Executing Art on Wood: The Custom Guitar Work of Cindy Hulej

By Jeff Alexander

Cindy Hulej would dream of moving to New York and immersing herself in its storied history of music and art. Hailing from New Jersey, Hulej believed her ambitions would carry her into the vibrant, renowned art world of NY, but her path remained unclear.


"My father's side of our family were artists and he was a talented guitarist that played for 40 years but due to circumstances and how he was living, he did not quite get there professionally. I was also raised by my grandpa who loved music and I grew up painting with watercolors and would do landscape and seascape stuff. Art and music were always inside me I felt I belonged surrounded by it in New York," recalled Hulej.

Putting her ambition into action, Cindy began working as an art gallery assistant and moved to New York, earning her place in 2012 but she stated despite being surrounded by art, she wanted to transition from the background to the foreground.

"As much as I loved being around art I knew I did not wanna remain a gallery assistant. I had earned a scholarship to Pratt but I felt the money demands of going to college, working, and paying for some small apartment felt like a lot to take on. I wanted to build a portfolio but you really have to 'wow the world' so to speak and supplies cost money, which I did not have. I didn't go to Pratt but I don't feel any regrets," sighed Hulej.


Cindy sought the advice of longtime friend, and Trash & Vaudeville manager Jimmy Webb*, and together, Hulej concluded that combining her love of art and music would be the best plan moving forward. She was confident in her creative visions and how to execute them, and her passion for music was unwavering but once again, her path was unclear.

"I wanted to do something more with guitars but not simply settle for working at like a Guitar Center. Jimmy, I miss him so much and have known him since I was 10, I feel was instrumental in helping me realize my goal and he supported me in approaching Rick Kelly, the famous guitar builder at Carmine Street Guitars about working there in some role. I had to show I was willing to put the time in and learn because I did not want to attend luthier school and I felt Rick was the perfect person to learn from," said Hulej.

Carmine Street Guitars has become an institution within New York's iconic Greenwich Village, standing upon what was once titled Carman Street back in the 1800s it evolved into a haven for local artists. Aspiring musicians have all stalked its streets to patronize the burgeoning pawn shops and independent music shops, hoping to rescue battered vintage guitars that told stories of yesteryear, in search of 'the one' with the most 'mojo.' The rich history of Carmine Street Guitars was documented by producer and director Ron Mann in 2019, who sought to capture the daily routines of Kelly and Hulej.

"I always loved the area and Rick earned the respect of several musicians because of his craftsmanship. I remember when I walked in that day 12 years ago, it was like 100 degrees, and I had a full proper resume. I told him I have been following his work since high school and that I was serious in learning how to build guitars from him. He immediately said he couldn't pay me but we immediately had a bond because he was an artist that went to school for sculpture. He said he felt I was not gonna stay just long enough to learn how to build my own guitar and then just leave," said Cindy.


Rick Kelly prides himself on creating custom instruments utilizing reclaimed wood, with some locally sourced pine being over hundreds of years old. Cindy believes locally sourced, reclaimed wood enables the neighborhood to kind of 'live on', as she and Rick work tirelessly to transform them into unique, custom guitars.

"It was Rick & I working side-by-side for hours a day. I feel I now have cat-like reflexes working with all these machines for routing. It's not for the faint of heart! You can't screw around. Routing is challenging and we don't use computers, nothing is done for us by machine. The pine we work with can be hundreds of years old and were originally used to help build this city. Rick has 150 year old maple he has had since the '70s and they all offer their own unique tone. Pine can be very resonant. Maple needs truss rods but pine does not and you can quarter saw necks without issue. We have one Tele-style guitar that is over 30 years old and has not required neck adjustments," shared Cindy. 


Guitar craftsmanship reached a pinnacle in the '80s, with custom luthier Grover Jackson creating the iconic, Concorde for legendary Ozzy guitarist, Randy Rhoads. Jackson was able to offer unprecedented options for demanding players and enabled aspiring players access to unique instruments major manufacturers were unwilling to create. Cindy reflected on Jackson's impact and how Cindy Guitars formally came to fruition.

"Guitar necks were getting 'faster' through the years; players wanted smaller necks with lower action and Jackson was very successful in meeting those demands. We always worked to create one-of-a-kind instruments too but our necks were bigger. Rick actually learned from a doctor that a bigger neck would help players relax their hands more, which was an advantage. Rick decided early on that I would be building guitars under my name and he would continue under his because even though I was always learning from him and we were working side-by-side, our creativity was different and he wanted to recognize it," she stated.


There are several factors that go into creating a well-executed custom instrument but Cindy remains a staunch believer that wood will always remain the priority of any build.

"In my opinion, it will always be about the wood and not always the parts. It's how pickups interact with the wood. Sure, pickup choices are also important and I love how many talented winders are out there now, but it's how the pickups work with the wood. Each wood has a unique tonality, a soul if you will. Using the right kind of pine for a specific application will have a warm tone while maple can be brighter."

Cindy added, "You wanna get crazy with pickups? Now is a great time because there have never been so many options! Our pickups are custom made and we do work with DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan, but we also work with several independent, custom winders. I like MJS Pickups and Gemini, they're among a number of people whose work I trust but, it all begins with the wood."

Asked why she has a strong affinity for pine, Cindy cited the historic value of pine and its warmer sound.

"To me, pine is a great tone wood. We finish it with shellac and hand mix all the flakes, which are very natural and actually derived from an insect. This mix allows the pine and old maple to breathe well, as opposed to traditional thick poly coating which can be good for durability, I feel it does not allow the wood to breathe as well because it's plastic-derived. We don't spray nitro finishing because the chemicals used are now illegal."

Guitar finishing trends have slowly changed to players now paying premiums for relics, the technique of 'breaking in' a new instrument to resemble vintage 'battle scars' earned from long gigs and countless hours of playing time. Meant to mimic the feeling of a well-worn pair of jeans you simply cannot bring yourself to retire, the practice of relicing instruments remains divisive.

"Relicing is not personally for me but I don't put people down for wanting it or people for creating that finish. I feel if you want to achieve that look, you play the hell out of it. The 'broken-in' feeling and look will naturally come. I remember how long my father would play and how he loved the guitar, that is how you can achieve a true relic finish. I don't believe in 'faking' your play wear on a fretboard because it will come naturally when you play it and love it. It's an instrument, created for playing music. Love it and let it be," said Cindy.

Within 12 years, Cindy built a reputation for executing the unique creative visions of clients, priding herself on constant communication detailing each build's progress. Her wood-burning techniques continue earning accolades and her personal attention to each client stands in marked contrast to major manufacturers that emulate attitudes of 'name recognition is enough' to buy customer loyalty.

"Rick is special and has over 50 years experience building instruments. Nothing we work to craft passes through multiple hands. It's just us, doing what we love. We're old school and one of the last remaining independent shops like this in Greenwich Village. Things have sadly started disappearing over the years, and more so recently. People are still looking for something special and we can do it for them. I believe our shop is special and that's why I started working here," concluded Cindy.






*Jimmy Webb passed in 2020. He was an NYC fixture at Trash and Vaudeville and has worked with Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Ace Frehley, and several others. Webb opened his own shop, I Need More, prior to his death.

Leave a comment