Tom Kelley: The Wizard of Guitars

Luthier Cooks Up Serious Tone

Tom Kelley makes ringin' electric guitars in his Goleta garage and kitchen.
Jeff Miller

“Nobody gets in to see the Wizard.”

“No way. No how.”

So says the plaque above Tom Kelley’s workbench. Once you get to know Tom a little, you sense a bit of self-deprecating sarcasm there. Once you see his work you might think otherwise.

Kelley builds guitars, mostly styled after Fender’s famed Telecaster and Stratocaster brands. I’ve played guitars for many decades now and always assumed they were made in fancy woodshops, or maybe in Emerald City. But Kelley builds his in his garage. Well, not only his garage. He bakes the guitar bodies in the oven in his Goleta kitchen.

Go to his Facebook page (Kelley Guitar Works) and you’ll see the self-deprecating come out.

“Pretty high tech I know,” says the entry above a photo of two guitar bodies in that oven. “Cooking up some serious tone. Two, one piece swamp ash strat bodies getting roasted to perfection. About four hours to go. I have to watch close. I’ve been known to burn things.”

This is a modest birthplace for what are regarded as special instruments. “Tom is not well-known but he should be,” said Dana Olsen. “And he’s a cool cat.”

Olsen is one of a cadre of noted Santa Barbara guitarists who play Kelley creations. Another is Greg LeRoy, who had his eye on Kelley’s own favorite Strat and eventually snagged it “after I bugged him about it for years.”

Yet another is Ray Pannell, well known as guitarist for Mary Wilson. For him, Kelley took apart an old Strat, rebuilt it, and refinished it. “I brought it in, and he did his magic on it,” Pannell said. “He knows how to relic.”

There’s a lot going on in the paragraph above. One of Kelley’s unique skills is creating realistic wear, from arms and belt buckles. Another is finish that allows the wood to resonate as it should. These days a lot of Fenders have “a ton of poly on ’em,” Pannell said. “I think it dampens the vibration and tone.”

But it all starts with the wood. That’s where I had a lot to learn during my visit to Kelley’s workshop.

For him it all started in high school as a mystery: “What is it about a Stradivarius that makes it so much better than other violins? That was a fascinating topic for me. I realized there’s as much art as there is science to that stuff.”

He thought he’d build violins one day. “That never happened,” Kelley said. “But I took those same interests and ended up focusing on guitars.” It soon became an obsession: “What makes one guitar sound so much better than another one? That’s the rabbit hole I went down.”

That might seem to have a simple solution when it comes to acoustic guitars: the right woods, especially for the top. But what about solid-body electrics? Take two guitars with the same electronics. Why does one sound so much better than the other? Same thing: “It’s the wood.”

After years of trial and error, Kelley allows himself a moment of appreciation: “I’ve gotten good at it.”

He holds up a T-type body made of swamp ash, one of his favorite woods. “It’s lightweight,” he says, “but listen.” He raps on it. “Listen. I mean, it just rings like a bell. This is going to be a great guitar.” The secret: “Something that’s almost impossible to find”: hard, light woods, like swamp ash, with its wide-apart rings at its base.

There are dozens of other techniques to be applied on the way to the realization of that great guitar. Matching necks and bodies. Stringing through the body. Original knobs. Subliminal nicotine stains from hanging around smoky nightclubs. Aged metal. Many, many coats of 100 percent nitrocellulose lacquer, applied by hand. Just the finishing takes nearly a month. In other words, “Obsessive beyond reason,” says Kelley.

The result of it all has been a rock-solid reputation around town. For instance, asked about price (in the $3,000 range), Chris Jensen of Jensen Guitar & Music on De la Vina said it’s not about money. “When an experienced player finds the right guitar, he’ll do what he has to to buy it.” Jensen’s stock of Kelleys is sold out at present. Guitar Bar has one left.

And there are the stories, like the time Alan Parsons (of the Alan Parsons Project, with production credits ranging from Abbey Road to The Dark Side of the Moon) showed up seeking repair work, and one of the Kelleys’ dogs had to have its teeth pried from his ankle.

All worth it for a tasty guitar.

Jeff Miller is a longtime New York newspaper writer and editor who now lives in Santa Barbara, writing books and songs.


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