Fiddle maker builds in search of perfect tone

Jul. 27, 2014 @ 07:00 AM

In the basement of his home, Robert “Bob” Kogut of Lenoir sat at a large work table under a dim, reddish light working on his 166th fiddle. The table was covered in carving tools and thick layers of wood dust and shavings. In his large hands, Kogut twisted a tuning knob into the neck of his new fiddle. He had just begun the process of making a fiddle, which typically lasts two or three months, and already he was in love with the new instrument.

“I don’t have any secrets,” Kogut said about building his fiddles. “Maybe if there is a secret, it’s because I’m very passionate about my building and I imagine the tone as I’m building. Even now as I’m working on this neck, I’m imagining it will have that tone that I want. There seems to be some kind of bridge between what you’re thinking and hoping for and through your hands as you’re building it. It’s kind of a magical thing.”

Kogut, 65, has made fiddles for 20 years. When he was 40, he went to a bluegrass festival after his brother, John, begged him to go. Kogut was a fan of rock 'n' roll, and he didn't want to go, but his brother promised to pay for the gas, Kogut's ticket and lunch, so Kogut agreed to go. There, he fell in love with the sound of a fiddle while listening to Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. 

"It was the most beautiful sound I've ever heard," Kogut said. "Something changed in me. Right there, I thought, 'Oh man, I've got to play the fiddle.'"

Over the years, Kogut bought and sold fiddles, but he could never find one with the sacred tone he heard inside himself.

“I just couldn’t find it, and I thought that I’m just wasting so much time not playing and going around and searching,” Kogut said. “I made a decision that if I’m going to find the tone that I’m looking for that I’m just going to have to make it.”

Kogut never took any classes on how to make fiddles. Instead, he bought “junkyard fiddles” that he took apart then put back together by trial and error. When he felt confident, he purchased wood, sat down and made his first fiddle.

Still, he has not been able to obtain that perfect tone.

“The perfect sound, . . . it would be balanced. The low end would be nice and rich and deep sounding, and the high end would be strong but not brash, fiddly sounding, and no notes that are too strong or too weak compared to the other ones,” Kogut said. “A fiddle that just wants to sing instead of a fiddle that you have to fight to get the sound out of -- to me, that’s a perfect fiddle."

Turning his hobby into a business was merely an accident, thanks to his friends who fell in love with his fiddles. Now, people from all over not only ask for but also recognize the sound of a Kogut fiddle.

“The fact that other people want them makes it possible for me to build the next one,” Kogut said. “Otherwise, I’d have a house full of fiddles, 165 fiddles in the house. I never dreamt it would turn into this. I have a waiting list.”

Kogut said he is not a very good businessman because he makes the fiddles one at a time and, in a sense, falls in love with each one, which he refers to as a “she.”

“Each fiddle means a lot to me,” Kogut said. “After you hold a piece of wood for too long, building a fiddle you kind of get attached to it. You kind of get to know it. So, they’re like a litter of puppies. When someone comes over to look at my fiddles, if they end up wanting one, I’m flattered. . . . You’ve heard of buyer’s remorse? I almost have like seller’s remorse. Sometimes, I try to talk people out of buying my fiddles.”

Each fiddle receives a female name that ends in “A.” It all started after the eighth fiddle. The owner’s husband called out to his wife that her fiddle sounded like a bell. She replied, “It is a bell. Isabella.” And since then, Kogut has made it a tradition, with fiddles such as Maya, Nova, Emma, Pandora and Rosa.

“After 165 of them, it’s become one of the hardest parts of making a fiddle, thinking about what I should name it,” he said.

One day, Kogut hopes to find that perfect tone. Until then, he believes that his ability to make fiddles is a gift from God and wants to keep sharing his gift with others.

“So, that’s what drives me to make them,” Kogut said. “But, I mean it, if I ever make one that has that tone I’m searching for, I’m done making them, and I’m going to keep it, and it’s my fiddle, and I’m just going to play it. But, it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve come close. I’ve come real close.”