GUITAR HEROES: Local Luthiers A National Hit

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You won’t see it from the road and the don’t do any advertising, but that doesn’t keep business from finding The Lutherie Shop.

How busy are owners Scott Rohden, Bill Henss and Tim Thelen?

“Incredibly busy,” Thelen exhales.

So busy, work is backed up for months.

So busy, they have to lock the front door to catch up.

“Usually for a few days," Rohden admits, "sometimes a week. This last time it was two weeks.”

Midwestern guitarists will tell you there are two reasons why the place is in such a pickle.

“I know they do great work,” says Josh Davis who plays with the Des Moines band, Bright Giant.

Work that almost no one else can do…from fine detailing on priceless classics, to bona fide resurrections.

“It’s not out of the ordinary to have someone come in and say ‘I just backed over my guitar in the driveway,’” Rohden says.

You’d think they’d just hire more help, but see…

“It’s not the kind of job where you can just come in and ‘Okay, guitars are cool, I’m gonna work on them,’” he says.

The other problem is what’s going on on the other side of the room…

After years of restoring instruments, they started making new ones .  "Bilt Guitars" are handmade and custom designed with a look that stands apart.

“I love them," says Brandon Darner, lead guitarist of The Envy Corps, "you’re not gonna miss it and the Bilt logo is nice and big.”

Local players like Darner and Davis jumped on board right away…

But national following was tougher…

“It’s a tough nut to crack if you’re trying to do something completely different," Thelen says. "It’s gonna be really hard to convince people that this is what they need.”

Guitarists are notoriously conservative about their instruments…and the Bilt guitars...

“It’s different," Henss admits, "it doesn’t look like any other current production guitar.”

But the craftsmanship was undeniable, and it wasn’t long before a big name agreed to try one out.

“Nels Cline from Wilco,” Thelen blurts out.

Rolling Stone cheers Nels Cline of Wilco as a true guitar hero, and when he first strapped on a Bilt a few years ago, Thelen and Henss were in the crowd.

“The singer, Jeff Tweedy, had to actually shout it out ‘Looks like Nels has got a new guitar…from Des Moines!’ and that was a cool feeling,” Thelen remembers.

Validated! Dave Kuening of The Killers followed suit…then others…now, standing out is a good thing.

“If you’re a guitar player," Darner says, "you have to ask those questions. ‘What is that guitar about?’”

The story is all over the guitar world’s print media, too, prompting more orders, still.

“We seem to have hit on something that people were looking for,” Thelen says.

If the success has spirits soaring, it only takes a quick glance around the shop to crash back to Earth.

Sooner or later, they’ll need to hire more help.  There is a national demand to meet and it’s growing.

“All of us are Iowans," Darner says, "we’re proud of seeing guys in Iowa that are doing something cool, make it outside of Iowa.”

Hard work by skilled hands…pride in the results of a day’s work.  That’s how Icons begin.  In a small shop in Des Moines, there’s one on its way…striking for us a local chord…on the national stage.


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