Luthier Robert Vincent shows off a nearly-finished guitar at his workshop in San Diego (Photo: Tiffany Camhi)
Professional musician and classical guitar teacher Gen Young recently bought a new pale-yellow guitar. It’s worth several thousand dollars and Young had to sell some instruments from his own collection just to afford it. It’s his third spanish-style guitar made by guitar maker - or "luthier" - Robert Vincent. Young says each one he owns has a different personality. “It has this beautiful, elegant sound where all the notes are separated beautifully,” Young says. “A lot of times hearing those voices separately is a really prized part of an instrument.”
Vincent had been making guitars by hand for close to 20 years. But unlike most luthiers, Vincent learned his craft while in prison, as part of the state's Arts-In-Corrections program, a world-renowned initiative which brought arts programming to prisons for decades until it was cut due to budget shortfalls a few years ago. “The guitars that were coming out of that program were world-class,” says Vincent. “They were concert guitars.”
A terrible misstep
As a young man Vincent says he never would have guessed that he would be a fan of classical music or build the instruments that play it. He says as a teen his musical tastes were a little bit different; he was into rock bands like AC/DC.
One night in the late 1980s, when he was visiting friends in Sacramento, Vincent found himself in the middle of a brawl. “The guys that I was with pulled out a gun and shot one of the other guys that we were in this altercation with,” Vincent says. “California law says I’m pretty much guilty right along with him.”
After a year-long jury trial, Vincent was found guilty of second degree murder. He was just 20 at the time and was given a sentence of 15 years to life.
Transformed by the sound of the guitar
It was while he was in prison at Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, Cali., that Vincent heard the classical guitar played live for the first time. The piece was Leyenda by the Spanish composer Issac Albeniz. “It was just this amazing thing and I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do,” Vincent says.
Vincent had no musical training before he went to prison, but he says the music spoke to him. He enrolled in the prison's guitar-making class, taught by Luthier Kenny Hill. Hill says Vincent was a natural. “He could really deal with shapes and surfaces and finishes and all of that and that showed up right away,” Hill says.
But Vincent did not take the class just for himself. He left two young sons behind after getting locked up. They were aged five and two when their father went behind bars, and they practically grew up in the prison visiting room. Vincent says guitar making gave him a way to still have a positive effect on his kids’ lives. “It was like okay my dad’s in prison but my dad’s a guitar maker,” Vincent says. “So that kind of relieved some of the stigma for them.”
A rising star
Vincent became a rising star in the prison’s guitar-making class. He built close to 30 instruments that were sent to schools and charities. He sent a guitar home to his sons. And Harry Belafonte commissioned Vincent to build a guitar for Carlos Santana as a gift.
Prison officials began to notice his incredible work. And after being denied twice, Vincent was granted parole in 2005. A year later he was out and wasted no time in starting up his own luthier business through connections he made in prison.
Now Vincent works out of his garage in San Diego. The space doubles as his wood-working shop. But the luthier business is tough. It’s extremely competitive and it takes months to finish a single guitar. So far Vincent is doing alright. But he’s kept quiet about his past -- he says he got burned once after telling a potential client about his time in prison. He never heard back from that dealer. “I want to be judged on the merits of my art and what I’m doing now,” Vincent says.
Time to open up
But Vincent says he’s ready to open up now. He's never shared his story with the media until now. Gen Young, the guy who owns three Vincent guitars, just found out about his close friend and collaborator’s time in prison. The two have known each other for a decade.
When Young learned Vincent’s secret, he was supportive. Young says there are many parallels between the practice of music and the lives of those who are incarcerated. “A fundamental aspect of it is redemption,” Young says. “You always get the chance to play the piece again and to make it better.”
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.