Peter Kyvelos, at 73; hinged craftsmanship with love of the oud

BTS Globe Northwest July 3 - Peter Kyvelos with an oud in his Belmont shop Unique Strings. An oud by Kyvelos is on display in "Keepers of Tradition" at the National Heritage Museum. Photo by Tom Pich. Library Tag 07032008 Globe North West 1,2
Peter Kyvelos had built ouds in his Belmont shop Unique Strings for decades.

Growing up in Fitchburg, Peter Kyvelos listened to his father’s collection of old 78 rpm records and later recalled that he became “fascinated by the sound of one particular instrument.”

His parents, both of Greek ancestry, weren’t sure what he was hearing, and the mystery was finally solved when he accompanied an Armenian friend to a dance in Leominster. “I walked in, heard this sound, and saw this instrument, and I said, ‘I can’t believe it, my quest is over,’ ” Mr. Kyvelos told the Globe in 2001.

The stringed instrument he had heard, and with which he quickly fell in love, was an oud. Made of wood, the pear-shaped oud traces its origins back many centuries and is a musical cousin of the lute. In the years after first glimpsing one at a Leominster dance, Mr. Kyvelos became one of the nation’s premier oud makers and was awarded a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship in 2001.


Unique Strings, the shop he founded in Belmont at the beginning of the 1970s, is considered “the epicenter of instrument-making by Greek, Armenian, and Middle Eastern musicians around the United States,” the National Endowment for the Arts said in a statement posted online this month.

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Mr. Kyvelos, who also repaired some of the finest stringed instruments that musicians have played in Greater Boston for the past few decades, died of brain cancer April 2 in CareOne at Concord. He was 73 and had lived in Bedford.

A master builder and repairer of ouds, he also made instruments such as bouzoukis and ukuleles, though craftsmanship was as much for love as it was for money. Mr. Kyvelos estimated it takes about 150 hours to make an oud. At the prices he charged through the years, his hourly pay usually worked out to less than minimum wage.

To cover the costs of the time he invested in making instruments, he became just as adept at repairs. Along with fixing ouds, Mr. Kyvelos breathed new life into other instruments, including those played by musicians who perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“About 70 percent of my business has been repairs and restorations. Because there are people with good instruments that need repairing, I can charge a reasonable amount of money so I can make a living at what I do,” he said in a National Endowment for the Arts interview in 2001, which is posted online. “I’ve chosen to build an instrument I love, so I’m not complaining. But the demand for them after all these years is diminishing because there are fewer and fewer people who play the instrument.”


Meanwhile, to spur interest in the oud, Mr. Kyvelos offered his own de facto form of financial aid to aspiring musicians: He lowered his prices.

“If people came into the store – especially if they were very young – and they had a great love for an instrument, and they couldn’t afford it, he would make it very affordable for them. That’s my husband,” said his wife, Virginia Dodakian Kyvelos.

Richard Hagopian, an oud player who was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1989, paid Mr. Kyvelos a high compliment while performing in 2001 at his friend’s fellowship ceremony. Invoking the name of history’s most famous violin maker, Hagopian called him “the Stradivarius of oud making.”

“The most important thing, of course, is when you’ve created an instrument and strung it up and it goes into the hands of a professional, and then you see that professional sitting up on a stage playing your instrument,” Mr. Kyvelos told the Masters of Traditional Arts website. “There’s a certain amount of pride that you get; nobody has to say anything. . . . What matters is between me, the instrument, and the person playing.”

The youngest of four children, Peter S. Kyvelos credited his parents with helping inspire his career making instruments. His mother, the former Angela Petalas, had been a nurse and “was quite artistic though not trained as an artist,” he told the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. His father, Stephen, “was very good with his hands and we were always doing things together. Painting and repairing things, wallpapering. Through all of this I learned how to use tools and developed a good eye for things, for line and shape and so on.”


As a child, Mr. Kyvelos would spend months meticulously whittling a piece of wood to recreate the shape of a boat he saw in National Geographic. “Little by little, as I went through high school and left for college, art seemed to be a big part of my life. And music. I always loved music, especially ethnic music,” he told the NEA.

Though Mr. Kyvelos studied art history and fine arts at San Francisco State University, he was more entranced with his work outside the classroom building instruments. A sculpture he created might be beautiful, but his instruments communicated more directly with audiences. An oud “has a whole life of its own,” he told the Globe in 2001, his voice rising in emphasis. “It doesn’t just sit there.”

While at college, he also made and sold jewelry, worked as a carpenter, and apprenticed with a violinmaker “who said, ‘when you finish, you come and work for me,’ ” his wife recalled. “Peter said, ‘No, I want to make the oud.’ ”

Mr. Kyvelos met Virginia Dodakian at an Armenian dance in Cambridge in May 1971. “On our third date, two weeks later, he asked me to marry him, and I said yes,” she said. “I knew after our first date – we talked for 12 hours – that he was the one, and he knew I was the one.” They married that November.

Mr. Kyvelos once said the gradual decline of social gatherings, like the one where he and Virginia met, has slowly eroded the market for finely-crafted ouds.

“When I was a boy growing up, we used to have to flip coins to decide which dance to go to because there were so many. But it’s rare now to find even a club that features the music,” he told the NEA in 2001. “If it’s a dance, it’s maybe once or twice a year, instead of three or four times a month. It’s difficult for me to reach out.”

A service has been held for Mr. Kyvelos, who in addition to his wife leaves a daughter, Stephanie Lindgren of Groveland; a son, Nicholas of Arlington; a sister, Joan Coor of Fairfield, Calif.; and two grandchildren. The Kyvelos’s other son, Matthew, died last year from injuries suffered in a fall.

Even though musicians from across the country respected his work and sought out his Belmont shop, Mr. Kyvelos insisted that his level of expertise had nothing to do with innate wizardry.

“These other guys, it’s like, everything is magic. ‘Oh, it’s all mysterious,’ ” he told the Globe in 2001. “Baloney. It’s hard work, that’s what it is. There’s no magic. It’s all sweat.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at