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Heuvelton father and son get to build the guitars of their dreams

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HEUVELTON — Any serious musician would jump at the chance to build his own instrument.

Just ask William J. Kelly, an entertainer from Heuvelton who has spent the past 40 years playing guitar for local bands like Pure Country and Boot Hill. He recently did just that with the help of master guitar builder Tracy J. Cox of Inlay Design Studio, 81 Woodruff Road, Colton.

“To have an opportunity to work with a master builder, where you can build your own guitar — suited, crafted and built for you?” Mr. Kelly said. “It means a lot to have someone tell you it’s nice when you’re playing. To be able to tell them, ‘I built this. It’s not a kit I threw together. I started right from scratch with a block of wood.’ Well, I got the opportunity to do it myself, and all I can say is, ‘Waaah!’”

Mr. Kelly said he heard about Mr. Cox from a friend.

“I needed some work on a guitar I’d been playing,” he said of a 1975 Fender Telecaster he took to Mr. Cox, “and saw some of the guitars he’s built. He does a lot of inlay work for the Martin Guitar Company and is really respected. He does really nice work.”

Along with his son, Dylan C., 19, who also became interested in guitar playing at an early age, Mr. Kelly decided to build his own custom guitar.

“So, under the watchful eye and advice from Tracy, Dylan modeled his guitar after a Gibson Les Paul, and I modeled mine after a Peavey Wolfgang style,” he said.

Starting in mid-March and finishing in early April, the Kellys visited Mr. Cox’s studio once a week for a couple of hours, crafting their dream guitars. Mr. Kelly made his out of a butternut tree he had cut down two years earlier at the Diocese of Ogdensburg Chancery office on Washington Street, Ogdensburg, where he is director of maintenance. Dylan Kelly made his out of a slab of Amish mahogany that Mr. Cox had lying around.

“Figuratively speaking, it is magic,” Mr. Cox said. “You literally start with chunks of wood and hand-select whatever you want — particular appointments, electronics and inlay. The potential is there to create, from the very beginning, the instrument you see in your mind, right down to the color of the hardware and the stain.”

Constructing electric guitars, he said, allows for more possibilities than acoustic models, because electric guitars can be fitted with features from different instruments.

“It’s like going onto a car lot and seeing 55 cars with all different colors and when you open the door, you have all the different interior options, stereo options and wheel options,” he said.

The process began, Mr. Kelly said, with patterns provided by Mr. Cox. He and his son cut the patterns out with a band saw, sanding them by machine and hand before attaching the necks to the bodies. From there, Mr. Cox showed the pair how to add inlay. Tiger maple veneer was then glued together and placed on top of the guitars, “to give it what is called a flame top,” Mr. Kelly said, adding that in addition to pickups, Mr. Cox assists with marking out and routing control knobs, switches and the guitar’s bridge.

Mr. Cox said much of the work is “traditional woodshop-class kinds of things until you get to the more technical ornamentation.”

“Like making a cabinet or some other piece of furniture, only tweaked into being an instrument,” he said, noting that guitar building workshops he offers generally take about a full week of working hours to complete and start at about $1,000.

As a result of his work for the Martin Guitar Co., Mr. Cox said, he has customized guitars for big names like Jimmy Page and Roger Waters, but seeing the gratification on the Kellys’ faces when they played the first chord on their new instruments, he said, was much more personal.

“Jimmy Page doesn’t email me and tell me how happy he is with the inlay I put on his guitar,” Mr. Cox said. “A lot of the custom ornamentation I do is geared a lot toward that emotional bond that people have — be it a loved one that’s passed, or a significant inlay for a spouse or friend — it’s more than just personalization.”

Mr. Cox’s work can be viewed on his website, www.inlaydesignstudio.com. His studio can be reached by calling 742-1427.

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