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Gibson Banjos repaired at Virginia shop strummed at Grand Ole Opry are 'not just a piece of history'

Posted at 10:45 PM, Apr 05, 2023

HOPEWELL, Va. -- Imagine being tasked with taking apart musical instruments, ones which have literally played a part in recording music history.

They're only a handful of people qualified to do that and Richie Dotson, who owns Acoustic Box LLC in Hopewell, is one of them.

He treats every instrument he touches with the same respect he shows the ones used by the legends of bluegrass.

After two and a half hours driving south, John Bragg finally arrived at a nondescript building in Hopewell.

“I opened up the door and you know I see a lot of classic Gibsons," Bragg said.

In the world of banjos and madolins, Dotson's shop on S 15th Avenue is a mecca.

“It’s been said, by someone, if you owned a banjo and a computer, you know who we were," Dotson said.

And Dotson is not wrong.

“I did a little bit of research and one of the names that kept coming up was, you know, Richie Dotson for banjo repairs, banjo setup,” Bragg said.

Playing since he was 9 years old and doing work on his banjo almost as long, Dotson has created a niche business in a niche industry. In fact, there are only a handful of people across the country who do the kind of work Dotson does.

“There are a lot of guitar people in the country, not that many who specialize in old banjos," Dotson explained. "And we specialize on mostly Gibson banjos made between 1925 and 1942."

And when it comes to the pioneers in Bluegrass, like Earl Scruggs or Ralph Stanley, Dotson is often picked to handle repairs.

“We’re very respectful of those instruments and we know the current owners of Earl and Ralph have passed,” Dotson explained. "It’s not just a piece of history but something that actually belong to and used by one of those pioneering artists.”

If you watch the Grand Ole Opry and there is a bluegrass performance, "something we’ve done is up there," Dotson said.

He said he understands how important from a historical point of view and how valuable from a monetary perspective, some of the instruments he works on can be.

“Anything that ranges, you know, $130,000 to $250,000,” Dotson said. “We get them in, we take very good care of them, as quickly as we can and get them back.”

And it is not just repairs. Dotson has mastered conversions, which means taking older Banjos and transforming them into 5-string neck instruments.

And by conversion, it means replacing every single piece of the neck, starting with the raw wood.

At the back of his shop, Dotson points to a stack of "genuine South American Mahogany," which is likely Honduran and probably some Peruvian.

The shop also carves the inlay.

“We start off with inlay blanks that are about sixty-thousandths, I think and they’re just slabs of inlay," he said.

To guarantee perfection, Dotson owns a collection of original Gibson Necks dating back to the 1920s.

“We have original examples to go by and to write our programming from," Dotson said. "We don’t copy copies, so we don’t get blobby corners or no inset cuts and blunt terminate, we get nice, crisp good reproductions of these things."

While COVID slowed down many businesses, artists around the country were forced to take time off. That is when many decided to send Dotson their instruments for some work.

As a result, Dotson estimated that his back log amounts to about a year and a half.

To do the type of skilled labor Dotson does, he says it comes from decades of experience

“It’s a lot of figuring things out," Dotson explained. "There’s nobody to show you how to do any of this stuff."

So a few years ago, Dotson took on Will Maddox as an apprentice. Now Dotson said that Maddox may one day run the shop "and take over the shop when I hand it over." Dotson said.

“If you work here, it’s not because you need the money for the job," Maddox said. "It’s because you love these instruments and you want them to be able to live for another 100 years."

Not every job is about repairs, some are simply taking a banjo that sounds good and making it sound better.

A couple of hours after arriving, Bragg agrees.

“It’s just incredible," Bragg said. "I mean just the experience he has and the changes that he’s made here in the last hour, to my two Banjos, it’s made them sound incredibly better."

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