Jimmy Carbonetti, Caveman band member and the proprietor of Carbonetti Guitars located on New York’s Lower East Side, still has plenty of life to live before he churns out the next self-help best seller. But if a Carbonetti’s Rules for Success ever does surface, the lessons should seem familiar: do what you love and find mentors.
Getting both lined up didn’t take long in Carbonetti’s case. Landing a gig at the age of 18 handling odd jobs for rock impresario Giorgio Gomelsky at his storied rehearsal space the Red Door soon transitioned into a position sweeping floors at Chelsea Guitars. Hard work and talent turned sweeping into successful rock and guitar-building careers.
Today you’ll find Carbonetti at the workbench of his own shop, dreaming up bespoke musical wonders with his friend and fellow craftsman Mas Hino in between jaunts around the globe with his indie Caveman bandmates. We caught up with the musician and luthier ahead of his next appearance in Austin to chat about everything from the origins of his “Cobra” nickname to his musical heroes and a few of his latest projects.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Be confident and believe in what you are creating.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Learn how to make a guitar with only hand tools.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I’m making four custom guitars and a bass right now, all very different projects for special people. One custom guitar is for my friends at Earthquaker Devices, who make handmade effect pedals that I love; the bass is for Albert DiFiore, who owns The Rumpus Room Studio in Brooklyn where we recorded our last Caveman Record. I’ve also been on tour for the past few months with my band Caveman, which has been incredible!
My Great Grandfather had five gold Cobra rings made, and I got one handed down to me on my 18th birthday. My friend Mike started calling me Cobra and it stuck.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. My very talented friends.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: My dude Mas Hino influences me every day with his master craftsmanship and skills. We’ve been sitting next to each other for the past three years and learning so much together.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. I just finished reading the Ronnie Wood bio. He is one of my heroes. Between his musicianship and just his vibe and outlook on life, it’s magical.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. If I answered this then people would know.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. For a drink I will have a Gauntlet with a pint of Angel’s Tears and to eat I will have a 20-ounce T-bone steak.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. Keep doing what you’re doing. Work hard and have fun, everything’s going to turn out great!
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As a classy gentleman who loves to make instruments, play music and have the best times with my amazing friends.
Q. “Cobra” is the kind of badass nickname Chuck Norris would kill for. What’s the story there?
A. My Great Grandfather had five gold Cobra rings made, and I got one handed down to me on my 18th birthday. My friend Mike started calling me Cobra and it stuck.
Q. Guitarists have always had special relationships with their instruments. Frampton made his speak; Hendrix and Townshend burned and smashed theirs, respectively. But it’s rare to find someone who both makes and plays them. Has your experience as a guitar craftsmen changed your sound or approach to playing?
A. Being a luthier and a musician has definitely had a lot to do with my guitar sound and my playing. I worked at vintage guitar shops for years before I started making instruments, so I got to play so many different styles and eras of guitars, so I feel like I have an upper hand with understanding both a musician’s mind and having a builder’s and repairman’s mindset.
Q. What’s the most enjoyable part of the guitar making process? What’s the toughest?
A. I love planning out the instrument with the person I’m making it for. Thinking of ideas that will make the guitar or bass perfect for the musician. That can also be the toughest part too. But I really love every step. It’s very meditative.
Q. Is there any process you follow when it comes to making music?
A. Be open to everything and experiment with everything.
Q. How do you balance your time between the band and the shop?
A. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. Whenever I’m not on tour I’m in the shop everyday and for long hours. I love it. For me it’s an amazing balance.
GUITAR-MAKING, THEN AND NOW
The word luthier originates from the French luth, meaning lute — a family of string instruments you probably associate with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. From the first lyre to the latest electric guitar, luthiers like Carbonetti have developed the craft of constructing and repairing stringed instruments.
As opposed to relatively insulated, large-scale instrument manufacturers, independent luthiers have been put into jeopardy by recent environmental legislation. A 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act made rare and valuable wood — such as Brazilian rosewood, which is regarded as the one of the best sounding woods for string instruments — that luthiers stockpile a bankrupting liability. Unless the luthiers can document the source and age of protected materials, which are sometimes handed down through generations, they risk huge fines and confiscation.
Read more about this luthier-related legislation from The New York Times.
– J. Travis Smith
Q. You and the rest of the band will be playing SXSW for the third year in a row this year. How does this festival compare to other gigs you’ve played? Do you expect this year to be any different from past years?
A. I love SXSW. It’s a vibe where you play 14 shows and see old friends and make new ones. Its so much fun! CMJ I feel is the only other one like it but at the same time it’s totally different. This year we’re only going down during interactive week so that will be different.
Q. You were born in New York and continue to draw a lot of inspiration from the city. What makes the Big Apple so unique?
A. NYC inspires me everyday. You can walk everywhere and meet a lot of different types of people. There’s so many opportunities to do whatever you want and pursue your dreams — you just have to work really hard and be open to everything.
Q. We’ve heard that you’re a big fan of Ronnie Wood, one of the few musicians who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice, once with The Stones and once with Faces. Do you have any similar personal goals or aspirations as a musician?
A. Ronnie Wood is my hero. His vibe is just being an artist and having fun, playing music with all his friends. My goal as a musician is to play music with my best friends ’til I die and touring around the world together. Collaborate as much as possible and be open to everything.
Q. Rumor has it that you’re also known for your distinctive style and facial hair. How did the look evolve?
A. My guitar shop is within the compound of By Robert James, who makes the best menswear, all made in NYC. We’ve been friends for about 10 years and inspired one another a lot even before each of us had our own shops. I’ve been very fortunate to only own the clothing he makes, which all has a very strong personality and vibe that I love. I’ve also gone through a lot of different looks and facial hair, but I have now just been shaving.
Q. You guys bucked the status quo by self-releasing your first album and subsequently signing with a record label. Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians weighing the pros and cons of each strategy?
A. I feel that in the early stages of a band it’s so important to play as many shows as possible and make them events or parties and get your music out into the world. Every situation is very different. We started our own label because, at the time, that was the only way our record was going to come out. It’s a lot of work and keeping up with everything, but it’s an opportunity to do things all the way you want.
Never heard of Caveman? Listen to one of our favorite tracks from the band “In the City” below.
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