Rick Kelly Crafts Guitars From the ‘Bones of Old New York’

His one-of-a-kind, handmade electric guitars are literally built from the foundations of the city—and have been played by some of rock and roll's biggest stars.
September 7, 2018 Updated: September 7, 2018

NEW YORK—In Greenwich Village, wedged between a custom flooring store and an Asian tapas restaurant, the red brick and glass facade of Carmine Street Guitars features a subtle neon guitar-shaped light in the window and Kelly in gold lettering on the bottom left corner of the glass. A tall potted plant snakes its way around a gold column behind the glass storefront.

To enter, you must push the door forcefully, as the sticker on the front door jovially suggests. Inside, three rows of vintage guitars line up on top of each other against the right side of the shop, and a display case of guitars and photographs occupies the left.

The front of the shop
The front of the shop at Carmine Street Guitars. (Shenghua Sung)

About 30 feet inside, through a doorway, is the workshop in the back of the store where owner Rick Kelly builds his guitars. The space is littered with different pieces of wood, tools, clamps, works in progress, and smells faintly of fresh sawdust. A large stock of lumber makes up the back wall of the workshop.

But this is no ordinary guitar shop. Kelly’s one-of-a-kind, handmade electric guitars are literally built from the foundations of the city—and have been played by some of rock and roll’s biggest stars.

Reclaiming New York’s Heritage

What makes Kelly’s guitars special and sought after is the material they are crafted out of: reclaimed wood, much of it these days from New York’s iconic historical buildings.

In his workshop, he has a healthy supply of wood from a number of historical sites, most notably the Chelsea Hotel, McSorley’s Old Ale House, and Chumley’s.

Getting lumber from these locations happened almost fortuitously. Kelly sourced the beams he has from the Chelsea Hotel, whose notable former residents include Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, after a friend who lived next door called him to tell him a crew was removing the wood from the basement.

The woodpile
The woodpile. (Shenghua Sung)

The lumber he has from Chumley’s, the restaurant where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald regularly stopped in for a cocktail when it was a speakeasy, became part of his wood pile after his nephew called him in the pouring rain to tell him they were throwing the beams away.

When Kelly finds wood from these kind of historical sites, it’s a huge bonus.

“That’s a real thrill when you know that wood had a history,” Kelly told Humanity. “What did these beams look down on, and what have they seen through the ages? … There’s just so many stories that this wood has seen.”

“The trees themselves were around when George Washington was walking next to them,” Kelly said with a chuckle. “It’s so historic—from the beginning of the tree to the wood sourced from the building.”

Method to His Madness

Kelly has been making instruments since 1968. His passion for building guitars began when he was making Appalachian dulcimers as a way to pay off his student loans in the early 1970s, but his craft would become something much more meaningful in the years to come.

After working in rural Maryland for several years, Kelly realized he would have to move to an urban environment if he wanted to attract new customers, and expand his business. Having grown up on Long Island, he returned to his native New York in the late 1970s. His first shop in New York City was on Downing Street, but he would move down the road and open Carmine Street Guitars in 1990.

Using second-hand lumber might sound odd, but there is a method to Kelly’s madness. He had used reclaimed materials in art school, and when he started making Appalachian dulcimers he knew that “vintage instruments sound better, that older wood would make an instrument sound more like a vintage instrument.”

“So I always sourced older wood, whether it be from furniture or other sources,” Kelly explained.

He would ultimately take his practice of using reclaimed wood with him to the Big Apple.

Kelly sanding a guitar
Rick Kelly sanding by hand. (Shenghua Sung)

The first batch of New York wood Kelly used was pine from filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s loft on the Bowery. Kelly made two guitars out of the pinewood rafters from the loft for Jarmusch, and that would be the start of using reclaimed lumber from New York buildings at Carmine Street Guitars. Kelly also had a particular reason for wanting this unique pinewood.

“Knowing that the earliest Fender style guitars were made of pine I knew it was a good wood to use, very resonant. Even Stradivarius violins are made of pine, so it’s a great wood to use,” Kelly explained.

“And this wood [from the old buildings] it kind of was the best of the best kind of pine. These trees were from virgin forests. They were all old growth that had never been cut down. So some of the trees were 300 and 400 years old. Then they’ve been indoors for 170 years, so you couldn’t ask for better material to build instruments out of. Super dry, all the resins have crystallized, which leaves the pores in the wood open for vibration. So this stuff is like gold, and they just basically throw it away.”

The Bones

New York has the largest depository of old growth timber in the world, according to Kelly. Each piece of lumber Kelly works with is a piece of New York history, even if it’s not from a notorious historical site. The craftsman travels around the city on his bicycle looking for construction sites, and he does his fair share of dumpster diving.

He calls these wooden beams “the bones of old New York City,” as they made up the framework, or “bones,” of old buildings in New York. For Kelly, no other lumber compares.

“You know, the wood to me is very magical. It has a lot of incredible properties for sound and vibration as well as, who knows, the mystique and the mystery of what these trees and these timbers have been through and seen,” Kelly said.

The workshop
The workshop in the back of Carmine Street Guitars. (Shenghua Sung)

This lumber has a tighter grain than the usual wood you find in a lumber yard, because the trees it came from had grown without being cut for 300 to 400 years, Kelly said. The timber condenses as the trees get larger and larger, which produces a different quality of sound once it has been fashioned into a guitar.

“Once the guitars were made it was like, wow, they were really resonant, and they were really warm sounding, which was kind of a shock,” he said. “The warmth was a surprise.”

A Craftsman

Then comes the process of building the guitar from this reclaimed lumber. It all starts with the rough timber. Kelly lays out a template on the wood, and cuts out the body of the guitar. Then he shapes the guitar and make indents for the pickups using a pin router. Then he spends hours upon hours sanding, cutting fret slots, and then hand-shaping the necks. Two ceiling fans hum gently as Kelly works.

Kelly makes every guitar by hand, and the only machines he uses are a bandsaw and pin router. Amazingly, he’s able to crank out about four custom electric guitars a month. Making guitars by hand means a lot to Kelly, especially when he completes a guitar.

Kelly using a chisel
Kelly using a chisel to fashion the headstock of a guitar in his workshop. (Shenghua Sung)

“It’s always a new baby coming out of the shop. It’s sort of like I just created a new creature that’s going to be making music, and it’s going to outlive me. It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve made something that’s going to make music, and do good for people’s psyche,” Kelly said.

“It’s very rewarding to do this kind of work and to build instruments, musical instruments of any kind.”

The list of musicians who have bought Kelly’s guitars is impressive. He’s built guitars for rock icons like Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and Roger Waters.

“It’s great. I saw Lou Reed play one of my guitars at Carnegie Hall and I couldn’t imagine anything more special than that, or Bob Dylan sending me a picture from Beijing of him playing my guitar on stage, those are really special times.”

This article was originally published on Humanity.