As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 20 – summer 2022
Cindy Hulej of Cindy Guitars and Carmine Guitars (based out of Greenwich Village in New York City) is a loving, warm, and charismatic artist with a true talent for the craft of luthiery. Cindy has been working at Carmine Guitars with custom guitar builder Rick Kelly for ten years and has designed and built a brand of her own within her work. Cindy uses a variety of techniques and mediums to build her one-of-a-kind guitars, including wood burning and leatherworking.
Cindy’s mentor of a decade, Rick Kelly of Carmine Street Guitars, has built a legacy with his shop, which has seen the likes of Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and many other legendary musicians. His shop and guitars thrive on the reclaimed wood that Hulej and Kelly use to build these incredible masterpieces, which have included pine from hotels, bars, and local buildings in New York City.
Cindy herself has built guitars for names like Jackson Smith of Patti Smith Band, Kurt Vile of Kurt Vile & The Violators, and many others.
Hulej and Kelly were also the stars of a documentary by Ron Mann titled after the shop Carmine Street Guitars. The film features musicians such as Kirk Douglas of the Roots and shows the everyday magic between Cindy and Rick and the amazing virtuosity they bring to their craft.
Cindy is also a photographer and artist and tries her best to find the beauty in everything, which is evident in the details of her work as a luthier.
How did you get into the profession of luthiery/guitar building? It’s a very niche thing. Tell me that backstory.
I grew up with guitar and my dad’s playing, and specifically, with building them. I was following the online forums like The Gear Page and the Marshall Forum and all that stuff. At some point, I had come across Rick’s work, and I just fell in love with it because it was my grandfather’s from Bay Ridge here in Brooklyn. I related to it right away because I’ve always really loved New York history and hands-on old-school craft-type stuff. That’s him using wood from places like the Hotel Chelsea. Jim Jarmusch, his loft, and just all these places that we’ve gone since then.
I came to the city with no money, and I ended up getting laid off from a suit and tie-type bartending job. I had to make money to get my own apartment and things like that. And I just kind of went, “What am I going to do now?” I didn’t want to be doing gallery stuff. I was doing gallery stuff on the side, and I wasn’t going to work at Guitar Center or anything like that. I really, really wanted to figure out what I was going to do for a living. I always knew I’d love to work with this guy, Rick Kelley. I walked here one day in the summer. It was actually June 23rd. I told him my story, and he was like, “I can’t pay you,” and I said, “That’s okay. I want to learn.” And so, he said, “Yeah.” He told me to get on the computer and answer the phone and that he would show me the back a little bit. And I’ve been here for ten years now.
You talked about using wood from these old historic New York buildings. How exactly does that process work?
We do everything from dumpster diving to nail pulling. We’ve even been there when there’s people that will get in touch with us when they’re about to renovate a building, and they have us come in while they’re cutting the boards up and getting them down. Everything from the templates to the finish, we do everything by hand here. Some people tip us off, and they’ll say, “Oh, there’s a dumpster over here.” Some people just drop wood off. Other people, they’ll have us come meet them. Sometimes we go with the dollies — sometimes we go with a truck.
All your designs are incredibly impressive and creative. Are there any that speak to you or that really stand out in your career so far?
That’s a difficult question for me because there are signature models that I make. But I also do really intricate custom work on people’s already existing stuff. And then there’s just the fact that every single guitar I’ve ever made has been different from the other. So, it’s really hard to just choose one. One that stands out is my cathedral guitar, which was the first one that I really designed, and that was based around what I wanted on it. I ended up with wooden pickup covers because I do the wood burning, and I continue to make multiple different cathedral models because I really love gothic architecture and architecture in general. So that’s one of my favorites. The other one is the moto guitar, which is inspired by the motorcycle leather jacket and motorcycles and the whole hotrod idea, where I do a lot of matte black stuff and then an inlaid little face. I did something where I call it the pickpocket Moto Guard because I actually came up with a way of routing the body and making a pickguard to use an actual zipper pocket on it.
Wow – I love that you really embrace using different materials as inspiration. Is there a particular type of wood that you guys prefer to work with?
The old pine, that’s really what we’re known for. Pine on pine guitars and basses. We do chambered stuff, but it’s solid body electrics and basses that we mostly build. And all this wood is from New York City that comes out of these buildings. And they’re all pine. They’re Douglas fir, yellow and white pines, and they’re all trees that grew for 3 to 400 years, extending and contracting through the winters and summers. Pine is special because conifers don’t have to reach up through the canopy to get to the sun, so they grow the straightest. When those molecules in the wood crystallize and open, it’s like a bundle of straws. That makes way for amazing vibration and tone, like a church choir in terms of the resonance. Yeah, it’s just amazing. That’s kind of the thing that we’re known for. Rick’s been doing that since the seventies as he’s been building for 54 years.
Where do you find the inspiration for your art pieces?
I could be walking down the street and just look up at some building or something that I haven’t seen. And I’m like, oh, well, I got to use that. Or I see one photograph online that has nothing to do with music or something. It’s just an aesthetic that I’m really drawn to or even like a color palette and pattern that I’m like, oh man. That would be cool to use for inspiration on one of my leather faces if I painted it that way. I’m always drawing from all kinds of things. I try to find the beauty in whatever I can. You got to try and get your glass half full; you know what I mean?
What is your favorite guitar to play?
I’m kind of all over the place. I grew up playing a Strat, my father’s favorite guitar was a Strat. I think that if I had to ultimately just pick one, I might end up with that.
Just one more question for you which is what does it mean to you to be a woman in the music industry, specifically in the guitar world?
I try and stay humble with things, but I feel like it’s surreal. I got a good and kind of dark sense of humor. I think a lot of people take things a little too seriously nowadays, and for me, I’m much more old school. You’ve got to grow some thick skin. I think that people are much too sensitive nowadays with stuff like that. For me, I don’t look at it in that sort of sense. I just keep looking at it as if you do the right kind of work and you keep a good moral sense of how to take care of business and how to deal with people, and then people realize that, and the respect will come naturally. So, I don’t worry about it. I feel like I’ve put my all into everything that I do. People ask me how many days a week we’re here. And I started out saying eight days a week. But now I’m like, “We’re here about a month every week.”
I love it!
And it’s one of those things that if you put the hours into it, you’ll get good at what you’re doing. If you continue to keep an open mind, you continue learning. And that’s important. Once you think you know it all, that’s the end of everything. Stay open-minded and continue to work hard; it doesn’t matter what you look like, what you are, who you are, or where you’re from. It’s about your work ethic and how passionate you are. That’s my take on it.