Victor V. Gurbo builds and plays guitars
A melodious life
The exquisite craftsmanship and meticulous skill required to create a fine hand-hewn instrument is a dying art. But there are those who hold on to tradition and make it their own. So it was wonderful surprise to discover a luthier artisan, Victor Gurbo, right here in my own backyard of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn—and he happens to be half Scandinavian.
Gurbo’s journey to become a journeyman began out of necessity in 2013, when his band was selected to be part of “The Battle of the Boroughs,” representing Brooklyn. For the occasion, he commissioned a personalized guitar, but the luthier was too busy to complete the instrument in time. Seeing that the guitar maker had the same tools his father had in his shop, he decided to make it himself. And thus the music maker also became the instrument maker. Having the perspective and experience of a musician gives Gurbo an advantage in creating instruments that make beautiful music
Gurbo has Scandinavian roots on his father’s side. “I have been told there is a two volume book that is a family tree that indicates lineage to king Olaf II Haraldsson and the painter Edvard Munch,” he said.
“My Norwegian heritage has played a huge role in becoming a luthier—in a way I would say it has everything to do with it. My grandfather was a cabinet maker, a boat builder, and a true craftsman. Unfortunately, he passed away before I was born, but I’ve been told he was one of those people who could just look at a project, think for a while and then pick up a tool and tackle it effortlessly.
“Here’s a story that kind of sums it up: While living in Florida, my grandfather’s car was hit from behind by a police car. The police officer did not want the accident on his record, so he offered to pay for the damage. They drove to a body and fender shop and waited as their cars were repaired. My grandfather watched them fix the car, saw the amount of money that was exchanged and said to himself, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and six months later opened up his own body and fender shop.
“He was also artistically and musically inclined. My father worked with him and has the same kind of intuitive knowledge when it comes to woodworking. I have worked with my father, and any woodworking skills I have I’ve learned from him, he in turn had picked up from his father.”
One cannot dismiss the Italian name of his company, Voccoli, so I asked Gurbo about it. “My grandmother on my mother’s side was Irish, and my grandfather was Italian. He was born in America in 1906, and he was one of eight children. While I was fortunate enough to get to know my grandmother well, I never had the chance to meet my grandfather, as he passed away long before I was born—but we share the same first name. My Italian side of the family were trained opera singers and musicians. My grandfather was a concert violin player, his sister an opera singer and music teacher, and his brother was a pianist and considered a child prodigy. Even though I never met them, I would say that side of my family contributed to a desire to make music.
“Voccoli is my mother’s last name, and my middle name. It’s a tribute to my grandparents, and an homage to the musician ancestors. There’s also no more Voccoli men to keep passing the name down, so in a way it’s my effort to keep it alive. I put the phrase “O’ Paradiso” on all of my guitars, because it’s what my grandfather had inscribed inside my grandmother’s wedding ring.”
Gurbo is inspired by vintage designs. “Just like with everything else in art, it’s hard to find something that no one has ever done before. Many innovations that are considered new on the guitar today were things that were experimented with 100 years ago—that only now we have the technology and materials to implement these techniques more accurately. I like playing around with tried and true designs, or resurrecting strange and quirky concepts that have sort of fallen by the wayside.
“I’ve recently been playing around with a guitar modification done by blues artist Big Joe Williams. Williams notoriously added three extra strings to his guitar, doubling the first, second, and fourth with unison strings for his iconic sound. I studied his guitar and created an electric solid body version of it, which I can’t find anyone else offering for sale. The design creates a sound somewhere between a six and a 12 string. I listen to music that dates back to the roots of rock and modern folk and find sounds that I do not hear today and then do research to create guitars that have these attributes.”
And the materials he chooses are important to how he builds these beauties. In this, he has the Scandinavian love of nature and sustainability.
“Many large guitar companies boast about using exotic woods, and how they contribute to the sound—and while yes, certain materials do lend themselves towards specific tonal qualities, players eventually learn that it’s impossible to pin down a sound. Let me put it this way: you can pick up two vintage guitars that are both made by the same brand and both made in the exact same year, but find they sound entirely different. Why does this happen? It could be that one guitar aged in a warmer climate for most of its life, and another in a cooler one. It could literally be the tree itself was just more resonant, and that’s what makes the difference.
“Ultimately a good instrument is its own individual, with a unique personality and character—and they can be made from anything. Using these exotic materials is damaging our already suffering environment. Things like the guitar industry are why Brazilian rosewood’s conservation status is vulnerable, and they’re illegal to import or export. Many of these coveted woods come from trees that grow incredibly slowly, and because of this, many of these species are now at risk of going extinct. After factoring in dangers like deforestation, and the pollution that comes from transporting these exotic materials, I made a decision not to contribute to the problem, when I can use home-grown American materials that sound better. In addition to using materials like pine and poplar, I prefer to use recycled and reclaimed materials—particularly recycled beams pulled from dumpsters in New York.
“The reason why musicians covet vintage instruments is because the wood sounds better as it ages. If I build a guitar from an old pine floor joist that’s been air drying in someone’s basement for a hundred years, sonically the wood is going to sound infinitely better. It’s a win-win. For finishing, I use milk paint and other original formulas that are more natural as well. I can play with colors and tones. They are beautiful and a lot of fun to apply.
Gurbo is also a musician, fronting a Folk Rock / Americana band called Victor V. Gurbo & Co. He composes the band’s music and writes the lyrics, and they recorded their first album in 2017.
“I would say being a musician and building guitars has really worked well, and both have been beneficial to one another in many ways, “ Gurbo said. “I’ve been able to meet some wonderful musicians who I’ve later worked and collaborated with. Building guitars has helped me understand the instrument better, which has contributed to my ability as a player. Building guitars keeps me in the world of music, so even when I’m not performing or rehearsing, I’m still connected.”
Someday Gurbo would like to open a store front, but in the meantime you can find his music at www.VictorVGurbo.com and guitars at www.VoccoliGuitars.com. He’s also on Instagram as @VictorVGurbo (music) and @VoccoliGuitars (guitars).
This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.