Interview: Guitar-Maker Rick Kelly on ‘Carmine Street Guitars’

Carmine Street Guitars is director Ron Mann’s documentary examining an ‘ordinary’ week in the life of old-school guitar maker Rick Kelly and his Greenwich Village workshop with its devoted clientele of rock royalty.

Marty Duda got on the phone to Rick Kelly and his assistant Cindy Hulej, who also builds guitars – to talk about how the movie came into being and how he builds a guitar.

The film is playing at the NZ International Film Festival. Details here: 

Listen to the interview or keep on scrolling to read a transcript

CH: Rick’s first time out of the country, well I mean, he went to Toronto for the film festival back in September but, you went to Amsterdam, I think April we went, back that was the first time he was ever overseas or anything.

MD: Yes well I get the feeling from watching the film that he lives a fairly insular life, would that be fair enough?

CH: Yeah, he won’t even go to Brooklyn, he calls that overseas.

MD: Since I’ve got you on the phone right now maybe you can give me an idea of how the film came to be, did the Director come to you guys and give you an idea of what he wanted to do, how did the whole concept start off?

CH: Basically, Ron (Mann) is friends with Jim Jarmoush and we’re good friends with Jim Jarmoush and basically Ron was going to a bunch of music festivals and things like that and he kept seeing Ricks guitars all over the place and he had a conversation with Jim about them and Jim was going ‘You’ve gotta get over there, you’ve gotta do the documentary and everything’, so Jim Jarmoush really instigated the whole thing and Ron came here and visited the one day and he just knew he wanted to do the documentary, so when he met us is when it all happened and that’s when it began to be put into play.

MD: What was your reaction to the idea of having a film made about the shop?

CH: We were fine with it. But I don’t think neither of us really quite knew what that entailed. We were just like ‘Yes, come do the documentary’. We didn’t really expect it to be all over the world or be like eighty minutes and be this huge thing.

MD: As far as when they were actually making the film, how did that effect what you guys were doing?

CH: They had to cover up the lights, so the lighting in here was different for a while, they had to tape everything up. It’s kind of funny because we still were getting a lot of stuff done that we needed to and we were having fun with it, I mean I loved it, but it was different because we’d be looking out front and they’d be painting Coca Cola on the window and sticking up some kind of anti-sunlight reflection thing for the cameras. What the hell is going on y’know?  I think the only thing that we really kind of… it’s more so Ron had an issue with, was the continuity because we’d make a guitar or something and Ron would come back a week later or something and need to shoot another scene with the same background but that guitar would be sold or something, so he’d be going ‘Where did that guitar go?’.

But he had fun with it, we loved it.

MD: The film itself gives the impression that it was shot over the period of five days, but I’m assuming that’s not necessarily the case, how did it actually work?

CH: It was about a month and then like, days here and there, I’m gonna put Rick on for right now.

MD: What are some of the highlights for you of some of the musicians that have come in and looked at your guitars?

RK: Oh yeah, it’s always great, being here in Greenwich Village for this many years, we’ve had so many interesting musicians, in fact today we just posted on Instagram, somebody had posted when James Taylor came in with his new album and there was a little video he did shot here and they just re-posted, I had never seen it and I just saw it for the first time today. So that was pretty exciting, but it’s always great. When I was down in Maryland they were building guitars and after college I used to listen to a lot of Lou Reed and Patti Smith and then never in a million years when I came up here did I ever think I’d actually meet them and then become friends with them, that was something I never thought would happen. It’s been really good, we’ve got a great location so we get a lot of famous people as well as regulars. I’m kind of more partial to the regulars but in the movie it was great meeting Charlie Sexton for the first time I’d never met him before and Jamie Hince (The Kills), that was awesome to meet him, he’s a great guy.

MD: When exactly did the shop open up?

RK: I’ve been here since 1990, we opened this shop in 1990, I had a shop before that on Downing Street, right around the corner and that was in the late 1970’s. We’ve been here a long time.

MD: What originally gave you the idea that you could build guitars out of old wood from destructed buildings in New York City? That’s a fairly high concept.

RK: It started back in college even, out of necessity just finding inexpensive lumber to build instruments out of when I first started and then I just carried it on and then here when the opportunity to use the wood from these buildings, it was actually Jim’s wood that was the first batch of wood I got from Jim Jarmoush’s loft, and that was given to me because I was building a guitar for another guy who lives in his building and he asked Jim if would be ok to give me the wood. I had just met Jim recently before that and he was all for it and I wound up making him a couple of guitars from the wood and then it just mushroomed because it just sounded so good, the wood was fantastic quality. It was old growth trees that were cut down three hundred years ago and they were huge trees, they were like three, four hundred year old trees, they were virgin forest trees and they pretty much built the whole city out of this wood back in the early 1800’s, late 1700’s. Incredible buildings like the Chelsea Hotel and the oldest church in New York that’s like 1790’s. It’s great wood.

MD: I’m not a musician myself, so to me, an electric guitar is not usually built out of wood right?

RK: They’re all made of wood yeah, there’s only been a very few that weren’t made out of wood, although a lot of people are mixed by that today, they look at guitars and think because of that high gloss, shiny finish that they’re made of plastic or something but they’ve always been made out of wood. Electric guitars were first designed in the early 1950’s and Leo Fender and Gibson guitars were some of the earliest solid body electric guitars and they’ve always been made of wood. Leo Fender actually made his first five or six guitars out of the same wood I’m making them out of now, the pine, but that was because he was making amplifiers at the time. The amplifier cabinets were made of pine so he just looked at the pile of wood and said, ‘Let’s try to make a solid body guitar out of this.’ That’s kind of where it all started.

MD: How does the type of wood affect the sound of the guitar?

RK: It has a big influence on it, acoustic guitars,violins are all perfect examples, same thing happens with solid body guitars they vibrate, resonate, they change the tone by the different species of wood, the types of wood, how old the wood is, how dry the wood is, it all has an effect on the sound and the tonal quality that comes through. This wood is very resonant because of the conifer which is sound board wood, same wood they would use in a piano soundboard or a cello or violin or a bass fiddle, it’s all the same wood, acoustic guitars, all the tops are made from the same wood that we’re building these guitars from, so it’s perfect wood to use for a solid body guitar. The thing I do different, is using this wood in the neck. Nobody was doing that previously that I have ever seen, anybody use the same wood in the body and the neck. That to me has really changed everything, the sound of the guitar is so much more resonant, has a nice warm tone it just vibrates, you can play them almost acoustically, they’re so loud.

MD: Can you tell the sound of one of your guitars, say if somebody had recorded it on a record and played it back, would you know that that was one of yours?

RK: Probably not, it goes through so many other…guitars the signal then it goes through amplification and then amplification goes through PA systems and what not and then recording and so it gets lost. After all the years of working on guitars, I can tell if it’s a Tele or a Strat or a 335 or something like that, but picking a brand of guitar out? No that’s not possible.

MD: We learn in the film that Cindy celebrates her 5th anniversary of working for you, how did she come about to start working in the shop? It seems like an unlikely couple.

RK: I had an apprentice previous, it was another guy that I was apprenticing here, he started working about two years before her. She came in, was very sincere and seemed like she really wanted to learn to build guitars and I thought this was the perfect opportunity cause the other guy, he wanted to learn how to repair guitars more than build but Cindy wanted to build and I said, ‘This is a good opportunity’, and she seemed really willing and able and really wanted to do it and I just said, ‘Well this is time for me to pass it on to somebody’, so that’s what we did and she’s been here seven years now.

MD: What has she added to the mix? What has been her contribution?

RK: Cindy is a great artist too, she also does portraiture and lots of other wood burning and painting on the instruments, on her instrument, and she’s doing leather work and sewing and all kinds of interesting textures she puts into the instrument. She’s got great ideas and she’s really into it to the point where she’s experimenting a lot with different drawing on the wood and the different kind of wood burning and burning and different painting techniques. I’m learning from her.

MD: Speaking of that, you come across as being something of a technical Luddite, you don’t use computers or cellphone it didn’t seem like, is that the case still now or are you kind of moving yourself into the 21st century?

RK: No, I’m still that way, I don’t have a cell phone still. I use my computer, I only limit myself  to about 15-20 minutes in the morning just answering emails, but that’s about as far as I let it go. If I look at anything on there I might be shopping for bicycle parts and stuff, nothing to do with guitars.

MD: Do get out into the city much? Do you go to concerts, or are you pretty much just hanging out in the shop, working on your thing?

RK: I’m pretty much working here. I live a few blocks from here from the shop. I love the city, I grew up in the city and I just love being here it’s my favourite place to be in the world. I went to college down in Maryland, Baltimore and I stayed down there for about ten years after that and my first shops were down there, but I came back here around 1975 and this is home to me. I feel more comfortable here.

MD: That was right when the whole New York City Bowery punk scene was starting up, did you hang out in that?

RK: Yeah we were a big part of that, that was all CBGB’s. I had no money at the time so I would stand on the sidewalks and look in and sometimes sneak in. But if I was working for some musicians they would get me in, but I spent more of my time just trying to make my rent so I was working all the time and living in the shop. They used to call it ‘sleeping in the wood chips’.  I wound up living in all my shops until about not that many years ago. Maybe ten, twenty years ago I finally got an apartment, thirty years now I guess it’s been. It’s a struggle in the beginning getting into this business if you don’t have money. You’re starting from scratch, but it was exciting and there’s so many good people, I met so many musicians, David Bowie and John Belushi and people from that era that used to come into my shop, Lou Reed in 1970’s. So ever since then it’s just never stopped, it’s always been meeting great people and great musicians, it’s been real fun.

MD: Hopefully now that you’re making a few bucks, people can afford to buy your guitars.

RK: Yeah, we’ve got back orders, both Cindy and I.  I’ve got about a two year waiting list and she’s about a year waiting list, so yeah we’re swamped by orders right now, we’re working our tails off.

MD: On average, what does an average guitar cost that you make from scratch?

RK: They run anywhere from about $2,300 to $2,500 up to about $3000 depending on the type of guitar and the type of pickups and hardware and stuff that they want. We try to keep competitive with major brands that high end major brands run around the same price so we’re not overly expensive.

MD: Yeah, it’s not too bad at all. I’m wondering now, the film has been out for a few months, been shown around, has it changed the way things are in the shop or the way that your life has become?

RK: It’s been interesting being in the village here, people have been taking a lot of vacations and now it’s funny like last week it just started showing on New Zealand airlines so people have been coming in from the air plane watching it on the plane and ‘we saw your movie on the plane on the way here’. So while the movie was here around the corner in the movie theatre, after every screening, we’d get twenty people coming in from the theatre just to see the place. So yeah I think the movie kind of portrays the store and the shop and the space really well and people are interested in seeing it because it is kind of like a walk back in time. It’s like going back in time in this old shop. It’s an 1820’s building, it’s got the same old wooden floors and brick walls and it’s real Greenwich Village,it really has that feel and vibe to it.

MD: It’s a very relaxing movie to watch I found.

RK: I always say if you watch this movie it will lower your blood pressure.

MD: As far as drama goes there’s very little, although I did get the feeling when I saw the real estate agent come in that he was going to make some kind of horrendous announcement that he was going to buy the building and sell it or something, is there any fear of that happening?

RK: Not right now.  My landlady who owns the building, it’s been here for five generations and she’s raising her daughter, she lives upstairs in the building. You can hear her voice in the movie hailing a taxi cab. She was all excited about it. We’re in really good terms, she’s one of my best friends.

MD: Well that’s good to hear, and I understand that you went overseas for the first time thanks to the film.

RK: Yeah, first time I’ve ever been out of the United States, I went to Amsterdam and Toronto, we went to the TIP festival in Toronto and yeah it was awesome. They put us up for five days and we got to see the movie and hang out and see another part of the world, it was awesome. Cindy got a lot more, she got to go to the opening in Venice and she went to Biarritz and France and she’s been all different places. It’s been exciting doing that for sure.

MD: It does sound pretty cool. It’s being shown here in New Zealand, so that’s pretty interesting,

RK: Pretty amazing. We want to go to New Zealand,invite us.

MD: You’re welcome to come any time. Maybe I can talk to Cindy one more time just before we go, but thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me, I really appreciate it and it’s fantastic what you’re doing.

CH: Hello

MD: Hello, I thought I’d just check back in with you before we said goodbye, so are you signing autographs are you?

CH: Yeah, my buddies from November they stopped by and they loved the shop so much, they’re on tour with 311 and another band, I don’t remember the name, but they’re on tour right now and their name is Bikini Trill.

MD: So now you’re a rock star.

CH: They always come back and say hi when they’re around so it’s nice.

MD: What kind of music are you into?

CH: I’m all over the place, I grew up with oldies, the 1950’s, 60’s stuff, I like big band jazz and I grew up with a lot of Southern rock but I got into a lot of the really underground punk that nobody really knows about and a lot of the 1970’s and 1980’s stuff from England and all the European countries and stuff like that. I’m kind of all over the place, I like the blues a lot too. It just kind of depends but I do have a pretty big library of music.

MD: I’ll bet, sounds great. Rick was telling me you went to Vienna for the opening of the film?

CH: Venice, yeah it was a 75th World Venice Film Festival just last August. I went to the opening night and walked the red carpet with the Ryan Gosling movie and fell asleep cause I was so jet lagged. It was really cool cause we had the red carpet ourselves and our movie opened the.. y’know when you’re walking up the red carpet and the whole thing is starting to happen. We had The Velvet Underground ‘Heroin’ playing.

MD: Oh nice

CH: I loved it

MD: It sounds like the film is doing great things for you guys and I was telling Rick, it’s just such a nice relaxing film to watch and to let envelop around you so next time I come to New York I’m gonna have to stop in and check it out, like everybody else is doing.

CH: I think it was just a famous quote now that Ron just loves so much when we were in Toronto was, someone asked at the Q&A, what would you want everybody to take away from the movie, they were asking Rick, and he just automatically said ‘lower blood pressure’. It’s got a good vibe to it.

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