‘Keeley Guitars and the New Renaissance Man’

April 1, 2019 - The Silverado Express

By Michael Pickett

 Talking about wood-working instrument-makers seems comparatively exotic in this information age. In a world where people trade data via ones and zeros, finding artisans who create one-of-a-kind guitars in small, rural shops seems like something from another era. Keeley Guitars bridges the gap between old-world excellence in craftsmanship and modern tech applied to world-class instruments. “I’ve always had a passion for the guitar and making things with my hands,” says owner and luthier, David Keeley. “I initially began reading every library book I could get my hands on pertaining to guitar building and instrument repair. Then in 1990, I met luthier Buck Willhite whom I worked with for several years learning how to build harps and guitars.”


Dividing his time between creating custom instruments and repair-work in his beautiful workshop, Keeley often has stacks of exotic wood and rows of his world-class instruments next to cases filled with instruments clients bring him for restoration of various sorts. “When I’m not building custom guitars, mandolins and Irish bouzoukis for my clients, I’m doing instrument repair work. If it has strings, I can probably fix it. This also includes violins, mandolins, banjos, harps, harpsicords, ukuleles and more.” While Keeley’s services range from doing instrument setups, rewiring, refretting, repairing broken necks or violin bows; he enjoys the variety every new request brings.


“Sometimes there’s the occasional guitar that was smashed by an angry spouse,” he muses. “I never know what may end up on the workbench. It could be a budget student violin that needs a proper setup so it plays better, or a major repair of a 1950’s Gibson Les Paul going on a European tour.” Keeley is often so busy, he has to make time to complete his own custom instruments. Previously employed by the city of Kettle Falls providing valuable grant-writing expertise and hands-on improvement of the community, he worked hard to transition from his ‘day job’ to full-time work as a world class instrument-maker and expert repairman. “Honestly, the high-points for me are the relationships I’ve built with my customers. I get to meet a lot of interesting people and they trust me to take care of their instruments. They range from those who are just learning to play guitar, to successful working and touring musicians. I do repair work primarily for the tri-county area, the local music stores and a few special clients outside the area, some sending their instruments from as far away as Arizona.”


Keeley’s professional story is an inspiring one, turning his passion into a successful business that serves other artists near and far. Having worked with other luthiers--some responsible for the iconic instruments of players like Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton and Chet Atkins--Keeley has honed his abilities as a craftsman and business-owner over a period of years. “I enjoy taking a broken instrument and repairing it so it can play music again, especially if it’s going into the hands of a young person wanting to learn. If you have a broken instrument you no longer care about, send it my way. I will fix it and donate it to the Kettle Falls Public School music program. There is still life left in these broken instruments and they deserve a second chance to make music.” Check out one of Keeley’s custom instruments at: keeleyguitars.com or contact him for repairs and further information at: 738-6491 to make an appointment.

It's Been One Year......

It’s been exactly one year since I made the decision to be a fulltime luthier!

After 15 years working for the City of Kettle Falls with massive burnout I made a major life change that has provided me with more happiness, better health and a better understanding about financial stability. The past 12 months have been wonderful because I finally have the freedom to enjoy my life on my terms and work on becoming the person I truly want to be.

Happiness. Without it, we would be miserable, right? Webster’s definition of happiness is: “Good fortune, a state of well-being and contentment.” What makes me happy is spending time with my family, spending time with my best friend Melinda, and working in my shop.

This past year I became a grandfather! Quincy Strandberg was born on September 9th, 2017. Besides spending time with my new grandson and my three kids (all adults in their own right), I enjoy spending time with my best friend Melinda who I plan to marry this fall. I wish I had met her 20 years ago. We are always there for each other and together we are building something very strong. Finally, my choice to leave the rat race and be a fulltime luthier has allowed me the freedom to be creative and productive using my hands and knowledge to build stringed instruments, whenever I want! This is something I have a real passion for- craftsmanship. It’s a skill that only gets better with experience and time.

Health. Without it, we would be miserable, right? Webster’s definition of health is:  “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit.” While working at my previous job for the city, I began to suffer from anxiety, insomnia and eczema. I wasn’t coping well with the stress. All those negative outside factors are now gone. Vanished. Oh they still exist, but they are outside of my small little universe and I plan to keep it that way. Now I have the freedom and time to invest in more important things like real friendships, cooking healthier and finding clarity about things that really matter in the bigger picture.

I am always trying to learn new things and understand different viewpoints. I try to stay positive and associate with like-minded positive people. I’m trying to grow as a person and make my small universe a better place.  

Financial Stability. Without it, we would be miserable, right? The definition of financial stability is: “Living without debt and creating a financially secure environment.” One important factor in making the decision to become a fulltime luthier is that I had zero debt. It took many years to eliminate my consumer debt and pay off my house. This was challenging because in the past I’ve made some bad choices and purchased things I didn’t really need or things I thought I needed. There were times I even had to buy groceries and gas with a credit card, but I worked hard to pay off those cards and cut them up.

I bought my first house 18 years ago. It’s a small house built in 1935 that is reminiscent of a cottage. I purchased the house with a 15-year mortgage and spent the following years doing improvements and upgrades to make the house comfortable to suit my needs. Since I walked away from the day job, my only expenses now are utilities, insurance, groceries and gas. I don’t subscribe to cable TV and I sure as heck don’t miss it. The credit cards are gone. I admit I had a couple financially scary months at first; it was my new reality that I needed to adjust to, but I was creative in finding solutions and I did it without panic. Well… some minor panic. However, that panic created positive motivation. I couldn’t lay around and waste time, I had to get into the shop and make some sawdust. Making sawdust meant making money. The first step toward immediate cash flow was generating business by doing repairs and setups for customers and for the House of Music in Colville.  I no longer had that steady paycheck to rely on and I do not intend to go back to another day job.

Around the same time I left my job at the city, Melinda turned me onto a Netflix show called Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. I watched it several times and decided I need to make a plan. I gutted my shop down to bare shelves; if it didn’t pertain to luthiery it was gifted, taken to the dump, or it went into a storage shed to be dealt with later. I also took this same approach to my home. I made seven trips to the dump that week and removed as much clutter and unnecessary items from my life as possible. I mean really, how many pots and pans and screwdrivers does one person need? Decluttering also meant eliminating people and organizations that were no longer important to my overall plan. I called these my time wasters. I must say, the purge was liberating! All these ‘things’ were actually feeling like a heavy anchor around my neck. Everything now serves a purpose and function and is part of my plan for a happy, healthy and financially stable life

Now that I’m living my dream of being a fulltime luthier I am enjoying a happier, healthier and financially stable lifestyle. I have the freedom to make my own choices and decisions. I am in control of my own time and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it!

Someone once told me, “There are two kinds of people. Those with lots of money and those with lots of time. You can’t have both.” As long as I’m able to maintain my lifestyle I prefer to be the person with lots of time. And, as Melinda once told me, “We’re on this planet for only so long”. Think about that for a minute.

I prefer to make the best use of my time.



Dave Keeley makes guitars entirely by hand

March 9, 2014 - The Spokesman Review

By Alex Ashley

“When words fail, the guitar speaks.”

George Szell – a renowned, Hungarian-born, American conductor and composer – had it right when he said this so many years ago. Guitars are a remarkable instrument: They create expression where there might otherwise be silence; they create warm emotion where there might otherwise be cold logic; they create nostalgia when there might otherwise be oblivion. Still, whatever the case may be, someone somewhere had to create them.

That’s where Dave Keeley enters the picture. Keeley has been creating top-notch, vintage-style instruments for the past 20 years.

“When I moved to Curlew about 17 years ago, I worked with this guy in Republic who built harps,” Keeley recalled. “I worked with him for three or four years and made around 300 harps.
“From there, I just branched out to guitars.”

Staying true to the craft

Step into Keeley’s small workshop behind his home in Kettle Falls, Wash., and you enter a carefully constructed ecosystem – stabilized at 70 degrees with 45 percent humidity – that is like stepping into a time machine and going back to the 1920s. There are no industrial machines, no drills. The walls are not lined with synthetic, modern ingredients typically used by many of Keeley’s contemporaries.

“A truly great instrument needs the human touch, intuition and insight,” he said. “Therefore, I still primarily use hand tools so that I may feel the wood as I work with it.” Keeley’s objective is to produce – from scratch – “vintage-style” guitars that are unique, but characteristic of an instrument that may have already lived a few lifetimes.

One of the most important ingredients in “the perfect guitar” is the wood. “If you are building guitars from the 1900s, you are going to want wood from the 1900s,” Keeley said. “If you are shaping a piece of old-growth wood, imagine its history. Imagine the sounds it has absorbed throughout the years. And then, when you throw half a dozen strings on it and it becomes an instrument, you are literally playing history.”

Keeley’s careful selection of materials provides each of his instruments with separate and distinct personalities. “Many times, I’ll go out into the forest and fall a specific tree,” he said. “I’ll take the wood home and split it into billets so it will slowly dry. Then, I have a nice little stockpile of wood to choose from when it is ready. Each instrument is unique; I can tell you how old the tree was, where it was located, and anything unique about it. It may have been in a fire near Black Lake in 1910, salvaged old-growth from the bottom of Lake Superior or the wood may have been used as timbers from a century-old mill. Each instrument and the wood it came from has a story to tell.”

However, more is involved than just the wood Keeley uses. Two thick, dusty volumes sit on a shelf in his workshop: “The Tomlinson Cyclopedia of Useful Arts,” published in 1852. This is one of many reference books he uses to maintain authenticity when crafting his instruments. For Keeley, it is essentially a cookbook filled with recipes, which he consults when whipping up a varnish for his guitars from scratch.

“The last thing you want to do is try to reproduce a vintage-style guitar, and then spray polyurethane on it,” he said. “I try to use the same methods and products that were available at the time these old, vintage instruments were originally constructed. Varnishes were used on stringed instruments until about the 1940s, when guitars builders switched over to lacquer. Violins still use varnish, but modern guitar manufacturers now use polyurethane. I use lacquer, because that is what is most favored by guitar players.”

Although his experience has earned him the ability to flawlessly recreate many of history’s most celebrated and distinguished instruments – a Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin, or perhaps a Martin OM acoustic – the luthier said he still prefers innovation over recreation. “Yes, I can make a copy of a vintage instrument, because most people cannot afford to buy an original. But I would rather take my knowledge of instruments, build my own design, and take it to the next level. I have built many of my own designed instruments, and that is what I prefer to do.”

Mellad Abeid, guitarist of the Celtic band An Dochas, is a regular customer of Keeley Guitars.
“Dave’s guitars are well-built,” Abeid said. Among the Keeley instruments Mellad owns is a vintage-style Telecaster fashioned out of the stump of an old black walnut tree his uncle had.
“I like his guitars because he works very hard on them and aims to please,” Abeid said. “They have a great lively feel to them, and each instrument has its own character and voice. They are touch-sensitive and a joy to play.”

Staying local

Because Washington is so diverse and bursting with natural provisions, Keeley prefers to stay local when looking for materials for his instruments.

“When I first started building,” he said, “I strived to use local materials because it was affordable.” The nut and saddle of a guitar, for example, may be hand-carved out of cow bone retrieved from a local farmer. The body of the guitar may be crafted from a locally felled tree from the Colville Valley. The people who most often benefit from Keeley’s skills and craftsmanship are often as homegrown as the signature Keeley instrument they receive.

Paying it forward

Aside from reaping the benefits of the efforts he’s sown – seeing a raw piece of wood evolve into an advanced instrument, and a one-of-a-kind work of art – Keeley said some of his most rewarding experiences have come from the tradition he has carried out since 2000: mentoring high school students for their senior projects.

“It’s very therapeutic,” Keeley said. “Hours go by and I don’t even realize it. I wish I could do it seven days a week.” But as with most good deeds, the blessings that come from Keeley’s interest in paying forward his abilities to future generations, are not unilateral.

Kylan Kegel, one of Keeley’s former pupils, describes his mentor as “a patient and careful craftsman with a keen imaginative eye and an extensive knowledge base.” Kegel said his work with Keeley was “an enlightening, fun, and maturing experience. My woodworking experience prior to this project was very limited, and Dave helped me learn the value of careful work, attention to detail, and using one’s imagination for art.”

He added: “I would certainly recommend this type of project to any student who is interested in creating a high quality, complex musical instrument. It is something you can enjoy forever, and learn a lot along the way.”

Plans for the future?

Currently, Keeley said he is limited in his turnaround for instruments. “I usually build four instruments a year, and that’s working weekends and some evenings. Right now, the waiting list for my instruments is eight months in advance.”

He hopes to speed that process up and expand his business.

“You are going to see a lot of changes in my luthiery business before summer comes around,” he said. “I have hired a business consultant to help me expand my business. My goal is to be full-time with an employee in about three years.”

He is even expanding in terms of instrument designs, planning to introduce a bouzouki – an Irish, eight-stringed, mandolin-like instrument with the neck scale of a guitar and a teardrop body.
“It can be tuned for mandolin players like a bass mandolin, it can be tuned in open tuning and sounds great playing some of the Led Zeppelin covers, and of course there are Irish tunes as well. It would be a hot seller at the Spokane folk festival.”