Since the seventies, New Yorker Rick Kelly has been making guitars from the “bones of old New York.” Crafted from wood mostly scavenged from dumpsters and building sites across New York City, Carmine Street Guitars in the West Village displays hundreds of handmade guitars that are truly born of the city itself. The wood used in their creation comes from old buildings that can have a history dating back as far as the fifteenth century, giving each piece a unique story of its own. Untapped New York visited the shop to chat with Kelly about his craft.

Rick Kelly Carmine Street Guitars

Growing up on Long Island, Kelly has a long history with both New York City and music. “I started playing a little bit as a kid in high school, but I wasn’t very good at it. I was more of a woodchuck. I like working with my hands and I worked in a surfboard factory. In high school, I had a lot of hands-on jobs so I kind of veered in that direction more than becoming a performer. I’m a musician and I always liked playing and I liked the way the instruments sounded. I love acoustic guitars and I love the purity and the history of a classical guitar,” Kelly says.

In high school Kelly developed his love for woodworking, crediting much of his original passion to past high school teachers. He says, “He put a block of wood in front of me and gave me two chisels and a mallet and said ‘Take your aggression out on that.’ That’s what did it for me. I just fell in love with woodworking from that point on.”

Rick Kelly at Carmine Street Guitars

Kelly went to college in Baltimore studying art for two years. When he needed some extra cash to pay his tuition, he came up with the idea of making and selling instruments to earn a living. From there, he took a windy path to arrive at 42 Carmine Street in 1990. In the seventies, Kelly owned a shop on Downing Street called Naked City Guitars. He also spent a few years in California selling his pieces and getting his rhythm down, learning the tricks of the trade as he went.

Rick Kelly guitars

Kelly says, “I used to mainly go to farm auctions. I was living down in farm country after college, and I had an old flatbed truck. Every week the newspaper would be full of farm auctions, so I went. Great granddaddy’s wood would be in the old outbuildings and nobody was bidding on that stuff so I’d get it practically for free. I accumulated a good stash of wood back in the 70s and I still have much of it today.”

Rick Kelly Carmine Street Guitars

As far as New York City wood goes, Kelly has used wood from demolished buildings all over the city. Church, hotel, a former speakeasy. Name it and most likely Rick Kelly has made a guitar from it.

While the repurposed wood is alluring and makes for an interesting backstory to Kelly’s guitars, the luthier doesn’t only use this wood for its lucrative label. One of the main appeals of using dumpster-found wood is, naturally, its cost. Or rather, it’s lack of cost. A large portion of the wood used at Carmine Street Guitars is given another life after being previously discarded, typically full of nails. Kelly finds logs and planks full of hand-forged 19th-century nails and manages to use the nails’ high iron content to make pickups.

Rick Kelly guitars

The old wood is also preferable because it makes for better-sounding instruments. The older the wood gets, the more resonant it becomes. “The wood has been indoors for almost 200 years in these buildings and it’s got this beautiful oxidation on the coloring. The original timbers are from the 1600s which meant the trees are probably from the 1500s, which, you know, started growing in the 1400s. These trees are just really seasoned wood perfect for musical instrument making because of the type of wood it is. The conifer is the best soundboard wood there has been for 5000 years, and now it’s been seasoned for 200 more. It couldn’t be more perfect for building instruments,” Kelly explains.

Rick Kelly Carmine Street Guitars

Wood harvested back when only Native Americans lived on East Coast land came from trees as old as 800 years and is surprisingly still found in many old buildings in New York City today. When the buildings get remodeled, the wood is often discarded, creating the opportunity for Kelly to save it from being forgotten. Some of the wood Kelly uses in his guitars came from scraps of what was once known as “the King’s pine” from pre-revolution America. Luckily, due to laws in the city, many of these buildings are allowed to keep their original wood and stay the way they have been for the past 200 years. Kelly comments, “You know, those are things that are grandfathered in these old houses. There’s such good character and we don’t want New York City to change.”

Carmine Street guitars

Kelly’s favorite wood to work with is white pine, which has impressive sound qualities. Kelly says, “It’s something that I’ve developed now and nobody was really doing 10 years ago. Nobody was making full pine guitars. And I don’t think more than maybe one or two other people are actually using the pine in their necks like I’ve been doing. So it’s kind of a new thing that I started 20 years ago.”

Carmine Street Guitars has taken off in the past thirty years as one of the most iconic Greenwich Village guitar shops, with customers like Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Bill Kirchen. The shop was even featured in a 2018 documentary Carmine Street Guitars, which explores 5 days in the life of the store.

Carmine Street Guitars

“It’s my passion. I love doing it. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. It was something I decided I was going to do at a young age and just never gave up on. It’s a tough life. I used to call it sleeping in the woodchips and waking up in the woodchips because you sleep in your shop,” Kelly says. In the many years since the shop has been open Kelly has lost count of the number of guitars he has made. “I really don’t have any favorites. I love them all. Every time I do a new one I think it’s my favorite. The creative process is an ongoing thing, you just keep making new ones that you hope are better than the last ones and that sort of happens. The more you do, the better you get,” Kelly adds.

Rick Kelly. at his guitar shop

Carmine Street Guitars is still pumping out one-of-a-kind guitars today in Greenwich Village created by the dynamic duo Rick Kelly and his apprentice Cindy Hulej. The shop is open Monday through Friday 9 AM to 5 PM and from 12 PM to 3 PM on Saturdays, overflowing with guitars in every square inch, each one unique in its own right. The store’s Instagram page has nearly 30,000 followers and is a great place to browse some of their eccentric work.

Next, check out more of Rick Kelly’s story in this video of his guitar-making process.