Master luthier Rick Kelly has made instruments for the likes of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith – here, he tells Alex Vadukul why his guitars, built from reclaimed wood, resonate history as well as sound
Some have said that the New York luthier Rick Kelly makes his guitars from the city’s old bones. They speak of his signature style, which involves building guitars from the old wood that once made up establishments in the city’s historic districts, such as the Bowery – once a murky landscape of vice, home to smoky flophouses, dark dive bars, and gambling holes. But amid this squalor existed an authenticity and ruggedness of character that has since become part of the city’s DNA, and New Yorkers constantly lament the damage to this lineage when fabled institutions such as Chumley’s pub, established in 1922, are closed down.
But Kelly makes his Fender-influenced guitars from the wooden hearts of such faded establishments, and over time musicians as esteemed and diverse as Bob Dylan, Bill Frisell, Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed have all adopted his instruments. His shop, Carmine Street Guitars, is in the West Village.
I’ve always made guitars from reclaimed wood. I’d say maybe less than one percent out there make them like me. Was there a spark moment? It started out of desperation.
My interest in instrument making probably got started during high school, in the 1970s. I’m 64 now. I was born in Jamaica, Queens and grew up in Long Island. The hobby started off as woodworking. My grandfather, he was a woodworker, so I probably inherited some of it, but I’m self-taught. I went to college down in Baltimore. My major was sculpture, and you have to figure out a way to make some money. And that’s how the reclaimed wood started.
I’ve always used reclaimed timber, because that was always cheaper. I started making guitars to pay for college. I’m not a guitar freak or anything. It’s a fluke the way my guitars later took off. I never expected them to.
Every Sunday I would look in the newspaper for farm auctions. Farms were going out of business, and still are, and so I’d go to farm auctions every weekend. People want farm machinery. No one is bidding on old boards. I would be able to buy half a truckload of old growth timber wood for twenty bucks. Someone’s grandfather had stockpiled this wood.
When you get into that Blue Ridge Mountain area, they don’t throw anything away. They build everything themselves. They do all their own work. They don’t have movies or TV. They made their own instruments. They make moonshine. There are still parts of the country where people are completely independent like that. I also made Appalachian dulcimers at the time, because they were popular in the area. After college I spent ten years there. It was 250 bucks a month for a whole farm. My girlfriend was a fulltime teacher, and she supported me while I developed my craft.
I was always wondering if it would work, using old pieces of wood and furniture to make guitars. Aside from it being cheaper, I always knew old instruments sounded better, and that was the way to make this justifiable. It sounds better. More resonant. Really fragrant. I’m not complaining that there aren’t many others doing it like this. That’s good for me. It’s a lot more work. It takes someone like me willing to pull out nails. The big guitar companies can’t do that. I can do things a big company can’t afford to do.
In rural areas you can use up the people you can work for, but here in New York there’s an endless supply, so I decided to try moving my business here around 1978. Down in the Village at that time there was lots of music, and rent was cheap. First I was on Downing Street, and I’ve been on Carmine Street since 1990.
About ten years ago I started the New York timber thing specifically. I use old growth timber from virgin wood about 200 years old, chopped about 140 years ago. The city was built from this wood in the 1800s. People throw this stuff away the moment it gets a little rotten on the end. A lot of the wood I got was from the Bowery. I have lots from the Chelsea Hotel and Chumley’s, which are probably the most famous places. I have lots from Jim Jarmusch’s loft . I have wood from McGurk’s, which was on the corner of Houston and Bowery. It was a place of prostitutes, a flophouse.
Those that play my guitars have usually been playing for a few years. I get all kinds, regular average guys, and famous ones. They’re looking to get something special, that’s more suited for them. My business didn’t develop quickly. It was a gradual progression. When well-known players started using them, people noticed, and it sort of mushroomed. Some of those that play my guitars are Bill Frisell, Patti Smith, Marc Ribot, and Lenny Kaye. I got a call from somebody appraising Lou Reed’s estates wanting to know about his guitars from me.
Bob Dylan plays my guitars with the eagles on them, with wood that comes from Chumley’s. He once wanted to know and asked me – through his guitar tech – if the guitar I made for him possibly had beer on it that he spilled on the floor while he was at Chumley’s. That’s how a lot of my customers are. That aspect is important to them.
I still get the wood lots of ways. I now have so much wood I don’t even know what to do with it. A lot of times people will tip me off: “Hey Kelly, I got some wood for you.” That’s what happened with Chumley’s. “Come back with a truck tomorrow,” they said. They had three floors. Sometimes I’ll see a construction site and I’ll just go up and ask. The other day near my place on West Broadway I found a big piece on the street and I just picked it up. I built a guitar out of it, and it was one of the best I’ve ever made.
Carmine Guitars can be found at 42 Carmine Street, NY 10014. Rick also features in James Rogan’s film The Intelligent Hand, which will be playing film festivals this summer. Click to watch the trailer
Photography Reto Sterchi