When Jimmy Carbonetti was 17 years old, he found himself walking the halls of his Manhattan high school with a secret that wasn’t easy to keep — he was a student by day, fledgling guitar hero by night. “It was like Superman and Clark Kent,” he explains. “I couldn't tell anybody I had a cape on under the stupid shirt I was wearing to school.”
These days, Carbonetti has years of experience in music under his belt — both as a guitarist in his band Caveman and as a luthier building his line of Carbonetti Guitars. But back then, he was still in the early days of a creative relationship with his best friend and bandmate Matthew Iwanusa. What began their freshman year with passing demo CDs to anybody who’d take a listen, took a more serious turn at the start of their senior year, when the pair discovered that two of their new teachers were also musicians themselves.
“They were fresh out of college,” Carbonetti says. “They said to us, ‘You guys are pretty weird, let's start a band.’” In a nod to the circumstances of their meeting, they called themselves The Subjects. By night, they were taking stages around Lower Manhattan at venues like the Continental, Sin-é, and the Knitting Factory. But by day, as high school students, they were keeping their mouths shut, eager not to rat out their teachers as bandmates.
This would quickly become a trend in Carbonetti’s life. Being the keeper of secrets is something he’s continued to be tasked with ever since. It’s what led him through the doors of the city’s most renowned guitar shops, then around the world with bands of his own, and now to The Guitar Shop, where he spends his days at the workbench hand-building guitars alongside his longtime collaborator Mas Hino.
For Carbonetti, the path to building custom guitars began with a series of de facto apprenticeships under a who’s who of New York City music royalty. First came Giorgio Gomelsky, former owner of London’s famous Crawdaddy Club and erstwhile manager of the Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. Gomelsky ran the Red Door, the practice space where The Subjects rehearsed. “The Red Door was one of those magical New York vortexes where you walk in and instantly see all the years of hanging out and inspiration and partying,” Carbonetti says. “Nico lived there for a while, The Velvet Underground rehearsed there and partied there.”
After graduating high school, he took a job there with Gomelsky, who Carbonetti refers to as his first boss and mentor. He did whatever was asked of him: sweeping, cleaning Gomelsky’s living quarters above the practice studios, archiving old tapes. “I’d go through birthday cards and find one from Eric Clapton, or dig up some old Rolling Stones tapes from the Crawdaddy days.”
It was Gomelsky and Carbonetti’s bandmate Dave Sheinkopf who came up with the idea that he should start working at the legendary guitar shop down the street. “Chelsea Guitars was basically the treehouse hangout for all the musicians,” he says of the store, located on the ground floor of the infamous Chelsea Hotel. Old-guard guitarists like G.E. Smith would swoop in and, between trying out vintage guitars, tell Carbonetti what records he should be checking out, and how to play the right way. “He was coming in every day telling me to listen to Free, listen to Ronnie Wood. And he would always show me, ‘No, that's not how you play that song, this is the chord.’ He was an encyclopedia of gear and music because he’d done it all.”
That’s where Carbonetti’s love of vintage guitars was born. Eventually, this led him to 30th Street Guitars, where he got deeper into repair work. And that’s when vintage guitar specialist Chris Mojo introduced him to Mas Hino, a veteran luthier who would go on to become his partner in crime. Hino encouraged him to take ownership of the entire building process, and changed the way Carbonetti approached the craft. “Since meeting Mas, I'm basically taking a block of wood, a saw, and hand chisels, and carving everything out myself. It's opened up so much freedom for me to do whatever I want. Because a lot of the time you're ordering premade parts, like necks and bodies, and then you can kind of just add your personality to them. But if you're making things from scratch, that really opens up the possibilities.”
In late 2009, Carbonetti launched Cobra Guitars, his first solo endeavor in the guitar world. Headquartered in the East Village, down the street from the old Hells Angels clubhouse, it quickly became an unofficial after-hours spot. “Most of my guitars sold after midnight,” he says. “We're in a bar shooting the shit and we get emotional talking about stuff, then all of a sudden I'm designing a guitar for you.”
Now he spends his days at The Guitar Shop NYC, the space he co-owns with Eric Cocco of famed string manufacturers La Bella Strings, on the second floor of a Sunset Park building overlooking Green-Wood Cemetery. He’s built up a host of clients over his years in the business. They’re particular about what they want, from look to sound to wood. “Every type of wood has a different tone,” he says. “Mahogany is a porous wood, it's very soft. But then you have maple and ebony that are really hard and dense, so they’re brighter sounding than mahogany. It's like cooking. If the guy wants it more salty, you've got to add more of the salty wood.”
Hino also encouraged Carbonetti to make his own pickups — the sensors on an electric guitar that turn the sound coming off the strings into signals for amplification — which allows him to dial in the sound even more precisely, tailoring the tone specifically to each customer. He loves his work, and the fact that the process of it is never really finished. “You're always learning, and that's the fun part. You're just tucking recipes into your special book.” He’s developed a signature style that he credits to his stew of influences, the most important of whom he says are old-school guitar makers John D'Angelico, Tony Zemaitis, and Paul Bigsby. “Yeah, you can get a Gibson — but if you pay a little bit more, you can get this thing made just for you, and it's perfect.”
For Carbonetti, the word perfect has a different texture. “When I say a guitar is perfect, I'm not just saying it's meticulously made and looks like a machine produced it,” he explains. “What I love about guitars is when there are perfect imperfections to it. You can tell a machine didn't do this overseas and just plop it out. There's personality there. And the people buying it understand that too.”
It's a rare joy to encounter someone doing a thing that feels so unmistakably them. The best guitarists produce sounds that make you feel like you know how they hang out, and Carbonetti is no exception. When you hear him play, it’s the sound of ecstatic exploration, the desire to create wide open spaces, the rewards of psychedelic pursuits. So it’s no surprise that the guitars he builds feel and sound the way they do — he can’t help but infuse each guitar he builds with his own glorious eccentricities.
His instruments seem to attract like-minded spirits — like Matt Sweeney, guitar man extraordinaire and one half of the duo Superwolves alongside Will Oldham. “Jimmy’s guitars play like big lovable dogs,” Sweeney says. “He made one of my favorite guitars, ‘The Savagist.’ When the rubber hits the road right as the acid kicks in — that’s what that guitar feels like. And his mastery of electronics and pickups means the sound gets under your skin.”
Carbonetti shows me a guitar he’s currently working on for Richard Fortus of Guns N’ Roses, with whom he’s worked before. “He has such an idiosyncratic vision,” says Fortus. “His instruments are very unique aesthetically, as well as being individual in their tonal character. His guitars are a joy to play and inspiring to create with. He never ceases to amaze me with his creations. He is a true artist.”
The other place Carbonetti’s artistry takes shape is with Caveman, the band he helped found alongside Iwanusa in late 2009, and whose new album, “Smash,” was released this month. “We started making this record, sadly, after Matt's cousin Ashley, who we call Smash, passed away. This record has her vibe and soul in it. We all care about her so much.” The band will be hitting the road in support of it this fall.
Carbonetti’s guitar work has shown him through some of the mythical doors of the city and taken him around the world with Caveman, but perhaps the most surprising place it’s taken him is to his new collaboration with renowned golf putter designer Toulon. While Carbonetti did grow up caddying for his grandmother and attended golf camp as a child, he really got the bug during the pandemic. His wife Sarah happens to be a great golfer, so the two started playing three or four times a week. “Like music, you can never master it. That's the fun part.” When an old friend learned he’d taken up golfing, he introduced him to Tony Toulon, who runs Toulon Design with his father. “The putter is a golfer's instrument,” Carbonetti says. “You'll change your clubs here and there, but your putter is like your Excalibur.” Toulon turned out to be a Caveman fan, and so a collaboration was born, with Carbonetti making a small run of signature wooden pieces for some limited-edition putters. “I really love doing this project with Toulon because it's bringing wood back into golf.” Their debut line, meanwhile, has already sold out.
From the Red Door to the backrooms of New York’s fabled guitar scene to playing shows around the globe, guitars have taken Carbonetti from one secret space to the next. He sees it all as part of the ongoing musical exchange he joined years ago. “That's what it always comes back to,” he says. “None of this would work if I wasn't part of a bigger conversation.” It’s what has fueled his guitar shops, which have always been tucked away in hidden corners of the city, getting by almost exclusively on word of mouth — and that is just the way he likes it. “When people show up, there’s always this little moment of ‘am I in the right place?’” he says with a smile. “I feel like that’s very New York. The uneasy feeling. The secret.”