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5 Tele-Style Builders You Should Know

Rick Kelly
Kelly Custom Guitars

Kelly Custom Guitars
New York City, New York
Years Building: 36
Starting At: $1500
Average Wait Time: 6-8 months
Photo by Lisa Sharken, Photographed at Rick Kelly's Manhattan shop, November 14, 2008.
How did you get into building?
Right after college—I majored in sculpture in college—I started with Appalachian dulcimers in the late sixties, early seventies, and then I converted over to guitars; I started electric guitars probably around 1972.

When did you first discover the Telecaster?
That was actually because of a guy down in Maryland named Dimitri Callas. He was an awful lot like Roy Buchanan—a family man. He was asked by the Stones if he would play with them, and he said, “No, I have to stay here with my family,” kind of like Roy did. He had a bunch of old fifties Teles, and he had me make him a couple of bodies. That was in about 1975, and so that’s when I started working with Teles.

What is your flagship model?
I’ve pretty much been making ‘52 Tele-style guitars since the early seventies, and I make them very much to Dimitri’s ‘53 Tele specs. So I make a very traditional Telecaster, but I have a new design now where the horn on one side is actually lopped off, and it follows the curves of Leo Fender’s custom Telecaster pickguard that had that short curve to it. I sort of made the horn match that curve—it’s very Leo Fender-esque. And I use the paddlehead stock on it, which also matches the Fender’s prototype.

What makes your guitars unique?
The thing I do differently is I use wood that’s over 100 years old. I’ve been collecting reclaimed lumber since the early seventies, when I lived down in Maryland. I was out every Sunday at farm auctions; I’d get greatgranddad’s wood that was in the barn that no one really bid on, and I wound up stockpiling a lot of old wood. Today it’s a lot easier to find old timber—there are a lot of reclaimed lumber businesses out there now that will just sell it to you. But there’s no reason to use new wood, which is inferior to old wood, when it comes to guitar building. You need to have the resins crystallize in the wood, so it becomes more resonant. That’s the main difference in my guitars—the age of the wood and the resonance of the guitar.

Lately I’ve been using wood from an old street here in the city that’s called the Bowery; it’s one of the oldest blocks in Manhattan, the early lower Manhattan. The buildings go back to the 1850s, and I just recently got a whole load of 1865 white pine from [filmmaker] Jim Jarmusch’s building, which was what the original Telecasters were made from. This is all oldgrowth Adirondack pine that has some amazing grain patterns—it’s so tight and extremely resonant. And it’s all roof rafters, which means that the wood was up there under black tar for 140 years, cooking all day and cooling at night, so it’s got this alchemy thing going on. It makes an amazing guitar.

How would you describe your building philosophy? You mentioned earlier that you kind of stick to a very traditional design.
Yeah, that’s really my whole thing. I spent many years building guitars that were unusual in design, and I think I have some pretty amazing designs, too, but that just kind of faded away—people don’t ask for those guitars anymore. They’re really looking for more traditional guitars, and I sort of found a niche in Fender-style guitars made from old wood. It’s what people want me to make them, and it’s what I seem to be most popular for.

What kind of hardware do you use?
That’s another thing I do differently from a lot of companies: I use individual makers. Take pickups, for instance; I use only people who just make pickups, not companies that make guitars as well. Right now I’ve been using a lot of Don Mare pickups; we’ve actually been doing some trading of guitar parts.

What do you like about the Don Mare pickups?
They’re handmade, and it’s one guy making them, and he really concentrates on using the best materials. And he captured something about that original fifties tone that no one seems to be able to have gotten. I use Lindy Fralins also—he and Lindy are very similar in that respect. They capture that fifties vibe.

What about the rest of the hardware on your instruments?
I try to stick with Klusons for tuning machines because they’re traditional. And there are guys that make amazing bridges for Telecasters—Glendale makes a great bridge and a beautiful set of saddles that interconnect. They’re amazing sounding and they perform perfectly. Leo made a perfect guitar, and it’s really hard to make it any better, but nowadays people have been coming up with individual components that really do make it a little bit better.

Why should our readers consider buying a Kelly?
Well, I think they’re going to get the individuality of a true custom guitar. What they call custom shops today aren’t really—they’re just pulling pieces off a factory line. This is a custom shop: one guy from start to finish. 

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