Characters Of The Village

Rick Kelly, Carmine Street Guitars

By Joy and Brian Pape

RICK KELLY WORKS ON A CUSTOM GUITAR NECK, surrounded by his creations in the workshop on Carmine Street. Photo by Bob Cooley.

Ever since Rick Kelly was growing up on Long Island and at Bay Shore High School, he was influenced by his machinist father and his German immigrant grandfather’s woodworking hobby in Brooklyn. He attended Maryland Institute College of Arts in Baltimore (MICA), and was an environmentally aware student, trained in resourcefulness, looking for recycled materials to create his art. As a very respected art school, recently the MICA team of students from the course “Grow the Future” was the Overall Winner at the 2023 Biodesign Summit Challenge, a competition of top art, design, and research institutions from around the world.

It takes dedication, skill, and experience to master a craft—10,000 hours, they say. Soon after graduating from MICA, Kelly got interested in musical instruments and started incorporating them into his art. He learned of early guitar makers, many who were early 1900s immigrants in NYC. He studied Paul Bigsby’s early electric solidbody guitars from the 1940s, the 1950s Fenders and Gibsons, all which exerted such a powerful influence on musicians to this day.

Rock ‘n’ roll and Ecology?
In 2019, I was on a flight and was surprised to see the title of a movie, “Carmine Street Guitars.” I wondered, “Is that our Carmine Street?” So, I watched it and yes, it was! I came home and told Brian about it. Of course, we watched it, loved it and are so happy to share the story with you. – Joy Pape

By the time Kelly decided to open a store on Downing Street in 1976-80, he had gravitated toward unique guitars with his own artistic touch. When he found an available store space on Carmine Street in 1990, it was rented by a landlady that appreciated the benefit of a quiet, stable business that supported the arts, and was willing to keep the rent as low as possible and continues to do so to this day. Then there was another important woman in Kelly’s life that helped him tremendously. His mother, Dorothy Kelly, worked as an accountant for her son’s business for 20 years. She passed away recently.

For years, Kelly had built a reputation in the business for his custom guitars made of solid aged lumber. We’re talking recycled lumber 80 or 100 years old, from renovated or demolished NY buildings, salvaged from dumpsters or construction sites before it can be landfill. He lovingly labels each piece with its source, such as McSorley’s or a Bowery address. The old-growth lumber has a quality that can’t be matched with new-growth wood.

We asked how the Pandemic affected his life and business.

Kelly described a drastic change when the store had to be shutdown, when stores around the city were looted, and stores were boarded up on both sides of his store. Then, the pandemic loans seemed to have false promises, so now he has interest piled up on top of the principal he is paying back, something he probably didn’t need in the first place. He decided to drop certain lines of guitars made by others, focusing on his custom craft even more.

Kelly lives within walking or biking distance of his store, so he tends to shop local and cooks at home. Union Square Greenmarket is one of his favorite places. He appreciates the dedication of the farmers who get up early to truck their produce into the city for their customers.

At 73, how does Kelly see the future of the business?

“Who knows the future?” Kelly exclaimed. He loves what he does and is still amazed he can earn a living at it. He knows they are competing with factories producing multiples of models.

But this is custom work. As anyone that has watched the documentary “Carmine Street Guitars” by director Ron Mann will know, Kelly has worked with Cindy Hulej since about 11 years ago, when she showed up at his door. Hulej trained in art school, learned music in a musical family, and developed her own style of artwork, such as woodburning techniques. Starting as an apprentice who had known of Kelly’s work for years, she is now a builder and artist in her own right, producing Cindy Guitars, handbuilt custom guitars and artwork.

The special aesthetic treatment on each guitar never compromises the quality of the sound and function of the instrument. Only top-quality components are expertly assembled for their orders. Custom orders for the Kelly and the Cindy guitars can take up to two years until delivery.

“For now, we’ll just keep making ‘em and selling ‘em,” they said.

Learn more and ‘meet’ Kelly and Cindy by watching the movie, Carmine Street Guitars.