of an art school in Los Angeles and try to pick up where I left off.
Had you ever even worked in a music store?
I went into it with no knowledge of retail—at one of worst times in American history to start a new business, in 2009, 2010, after the crash. I blindly and naively jumped into it. I set up a woodshop in the basement of my house in Los Angeles, which I’m sitting in now. Around six months later, after building an inventory, I got a [retail] place in Silver Lake. The idea was small and cheap: Keep the overhead low, and just jump into it.
You were making guitars before you had the shop. How did you learn to repair and modify other people’s instruments?
I learned as I went. I knew how to use woodworking tools, but as far as repairs and setups, I just learned on the job. The first three or four years in the shop were me nervously watching YouTube videos and hoping I didn’t destroy someone’s personal property by doing a poor refret or neck reset.
You get good at it by doing it over and over again. It’s not like learning how to do quadratic equations where you learn it once and you’ve got it. With lot of guitar repairs, you pull it off acceptably, but after you’ve done it for years, you’re like, Okay, now I’m really good at this particular skill. And I’ve done it a lot: If you count basic setups and repairs, I’ve probably done anywhere from 12–14,000 guitars.
Were your own guitars patterned after a specific model?
Long ago, someone gave me The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer. It’s just a survey of the instrument with pictures of different models, like a 1940s Bigsby. And I just love the shape of it with that Florentine cutaway. The first guitars I made—and a lot of them that I still make—were inspired by that. I took this book to Kinko’s, threw it down on the Xerox, enlarged the picture to the size I wanted, and used that as the first template.
What gave you the confidence to make it your livelihood?
In the spring of 2009, before I moved to Los Angeles, I got to know Bryce and Aaron Dessner from the National through my ex-partner. I was like, “Hey, I just finished building a few guitars. And you’re welcome to borrow them.” So they borrowed a few. I think they were okay—they weren’t standout stellar, but they were pretty good guitars.
These guys are very serious about recording and extremely particular about sounds. They ended up using a couple of them on the record. That gave me the ego boost to start this job, which I just kind of pulled out of thin air. I’d never dreamed of having a guitar store before that. Had that moment not happened, would I be here now today? Would I be doing something different? It’s hard to know. That was a crucial moment—a vote of affirmation that I could pull it off.
Would you say that you have a signature model or very specific design aesthetic?
I think they’re all one-offs. I just want to keep it interesting. I might choose new pickups or vintage pickups or whatever wood I can get my hands on. Generally, lumberyard wood is kind of disappointing because it’s cut from young trees. It’s just fussy when you put it through a saw. If you can, find old wood, which is around, or recycle old furniture or something like that. I mean, [the guitars] are all within a kind of specific bandwidth in shape. And they’re all hollow-bodies, book-matched top and back with bandsaw-cut outsides and a center block. But I try to keep them subtly different rather than locking in one specific design and making it over and over again.
Does music—be it a genre or artist—influence your design aesthetic?
I think one thing that affects the guitars the most is that L.A. is a real repository for great musicians. I’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of really interesting people with highly developed ears. You get so much terrific feedback. Building guitars for someone like Jackson Browne—he wants to run it down until it’s perfect. When you’re dealing with someone like that, it’s not a bother. They’re not being fussy. They’re just trying to find the best possible endpoint—how well can I do this?
Whether it’s cooking or painting or building a guitar, we should be aspiring to do that thing as well as we can. If I have some cockamamie idea for, like, a pickup or whatever, I can ask any number of people to try it out and see if it sinks or floats. There are so many people in L.A. who are hungry for new sounds and new ideas or something that’s going to get them out of their heads. Exploring certain guitars, you hear a different sound, and it makes you write a song. That’s the kind of stuff that gets me most excited.
How did you start to build that credibility among musicians?
Just working 65-hour weeks for a decade—and getting better and better at basic setups. In L.A., if there’s a new guitar shop, musicians are going to show up because they’re curious. People are searching. Someone once said, “Oh, Jackson Browne goes to your guitar shop.” And I said, “Jackson Browne goes to all the guitar shops—because he’s looking, you know?”
And it’s not just famous people that I’m trying to court. It’s very much a working man and working woman’s shop. I do a lot of setups on Fender Squiers—stuff that a lot of shops turn away. It’s just this endless I Love Lucy bonbon factory scenario: basic setups and pickup swaps.
High-end guitar shops have collectible, expensive instruments. I have a very small handful of expensive guitars, which I sell on rare occasions. It’s just less my world. Interesting musicians who are touring and recording, who are young, often have less money. Someone throwing down for $5,000 or $10,000 guitars may be a collector. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s just much more exciting for me to see someone take something that I’ve built or modified and record a song with it. The artist and producer Mike Viola, whom I’ve known for years, walked in my shop and picked up this baritone rubber-bridged guitar that I had just finished and he immediately started playing this riff. Flash forward to his next record and it’s the first song.
I keep coming back to the fact that you were a visual artist before a luthier. Does that influence your approach?
I always tell people—they’re like, “Oh, there’s this guitar, but I wish it was black. Is that shallow of me?” And I’m like, “Hell, no, this is show business! Looks matter, you know?” It’s all intertwined. And maybe if something looks a certain way, it makes you want to pick it up and play it.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been restoring a lot of these old guitars into this rubber-bridge thing that I invented.
What is the idea behind the rubber bridge that you have been installing on cheapo acoustics?
It’s something that I adapted—maybe inventing it is a stretch, but, you know, it’s L.A., so we talk like that here. [Laughs.] I was taking photographs of Andrew Bird and Blake Mills at a recording session. Blake had this ’50s Harmony banjo that had a kind of muting system. I guess the idea was to figure out how you can get the sound of a banjo in an era when pickups for acoustic banjos didn’t exist. A banjo is all attack and no sustain. It had this wood and rubber kind of thing. I listened to playback, and it was one of the most exciting things I’d heard in a long time. That evening, Blake sent me some pictures and a couple of videos of the instrument. I just kind of knocked out a prototype—it took me like two hours to crank out this guitar. The next day I dropped it off at Blake’s house. He plugged it in and started playing. It was incredible—I think there are some videos on his Instagram page.
That bridge has really gotten a lot of attention from some famous artists, including Taylor Swift, who used one on her album Folklore.
It’s nothing I ever advertised, still to this day. It’s just been word of mouth. And they’ve ended up on a lot of great records. People buy them and say, “Oh, my God, I went home. And the same evening, I wrote four songs!” You know, it’s really been inspirational to a lot of people. That’s about as gratifying as it gets for a vocation.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.