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Banjo master Richie Dotson breathes new life into ailing acoustic instruments
If you've got a sick banjo, Richie Dotson has a cure.
The Newport News resident is one of the area's top stringed instrument technicians, a masterful repairman who's able to take an ailing banjo, mandolin or guitar and make it sing again.
Dotson, who will turn 43 next week, is so good he can take a pile of dusty, old banjo parts and painstakingly assemble them into a lovely, vintage-sounding instrument.
Or, if you'd rather, he can build you a brand new one from scratch.
Dotson has earned the admiration of players throughout the Hampton Roads bluegrass community — as well as that of his fellow luthiers.
"We're great friends and we have a great deal of respect for each other," said Ronnie Barnes, a York County resident who, like Dotson, is both a skilled musician and talented instrument maker. "He's a fine player and a capable craftsman."
Next month, Dotson will set up shop at the Cabin Fever Pickin' Party in Hampton, an annual gathering of bluegrass enthusiasts from across the region.
"The moment I open my repair or setup booth the morning of Cabin Fever's official opening I have a line of people," Dotson said. "The pace usually keeps up from 9 in the morning until 9 in the evening all day Thursday and Friday, and only begins letting up Saturday late in the afternoon."
We asked Dotson to share insights into his craft and his love of acoustic music.
How did you become interested in the banjo?
At the age of 9, my grandfather gave me one for Christmas and the love for the instrument has been there ever since. I heard Raymond McLain of the McLain Family out of Kentucky playing on KET (Kentucky Educational Television) when I was very young and it was all of a sudden the magic trick that I just had to learn … It just wouldn't leave my mind alone until I learned how to play the banjo.
How did you start fixing, customizing and building banjos?
I started out of necessity, really. I didn't have the means to purchase a good banjo or even the money to maintain the one that I did have, so I started gradually — changing the head, making adjustments and even taking my banjo completely apart and reassembling it because I could. Then one evening, while playing at a jam session, my strap broke and my banjo fell to the hardwood floor which resulted in my banjo neck breaking in two! ... I went for it. I had nothing to lose! I actually did a pretty nice job, to the point where other people started asking me to take a look at some of the "projects" that they had. And so it began.
When did you make your first banjo?
The first banjo I assembled was from a kit that was available through the Saga instrument company. I came to Virginia in 1986 without a banjo because I was stationed on board the USS Lawrence DDG-4 as a new sailor and didn't want to drag my old Fender banjo overseas with me.
Is there a large demand for banjo repair on the Peninsula?
There is a large demand for all kinds of acoustic stringed instrument repair ... but banjo is such a specialized field of work (especially in our area) that I usually stay quite busy — and not only with local work. People from all over the United States and even abroad send me restoration work and even have me build 5-string necks to replace the more common 4-string banjo necks of the 1920s through the 1940s so that bluegrass-style banjo can be played on them.
What's your most prized tool and why?
Because I like doing great-looking finish work, I really like my spray guns and my motorized buffing machine. Nothing makes me happier about building a brand new banjo or mandolin than a professional, factory-looking, mirror-like finish. It's like icing on the cake!
What skill or character trait is most valuable in your line of work?
I would have to say that the people skills are the most important. I know that it sounds a little basic, but learning to read what a person needs or wants from a musical instrument ... can mean the difference between a customer who is happy with their instrument when they leave your shop or booth and a person who may not remember you as a craftsman.
What's the strangest banjo injury you've been asked to treat?
The one that sticks out in my mind the most was a pretty rare, 1928 Gibson Granada that was handed to me in a cardboard box ... That was an expensive restoration, but the piece was well worth it.
Who is your favorite banjo player and why do you like him?
I would have to say that, because nearly everything in the bluegrass banjo's stylistic structure is based on something that Earl Scruggs did, he is my favorite.
Why do you like working with stringed instruments?
It is because I have been playing musical instruments for over 30 years and I teach banjo, mandolin and guitar. Many of the people I teach own their instruments as a result of them being handed down from a parent, grandparent or other loved one, but they aren't often in the best playable condition. I really enjoy seeing the light come on in people who are able to enjoy an instrument that a family member or loved one played years ago ... to me there isn't much that is more fulfilling than seeing that particular joy in a person's eyes.
Find more music news at facebook.com/dailypressmusic, twitter.com/VASamMcDonald and by reading Sam McDonald's music blog at dailypress.com/musicblog
Richie Dotson Birth date: March 4, 1967
Birth place: Detroit, Mich., but grew up in Phelps, Ky.
Profession: Stringed instrument builder and repairman
Home: Newport News
More information: www.AcousticBox.com, Dotson's Web site, offers tips and how-to information about stringed instrument repair.