Alfred Michels was born and raised in Germany, and he apprenticed with a master violin maker in Europe. Beginning in 1982, he made, repaired, and played stringed instruments in western North Carolina.
As a teenager in Germany, Alfred listened to radio stations that played early American country music, such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Skillet Lickers. His musical interests developed as he learned to play guitar. “At first I played a little classical guitar,” he remembered, “Then I heard the Stanley Brothers and decided that might work really good.” Eventually, Alfred started playing the fiddle, and one day he needed work done to his bow and sought out a luthier shop. “I had never even thought about stuff like that,” he said, “but that was what I had been looking for.”
Alfred was in agricultural college at the time in Bonn, Germany, but he wasn’t interested in the business aspects they focused on at the school. Instead, Alfred turned his attention to fiddle making, and he made his first instrument out of a wooden shoe. He took his invention to a luthier named Elbin, and that helped him acquire a rare apprenticeship. “That got me my job,” explained Alfred. “He really didn’t want anybody, but I showed it to him and he liked the idea that somebody did something so unusual. I found out later that there was somebody coming in about every week trying to get a job like that.”
Alfred’s apprenticeship included a series of tests such as making an instrument, working in someone else’s shop, and taking written and oral examinations. He continued working in Elbin’s shop for a few years after he completed his apprenticeship. During this time, Alfred traveled to the United States with his brother to attend traditional music events, such as fiddler’s conventions. One summer, he met his future wife, Amy, who was playing with the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers. He returned the next summer, married Amy, and stayed.
Alfred started doing repair work for a music shop in Boone, where he developed connections with many local musicians. He soon left the music shop and built his own luthier shop near his new home in Ashe County. Alfred continued building stringed instruments, mostly violins, and did repair work for many area and regional musicians. He became a highly regarded craftsman in the area, and took on a number of apprentices. He was an excellent fiddler, and played guitar and accordion as well. He performed often with the Boone-based band, the Lazybirds, and occasionally with other bands.
Alfred Michels passed away on September 26, 2018 at the age of sixty-five.