1971 I met John Dopyera who was the inventor of the Dobro sound enhancer
for guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and other string instruments. John was a
master luthier who made exquisite violins. The word "Dobro" stands for "DOpyera
BROthers". There were three of them, as I recall. John invented the device
and made fine instruments one at a time. His other brothers mass produced
quality Dobro instruments and marketed them. Other names--National, Regal--
became associated with the Dobro insert--a steel cone that sat inside the
soundbox of an instrument and that was directly linked to the bridge so that
the cone vibrated like a megaphone. The device was needed so the emerging
jazz guitarists could be heard above the orchestra. This was before the electrical
public address system was widely used.
Over the years friends and I bought instruments from John. My friend Pat Sauer bought a nickle-plated bell-brass Dobro guitar from him which he still has. John had a little place called The Fiddle Fret Shop on Escondido Boulevard in Escondido CA in North San Diego County. John was a gentle man, in his mid or late seventies when I met him. He once sold me a Slingerland banjo-uke he purchased that very morning from a collector. He lit up when I played it and he sold it to me for what he had paid--$25. A businessman who called himself a hippy stole it from me in the late seventies.
John had had to fire his apprentice one morning. "He broke my vise," he said, a heavy sadness in his voice. "I am trying to teach the man how to make violins and he broke my vise. He has no feeling in his hands. How can he ever make a violin?"
One day John pulled a case from under his front counter and extracted a Hawai'ian lap steel guitar--a Dobro, of course. One he made for himself. The guitar itself had a lidded compartment built into it for picks and a amplifier cord! He played a few sweet strains for me. The tenderness in his hands that made such fine instruments was even more apparent in his music. He was one of a kind, a throwback to earlier days when pride and carefulness and precision and gentility flowed through the works of masters. And yet he marshalled in mechanical enhancement and brought louder sound without breaking the vise that holds song dear.
The last time I saw John Dopyera, probably about 1976 or so in his shop, he said, "I'm eighty years old. I've been busy all this time. I realized that I haven't made an improvement in the design of the Dobro since 1919. I have an idea for an improvement. I've talked with the Martin people. That's what I want to work on in my final days." (Stan Werbin of Elderly Instruments reminds me that the Dobro wasn't manufactured until the later '20s. But I swear 1919 is the year John told me he designed it.) He also complained that the woman who had been running the store counter for him ripped him off and his business was shakey. I never saw him again. I did, however, hear about him.
And sad it was. Buddy Craig and Nicol daLuz are fine, fine musicians and they travelled far and wide in a converted school bus. If you ever come across a long-haired flat-picker who can run the scales three or four times in a single 4/4 measure, ask if his name is Buddy Craig. Well, about 1988 or so, Buddy and Nicol were playing in Oregon and met a young man who told them that John Dopyera, the inventor of the Dobro guitar had just died. He said John moved to the northwest and lived out his days alone and broke, that he had cared for him in his final days. Buddy, who had lived in San Diego County at one time, had also met John when he was alive. Buddy rushed to tell me the news.
Since I wrote the above paragraph and published it, members of Dopyera's family have contacted me to correct the record. Their emails are below.
Today I play a goofy formica-tipped Dobro ukulele that another fine luthier, Luke Wilson of Nevada City CA, found for me and fixed up. One of the pleasures I get from playing that instrument--and I play it every day--is that it links me to John Dopyera and I take great pleasure in remembering the sparkle that came to his eyes when he heard me play. You don't get fans like that every day.
Cool Hand Uke
©1996 Dan Scanlan
Letters from John Dopyera's family.
I just came across your story about my great-uncle John Dopyera. I would
like to make a few corrections if you please so the record is set straight...My
uncle did indeed die in Oregon, he had moved up there in his last year or
two with his daughter Anna, he was not alone nor was he broke. He still
had his Fiddle and Fret Shop until the end, when his two children John and
Anna sold it after removing the artifacts, records and family keepsakes from
it. John died in 1988, not 1984 and he lived a good life with his music.
His brothers, Emil (my grandfather, who died in 1977) and Rudy, who John
took care of until he died in 1978 were the brothers behind the music and
invention of DOBRO. John was the craftsman, Rudy was the inventor and Emil
(Ed) was the marketer and producer. If you have any other questions about
my family, please ask and I would appreciate it if you would correct your
--- Karen Angell
Subject: From John Dopyera's daughter in Oregon
Date: Tue, 18 Mar 2003 21:30:55 -0800
Received a letter from Peter Radvanyi just yesterday with the 2003 Dobrofest line-up. Under links, your letter came up. It broke my heart and I am appalled that such misinformation has come out about Dad's last days here in Oregon. No one-----and let me make this very clear, no one ever cared for my Dad but me. He had Dobro players and Dobroenthusiasts come by and visit him, usually not very often, but THEY di not care for him. Due to my fathers nature and background, which NO ONE but the family had any clue about, Dad was very difficult and not possible to please----no matter what. My mother was still alive at the time, and after 6 and one half months with Dad living in my husbands and my home, she knew what I was experienceing and suggested I try to get him into her room at the nursing facility where she was and had been bed bound for a number of years. BE sure of this fact, I did not neglect my parents ain any way way. I have lived in So. ORE most of my life, and anyone that knows me will testify to the fact that I was a caring and loving daughter to my parent. In the future, please be sure of your facts before you publish them for th whole world to see.
I will be writing Peter and asking him to remove your well intended but unfactual letter from this site
Anne Dopyera West - John Dopyera's daughter of nearly 69 years!
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