YOU Issue: Michael Dubova carves a niche as an instrument maker

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Crozet-based luthier Michael Dubova builds one-of-a-kind instruments, often from locally sourced wood. Image: Jack Looney Crozet-based luthier Michael Dubova builds one-of-a-kind instruments, often from locally sourced wood. Image: Jack Looney

Here’s what readers asked for:

I think you should cover my husband, Michael Dubova. …He never builds two instruments alike (except one time when he built a pair of guitars for twins—one was a left-handed guitar and the other was a right-handed guitar).—Loretta Vitt Dubova

Michael Dubova was alone in the California desert when he decided to start making his own instruments.

An avid distance cycler and ultra marathoner, Dubova had embarked on a cross-country bike ride in the spring of 2008, but found his heart wasn’t in it. He couldn’t stop thinking about music.

“I got really depressed and wanted to have an instrument in my hands,” he says. “I wanted to be playing music. I wanted to build an instrument.”

With several cross-country bike rides under his belt, Dubova knew he needed to pack it up unless he was totally committed. He turned around with his camping gear and fly fishing rod and went back to San Diego.

At the time, Dubova had zero experience with woodworking and few proper tools. He started experimenting. The first time he tried to bend the sides of a stringed instrument, he grabbed his wife’s curling iron. It wasn’t nearly hot enough. “Yeah, it was that type of learning curve,” he says.

Ten years later and now living in Crozet, Dubova has built around 130 working instruments—mostly mandolins, but also guitars, violins, banjos, lap steels, and others. All of his pieces are custom-built to client specifications, and he ships instruments worldwide.

“It has evolved from being a hobby to a legit business,” Dubova says. “I don’t know if it’s very realistic, but I romanticize about it being a full-time job.”

Making it as a full-time luthier, or stringed instrument maker, would be no small feat. According to data from the Guild of American Luthiers, about 500 independent makers are active in the U.S. today.

In Virginia there are a number of established local operations such as Rockbridge Guitar Company and Stelling Banjo Works, with many smaller builders throughout the state.

One theory about luthiers diminishing numbers? Less access to exotic foreign woods. Brazilian rosewood in particular (a rainforest wood protected under international treaty) is prized for its beauty and tonality. Craftsmen like Dubova, though, have found other materials to produce instruments that are pleasing to the eye and the ear.

“Everyone wants these exotic tropical woods, but we have woods that are comparable in sound and tonal quality to what people get overseas,” he says. “Why not use what we have around us?”

Cherry, for example, offers a bright and shrill tone. Maple is more dampening, allowing a note to fade quickly and be followed by another. Walnut, with its high strength-to-weight ratio, is similar to mahogany in its warm, balanced tonal quality, according to Dubova.

“Every tree has a story or voice,” he says. “The instrument is like the tree’s afterlife.”

Dubova’s been into folk music since high school. He’d tune to “Bluegrass Sunday” on WNRN, and wear out his tape recorder laying down tracks by Doc Watson and Tony Rice. He performed with a few bands and busked on the Downtown Mall but found he was more interested in writing songs.

“I got into Bob Dylan—like, way into Bob Dylan—and started doing the harmonica-guitar thing,” he says. He met his wife, also a musician, and further expanded his harmonic horizons.

It was when Dubova first heard David Grisman of bluegrass supergroup Old & In the Way that he became interested in the mandolin. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is mind blowing,’” he says.

Dubova has made mandolins for Sage Canaday, a professional runner and musician in Boulder, Colorado; Chad Timmer of Colorado-based HenScratch and Nikos Briscoe of Fever in the Funkhouse. Dubova says one of his customers handed Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers a Dubova mandolin backstage after a gig, and Thile said it sounded great.

For local John Andersen, who owns Crozet Running and plays music as a hobby, Dubova produced a themed guitar depicting a spruce and bear claw over a mountain profile—using all domestic woods.

UVA Engineering administrator Jason Jones found Dubova through contacts in the ultra marathon world. “I was doing research on different guitars and got it in my head I wanted a guitar with some roots to Charlottesville,” Jones says. “Michael’s work is beautiful. He’s attentive and patient.”

Though he could have bought something off the shelf for less, one of the reasons Jones decided on a Dubova guitar was the chance to have it custom-made. “You might have a sound in your head and go to a store and play a bunch of guitars and not find what you’re looking for,” he says.

Dubova’s made instruments for as much as $2,500, but he’s flexible and can produce custom rigs for as little as $650. As custom luthiers go, he’s inexpensive.

Dubova’s philosophy goes back to that day in the California desert—sometimes you’re lonely, maybe a little down on your luck, and all you want is an instrument in your hands.

“I’m a musician, too. Good instruments should be available to as many people as possible,” he says. “Maybe that’s not going to be a productive business model, but it stays true to who I am.”

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