Rick Kelly started making wooden musical instruments when he was a teenager. But he didn't start turning timber use in old hotels, bars and churches into guitars until 10 years ago when film director Jim Jarmusch offered him wood from his loft ceiling.
"He happened to be a customer in the shop. I got to know him a little bit. He offered me the wood, so I said, 'Sure.' So he sent the guys, the workers, over with a truckload of it, and started doing it that way. That was the first load I got, out of Jim's loft.
A lot of that wood is more than 100 years old. It's the 19th-century white pine timber from upstate New York that formed New York City's homes and buildings.
It's sort of this alchemy that happens with the wood especially in the roof area, where it gets over 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) ... during the day and cool at night. It goes through this change that sort of makes the wood really resonant, because the resin in the wood crystallizes, opens up the pores for vibration.
The 64-year-old master shops for wood all over the city. He found some of his latest guitar-quality wood in a trash receptacle — planks and beams from a Serbian Orthodox church that burned down earlier this year. In his store, he keeps careful track of his collection, noting on each piece of wood the building that it was once part of. Often, his clients request a certain type of wood, Bob Dylan, for example, wanted his guitar made out of wood from Chumley’s, a historic New York bar that is currently undergoing extensive renovation. Whether famous musicians or average players, Kelly’s clients are willing to pay over $2,000 for a guitar, because they appreciate the authenticity of the instruments.
What these timbers have seen — they were here when George Washington was walking around these trees. And what those trees saw, what they saw becoming a fancy hotel in the 1800s or a flophouse during the Depression, and then a condo in the recent years. ... They have gone through a lot of changes, all the buildings have, and what this wood sees is pretty amazing, I am sure. When I first started about it, it was the whole thing, really. That caught my attention. When I saw Rick talk about his work so passionately, that took it even to another level.
Rick Kelly’s guitars are more than one-of-a-kind, beautifully carved instruments. They offer his clients something priceless: a piece of New York City's history.