interview by David Lee of the band Crimson Fool
Dave Rogers had little more than a handful of guitars and a dream when he opened the now world famous “Dave’s Guitar Shop,” located in the little known music mecca of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Dave Rogers is living proof that with hard work, sacrifice and networking (and this is before the days of the internet and the world wide web, mind you) anything can be achieved. I have known Dave for over 25 years and as a punk kid, I was a regular in his store. I bought my first bass from him, and had to make sure I had a “Dave’s Guitar Shop” T Shirt (because no real musician would be without one! I mean, they are just waaaay cool.) I now sit in Dave Rogers office, that is actually bigger than his entire first store, to find out more about Dave, his beginnings, the ingenuity that got him to where he is today and hear some stories about rock and roll.
Dave, you have said what interested you in music and guitars was your older brother who played in bands when you about 12 years old. At what age were you when you first started playing guitar?
I was born and raised in Marshfield Wisconsin and that is where my brother’s band was based. My brother had a great record collection that he shared with me and both he and my Mom helped me get a guitar to get started, even though money was very tight at our household. As I remember it my first guitar came from Woolworths and we got it for $10 as it was missing the bridge. My brother got a bridge on it for me and made it playable. I was probably around 12 at this time.
What was the first guitar you bought for yourself?
I outgrew my first guitar pretty quickly. After that my brother lined me up with a Hagstrom that was pretty nice. That was my first decent, playable guitar.
Who influenced you musically and what music did you listen to growing up?
My brother was a big influence, but in that time frame (late 60’s/early 70’s) guitar music was just exploding! I pretty much lived on Hendrix, Cream, Derek and the Dominoes and Allman Brothers albums.
You are what I would categorize primarily as a “blues guitarist.” What major artists have you gotten to either play with or even jam with?
I’ve done business with a lot of major players, but as far as playing with any of them, that really hasn’t happened. I had an opportunity to jam with Elliot Easton from the Cars many years ago and I did get to play on stage with Paul Reed Smith one time. Definitely both of those were highlights for me. My band has opened up for many great artists though. Johnny Winter, Dickie Betts and John Mayall, to name a few.
You first opened your store in 1982 and have been quoted as saying that you “could not afford a sign for your store and couldn’t even get a loan.“ What made you first decide to open Dave’s Guitar Shop and where was the first location of your store?
I opened my own store in a state of desperation! I had worked at a local music store (Dahlberg’s) and when the owners were retiring and closing up the place, I applied at the other two music stores in town. Neither of them were interested in hiring me as I only knew guitars and they were full line stores. I really didn’t feel like I had a choice at that point. I kind of bought, sold and repaired guitars out of my mobile home for a while and the bass player in my band finally talked me into opening up my own shop. I rented out a little place on Ward Avenue for $200/month. I put up all of my personal guitars for sale to get things started and I did apply for a $600 loan to get a sign for my store, but the bank turned me down! I laugh about it now, but I was very disheartened at the time. The first guitar I sold as a business was to Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick and I took that money and bought a sign!
Dave, you had worked in a music store for a very short time before you opened your own store. How did you know that you would be successful, and did you imagine back then that you would be as successful as you are today?
I had no clues on how to run a business and I never dreamt that it would be as successful as it is. I was just hoping I’d do well enough to make the payments on my mobile home and put food on the table. It really was a struggle for the first 5 or 6 years. I did not draw a pay check for the first 5 years and just put all the money back into the business. The money I made playing in the band went to cover the household expenses.
You have come a long way from your very humble beginnings. Was there ever a time that you thought about packing it all up, looking through the classifieds and getting a factory job and if so, what stopped you?
One thing about me is that I am very driven and I don’t believe in giving up. There were definitely some frustrating/stressful/humbling times, but I always kept my nose to the grindstone and looked to the future.
Your first five years in business, you not only put in long hours, but constantly reinvested in your own business. Is there anything you would have done differently in those early years and if so, what?
No, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I have great memories of those earlier years (reading paperback books at the counter waiting for any customer to come through the door, hanging out with many of my musician friends throughout the day, talking about gear and music). In some ways, I miss those simpler times.
I had heard a story that your first sale was not only to a major artist, but it was the day before you opened for business. Who was the very first major artist that you sold a guitar to and how did that happen?
The first major artist was Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick. They were playing in town the night before I opened up the shop. I went to the show with a trunk full of guitars, talked with the sound tech who got me back stage with Rick and all of his guitars. I was in heaven! I think he was touring with 30 or 40 very cool guitars and he was very cool about showing them to me. I was really honored to be there as he was definitely a hero of mine, both for his music and his guitar collection. He ended up keeping me out until 4:00 in the morning and I had to open up the store the next day, but that will me a memory I’ll always treasure. He bought a Les Paul Junior from me (probably out of sympathy) and that paid for my sign! Since then we’ve been honored to sell guitars to many of my heroes. Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Billy Gibbons, Greg Martin, Steve Miller, John 5, Buck Cherry, and the list goes on and on.
I had recently interviewed the band Vixen, and their bass player Lynn said she bought her first bass and amp at your store. (I actually bought my first bass and amp here as well…the bass was a Hamer) I imagine there have not been as many female musicians in your store as there have been men, but do you remember Lynn?
I do remember Lynn and her guitar player. Back then it was unusual, but very cool to see girls getting into rock guitar. Much more common now.
The second floor of your store is an impressive vintage guitar museum that you have stocked with your personal collection of guitars. Tell me about your guitars, the most rare, your “pride and joy” and what is the most you have been offered to sell one of them, for which guitar and who was it?
The one I’ve had the longest is a 1957 Strat in a rare custom color called Taos Turquoise. That one is very near and dear to me. I showed it to Eric Clapton once and he wasn’t happy when I told him it wasn’t for sale. Steven Seagal also offered $125,000 for it at one time. Other guitars that are favorites are a ’59 Les Paul Standard that I bought from the original owner, I’ve also got an original ’59 Flying V and Explorer, a ’60 Blonde Dot Neck ES-335, a few ’54 Strats, a ’51 Broadcaster and the list goes on and on. I’ve got between 400-500 guitars in the collection now and all of them are very special to me.
How many guitars do you currently have in stock at your store?
It fluctuates between 2000-3000.
There has been huge changes in the music business over the last 10 years, especially in retail sales of CD’s due to the internet and downloading of music. Has the internet affected you in a positive or negative way in regards to the sales of guitars, and what if anything did you have to adapt to or change to remain successful?
Definitely positive for me! We certainly wouldn’t be doing the kind of business we’re doing now if we were just limited to the La Crosse market. There are always changes taking place and you definitely have to keep up with it all.
Where have you seen most of your guitar sales coming from in the last 5 years? (overseas, North America, United States, state wide/ walk in vs. internet etc).
Probably 80% of our business is done off of our web site and there is hardly ever a day that we aren’t shipping a guitar or two overseas.
What do you at or look for when considering buying a guitar to add to your rare and vintage guitar collection?
After all these years I am still always looking for the next addition to the collection. I look for nice condition all original examples, although if a guitar is extremely rare, I’ll certainly overlook it being a bit road worn. I’ll also replace guitars in my collection if I find a cleaner example. I have a soft spot in my heart for maple necked 50’s Strats, Black Guard Teles and PAF equipped Gibsons.
Where have you primarily found the guitars in your collection and do you have an interesting story about one of your finds?
I could write a book of stories on how I’ve found some of these guitars and some of the lengths I’ve gone to to get them! I’ve mellowed out a bit these last few years and maybe that’s because I feel I have pretty much every guitar I’ve ever dreamed of owning, but I can always come up with a reason to buy another one!
I was in a book store not long ago and happened upon a book with your picture on the cover. Tell me about your book.
I’ve never written a book on my own, but there have been a couple of books written about the store or the collection. I have contributed to a few books for guitar values and many of the guitars from my collection have been featured in books and magazines over the years.
Is there anything in your past that you kick yourself for either doing or not doing and what would that have been?
Hind sight is always 20/20 and I have made decisions that have not always worked in my direction. As more and more people depend on the decisions that I make, I try to bounce things off my key co-workers to get their opinions on these decisions as I’ve proved time and time again that I don’t have all the answers, but that is part of the learning process. In general we’ve always run the business on the highest moral ground and it has definitely paid off over the last 30 years.
Dave’s Guitar Shop is a distributor of PRS guitars, one of the highest quality custom guitars on the market. In your collection you have a special edition PRS guitar that you yourself co designed. Tell me more about that.
I was very proud to get together with Paul for our 25th Anniversary and design a guitar with his help. He’s been a good friend for many years and he is one of the smartest people I know. He has given me much business advice over the years and I consider myself a very passionate man about guitars and the business, but he puts me to shame in that department!
What last words of advice do you have to Rock Thiz Magazine readers and anyone with a dream, who have the odds stacked against them?
Just follow your dream and don’t look back. I think people are too concerned about money and success, but that isn’t what it is all about. Being involved in something you feel passionate about is reward enough.