Thursday, June 23, 2016

Seattle’s Cat Fox on Three Decades of Repairing Guitars

At the Weiser Fiddle Festival in Idaho, a seed was planted in the imagination of Cat Fox. Some guy was repairing guitars out of a tricked out, converted sheep wagon he towed behind his truck from festival to festival. That brief visage held court in her young mind. Years later, Fox is driving around in her VW van, lost and bummed out, having recently dropped out of University of Puget Sound with a great scholarship opportunity. When it came time to mouth the inescapable question, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ she knew a few things. She liked woodworking, she liked to hang out with musicians, and she loved to party. And here again is the guy with the sheep wagon flashing front and center in her memory. Fox was going to be a luthier.

But women don’t build guitars! At the time, few women were playing guitars, let alone making them, but Fox’s gutsy resolve had taken root.

Upon graduation from the luthier program at Minnesota Technical College in Red Wing, with completed guitar firmly in hand, she packed everything into her VW van and drove to Massachusetts. She arrived at the door of Bill Cumpiano, world-renowned luthier and author of the definitive bible of the craft, Guitar Making Tradition and Technology. Fox recalls Cumpiano’s stern and uncompromising tone on the phone as he gives her an opening, “No guarantee I will take you on but I will observe your work.” Fox thinks to herself, “Of course he’ll take me on!” He does, of course, take her on as his apprentice for two years followed by another four years as his repair technician. To this day, the best compliment she ever received was from Cumpiano, “If you decide to build guitars, I hope you go far, far away.” So she did…all the way to Seattle.

The jerky cadence of raindrops can be heard on the corrugated metal roof of Fox’s Fremont studio, Sound Guitar Repair, in a space she shares with guitar builder and husband Rick Davis. Fox works in a studio within a studio, a cozy oasis among band saws and jigs of all sizes and dimensions. Fox has never had to advertise to fill her busy schedule. Her clients range from the rich and famous to the parlor picker to the street musician. Word of mouth is all she has needs to stay busy.

Her clients include musicians the likes of Bill Frisell and Danny O’Keefe, but her favorite story is when the Everly Brothers came knocking at her door. Out of the blue she gets a call from a guy saying he’s with the Everly Brothers and can she fix one of their guitars? Apparently a roadie had tripped and badly damaged one of their iconic black Steinegger signature Ike Everly guitars. Incredulous…and convinced her friend Doug was up to his old tricks, her eyes widened when a big truck with the words “Everly Brothers” on the side rolled up to her shop. She repaired two big splits from the block and the next day, when asked about the bill, she sheepishly said,“$500.00? Is that too much?” to which the stagehand replied, “Honey, this is the Everly Brothers”.

How does a woman gain the type of respect that Cat Fox has earned in a profession which counts women luthiers in America on one hand? “I care very deeply,” are her precise words. That, and her unflagging “I can do that!” attitude. Fox sees women inherently well suited to the work of building and repairing guitars. Precise work, attention to detail, and the ability to listen and interpret what your client needs even if its not what they’re saying – these are all skills that come naturally to women.

by Sarah Gardner, Fretboard Journal |  Read more:
Image: uncredited