by Dan Sanderson-Staff Writer
A Grayling innovator has given guitar pickers and grinners a thumbs up for over four decades.
Fred Kelly picked up his first guitar as a boy.
“I bought my first guitar for $4 in a second-hand store down in Flint,” he said.
A fan of Merle Travis, best known for the song “Sixteen Tons,” Kelly quickly learned that he needed to use a thumb pick to play similar distinctive musical patterns. Kelly, however, found that the thumb picks that were on the market were too big and clumsy for his liking.
“It discouraged the younger generation from using a thumb pick because they were so big,” Kelly said.
In 1976, Kelly came up with the idea of making a thumb pick with a smaller blade after watching a guitar player scrape down the blade of a thumb pick to make it smaller.
Using a thumb pick, as opposed to a traditional flat pick that is gripped between the thumb and first finger, allows a guitar player to play bass notes with the thumb pick and the melody with their fingers at the same time.
“You can’t do that really good without a thumb pick,” Kelly said. “Well I never could find a thumb pick that would suit me, so I made my own.”
Fred Kelly made his first thumb pick out of a flat piece of plastic, which he formed the way he wanted it with a piece of metal, placed it in a cup of Plaster of Paris and melted it in an oven.
“It came out the shape that I wanted it and that’s how I got started,” Kelly said. “It’s been a long process.”
In 1994, Kelly was dealt a double blow that would eventually lead him into production of thumb picks and flat picks and to launch his business Fred Kelly Picks.
First, Kelly, who served as caretaker for the property that is now the Rayburn Tract on the Main Branch of the AuSable River, lost his job when the Rayburn family sold the land to a private developer. The land was eventually purchased by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, after being vacated a number of years, and is open for public recreation.
“I knew I had to have something to do,” he said. “I was over 50-years-old and there was no work for people who are that old.”
That same year, Kelly also went through open-heart surgery.
“I knew I had to get it going or I was never going to get it going,” he said.
The first thumb pick Kelly produced was the “Speed Pick,” which features two small blades to hold the pick on your thumb and a longer blade to pick the guitar strings. He went on to produce a number of other thumb picks, flat picks and finger picks called “Freedom Picks.”
Fred and his wife, Helen, left Grayling with a Lincoln Town Car loaded with picks. They were able to sell enough picks while traveling across the country to pay for their meals and hotel rooms and build up enough cash to put back into the business.
“We found out we could make a living off of it,” Kelly said.
Next, the Kellys attended their first National Association of Music Merchants Show (NAMM SHOW), which is the world’s largest trade-only event for the music products industry. It is held every January in Anaheim, Calif., at the Anaheim Convention Center. While at the NAMM Show, Kelly said guitarists were intrigued by his thumb pick picks. He learned about the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention, held every July at the Music City Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center. Atkins himself began to use Fred Kelly thumb picks as well as other well-known guitarists Nokie Edwards, Glen Clampbell and Roy Clark. In fact, a flower arrangement for Atkins included some of Fred Kelly’s Picks that were buried with the music legend after he died on June 20, 2001.
“The second year, when I came back to the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention, everybody was using my picks, so it perked me right up,” Kelly said. “It caught on real fast. There was a lot of room for improvements for thumb picks.”
Kelly first had the picks manufactured by other companies.
“I used to farm it out to other people, but it just got to be too expensive,” Kelly said.
Kelly now has his own plastic injection molding presses and molds, and turns out 20,000 to 50,000 picks at one a time. The mold for the more intricate thumb picks produces a pick every 12 to 14 seconds.
“Once we got a mold in, we try to make thousands of a certain kind of pick,” said Kelly, who has six employees at the production facility.
Fred Kelly Picks has distributors that deliver his products across the world. The company also sells picks through its own website and through Amazon, Guitar Center and Musician’s Friend.
Well-known acts such as the Zac Brown Band, Charlie Daniels, Steve Earle, Third Eyed Blind, Doyle Dykes and musician and actor Jeff Daniels use Fred Kelly Picks.
Kelly, who performs at his church and at other venues, said using a thumb pick becomes natural with enough practice.
“You’ve got to train your brain to do it,” Kelly said. “The thumb part comes automatic after you do it awhile.”