This Lady Luthier Has Been Making Amazing Custom Guitars In NYC For Almost 9 Years
Cindy Hulej is a luthier who has been creating incredible custom-made guitars in New York City’s West Village for nearly 9 years. She uses a variety of different techniques, such as wood-burning, hand painting, and even leatherworking, to create the guitars and each of her instruments is a unique masterpiece that would make every musician’s jaw drop.
In an interview with DeMilked, Cindy said she has always been interested in music and art. She grew up watching her father play guitar and started playing it herself when she was just 8 years old. Throughout summers in high school and afterward, Cindy studied at Art Students League in Michael Grimaldi’s life drawing and anatomy class as well as Bill Behnken’s etching and lithography.
Cindy Hulej is a New York-based luthier who creates incredible custom-made guitars
When Cindy first came to New York, she had to work at a suit-and-tie type restaurant for as many as 80 hours a week to make ends meet. After a couple of years working there, the restaurant had to close and this forced the woman to look for something else to do. “I sort of said to myself “what am I going to do now?.. I was interning at galleries here and there and doing odd jobs sometimes- always playing music at home and all, but I didn’t want to be on the “paperwork side” of anything anymore– and I knew that trying to make a living being an artist within a year wasn’t practical at all,” said Cindy.
At the time, Cindy was helping musician Jimmy Webb around his apartment and the two decided that working on something to do with guitars would be “super cool” – and the woman wasn’t about to get a job at Guitar Center.
“I was always following Rick Kelly’s guitar making throughout high school ((he’s owned Carmine Street Guitars here in Greenwich Village the last 30 years and has had about ten shops prior to including one called Naked City Guitars around the corner on Bedford back in the 70s which was frequented by the likes of Lou Reed, Bowie, Belushi…)) and I loved the fact that he was repurposing really old wood out of famous NYC buildings like the Chelsea Hotel, Chumley’s Speakeasy, Jim Jarmusch’s loft, etc,” said the woman. “And I loved that he worked so old school – everything by hand, no computer. In fact, he still doesn’t have a cell phone! Ha!”
That’s when Cindy decided to simply walk over to Kelly’s guitar store and ask for an apprenticeship – and it did! Even though the first thing he said was “I can’t pay you”, Cindy was determined and said it was okay and she simply wanted to learn how to build guitars.
“He could tell I was serious and took me on that moment and I’ve been here now ((and building)) almost 9 years nearly every day,” said Cindy.
“I also wasn’t interested in combining my artwork and building – I didn’t think anybody was going to appreciate or want it,” said the luthier. “He really pushed me to do that because he thought I was very talented and I’ve had orders steady from the get go so the outcome in that has been really awesome and unexpected.”
So far Cindy has built custom guitars for musicians like Ian Docherty of July Talk, Jackson Smith of Patti Smith Band, and Kurt Vile of Kurt Vile & The Violators, as well as Jim Jarmusch of Squrl, Stuart Matthewman of Sade and many others.
“Carmine Street Guitars is basically Rick building his guitars((Kelly Guitars)) and me building my guitars ((Cindy Guitars)) and his mother, Dorothy, who is 95 and still does the paperwork,” said Cindy. “There are no CNCs and even our guitar templates are made from scratch out of masonite like Leo Fender used to do.”
When asked what material Cindy uses to create her guitars, she said they use all sorts of old wood, ranging from pine and mahogany to zebrawood and padauk. However, the luthiers are best known for pine – as that is what most of New York City is built of. “These are conifers((which are the oldest in the world)) having grown for 200-400 years- then were cut down and indoors for another 100-200 years expanding and contracting throughout the summers and winters in these old buildings,” said Cindy. “This makes the wood very resonant and stable for making guitars. If you were to look at the grain of this wood on a microscopic level ((because the pine trees grow the straightest in grain)) it would look like a bundle of straws, which also allows us to make guitar necks without truss rods – which is unheard of usually and what we are known for as well ((big pine neck no truss))– remnant of the way classical guitars were always made.”
If you want to order a custom guitar like that yourself, keep in mind that Cindy has over a two-year waitlist, even working on about 10 to 15 orders at a time – and that’s not counting the custom pickguards and straps!
“I could build a standard simple guitar in about a week but most of mine are a bit more complicated and so they take a bit longer, not to mention the artwork hours that go into some,” said the luthier.
There’s even a film made about Rick and Cindy, called Carmine Street Guitars – you can check it out here!
Check out more of Cindy’s incredible custom-made guitars below!