The sounds within Carmine Street Guitars sound very similar to those within the acclaimed alcoves of the Nazareth, PA home of Martin guitars. There is the careful sawing, the rub of precise sanding, and the tapping of chisels. The swishing of the varnish brush and finally, the twang of tuning to achieve the perfect tone complete the production of a finished product. Meticulous care is given at both locations, but for Rick Kelly, the namesake of the Kelly Guitars crafted at his Greenwich Village shop, reclamation has to be at the root of the process, and what some people might call ruins of old New York to resonate through every strum of his creations.

Wearing age well

Rick Kelly can often be seen outside the doors of Carmine Street Guitars, displaying some of his wares on public view as a gentle breeze blows, as he puts finishing touches on a custom instrument. Since 1968, the master craftsman has created guitars in much the same way, but the neighborhood around him has radically changed. High-rise buildings and corporate conglomerates surround his small neighborhood niche, but his business remains steady in doing business the old way. In a July 25 feature in Variety, touting a Ron Mann documentary about the home of these unique instruments, Carmine Street Guitars is heralded as “a New York City story about standing tall in the face of commerce-driven gentrification.” The film also depicts some of Carmine Street Guitars’ most devoted clientele, such as Wilco’s Nels Cline dropping in to buy a guitar for Jeff Tweedy, testing it out for good measure.

Patti Smith, Bill Frisell, Lenny Kaye, and Kirk Douglas of The Roots are also featured as regular supporting customers, among many more, who value the meditation of wood and music that melds into every guitar.

Rick Kelly doesn't need any value lesson on respect for the well aged, in any sense. His 93-year-old mother is the head bookkeeper and accountant of the business.

The mainstay of how Rick Kelly pays respect to both music and history of New York City is in his use of “old bones” of the Big Apple. Planks and beams from the Bowery, Chumley’s, Bunker Hill, and on and on are labeled in his back room, relics of the “framed out” New York City that no longer exists. The proprietor openly professes to his “dumpster diving,” which has yielded beams from the historic Chelsea Hotel and Chumley's, where numerous rock gods and authors came to rest.

Nothing mass-produced

Kelly “repurposes” about four custom guitars per month from his reclaimed treasures from the roots of the ground, either bore from the trees or the tossing during demolitions. A customer doesn’t have to be Bob Dylan or Lou Reed to get the star treatment, even though both legendary musicians with their own New York histories have one of his guitars. Longtime customer JP Cousin calls Carmine Street Guitars and Rick Kelly “the last vestiges of homemade products,” and that's probably why he has stayed loyal to the business for more than 25 years. Cousin relates the fun of dropping in and seeing Roger Waters, but quickly insists that “after that, Rick wants you to leave because he's busy.” This is a business, after all.

Still, Carmine Street Guitars is a business steeped in history down to the grains of the guitar wood, and not even Rick Kelly can deny the “magic” of seeing a superstar play one of his crafted pieces from the stage, or the smell of a plank taken from a New York City bar as it transforms into a guitar. For all the history and handmade attention, the price is not prohibitive, around $1200, so the music and hopefully play on forever.

Ron Mann’s documentary on Carmine Street Guitars will premiere at the Venice Film Festival, which runs from August 29 to September 8, 2018.