Off the Clock: Bob Vay, university archivist by day, self-taught guitar builder by night


Life is much more than time spent on the clock. In this series, we highlight the unique hobbies and volunteer activities of Mason's talented faculty and staff.

Bob Vay sits and plays a black electric guitar. A wooden paneled wall behind him has several other electric guitars hanging.
Bob Vay, university archivist, plays his replica of the iconic "Black Strat" guitar. Photo provided

As the university archivist for University Libraries, Bob Vay collects and maintains George Mason University photos and documents from over the years, as well as interviews for the university’s Oral History Program. He started working as an archivist at Mason in 1993. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vay has spent his personal time collecting something new: guitar parts.

While scrolling through Instagram one day, Vay said he came across information about do-it-yourself electric guitar kits.

“I took guitar lessons as a youngster,” Vay said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly good guitar player.”

But he said he’s always loved artists like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, which is why the DIY electric guitar kits sparked his interest.

Vay soon ordered kits that included precut unfinished wood for the body and neck of the guitar, along with wire, screws, strings and other hardware.

It became a hobby after work, and he made sense of the kits by watching YouTube videos. Through trial and error, “I learned that I really enjoy building guitars,” Vay said. “It’s relaxing.”

Now, Vay has graduated from buying full kits to purchasing parts separately from different online stores, slowly accumulating pieces and then putting guitars together.

While he doesn’t consider himself an expert, “it’s neat being able to finish something and then plug it in and it actually plays,” he said. 

For Vay, it takes about four to six weeks to complete one guitar: finding and assembling the parts; sanding, prepping, painting or staining, and lacquering the body; and finally adding the hardware.

The best part, he said, is customizing each guitar. “If I can’t find it anywhere, I make it for myself,” Vay said.

That’s exactly what he did with his replica of the iconic “Black Strat” (black Fender Stratocaster) guitar played by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

“It’s legendary, and I wanted to build something that looked and functioned like it,” Vay said.

Vay bought a DIY electric guitar kit, assembled it, and painted the body to match the Black Strat’s style. He finished the replica by purchasing separate hardware similar to the Black Strat’s famed look.

“It’s one of my best ones,” Vay said. “From the day I finished putting in the last bolt, it just sounded beautiful.”

Not every guitar turns out great, Vay said, and they sometimes need to be taken apart to figure out what went wrong. “It’s a process that doesn’t always follow the plan,” he said.

Each guitar he’s chosen to make has been a little more challenging to build and finish than the last, he said. He’s now working on three different guitars, which will eventually join the others he has displayed on his basement wall.

Vay put it simply: “If you want to try a hobby, go for it.”

“You’d be really surprised at how you can discover interesting things that you’ve never thought of before,” he said. “I never thought I’d do this, but now my basement has tons of boxes of half assembled guitar parts.”