Peter Tsiorba was in his early 20s when he first moved to Portland. On the daily trek to and from his bus stop on SW Taylor Street, he’d peek through the windows of Pioneer Music and gaze at the guitars.
“But I didn’t really even dare to ask to play the guitars. I just eyed the guitars and drooled over them because I didn’t really have enough resources saved,” Tsiorba says. “One day I was brave enough.” He asked if he could play one and was invited in. “I picked up one instrument which 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 new sounds he had never heard a guitar make. The moment: priceless. The guitar: about $2,800. (It would probably be almost double that today, though he couldn’t buy it at Pioneer now—the shop later relocated to SE Stark Street, and then closed for good in 2012.) Though he walked away emptyhanded, that moment set him down a decades-long path, from Spain to the Czech Republic to the East Coast and back to Portland, where he’s been building and repairing Spanish classical guitars at Tsiorba Guitars for 18 years.
Tsiorba has also bounced around since his return to the Rose City, from a home studio to Brassworks to Towne Storage to a space formerly occupied by Hair of the Dog brewery, ultimately building a workshop in his Southeast Portland backyard in 2020. Set next to a stone pizza oven in the corner of a sprawling herb garden, the workshop reminds Tsiorba of his childhood.
Tsiorba grew up in the ’70s in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, at the time a part of the Soviet Union. While Tashkent does possess some of the opulence of a major city, parts of it, especially the older neighborhoods on the perimeter of the city, felt a bit “closer to earth,” Tsiorba says. “Indigenous Uzbek culture is very strongly agrarian in many ways.”
This is where his musical education began, attending music school in Tashkent and playing mostly piano. Music had always been encouraged by his family, but Tsiorba knew he “didn’t have the chops” to be a professional musician. Rather, he liked making things, popping into his grandfather’s workshop to clamp things in a vise, file, cut, and grind them down.
“It seemed normal to me to have a whole bunch of hand tools,” Tsiorba says with a laugh. Sure, his siblings played violin and saxophone and piano, but his father was a woodworker, and his grandparents were artisans and blacksmiths. “That gravitational field of metalsmithing, woodworking, tinkering of every kind was so strong that whatever attempts I made at becoming a better musician, they just sucked me right back to the building materials.”
In 1991, the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union (though they didn’t 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, and then to Prague for a year, but that guitar from Portland scratched like a bug at the back of his mind everywhere he went. He went from guitar shop to guitar shop, from library to library, picking up tools and books, absorbing everything he could about luthier work. The exploration eventually took Tsiorba and his wife to Spain—to Granada and Córdoba, specifically—where he visited centuries-old classical guitar shops and learned from luthiers whose wisdom had been passed down for generations.
Tsiorba wanted to know how to make a Spanish guitar, so-called as homage to the style of guitar formalized by the Spaniards sometime in the early 1800s. Everything from the nylon strings (Spanish or classical guitar strings were made using animal intestine up until World War II, with their signature nylon strings becoming standard in the 1940s) to the deep, warm resonance of the body to the constantly variable quality of each guitar depending on the pieces of wood from which it was built—it all sang to Tsiorba. Not only was this type of guitar used in the music he had been studying (classical and flamenco), but it felt more rooted in tradition, with less of an emphasis on machine processes and more of an emphasis on woodworking, using your hands and your body to bend, shape, and carve. To feel and to listen.
“It’s a real temptation to just buy a tool for every single step of the guitar,” Tsiorba says. “And that’s OK. I mean, that’s one way to build a guitar. But the more you do that the more you’re mechanizing your processes [and it] becomes a little bit more procedural in terms of the workflow.”
When Tsiorba and his wife later moved back to the US, to Keene, New Hampshire, in 2001, Tsiorba anxiously began his first build. And that first Spanish guitar? It was ... good.
“It was almost like this little gracious gift, like, ‘OK, you’re clueless. You don’t know what you’re doing. Here you go. Just to sustain you.’ So, in fact, the second and third guitars were not quite as good,” Tsiorba says. Learning “wasn’t like a straight line…. They say, ‘Guitar building is kind of easy. You just need to endure the first 100.’”
By the time he and his wife moved back to Portland in 2004, Tsiorba had built some nine or 10 guitars in total. Now, he’s built upwards of 200—mostly custom work for anyone from classical guitar instructors in Portland to flamenco guitar players in Spain to recording artists who can afford the $7,000 price tag—not to mention many hundreds of repairs and restorations. Part of what sets Tsiorba’s guitars apart, and what keeps his small but loyal clientele enamored—commenters on his website praise his “magical hands” and the build quality of guitars that make other players jealous of their sound—is his careful attention to each individual guitar’s action, playability, thickness of wood, tone, and depth. Each instrument is a different person with its own voice.
Making them sing takes time. A quick luthier can build a guitar in just over 100 hours, but Tsiorba, who works full time as a luthier, estimates he spends 140–160 hours on a build. Sometimes it’s a matter of spending 10 minutes on a quick fix and waiting hours for the glue to dry or the wood to settle, perhaps watering the plants in his garden or picking herbs for a pizza. “So you have time to notice and reflect, and, in the early stages, even suffer a little bit,” Tsiorba says.
These days he’s reflecting on wood, the nature of vanquishing a tree’s life and harvesting its wood to make pulp or toilet paper—or a guitar. On the fingerboard of a 16th-century viola de gamba made by Kaspar Tieffenbrucker, he says, there’s 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 sweetly sing.
Is he a savior of these dead trees? It’s a bit too grandiose a sentiment for Tsiorba, but there is something there that resonates. “It feels good to give at least some of the wood that comes from the forest a much longer life,” he says, “other than just, gosh, printer paper for an office.”