Anthony Cartinella is a real life Clark Kent. By day, he teaches concert band and musical theater to middle and high school students in Central New Jersey, just off the Jersey Shore and on the outskirts of the Tri-State area. By night, Cartinella becomes Superman, retreating into his fortress of solitude—a home workshop that is the center of operations for Black 35 Guitars.
A scroll through his Instagram tells the story of a down-to-earth builder connected with his audience who doesn’t sacrifice craftsmanship for practicality. Plus, how could you not love his de facto mascot Preddy, who has an Instagram account of his own? With over 100 guitars built and 3,000 Instagram followers, Black 35 continues to build organic buzz with each new forward-thinking guitar.
I met Cartinella during Summer NAMM in Nashville. In my recap of day one of the music-gear conference, his booth was one of the highlights. I cited Black 35 Guitars as an example of the power of collaboration, but also I purchased a guitar from him, which I’ll be sure to share for the gear nerds of our readership. When we talked for this story a week or so later, Cartinella showed me a few ideas he was already working on for next year’s Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, revealing a big vision for his small business.
Cartinella’s work ethic can be rooted back to his teenage years when he was ensnared not by guitars but by marching percussion. Outside of school, Cartinella connected most with the music of the Who, and it was precisely their music that made things click for him. It was at a Drum Corps International (DCI) show where things all came together. “In 1990, I saw the Blue Devils from Anaheim play Tommy,” Cartinella explained, “which was cool because that was the first time in my musical career that a few very influential awesome things collided.” Cartinella eventually went on to perform with a DCI corps himself, spending time marching on the bass line in 1996 with the Crossmen who were based out of Delaware at the time.
For the uninitiated, DCI is like a high-school marching band on steroids where groups are judged on precision. It requires dedication and a touring lifestyle that is probably the least glamorous in the lexicon of touring. “I grew up real fast because I hit the road for two and half months. We were on five buses with 120 musicians [performing] as a professional marching band all over the country. The bus is rolling into somewhere and you’re sleeping on a gym floor for a few hours before getting up to play.”
Around this time, Cartinella founded Dark Horse Percussion in his parent’s basement. He started the company intending to deal marching and orchestral percussion and supplies to local high school programs and drum corps due to a lack of supplies in the area. “I would go to a Sam Ash Music and ask about marching sticks and a Kevlar head. These guys had no idea what I was talking about.” A big order from a friend who had just taken over as a band director in Pennsylvania helped him secure an account with Pearl, a renown drum maker, and Dark Horse was in business.
Eventually, Cartinella connected with SJC Drums, a custom drum maker, supplying them with parts and occasional finishing work while the company was in their early stages. Cartinella had also been building drums for fun with his father on the side, so building drums under the Dark Horse name was inevitable. While he doesn’t own the company anymore, Dark Horse Percussion is still going strong, and on occasion Cartinella still works and consults with the company. During his time at Dark Horse, Cartinella made kits for the Gaslight Anthem, the Menzingers, RX Bandits, Eminem, the Wonder Years, Title Fight and the Bouncing Souls, among hundreds of others.
Black 35, on the other hand, is a fresh endeavor for Cartinella. With his gear-building experience carried forward from Dark Horse, extra attention is paid to ensure the reliability of the instrument. It’s a style summed up by his commitment to building instruments that look good and sound good in different settings. “[Building guitars] really wasn’t an abrupt transition,” Cartinella explained. “It was more of a progression that led to a full switch. For the last 12 years, I always messed around with guitars, making and refinishing them whenever I would have any downtime from drum building. Coupled with my knowledge of woodworking and finishing, I learned through picking the brains of luthiers and technicians I knew from the road and through bands I built drums for.”
Cartinella has been surprised by how quickly Black 35 Guitars has taken off, especially considering his original intentions were much less ambitious than a full-time gig. “I started making stuff that wasn’t for customers, just things I wanted to make, and putting them [on Instagram]. I literally launched Black 35 for fun. 35 is my favorite number. It was Mike Richter on the New York Rangers. I love 35 black in roulette. I was doing a lot of research on coding, so I was like, ‘Hey, I want to make a new website.’ The next thing you know I started picking up more and more followers, and then guys were ordering stuff. I’d post a guitar and someone would buy it. People were into the vibe and mystique.”
Cartinella believes a custom instrument shouldn’t necessarily bear the price tag associated with custom instruments. His guitars sit at a very affordable price point compared to the quality and craftsmanship put into the instrument. A quick glance over the Black 35 Guitars website displays tasteful takes on classic guitar shapes with stunning finishes, gorgeous wood and high-quality hardware. There’s a wide variety of customized wiring options you don’t see on guitars that come from big name companies. The price keeps it accessible to the working musician with a style for everyone.
“A lot of musicians I know are really stoked they can get a kickass guitar to add to their collection that’s not gonna break the bank. They need something that is gonna sound good, stay in tune and be reliable, [but they’re] also not afraid if something happens to it. That’s why you’re not gonna see a guy bring a four thousand dollar ‘81 gold-top Les Paul to a show. Someone’s gonna eye it up and steal it, or someone’s gonna knock it over and spill beer on it, and then it’s done. You don’t want to deal with that.”
Some of the guitars come with amazing distressed finishes, having undergone a process called “relic-ing,” which combines the duality of creation and destruction. Cartinella has a box of toys he uses to manipulate and work the wood, and the end results speak for themselves. The guitars I played at NAMM were like a pair of broken-in Levi’s. It was night and day compared to the mass-produced guitar makers who clearly fake the damage by using different paint colors instead of actually scarring the wood.
One of my favorite design elements about Black 35 Guitars is that every logo on the headstock is unique. Cartinella uses a stamp for the 3 and another for the 5 and presses each during construction, ensuring that no “35” looks exactly the same. It may be a small detail, but it reveals the humanity and passion that goes into every guitar.
As with his background in making drums, there are also parallels between the business world and Cartinella’s life as a teacher. Both involve time management and knowing your audience. “The idea in education that no two students are the same is the same as the idea in business that no two customers are the same. People skills and being able to cater your style and approach differently for each type of learner or customer is key.”
Cartinella appreciates the balance of having one foot in teaching and one foot in gear-building. You get the sense he genuinely loves being a teacher and getting kids into music. “I love teaching. I love working with kids, especially high school kids. Being able to know that I can draw from both teaching and Black 35 is nice.”
In the golden age of music gear we live in, which combines access to information, materials and community via the internet, one could throw a rock and hit an up-and-coming luthier or drum builder. What sets companies and their owners apart, however, is authenticity and craftsmanship. In the case of Anthony Cartinella and Black 35, he’s pushing the world of custom guitars forward, and showing little signs of slowing down.