In 1983, Vinny Fodera and Joey Lauricella established Fodera Guitars. For the past 30 years they have been handcrafting some of the finest electric guitars and electric basses in the world. Jason DeSalvo joined the company as a partner in 2009 and he recently took the time to speak with me about Fodera’s unique attributes. Part 1 of 3 takes a look at the history of Fodera, their pursuit of excellence, and their association with Victor Wooten.
Fodera just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Can you take me back to where it all started?
Vinny was actually delivering stock certificates back in the 70’s. This was back before the world of electronics, stock transfers, and what have you; when someone sold shares of stock, you had to physically take the stock certificates from one location to another. Vinny was actually in the lobby of the World Trade Center, and he saw a sign for a class in luthiery that would be held at The New School. He thought it was interesting… it just struck him. He saw the sign and thought that he was meant to do that.
The first thing he learned how to do was to build an acoustic guitar. I wouldn’t use the word prodigy, but right away it was very clear that he was meant to do this work. His instructor, Thomas Humphrey, also felt that way. From there, Vinny ended up being introduced to a woodworking cooperative loft in Brooklyn, where he met Stuart Spector and Ned Steinberger. Two weeks later he was hired by Stuart Spector and Stuart asked Vinny if he had any experience doing inlays. I don’t remember exactly if he said “Yes” or “No, but I can learn” …whatever it was, his first job from Stuart Spector was to do the logo on Spector’s bass guitars. This was early on… this was 1977. Anyway, he met Stuart that way and through that association, Vinny met Ken Smith.
Ken Smith came to Stuart with a prototype for his first custom bass guitar, which was something he had done himself. It was a very early model — a conceptualization of something he wanted to do — and he contracted Stuart to make it a reality. By now Vinny had been doing some carving and some woodwork, and had been working for Spector for a while… Stuart gave Vinny the bulk of that project. So Vinny helped turn the first Ken Smith bass prototype into an actual working instrument.
Flash forward… Ken Smith asked Stuart if he could hire Vinny to help make his instruments. Vinny left Spector and decided to work for Ken Smith. They set up a workshop on Avenue O in Brooklyn. Vinny set up the whole shop and started building Ken Smith instruments there. And that’s when Joey Lauricella met him. Joey had been playing and selling Ken Smith basses.
Joey’s working as a professional bass player. He owns a Ken Smith. He happens to be walking down Avenue O and sees a sign for Ken Smith Guitars, and was blown away that it was right in his neighborhood; it was right near where he lived. So he stuck his head in and met Vinny. As a result of that meeting, he became friendly with Vinny. Basically, he hung around the shop a lot, talking to Vinny, and just noticed a dynamic that was there that — I don’t know how else to say it — basically, Vinny did the vast majority of the work and Ken Smith got all the glory. At some point Joey said, “Look, we can work really hard at this together and create our own brand. We’ll put your name on it. Let’s make bass guitars.”
There are a whole bunch of ergonomic things that Vinny and Joey wanted to do differently than Ken Smith would allow him to do. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen old pictures of the first Ken Smith bass guitars. I owned one because I wanted to see how it was different from our stuff. They tended to be neck heavy. The preamp tended to be a lot less versatile and much more bridge focused in its sound. The pickup spacing was very different than what Fodera ended up using. Long story short, there were things about the instrument that, as a professional bass player, Joey wanted Vinny to change. And Ken Smith had a very firm mindset about what should and shouldn’t be on the bass. Ken was also a professional bass player, so it was just really two different views.
So Vinny and Joey went to Ken Smith and struck a deal where they would continue to manufacture Ken Smith basses for a period of time — I think around a hundred pieces were committed to — in the same location. Then they would, in their time not devoted to doing Ken’s instruments, be able to make their own Fodera instruments. So Fodera Guitars was incorporated on March 14, 1983. For about the next year or year and a half, they built both Fodera and Ken Smith instruments and then started doing Fodera only.
So Joey brought more of the player perspective, and Vinny the technical….
Joey is incredibly personable, very outward going. He’s still that way to this day. He’s always out asking players, “What do you think of the basses? What do you like? What do you not like? What’s good? What’s not good?”
Vinny is an incredibly talented woodworker, but I think Vinny would be the first person to say that if it had been just up to him, he would have crafted some beautiful basses that might not have sounded, played, or felt terribly good. He got those ideas about sound, feel, and playability from Joey. And that kind of symbiotic relationship that they have, with Joey being the pro player and Vinny being the master woodworker and luthier, worked out really well. Joey would explain what he was hearing or what he was feeling that needed to be changed, and Vinny would make the woodworking adjustments. And then Joey got very involved in the electronics, pickups, and pickup spacing to try to make the sound that he heard in his head — that he thought should be what bass guitars sound like — come out in the mix.
One of the many things I appreciate about Fodera is your ability to walk the line between form and function. You have a gift for building beautiful instruments, without going overboard.
Yeah, even the few art pieces that we have done, we have always made sure that they sound and play well. If you want to get involved in art, there are other media in which you can express yourself. However, if you’re going to be in the electric bass or electric guitar manufacturing business, our corporate ethos is that you really have a responsibility to make these things look great, but also sound great. Otherwise, you might as well be working on canvas or sculpture. That’s something that they felt very early on and it ended up attracting very high level players that were in love with the way the instruments sounded. Then, it became a reinforcing process. You’re working with some of the best names in bass and they’re the ones giving you constructive criticism and feedback. You keep refining things based on the feedback of some of the best players in the world.
And another thing that I think is very critical to us here at Fodera is that none of us feel we’ve even scratched the surface of what we’ve yet to learn about these instruments. So when someone comes, whether it’s someone who’s been playing for 2 years or someone who’s been playing for 30 years, and says “Why do you do things this way, have you thought about this?”, we listen. There’s not a sense that if it wasn’t created here, it’s not a good idea. And you know for every hundred ideas you listen to, maybe there’s only 2 or 3 that you really focus in on and say, “Wow, that’s something new that we really should look into and work on.” Over the period of thirty years, there are enough of those ideas that come across your desk, or bench, that you’re able to continuously refine the way you do things in an effort to build the best instruments that you possibly can.
You mention your association with top professionals, and you have a number of notable endorsements from players like Anthony Jackson, Matt Garrison, and others. Perhaps the most well-known is Victor Wooten… how did #37, Victor’s first Fodera, change things?
Well, initially #37 didn’t change anything for Fodera. I mean, the reality is people assume that the association with Victor Wooten is what really got the business off the ground. But back in 1983, when Victor first bought #37, nobody knew who Victor was. It was a case of Victor being on a session in Bloomfield, New Jersey and the producer did not like the sound of the bass that Victor was playing. The producer said to another guy on the session, “Can you help him get a different bass guitar, a bass guitar that tracks better?” I think his name was Ira Siegel, if I remember correctly, a very good guitarist. He called Joey and said, “I know you’re making some really stellar bass guitars. Could you bring a couple of them down here? I’ve got this young bass player who is really talented, but his bass guitar isn’t working for the producer. He needs something else.”
So Joey left Brooklyn with the two basses that he had available, #11 and #37. He showed up at the studio and Victor immediately gravitated towards #37. Victor just felt like he’d found his home on the bass. And again, at that moment, it changed nothing.
Joey and Victor hit it off immediately. They respected each other as fellow bass players. And when Joey saw Victor play… If you can imagine, this is 1983, so no one had yet seen any of these techniques for which Victor has now become so well known. Can you imagine Joey walking in and seeing some unknown kid play this stuff for the first time?!
All of our endorsers up until 2½ years ago received a sum total of zero dollars for endorsing Fodera. They essentially endorsed Fodera because they loved the instruments. They loved Vinny and Joey. They loved the way the instruments played and this is what they wanted to play. The vast majority of them pay for their instruments. Occasionally certain premier artists get an instrument for free. You know, Victor hasn’t paid for an instrument in a number of years, but the reality is that these guys play them because they love them, not because there’s a commercial reason to do it. And even with the few commercial incentives that we’ve been able to give — the reality of it is that these guys could earn endorsements a hundred times what we’re capable of paying, if they went to one of the big makers. They’ve stayed with Fodera because this is really what they want to play.
So, just like what makes a Fodera special — there’s no one thing, it’s a hundred things — there’s no one person or instrument that made Fodera all of a sudden come into the limelight. It was a gradual progression over time and a body of work. Victor Wooten was playing one, Anthony Jackson was playing one, Tom Kennedy was playing one, Matt Garrison was playing one, Richard Bona was playing one… it just reached critical mass. For that genre of music — which is very bass-centric, avant-garde, sort of fusion jazz — more and more cats were playing Fodera. They rub elbows with one another and hear each other’s tone and say, “I like that,” and then they’d show up at the shop.
Obviously now Victor has become a huge part of people’s being aware of Fodera. A lot of the other players who play Fodera are equally extraordinary on the instrument, but not as well known, not as public a figure. So now, years later, Victor has become a very important part of Fodera because now people associate him with our instruments. People will call the shop and say, “I just saw Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. I looked up the butterfly bass and found out it’s a Fodera. It’s the most amazing bass I’ve ever heard. I want to buy one.” Truth be told, that’s how I first found my way to Fodera.
I was introduced to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones by my late sister-in-law. You know Dinah’s Woodshed at Wooten Woods? Dinah was my sister-in-law. She knew I played bass and she’d come over to our house and hang out. One time she showed up with UFO Tofu and said, “You gotta play this. I know you love great bass players. To my ear, this guy is really innovative and great, but I don’t know anything about bass.”
The first time I heard Victor play, it was the same experience I had the first time I heard Jaco play. My jaw dropped, eyes opened, and I said, “Wow, I’m not worthy of the instrument.” So, Dinah introduced me to Vic. I went to see them live and just couldn’t believe the tone Vic was getting out of his bass. I’d never heard anything like it before on a bass guitar. So I decided, I’m going to really start woodshedding and when I get to a certain point, I’m going to look into getting a Fodera.
It took me about 2 or 3 years of trials and tribulations until I felt like I could buy one and not embarrass the instrument completely. Then, I became a customer of Joey and Vinny. I believe there are a number of people with similar stories about any number of our players, but I believe there are probably more stories like that about Vic than most. So that’s the long-winded answer to your question.
Click here for Part 2 of my interview with Jason DeSalvo of Fodera Guitars. Among other things, we will be discussing the art of selecting tonewoods for custom bass guitars.
Get more information and a look at Fodera’s latest creations at Fodera.com.
For more about Victor Wooten and his camps, check out VictorWooten.com.