Charles Fox Ergo

A New Voice, From Experience
A New Voice, From Experience

When experienced luthiers reach “a certain age,” they often make changes in their work. Antonio Stradivari developed the long-pattern violin circa 1691, only to abandon it a decade later. In the late 20th century, James L. D’Aquisto’s late-career archtop designs were quite radical, although they are now much-copied. Portland-based luthier Charles Fox, already thinking out of the box in 1973, founded the first North American school for guitar makers. More than 30 years later, Fox has created an innovative new steel-string model called the Ergo.

Fox is quick to point out that some of the Ergo’s features incorporate what he has learned from other builders with his own experience. A first glance shows the “wedge” body pioneered by Linda Manzer, the side sound port credited to John Monteleone, and the elevated fingerboard used by Tom Humphrey on his progressive classical guitars. A closer look reveals high-quality workmanship that serves as an indicator of Fox’s meticulous work.

Molded over a 12′-radius vacuum form to create a domed shape, the top of the Ergo is a laminate of spruce, Nomex (a honeycomb Kevlar material used in aeronautical construction), and cedar. The few spruce support braces are laminated and footed, offering support without being glued down across the brace. The top brace, visible on the bridge side of the soundhole, is lightened by several holes. The minimal upper bout braces combine with the domed top to create a very strong structure. Braces are absent from the lower bout of the soundboard, leaving an expanse of wood and high-tech material unencumbered by vibration-reducing excess lumber.

A bridge plate of Brazilian rosewood reinforces the laminated bridge, which is otherwise traditional in design. Laminations are used throughout the Ergo, resulting in an increased strength-to-weight ratio. Fox feels the outside laminate of the top (master-grade European spruce) is most important in determining the top’s sound. The raised fingerboard enhances the angle of string pull at the bridge, further contributing to a more efficient soundboard.

Our Ergo noire test guitar was graced with highly figured Brazilian rosewood back and sides and a one-piece Honduran mahogany neck. The top was black, and the body and neck were finished in natural water-borne lacquer. The Ergo blanc is available in natural finish; both models feature a choice of wood selections, options and body styles.

In the 1970s, Fox built some of the first thinline acoustic guitars, knowing that the big-body sound that might be great in the living room can be difficult to amplify and record clearly in stage and studio applications. The Ergo’s domed top and tapered body (161/4″ wide at the lower bout, 201/2″ long and 41/4″ at its deepest) produce tones that are more detailed than those of a typical flat-top. For a more present, sitting-in-your lap sound experience, the player can open the optional, adjustable sound port on the upper bass bout.

Speaking of playing the Ergo… as we strummed, we were delighted as each note in every chord was audibly delineated – single notes, long tones, arpeggios, and fast runs all have a strong, immediate attack, and good sustain. The brace-free lower bout of the top makes the string response very quick, and lightly picked notes and hammer-ons materialize clearly and cleanly. The notes jump off the guitar. Played with plectrum or in fingerstyle, the Ergo’s tone has elements of a good archtop or Selmer-style guitar, but without the bark and startling treble presence that often characterizes those models. This refined, articulate voice makes the Ergo a particularly distinctive jazz guitar.

The optional under-saddle pickup and soundboard-mounted transducer (by Transend Sound) provide a very accurate reproduction of the Ergo’s sound, with a high feedback threshold. An optional tail block access hole makes for easy maintenance and battery replacement.

Archtop players will feel familiar with the raised fingerboard, which measures 13/4″ at the nut. A slight re-orientation of the neck and fingerboard compensates for the changed angle caused by the wedged-shaped body, resulting in a more natural left-hand position. The bound but otherwise unornamented neck, headstock, and compound radius ebony fingerboard with 25.6″ scale is meticulously fitted and bolted on at both the neck extension and heel. The neck profile is a perfect arc; it comfortably feels the same wherever your hand lies on it. Inside, the neck block is shaped to a calligraphic C. This lovely form, visible through the side sound port, is typical of the attention paid to every aspect of the Ergo, from lining to bridge to headstock.

Although this combination of features is not based on a specific guitar, there are touches that ring a vintage vibe: the elevated pickguard brings to mind the Gibson Nick Lucas and L-2 flat-tops from the early 1930s; the cutaway body is based on Fox’s own ’70s Small Jumbo style; the round soundhole rosette is made from Amboyna burl and abalone. And if you believe that picture-perfect joinery, carving, binding, fretwork, setup and other lutherie skills are vintage values, you’ll find this mature product of a mature craftsman has them to spare.

All of this adds up to a guitar that has redefined the acoustic steel-string. Like Mario Maccaferri’s Selmer-produced designs, neither archtop nor flat-top, the Ergo has its own identity. Perhaps it should be called a “dometop.” And in terms of design, materials, craft, and sound, guitar aficionados may well consider this one of the first notable lutherie achievements of the new millennium.

Charles Fox Ergo
Price: $15,000.
Contact: Charles Fox Guitars, 2745 SW Scenic Drive, Portland, OR 97225; phone (503) 292-2385;

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.