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Balvenie Craftsmen: Rick Kelly

October 29, 2013 4 min read

As a sculpture student at Baltimore's Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Long Island-raised guitar maker Rick Kelly worked his way through college by hand-making Appalachian dulcimers from reclaimed wood from the city Parks Department. "I'd been making cigar box guitars for this high school project," says Kelly. "But the Appalachian dulcimers were really the first production instruments I made." Kelly took the guitars to juried craft fairs — learning his craft while making rent money. After a few years of producing guitars out of Maryland barn, Kelly packed up for Manhattan, where set up a small shop building handmade Telecasters and Stratocaster replicas. Though he moved to California for a few years in the early Eighties, Kelly's been building coveted custom Kelly Guitars out of Carmine Street Guitars — from reclaimed swamp ash, Arkansas rock maple, and pine from New York City landmarks like the Chelsea Hotel and Chumley's — that have made fanatics of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Lenny K, GE Smith, James Taylor, director Jim Jarmusch (above, with Kelly) and the late Lou Reed, who still had a pine model on order when he passed away last week. 

You got your start making guitars in college. Tell me about that experience. 

I was producing a really small amount, maybe 15-20 a year tops. And that was during the learning stages. Everything was really handmade. I didn’t even have any power tools. I borrowed a bandsaw to do the initial cuts and then everything else was done by hand. It wasn’t until the Eighties that I had bigger machines, but my machines are still modest in comparison by today's standard. They're all push around tools. Leo Fender used a pin router that he pushed the wood around. Nowadays everything is CNC, computer-controlled tooling. In the beginning Leo used manual fit machinery and that’s what I use today.

Were you always using reclaimed lumber?

Sure, even in college I used to go this state park and get wood from the city. The Parks Department would have old trees and logs and I was doing sculpture at the time so I got all my wood that way. And then I started building instruments and it was still, “How cheap can I get my instruments?” It was usually just discarded or reclaimed wood.

What type of wood were you using back then?

A lot of it was just cherry, maple, ash — domestic woods that were used in construction. The pine really started here. It was used in the old building timbers. The wood I’m using now is the old virgin forest wood that was cut down 150 years ago. These were 200 year old trees and they had been used indoors as roof rafters.

How has the selection of woods changed over the years?

Well, I’ve always saved all the scraps from the cutoffs and the end pieces. I laminate them and call them woodies. I’m making one right now and it's all reclaimed wood pieces from other solid wood piece guitars I’ve made over the years. A lot of it is walnut and oak, this one is cherry and poplar. Though fifty percent of the guitars I’m making right now are the New York City pine wood. That’s where the big demand is right now. I’m selling them as quick as I can finish them. People are on waiting lists. They’ll just come to the store and buy anything that’s available. It’s been crazy. There's a lot of big name guys using them right now and the sound is really good. It’s coming to the point where I’m making an instrument that’s really viable and that’s got way better sound than a factory made instrument.

What is the best wood for tone and overall sound?

The pine seems to be the king right now for the fact that it’s so old and so resonant. All these guys that are using it are raving about it. We just lost Lou Reed but he had just gotten two last summer and he had another one on order. I do them all with the limited tooling. I rough them out on a bandsaw, use a pin router to shape them, then the final shapes of the neck are all done by handtools, rasps and sandpaper and finished up with varnish and shellac just like classical guitars were made.

What about the components?

The fretwire I use is good quality nickel silver fret wire from the Dunlop company that’s been selling me fretwire since the Seventies. I’ve always used their wire. I use pickups from guys who just make pickups like Lindy Fralin, Don Mare, DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan. They’re very simple instruments, they’re not overly electronified, so the electronics are very simplified.

Are there any new shapes you’re looking to make?

Well this one I just finished, it’s kind of my own shape I devised in the Seventies, and I kind of just refined some of the horns on it last night. I like this shape. I might continue making this one, but I mostly don’t diverge from the shapes I have on orders, which are mostly Teles. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s the Kelly Tele. Even the bass I make is the Tele-shaped bass. It seems to be the one everyone wants, the original one. I think when Leo Fender came up with these shapes in 1948 he kind of nailed it the first time and we’ve never really been able to improve too much on the shape because it’s a pretty ergonomic shape. It fits your body perfect, it’s comfortable, it’s familiar. Musicians are picky in a way, they’re not into unusual, experimental stuff so much. I have carbon fiber guitars in the store and they sound good but they’re a long way from the wood ones I make.

What’s the craziest custom guitar you’ve ever made?

I guess maybe the Batman bat-shaped guitar. I’ve made a machine gun-shaped guitar and I’ve made a wine box-shaped guitar. I’ve made a lot of crazy-shaped guitars. Back in the Eighties I guess I was into trying a lot of weird things just for the fun of it. Lou Reed had this original sparkle-finished one. That was his favorite of the guitars I’d made him and he told me every guitar he played was judged by that guitar. He called that his standard, and everyone had to live up to that one because that one was just a freak.