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In Memoriam: Frank Ford

In Memoriam: Frank Ford

1944 – 2023

by The Guild Staff, Staff of the Roberto-Venn School of Lutherie, and Dan Erlewine

Originally published in American Lutherie #151, 2024

 

Frank Ford at he 1980 GAL Convention in San Francisco. Photo by Dale Korsmo.
Frank dives into the world of lutherie workshops at the first “Dan and Frank Show” at the 1995 GAL Convention. Photo by Jonathon Peterson.
"Frank and Dan Show" at the 2004 GAL Convention. Photo by Jonathon Peterson.

We were very sad to hear that Frank Ford, a great friend to the Guild and the entire lutherie community, passed away on December 17, 2023. Frank was an icon of the instrument-repair field and an overachiever when it came to sharing information with this fellow luthiers. His buddy Dan Erlewine talked him into doing repair workshop demos in 1995, including at the 1995 GAL Convention. Those workshops became what we called the “Dan and Frank Show,” and the show was a highlight at six GAL Conventions, up through 2008. After that, Dan and Frank intentionally passed the torch to some of the younger luthiers they had mentored.

Many folks have written about what a help and inspiration Frank was in their lutherie work, especially through his groundbreaking Frets.com website. Frank exemplified the Guild’s spirit of sharing, and he will be greatly missed by all his friends and those who benefited from the knowledge he so freely offered.

— The GAL Staff

Frank lectures at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. Note his extensive and organized tool boxes. Photo courtesy of Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery.

We were deeply saddened to learn of Frank Ford’s passing. What a loss for all of us who knew him. Frank was such a dear friend to us and everyone he met. We send our heartfelt condolences to Frank’s wife Joy, his longtime friend and business partner Richard Johnston, and the guitar tech staff and employees of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto.

Frank served on our Program Advisory Committee and as a consultant to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery for over three decades. As a guest lecturer, Frank traveled to Phoenix to give our students in over sixty classes demonstrations on neck resets, refrets, pickguard replacement, and many other repair operations. We called Frank a “performance artist” as he did these demos in real time, while talking through each step of the process. His knowledge and experience in the world of guitars and guitar repair was truly remarkable. His tales of repair experiences, customer relations, tool use, and everything guitar related was always fascinating, insightful, and informative.

The creation and evolution of his website Frets.com is an amazing resource for luthiers and hobbyists. Choosing not to produce a fretted instrument repair book and instead offering his repair knowledge for free through his website, was and is an exceptional act of generosity. What a wonderful gift to leave for the stringed instrument world.

Through his dedication to training his tech staff, teaching at our school, his many appearances at the Guild of American Luthier’s and Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans conventions, appearances at Northwoods Guitar Seminar, and tag team demos with Dan Erlewine, his participation in lutherie forums, his writings in Fretboard Journal and many other publications, and all of Frank’s associations and vast network of clients, he leaves a considerable legacy with his boundless sharing of information to the guitar making and repair world. His partnership with Richard and the creation of their Gryphon Stringed Instruments is legendary, and a real testament to what a music store can bring to a community.

Frank was truly inspirational in his expression, passion, and love for the art and craft of repairing and making things. It is hard to imagine a world without Frank Ford.

We love you always, Frank. You have made such a contribution to us and so many lives. We will miss you, and cherish the memories of our times together.

We are pleased to announce the launch of the Frank Ford Scholarship Fund, a collaboration with Frank’s wife Joy Imai, Richard Johnston and the staff of Gryphon Stringed Instruments, and the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery to honor the legacy of Frank Ford. Donations to this fund will allow learning experiences for aspiring luthiers for years to come, including educational opportunities at lutherie schools, stringed instrument workshops, forums, luthier presentations, and other information-sharing activities.

For more infomation on how to make a tax deductible donation, call or email the Roberto-Venn School (602-243-1179 or info@roberto-venn.com), or go to the Frank Ford Scholarship Fund section of our website:
(https://roberto-venn.com/news/frank-ford-scholarship-fund/).

Staff of the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery: William Eaton, (Director), John Reuter, Bart Applewhite, Steve Davis, Jim Prater, Robert Manzullo, Mark Allred, Brady Shreeve, AJ Machnes, Joe Vallee, and John Lippi; and all of the students and graduates of Roberto-Venn.

With the passing of Frank Ford this year just before Christmas, the lutherie world lost one of its greatest repairmen, inventors, and teachers of our trade. In 1969, Frank, along with his partner Richard Johnston, founded Gryphon Stringed Instruments, a more-than renowned music store and guitar repair shop in Palo Alto, California. Frank’s reputation as a repairman drew me to visit him in the early 1990s, and we became fast friends. He was my go-to answer man for many a repair dilemma for over thirty years.

On that first visit, I knocked on Frank’s door, and he asked me in. As we walked through to his dining room (which at that time was his shop), there was a black Gibson mandocello lying on the dining-room table. Its finish was pristine. I said, “That finish still looks like new!” Frank said he’d just French-polished it. At the time, I had delved into Mohawk and Star Chemicals bottled French polishing products such as Qualasole with little luck, and had just read George Frank’s Adventures In Wood Finishing, so I was all ears. Frank showed me a board that he had French polished every day until he’d learned how to do it. I went home and did the same.

Frank’s dining room/shop had one long wall filled with red Sears Craftsman tool boxes — bottoms and tops; there must have been five or six along the wall. Every tool he needed was right there within arm’s reach (I went home and did the same). His garage, which later became his home shop, was filled with typical garage stuff except that he had a South Bend 10˝ lathe that he was anxious to get running. I had been using a metal lathe for over a dozen years, and had purchased the first Grizzly Mill-Drill in 1986, so we connected on the importance of metal working in a guitar-repair shop. It wasn’t long before Frank went very deep down that rabbit hole and was on the road to being a high-level machinist and tool maker, in the blink of an eye it seemed.

Frank was a very generous man. As I went through all the tool chests in his shop, I came across two small Vaco brand nippers, or needle-nose pliers, that had been remade into a fret-tang masher (Photo 1) and crimper (Photos 2 and 3), used to lessen the size of fret-tang barbs, or to add more barbs to the tang for a better grip in the slot. I was amazed by the idea of these nice little tools, and shocked when he gave them to me to take home. Remember, this is the first day we met. “I can make myself another pair,” said Frank. Eventually, StewMac made versions of them, but they were not the equal of the originals.

Photo 1. All photos by Dan Erlewine.
Photo 2
Photo 3

On one of our many phone calls I said, “I wish I had a die that could chase mangled threads on a Gibson or Fender truss rod.” A month later, this tool came in the mail (Photos 4 and 5): a four-flute die, just as I’d dreamed of. Frank made this way before his garage was filled with every kind of machine tool you could imagine that might have made it an easier job. “This was the hardest tool I’ve made so far,” said Frank. I still don’t know how he made it, to be honest. He warned me that it couldn’t cut threads, only clean them up. Frank’s tool became the model for another StewMac tool some years later: the Truss Rod Rescue Kit.

Photo 4
Photo 5

Then there was time that a package from Frank arrived at my shop, and I opened it to find this set of “the drill bits we use most in everyday work at the Gryphon repair shop” — all inserted into hex drives and nesting in a beautiful brass base (Photos 6 and 7).

Photo 6
Photo 7

Frank introduced me to a number of his luthier friends in the Palo Alto, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco area: Richard Hoover, Paul Hostetter, Jeff Traugott, Hideo Kamimoto, and others. I returned to Ohio and StewMac with gusto, ready to get back into the shop.

Frank’s knowledge of vintage stringed instruments was vast, and I never asked Frank a question about them that he couldn’t answer. His long-running instructional website Frets.com has been, and will continue to be, a great source for thousands of us in the guitar-repair biz, and a legacy for luthiers of the future. Frank was a super-bright, warm, and generous person, and a killer guitar repairman, and I will miss him dearly. I loved having Frank in my life.

Dan Erlewine

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Finding Inspiration in Early 20th-Century Instruments

Finding Inspiration in Early 20th-Century Instruments by Todd Cambio from his 2023 GAL Convention lecture Originally published in American Lutherie #151, 2024   My grandmother’s family were Italian hillbillies that came from the Apennines to mine coal in Missouri. They emphasized craft, to the point that they gave an award every year at family reunions […]

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Letter: Swing Arm Binding Router

Letter and more from our readers Originally published in American Lutherie #151, 2024   Hello Bon, American Lutherie has been a valuable part of my many years of membership. I found lots of useful information for the beginning builder that I was, and still am, as I learned proper techniques and enjoyed the very detailed articles. I never intended […]

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Review: The Bouzouki Book, by Graham McDonald

Review: The Bouzouki Book by Graham McDonald

Reviewed by John Calkin

Originally published in American Lutherie #80, 2004 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Seven, 2015



The Bouzouki Book
Graham McDonald
ISBN 0-646-43602-3
Graham McDonald Stringed Instruments, 117 pp., 2004

Totally new instruments don’t appear very often. When they do the results can be pretty exciting, both musically and socially, though it’s not easy to establish a pattern to the events.

When the 5-string banjo was born in America in the early-to-mid 19th century it took a couple decades for many of the details to become standardized, after which the popularity of the banjo began to grow rapidly. Small builders furnished most of the early instruments, but as the banjo boom spread, larger factories became the important players. Banjo production mirrored the industrialization of the country at large. However, it takes a lot of money to drive an industry, and as the 20th century demand for banjos began to wane, the big companies backed off and there was once again room for the small builder.

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