These guitars compete in the global market alongside Fender and Gibson. They cost as much as handmade jewellery, and represent Ukraine at international music trade shows. And they originate from a small workshop in Bila Tserkva, Kyiv region. It all started in 2016 when Oleksandr Doroshenko’s guitar broke, which led him to discover the workshop of the brothers Vadym and Dmytro Havrylenko, also in Bila Tserkva. The brothers’ skills and passion inspired Doroshenko to collaborate with them on a new brand, Universum Guitars, which quickly won the hearts of several world-famous musicians and collectors, including Grammy-winning bassist John Patitucci.
Oleksandr Doroshenko is the face of Universum Guitars – he’s the one who takes care of the public, organisational side of the business. He also designs the instruments. Born in Bila Tserkva, he believes the town gives him his creative energy. After living abroad for many years, he calls his return to Ukraine “a gift to his old age”.
“It’s very simple,” he says. “Inside the adult man hides a childhood dream. In the 70s, we played in a “vocal-instrumental ensemble”. In the USSR those groups weren’t called “rock bands”. Our band was called The Vikings – I don’t know why. Then adulthood came along, and I didn’t get the chance to do anything connected with guitars. So many years went by, and then the “old theme” came back.”
Vadym Havrylenko is Oleksandr’s associate and a mechanical engineer by training; he is the craftsman who brings the designs to life. Vadym says it was his lack of musical talent that led him to this job.
“I’ve got friends who’ve been ‘kissed by God’,” he says. “I’ll never be able to play like them. No way. But it’s better to be a good carpenter than a bad guitarist.”
Vadym has been making musical instruments for over thirty years, and counts himself lucky to belong to that minority of people who have found their dream job. He boasts of his ability to distinguish, by scent alone, between 64 types of wood used for guitars: from Transcarpathian maple to African blackwood.
Every Universum guitar begins as a sketch. Then a 3D model is created on a computer; later, using special programs, this model is reproduced by woodworking machines. These methods provide scope for the realisation of innovative ideas. In particular, the creators draw attention to the condenser microphone, which they devised to put inside a solid-body guitar, in order to switch between electric and acoustic modes.
Oleksandr claims that the special sound of their guitars is achieved through the use of the Golden Ratio principle (the division of a line so that the whole is to the greater part as that part is to the smaller part, considered to be the most aesthetically pleasing proportion to the human eye). He is convinced that guitars like these boost creativity. To prove the point, he tells the story of Vlad Debrianskyi (an American musician of Ukrainian descent, Berklee graduate, and founder of the American Music Academy in Kyiv). After picking up an instrument made by Universum Guitars, Vlad wrote a new single for the first time in eight years. The guitar makers are still collaborating with him. They also won a contest, as a result of which their instruments are now recommended to students of the world-renowned Berklee College (Boston, USA).
The evolution of the project had two phases. The first was an experimental one, in which the prototypes were given out on a trial basis and, in response to feedback, further improved and tested. The project started in February 2016, and in September of the same year, the guitars from Bila Tserkva were already on display at NAMM Musikmesse, an international trade fair in Moscow. In the music world, these kinds of events usually have more effect on publicity than on sales.
The second phase began at a trade fair in the USA, which provided the impulse to transform the creative project into a business.
“Whereas previously we had been making instruments that everyone loved, we then understood the need to make instruments that everyone will play,” says Oleksandr, reflecting on this experience. “At first, we were making the product for collectors, lovers of the exotic, and performing musicians. Now we’re aiming at a broader spectrum of customers. We’re preparing a commercial product line.”
Americans tend to pronounce “Universum” as “universal”, which deprives the company name of its philosophical roots. Accordingly, a decision was made to rebrand and localise for the American market. Their guitars are now issued in the USA under the name “D.A.G by Universum Guitars”.
Upstairs, above the workshop, is a guitar display stand used for participation in international trade fairs. Nearby is a gallery with photographs of famous musicians playing Universum guitars: Tommy Henriksen, famous for his collaborations with Alice Cooper, Hollywood Vampires and Warlock; John Patitucci, the most influential bassist in the world; famous acoustic guitarist Tommy Emmanuel; Andrey Makarevich, the frontman of “Mashina Vremeni”; Sergo Chanturia, a legend of the Ukrainian rock scene; and many others. Some of them were approached by the company; others stumbled upon the instruments by chance.
“Al Di Meola (a famous American jazz guitarist) went into a music shop in Miami and asked to hold this guitar,” recalls Oleksandr. “He really liked it, and then found out it was an exotic one: made in Ukraine.”
Equipped with new knowledge, Universum Guitars now have the opportunity to enter the Ukrainian market. The risk is that the price threshold will match those of the global brands, as the quality of the workmanship is equally high. The question is, whether Ukrainians are ready to put their trust in home-grown talent and buy local. In the near future, the instruments will go on sale in Ukraine’s major music stores.
Oleksandr is optimistic about the state of creativity in Ukraine:
“I’m very happy to see this dynamic emerging in our society,” he says. “People are beginning to make art again, to play music, perform, start bands and take part in festivals. It seems they’re tired of living in a minor key. It’s a new major trend, and if you want to convey what you’re feeling, you need a proper instrument.”
So far, Universum Guitars has made several hundred instruments; nevertheless, they insist that the main task ahead of them is to work on quality, not quantity. When questioned about the company’s commercial success, the founders recommended we visit their workshop in a year’s time and see it with our own eyes. After all, this is first and foremost an artistic project, not a commercial one.