The first time Robert Vincent heard classical guitar music was when he was serving a 15-year-to-life sentence in a prison in Tracy, CA. It was a lightening-strike moment. Who would know that a wooden box with strings could make that kind of sound? He devoted his remaining years there to learning the art of guitar making through a California Arts in Corrections program. Out for 12 years now, he has a studio in his garage and is sought after by classical guitar dealers.
Robert Vincent podcast
On Robert Vincent’s 20th birthday, he was out with a group of young men who had been drinking. A fight started and a man in Vincent’s group shot a Marine in another group. Just because of being on the scene, Vincent was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life, the same sentence as the shooter. Vincent was devastated. He had just became a journeyman automotive painter, something he had pursued from an early age, and he had two young sons at home and a wife.
Vincent was sent to the newly opened Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison. It was a frightening time for him; he had never expected to be in prison. After four years, Vincent was moved to a medium-security prison, Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California. The level of violence was lower and they offered a wide variety of education and rehabilitation programs.
One of the programs was a California Arts in Corrections program on guitar making. The director asked Vincent to come and spray the guitars because of his experience spraying automobiles. Vincent discovered the two were completely different, but he began to develop a deep interest in guitar making. Then he met classical guitarist Kenny Hill, who had started the program, and heard him play. It changed his life. “I never knew that a wooden box with strings could make that kind of sound,” he said. Kenny Hill saw how serious Vincent was about building guitars and encouraged him to keep learning the art.
Upon release, Vincent worked at a family business for the first year and began creating a guitar making studio in his garage in San Diego. Adjusting to life after prison was difficult, but he was fortunate enough to have strong family support throughout his incarceration as well as after he was released. Vincent believes guitar making is his calling in life. Now, he diligently works to complete handcrafted guitars with beautiful sound and his own design. It typically takes a couple of months to complete one guitar. Vincent makes 6-8 guitars a year.
While Vincent’s business thrived, he was cautious about telling his story. One dealer who praised his guitars learned he had spent time in prison and would not speak with him again. Eventually, however, Vincent felt ready to make his story public in hopes of helping others.
“I served my time the best I could, I tried to redeem myself and learn from my mistakes and come out a better man for that. So I didn’t want to be judged again. I was judged by a jury of my peers and sentenced and I did my time, I wanted to be judged by the merits of my work and not my personal background”