If He Builds It, They Will Strum: Ian Kelly’s Guitars Attract the Greats

Ian Kelly, owner and operator of Kelly Custom Instruments and Repairs in Little Falls, counts Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters among his clientele.

Ian Kelly at work in his Little Falls guitar retail and repair shop. Kelly counts Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters among his loyal clients.
Ian Kelly at work in his Little Falls guitar retail and repair shop. Kelly counts Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters among his loyal clients.
Photo by Andy Foster

Ian Kelly has repaired thousands of guitars, so it was not unusual when a customer brought an instrument into Kelly’s Little Falls shop several years ago and told him the electronics didn’t work. When Kelly looked inside the guitar, he saw that the wires were disconnected. He reconnected everything and charged a small hourly fee.

What Kelly didn’t know was that the instrument belonged to Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame. The job was merely a test. “It was not a test to see if I could reattach wires,” says Kelly, 28. “It was a test to see if I would say, ‘Oh you need a new pickup system and this and that.’ It was an honesty exam.”

Waters, who found Kelly through a staffer at his studio who lives in Montclair, is now a loyal client of Kelly Custom Instruments and Repair, along with dozens of area musicians and local bands. In addition to making repairs, Kelly builds exceptional acoustic and electric guitars from scratch.

In 2015, one of Waters’s stagehands dropped a Martin acoustic guitar—a gift from Eric Clapton—down a flight of stairs. The guitar had a large hole in the bottom. Waters entrusted Kelly with the reconstruction. The job took more than a year to finish.

“They told me, ‘Time is not the issue,’” Kelly recalls. “Price is not the issue. Simply make it perfect.’” With Waters currently beating up his guitars on a world tour, Kelly expects plenty more work to come his way soon. “I’m waiting for that day.”

Kelly, who grew up in West Caldwell, started building guitars at 17. After graduating from James Caldwell High School, he attended the Galloup School of Lutherie in Big Rapids, Michigan, followed by a two-year apprenticeship with Canadian guitar maker Michael Greenfield. Keith Richards owns two of Greenfield’s handcrafted instruments.

Kelly opened his shop seven years ago. His latest creation is a braceless acoustic guitar with a mosaic-like back, made from a series of cuts of different woods. Most guitars use braces for strength, but this can mean uneven pitch. To keep the braceless guitar structurally intact, Kelly thickened the sides with lightweight, high-strength balsa wood. The result is a guitar with even volume, tone and pitch.

The starting price for a Kelly guitar is $6,000. Currently, he is in the process of salvaging the wood from a 1970s Baldwin upright piano to repurpose in a new guitar. The project reflects his creative ambitions.

“I’m an artist,” Kelly says. “I don’t do well behind desks or computer screens. What comes naturally to me is both machinery and using it to make intricate pieces of woodwork. The act of making instruments has really been the most positive thing in my life.”

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