In Conversation with New Original, Cindy Hulej

Part old soul, part innovator, part patron saint of guitars, fully a New Original – we were thrilled to get to talk with Cindy Hulej of Cindy Guitars. Having learned luthiery from a true master, Rick Kelly of Carmine Street Guitars, Cindy’s approach to her work drips with knowledge and passion.

How did you get started building guitars?

I basically walked into Carmine Street Guitars and asked Rick Kelly if I could apprentice with him. I was following his work and I just knew I wanted to do something more unique and old school – that’s what I’ve always been about.

At that time, he had already been making amazing instruments by hand for forty years. The way he contributes to the world by using special reclaimed wood really spoke to me. The wood he uses has a soul, whether it’s 150-year-old hard rock maple, stunning old Gaboon ebony, or the reclaimed wood we’re known for using- from places like the Chelsea Hotel, Trinity Church, McGurk’s Suicide Hall…the list goes on…

 How are your guitars different than “off the rack” guitars?

They’re different not only because of the wood and historical relevance it carries, but because Rick and I each handcraft our guitars from start to finish. There is no assembly line in our shop, it’s Rick building his guitars and me building mine – start to finish. Everything from the templates to mixing the finishes.

I also have an art background, so I’m able to add my own woodburns, paintings, and drawings to my builds. I’ve done everything from pet portraits to buildings. I’ve added leather to my builds, and even feathers. I constantly experiment and keep an open mind in what I do. Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries line shirt that says “Be Reasonable Demand the Impossible” always stuck with me. I try to keep the possibilities endless in my work and I think I come from a much more artistic stance than most people in this industry.

Where did the idea to use salvaged wood come from? How does it influence the design and sound of the final piece?

It started with Rick in his college years, trying to find cheaper materials to sculpt with (he went to MICA for sculpture). He would go to farm auctions and started getting all this great old wood. Then he taught himself how to make dulcimers so he could some extra cash selling at craft events. He eventually moved to acoustic guitars, then electric solid bodies and basses. He realized there was something different in older wood’s tone and resonance.

Though using reclaimed wood has become our signature, it’s always about creating the best sound possible. The pine neck/pine body guitars that we are known for are insanely resonant and a little warmer in tone. Our process and wood selection allows us to craft wood guitar necks without metal trusses. You can really hear a difference compared to guitars stabilized with metal. The wood has such a history – expanding and contracting throughout the summers and winters 100-200 years in these old buildings – and that age only makes the wood stronger and more stable.

Since we’re known for making these reclaimed pieces, people will send us tips when there is some treasure to dumpster dive. It makes the process that much more interesting.

What inspires your designs?

I’ve had ideas stem from printed fabric to architecture, paintings to songs, stories. I think I’m “one of those people” that can find inspiration in just about anything if I look hard enough. It helps me to remember to try to see the beauty in as much as I can.

Do you design in collaboration with the musician? How does their work or persona influence your process?

First and foremost, the most important thing is the sound. Each artist’s sound determines the best shape. The detailed specs come next in terms of fret wire, shape and size of the neck, finish, etc. Then, for artists who appreciate something a little more customized, comes the detailing and artwork. Most of the time, it’s very personal to the person, so that requires getting to know them and listening to their stories, which is a really cool part of my job.

I think every build influences me for the better, whether it’s learning to work through a challenging design or just appreciating something different and new.

What would you say is the most important factor to your success?

I think the first thing is dedicating the time- putting your 10,000 hours in. You can’t go wrong with putting more time into learning something and I’ve always been very driven in that sense.

 Of equal importance is knowing when you need a break. I don’t really “work” a day in my life because I love what I do, but I’ve learned that sometimes I do need a day to do mine own thing, regardless of the stack of work staring me in the face. When you put your mental, emotional, and physical health second to being a workaholic, then you will probably run into some issues.

 So, I guess you can say balance, determination, and a constant hunger for learning and doing better every day has been key for my success.

What does it mean to you to be a craftsperson?

It means that the things I make, that I put so much work and love into, may not only outlive me, but will continue to create in the hands of others. Rick and I always like to say that we make tools for creating music. A guitar is a tool. I’m crafting this thing with all this history- the wood has lived as a tree, had another life as building rafters in New York City, and now it lives as a musical instrument creating music to make people happy. What a life!

Do you have any tricks you use to enhance your creativity?

I’m always trying new things, whether it’s a new medium for drawing or a new take on a tool I’ve had. Just the act of looking for new inspiration really helps me. Some people have mood boards – I don’t exactly do that, but I have folders of saved images and things of the sort. I had one photo saved for years of a men’s paisley tie and pocket square set that I always wanted design a guitar after, and was recently able to bring it to life for a customer. I inlayed black leather on the face and back of the guitar and designed and handprinted this golden-orange paisley print all over it.

Who do you most look up to in your field?

Rick Kelly. When I was thinking about making guitars, I was worried other stores would just have me learning repairs, but I wanted to build. I really thought – If I can’t get an apprenticeship with this guy, this may not work out at all, because I want to do something special and different. My appreciation and respect for Rick only grows every day. He is extremely knowledgeable- not only with luthiery, but with endless other subjects. He has always been creative and driven like I am. It’s important to have that sort of connection and understanding working next to someone every day. He helps me in more than just learning the craft, he’s an angel.

What advice would you give to young people who want to build guitars?

I would say the same thing – and it doesn’t just go for building guitars, but anything you want to do – put your hours in, whether it’s reading up on something or watching videos or talking to people who are doing things you aspire to. There are great companies like StewMac and Luthier’s Mercantile who help make things easier in terms of the tools you need and instructional videos, etc.
Know you’re going to make mistakes, but try to make sure you learn from them and just keep going. Nobody is perfect but it’s the passion you have that matters.

How has getting through the pandemic changed your work?

It hasn’t really, honestly. I’ve got a two year wait list on my work, so I’ve mostly been trying to catch up. I’m always making sure whatever client I’m working with is happy with the work. Then I just continue building to make the next clients’ ideas come true.

Who are some of your favorite musicians?

I’ve got interests in everything from old blues to big band, from 50s/60s “golden oldies” to classic rock, southern rock to new wave, electronic to anarchy punk, jazz to goth rock. It’s quite the list, but a lot of my favorites are in the punk and goth genres.

What does being a New Original mean to you?

I think that everybody should try to just ‘be themselves,’ but social standards are kind of funny and get in the way of that for some people. I’ve never cared much what people thought when it comes down to it. Really just being unique, being yourself (how cliché, ha ha). Following your gut on what you want and like, and not paying mind to anybody throwing negative vibes at you for it.

Follow Cindy at @cindyguitars and dive deeper into her work at Images by Terrence Matlin, follow him at @terrymatlin.