Carmine Street’s Rick Kelly makes guitars from New York’s bones

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      Sawdust and music hang in the air of the cramped workshop at the heart of Carmine Street Guitars, the latest documentary feature by Toronto-based director Ron Mann, opening Friday (April 5).

      Stacked along one of the walls of the space is a collection of centuries-old wood salvaged from landmark buildings in Lower Manhattan.

      This is the ragged treasure that has turned the little room, tucked behind a shopfront in Greenwich Village, New York, into a pilgrimage site for some of the most influential musicians of the era. 

      Owner Rick Kelly refers to the stock as “the bones of old New York City”.

      From it, he builds golden-throated, history-charged electric guitars that have drawn such clients as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Robert Quine, and Bob Dylan.

      “This wood is real special in ways,” Kelly explains to the Straight, on the line from the shop, which he opened back in 1990.

      “The trees that were cut down to build the city 300 years ago were all old-growth. They were white-pine, pinus strobus trees that dominated this whole area. And they pretty much framed out every one of these buildings down here in this area of the city with that same wood. So that wood has now been indoors for 160, 170 years. That makes it very resonant, very acoustic-sounding, and very warm-toned—real special wood.” 

      Carmine Street Guitars follows a week in the life of Kelly’s business as he adds a new find to his inventory: a section of joist cut from the 165-year-old frame of McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village, and filed among timber labelled with such historic names as “Chelsea Hotel” and “Chumley’s”.

      While he goes about shaping a piece of it into a living instrument, a brilliant string of artists comes through the front door to check out his work and chat about their lives in music: players like Bill Frisell, Lenny Kaye, Eszter Balint, Nels Cline, Christine Bougie, Eleanor Friedberger, Dave Hill, Jamie Hince, Marc Ribot, Charlie Sexton, and the Sadies’ Travis and Dallas Good (who contribute a fittingly twangy soundtrack to the film).

      Even famed filmmaker Jim Jarmusch drops by, which is only appropriate given that, decades ago, he supplied Kelly with his first piece of vintage New York City wood, taken from a ceiling beam in a loft Jarmusch was renovating.

      Kelly’s recipe is beautifully and deceptively simple, faithful as it is to the breakthrough that the legendary Leo Fender made 70 years ago with the solid-body Telecaster design. Guitarist Kirk Douglas of the Roots sums it up best in the film when describing his own custom-built Kelly guitar: “One pickup, wood, electricity—boom.” 

      What sets Kelly’s work apart, besides the unique raw materials, is his insistence on forming each instrument by hand. Much guitar-building today relies on computer-guided machinery, but Kelly’s workshop contains just two main power tools: an old bandsaw and a pin router (alongside an occasionally used Duplicarver, for the odd body contour). The rest of the process calls for deep patience and expertly wielded planes, rasps, and files.

      “It’s a type of feel that you get from a hand-shaped neck that you don’t get from a machined neck, and guitar players actually feel that difference. So a lot of my guitars are known for the feel of the neck, and people come to me because of that,” Kelly says.

      “Plus, to me it’s more personal using the hand tools. I love working with my hand tools.…I just refuse to ever get a computerized tool.”

      These are the approaches and skills he’s passing down to apprentice Cindy Hulej, the other central figure in Carmine Street Guitars.

      Rick Kelly's apprentice, Cindy Hulej.

      On the surface, there’s something wonderfully incongruous about the white-haired, Internet-shunning veteran and the black-clad, Instagram-wired student, who walked into the shop looking for work five years ago and has been there ever since. 

      But despite hassles she’s faced elsewhere in this traditionally male-dominated profession, Hulej’s presence here is no surprise. Recent statistics show women moving into the field as guitarists in unprecedented numbers.

      In Kelly’s view, it’s only a matter of time before the builders’ side looks the same.

      “I don’t see any reason why not,” he says. “It’s always been a progression….I always said in the early days there’s no reason why China won’t become the next big place for guitar making. And I think it’s the same with the genders. There’s no reason why women won’t become more prominent in the field of guitar making. I think they could be actually better in a lot of ways—they’re more meticulous, more detail-oriented.”

      He pauses for a voice in the background.

      “Cindy, she’s here right now,” he adds. “She said she’s going to be number one, though.”

      Their shared laughter at this reflects the warmth that flows through Carmine Street Guitars. Unlike the towering landscape outside, their world is intensely human in scale and unconcerned with profit for its own sake.

      And as each piece they make finds the right pair of hands, the old bones of the city take on inexhaustible new life.