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Guitar maker owes it to his shop teacher

Thanks to the help of an inspirational high school shop teacher, Ian Kelly, owner of Kelly Custom Instruments in Little Falls, N.J., discovered his passion of building custom instruments at a young age and became determined to start his own instrument fabrication business.

Ian Kelly specializes in creating hand-built custom acoustic and electric guitars. He says his formal training is what separates his product from commercial retailers.

“I had a woodshop teacher my senior year in high school that was very talented and was willing to let me be creative, so I built a full drum set,” says Kelly, who builds and sells acoustic and electric guitars using fine hardwoods such as quilted maple, mahogany and ebony.

After high school, Kelly moved from his New Jersey home to attend instrument-making classes at the Galloup School of Lutherie in Big Rapids, Mich. He took just about every class the school offered and learned to hand-build a variety of guitars, including steel-string acoustic, classical, archtop and electric.

“They really liked me and they knew I was serious so they set me up with a two-year apprenticeship at Greenfield Guitars in Montreal, Quebec, working directly with Michael Greenfield, who’s one of the top guitar builders in the world at this point.”

The unpaid apprenticeship ran all day, six days a week, but prepared Kelly to open a guitar-building and repair business in 2010. Kelly’s first clients provided excellent referrals and high-end commissions followed.

“It’s a tough business,” he explains. “You’re selling guitars for thousands of dollars so your challenge is to convince someone why yours is worth buying compared to the ones offered by big-name manufacturers. It’s very difficult to compete with [Gibson Guitar Corp.] and [C.F. Martin and Co.] and all of the others, especially on the time scale that a smaller boutique-style guy is going at. In my biggest year, I think I’ve made about 20 guitars.”

Kelly’s client base spans the nation. Mostly everyone seeking him out has one thing in common: a solid grounding in music.

“The guitars I make start at $7,000, so it’s very rare for someone who buys these types of guitars who doesn’t already have a guitar and know how to play.”

“I’ve always felt that I have a true forte in woodworking and that I could go farther with it than what I was seeing at places like Guitar Center.”

Contact: Kelly Custom Instruments, 101 East Main St., Little Falls, N.J. 07424. Tel: 973-256-3835.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.

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