Peter Tsiorba was in his early twenties when he first moved to Portland. On the daily hike to and from his bus stop in downtown Portland, he would stop on SW Park Avenue and stare out the windows of Pioneer Music and stare at the guitars.
“But I didn’t even really dare to ask to play the guitar. I just looked at the guitars and drooled over it because I didn’t really have enough resources saved,” Tsiorba says. “One day I had the courage.” He asked if he could play one and was invited. “I recovered an instrument that was built in the early 70s in Madrid. The guitar was built by Manuel Contreras,” he recalls. “And I was just speechless.”
His whole world opened up to new tones and sounds that he had never heard a guitar make. The moment: priceless. The guitar: around $2,800. (It would probably be almost double that today, although he couldn’t buy it at Pioneer now – the store later moved to SE Stark Street, then closed permanently in 2012.) Although he left the empty-handed, that moment brought him down a decades-long journey from Spain to the Czech Republic to the East Coast and back to Portland, where he has been building and repairing Spanish classical guitars at Tsiorba Guitars for 18 years old.
Tsiorba has also bounced back since returning to the Pink City, from a home studio at Brassworks in Towne Storage to a space formerly occupied by the Hair of the Dog brewery, to finally building a workshop in his backyard in southeastern Portland in 2020. Located next to a stone pizza oven on the corner of a sprawling herb garden, the workshop reminds Tsiorba of his childhood.
Tsiorba grew up in the 1970s in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, then part of the Soviet Union. Although Tashkent has some of the opulence of a big city, some parts of it, especially the older neighborhoods around the city perimeter, felt a little “closer to the earth”, says Tsiorba . “Indigenous Uzbek culture is very strongly agrarian in many ways.
This is where his musical education began, attending the Tashkent Music School and mainly playing the piano. Music was always encouraged by his family, but Tsiorba knew he “didn’t have the chops” to be a professional musician. On the contrary, he enjoyed making things, breaking into his grandfather’s workshop to clamp things in a vice, file them, cut them and grind them.
“It seemed normal to me to have a whole bunch of hand tools,” Tsiorba laughs. Of course, his siblings played the violin, saxophone and piano, but his father was a carpenter and his grandparents were craftsmen and blacksmiths. “That gravitational field of metalworking, woodworking, tinkering of all kinds was so strong that whatever attempts I made to become a better musician, they just sucked me down to building materials. .”
In 1991, on the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union (although they did not know it at the time), his family immigrated to the United States, to Los Angeles, where Tsiorba learned to speak English. He met his wife there, moved to Portland for a few years, then to Prague for a year, but thPortland’s guitar strummed like an insect in the back of his mind wherever he went. He went from guitar shop to guitar shop, from library to library, picking up tools and books, absorbing everything he could about the work of a luthier. Exploration eventually took Tsiorba and his wife to Spain, Granada and Cordoba in particular, where he visited centuries-old classical guitar shops and learned from luthiers whose wisdom was passed down from generation to generation.
Tsiorba wanted to know how to make a Spanish guitar, supposedly in homage to the style of guitar formalized by the Spaniards in the early 1800s. Everything from nylon strings (Spanish or classical guitar strings were made from intestines from animals through World War II, their signature nylon strings becoming standard in the 1940s) to the deep, warm body resonance to the constantly varying quality of each guitar. according to the pieces of wood with which it was built – everything sang in Tsiorba. Not only was this type of guitar used in the music he studied (classical and flamenco), but it felt more rooted in tradition, with less emphasis on machine processes and more on woodworking. , using your hands and body to bend, shape and sculpt. To feel and to listen.
“It’s a real temptation to buy a tool for every step of the guitar,” says Tsiorba. “And that’s fine. I mean, it’s a way to build a guitar. But the more you do this, the more you mechanize your processes. [and it] becomes a bit more procedural in terms of workflow.
When Tsiorba and his wife later returned to the United States, to Keene, New Hampshire, in 2001, Tsiorba anxiously began its first construction. And this first Spanish guitar? It was ... good.
“It was almost like this graceful little gift, like ‘OK, you have no idea. You don’t know what you’re doing. Here. Just to back you up. So basically the second and third guitars n weren’t as good,” says Tsiorba. Learning “wasn’t like a straight line…. They say, ‘Building guitars is pretty easy. You just need to endure the first 100. ‘”
By the time he and his wife returned to Portland in 2004, Tsiorba had built nine or ten guitars in total. Today, he’s built over 200 – mostly custom works for everyone from classical guitar teachers in Portland to flamenco guitarists in Spain to artists who can afford the $7,000 price tag – not to mention hundreds of repairs and restorations. Part of what sets Tsiorba’s guitars apart, and what keeps his small but loyal clientele in love – reviewers on his website praise his “magic hands” and guitar build quality that make other players jealous of their sound – is his particular attention to each individual. the action, playability, wood thickness, tone and depth of the guitar. Each instrument is a different person with its own voice.
Getting them to sing takes time. A fast luthier can build a guitar in just over 100 hours, but Tsiorba, who works full-time as a luthier, estimates he spends 140 to 160 hours on a build. Sometimes it’s about spending 10 minutes on a quick fix and waiting hours for the glue to dry or the wood to settle, maybe watering the plants in your garden or picking herbs for a pizza. “So you have time to notice and reflect, and at first you even suffer a little,” says Tsiorba.
These days he reflects on wood, the nature of overcoming the life of a tree and harvesting its wood to make pulp or toilet paper – or a guitar. On the fingerboard of a 16th century viola da gamba made by Kaspar Tieffenbrucker, he says, there is an inscription that reads, I was alive in the woods; I was cut down by the cruel axe. While I lived, I was silent; In death I sing softly.
Is he a savior of these dead trees? It’s a bit too grandiose a sentiment for Tsiorba, but there’s something there that resonates. “It feels good to give at least some of the wood that comes from the forest a much longer lifespan,” he says, “other than just, my God, printer paper for a desk.”