GRAYLING, MICH. — In his 50s and in need of a second career, Fred Kelly put his fascination with Merle Travis and his irritation with guitar picks to work.
The unemployed property manager had always wanted to emulate the late country musician's guitar playing — the way he palmed his hand to accentuate bass notes — but Travis's technique eluded him.
“He was a thumb picker and a finger picker and I listened to this forever when I was just a kid,” Kelly, now 82, recalled. “I said, ‘Wow; it sounds like a whole band. How's he doing that?'”
His curiosity about achieving different guitar sounds coupled with the limited selection of picks on the market led to the opening of Fred Kelly Picks in the late 1980s. Kelly got his injection molding business going at another facility, where he learned to work the machines. Now he runs three presses in a small workshop off a dirt road in the woods of Grayling in northern Michigan.
Kelly said he had always found guitar picks to be big and bulky. He knew others agreed and after watching a guitar player crudely modify a thumb pick, he wanted to do something about it.
“This fellow, he was scraping on a pick, trying to work it down — one of these big picks,” Kelly said. “I looked at that and thought there has to be an easier way to make it more comfortable and easier for people to wear. So this came to mind.”
Kelly held up his first product — a thumb pick with a long, thin center shank — called the “speed pick.” He designed it to offer musicians precision and tonal quality on top of speed.
“You see it's got a blade,” Kelly pointed out. “It's thinner than the sides.”
Nowadays, Fred Kelly Picks is molding some 60 styles and sizes of guitar picks — arguably the biggest selection in the world. He uses three kinds of plastic and he calls his latest model — the Bumblebee, which is made of Delrin acetal from two molds — “the pick of the century” because it's adjustable.
“Adjust the amount of blade striking the string and set the angle of attack as you prefer,” Kelly's website says. “Switch from thumb picking to flat picking without changing picks.”
After all of his innovations to those little pieces of plastic used to make such a wide range of sounds, Kelly counts a loyal following that started with likes of the late Chet Atkins and continues today with the Zac Brown Band among his blessings.
Kelly had a hunch his first pick innovation would resonate with guitar players after making the prototype in his kitchen oven back in 1975. He used plaster of paris and a resin he doesn't recall.
“You've got a small blade so when you're strumming the guitar you don't have a whole lot of anything muffling the strings,” Kelly explained. “The strings ring out like a bell.”
He put his home-made picks on note cards and shopped them around at some stores. However, he really wasn't determined to ring up sales until his job of managing 1,400 acres of private land was eliminated years later.
When it got too costly to farm out production, Kelly built the workshop across the yard from his house in 1993. He bought a used Boy 15S injection molding machine from a college in Grand Rapids in 1994.
After a lot of tinkering, trial and error, Kelly has settled on three materials to make all of his products. He uses acetal for its durability, nylon for its flexibility and polycarbonate for its ability to create bright sounds.
To widen his reach, Kelly and his wife, Helen, set out on a road trip with $400 and a Lincoln Town Car packed with light, medium and heavy guitar picks. They went to retail outlets and conventions around the U.S. and their products struck a chord in most places. Every music store in Lynchburg, Va., bought some. The trip was a success and the couple came home with $2,500.
Word of mouth — and ear — created more buzz and demand. Christian singer Doyle Dykes — “he plays the daylights out of a guitar,” Kelly says — was one of the first “speed pick” fans.
“I didn't even know he was using them until I went to a Chet Atkins convention and I heard Doyle play. Chet Atkins was sitting in the front row watching Doyle, who plays harmonics just fluidly.”
Atkins also used Fred Kelly Picks as did Roy Clark and Glen Campbell. Some were put in flowers arranged in the shape of a guitar for Atkins's funeral.
“They had about a dozen picks on there and all of them were mine but one,” Kelly said.
He also customizes a pick for Charlie Daniels and gets orders regularly from Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Nokie Edwards of The Ventures and John Sebastian, founder of The Lovin' Spoonful. His customer list also includes Steve Earle, Third Eye Blind and actor Jeff Daniels.
Business picks up
As his product line and demand grew over the years, Kelly added a used 25-ton Battenfeld molding machine that he found in Ohio to his shop and more recently a brand new Boy 22A. He has seven employees, including daughters Margy Alexander and Patricia Napier.
Kelly hesitated to say exactly what his annual output is but when he is low on an item, he will make a run of 8,000 to 10,000.
Thumb picks continue to be his best-selling product. Kelly also makes flat picks that are textured for improved gripping, 10 kinds of picks for left-handed players, and picks with a skirt around the edge.
“So you can turn it and use that part of the pick, too, if you want. It's heavier,” he said. “The skirt comes in handy.”
These days Fred Kelly Picks are sold through national retailers like Guitar Center and online. The octogenarian has a newfound appreciation for the internet. He was troubled when sales stumbled for a few months last year because of website problems but now he is seeing sales grow with a recent foray onto Amazon.com.
Kelly has plans for one more product, too, but won't go into any detail about it except to say, “I think its good enough where it will sell.”