Thirty Years of Rauen

Story by Ellen C. Warren ~ Photo by Ann Lamb

Depending upon your level of curiosity and the length of time you’ve lived in Riverwest, you have probably wondered what, exactly, goes on inside that storefront labeled “Rauen Guitars?” There never seems to be any activity around it. The parking lot is generally empty. You’ve walked or driven past many times and it never appears to be open. 

Well, that’s just how Denny Rauen wants it. Not that he’s the least bit anti-social. As a matter of fact he has a very gregarious personality. But if he spent all his time talking, he’d never get all the work done that has kept him in business for thirty years. Denny is not a retailer. He doesn’t sell a product, he sells a service. An extremely specialized service. By appointment.

Denny Rauen is a luthier. The word originally derived from “luth,” the archaic form of the word “lute,” and is presently defined as a person who builds or repairs stringed instruments. After spending years on the building end he eventually gave his energy and talent entirely over to the repair and restoration process. That is where he finds his greatest challenge, and delight!

Denny’s story almost fits the classic “rags to riches” tale. Almost. Growing up with nine siblings in “a little tiny two bedroom house on a slab” in Park Forest, Illinois wasn’t quite the level of poverty that “rags” connotes. Still, there wasn’t enough money to purchase a guitar. He began his musical studies in music stores; he’d visit so often that the owners knew him. He was eventually able to buy his first guitar from his paper route earnings when he was ten. 

And the “riches” part is not quite there either. That, actually, came down to a choice. Says Denny, “In the world out there…people would think that the guitar-building thing would be more interesting – it certainly would make more money – but it’s just not as interesting.”

It might be surprising that a luthier who has worked on guitars for celebrities like Keith Richards, Leo Kottke, Bruce Springsteen and Buddy Guy isn’t rolling in the dough. But as Denny points out, “Yes, we do some work for stars and some wealthy musicians, but most of the people who come in here are not wealthy. They’re musicians. And they’re ones who do it for a living. So they don’t have any money at all!” 

Riverwest has been Rauen Guitars’ home for about twelve years. After building guitars and running production at two Chicago guitar-makers, S.D. Curlee Co. (where he designed the Liberty Bass in 1976) and Dean Guitars (the several models of the Dean Baby series were his designs) he ventured out on his own, setting up shop near Chicago. His single-parent status played into his decision to settle in the “liveable, accessible” Milwaukee area when he moved his business. 

Brady Street was his first stop, until it became clear that the environment would not work for his anti-retail preference. His next shop in the Milwaukee Enterprise Center was meant to be momentary, while he found the right building. “I was looking for a place in Riverwest,” he explains, “because of the people. I just knew they would like me, they would be accepting of a business like this. And I love everybody. I love all the different kinds of artists.”

After nearly ten years of searching, Paul Druecke, well-known artist and former Rauen employee, gave Denny a tip about the Nino’s Bakery building being for sale. He jumped on it and set to work adapting it to his needs. 

The front room now serves as a showroom and consultation area. On the wall hangs a dramatic Dean Baby and a Liberty Bell. Another wall is lined with shelves displaying hundreds of CDs and tapes, gifts from his musician clients. “I need to put up more shelves,” he says, “I ran out of room.”

The majority of the first floor is devoted to his work area. Scattered about are clients’ instruments in different phases of reconstruction. It’s obvious that Denny is comfortable working on anything in the family descended from lutes. Presently in process are an intriguing Gibson Harp guitar with a double neck and an oversize guitar-like specimen called a Mandobass. 

It’s also obvious that almost everything is done without power tools. There are very few in evidence. “This is really kind of an 18th or 19th Century business,” says Denny. “We make so much stuff by hand.”

What keeps him so obviously happy in a business that has lasted thirty years? He says, “I look forward to the work all the time, the challenges. Because I’m really working with individual artists every time…And that interaction that you have there…getting the instrument right, getting it to do just what they want it to do, it’s a real challenge. It’s not a simple thing, restoring old instruments, reaching the expectations that people have. For the most part people are somewhat surprised when they get stuff back from me, because it’s usually working the way they wanted more than they expected. That is really satisfying, to be able to hit that mark.” 

Denny shares his life and success with many beyond his satisfied clients. Presently his one employee, Matt Riebe, is “doing such a good job.” He’s proud of his children, Josh, the father of two sets of twins and a “great guitarist” with whom Denny has played and recorded, as well as his daughter, Lindsay, a Milwaukee area teacher. 

And then there’s the dynamic artist and musician, Pam Scesniak, who he married a couple years ago after eighteen years together. “We did it to make our children happy,” she explains with a laugh. 

Pam, who has been a commissioned artist for thirty years and has primarily been a teacher of a wide array of artistic mediums for the last twenty-five, is the artist behind the sidewalk pictographs on Brady Street. She created the imagery  and sandblasted the eighty-six original pictographs.

Pam’s musical instrument is the accordian. A member of the The Squeezettes, 2012 WAMI winners, she plays venues large and small. Sometimes the setting is as unusual as the streets of Madison during the Farm Aid 25 march.

Being involved in the community and active on the political front are important to both Pam and Denny. A hilarious video of Pam painting Denny in preparation for his ride in the Riverwest 24 can be viewed on youtube. Denny rides the entire twenty-four hours “to test himself.” He’s also a bagpipe player and has piped for the Overpass Light Brigade, another action he supports. Videos abound, by or about Denny Rauen.

So, congratulations on your first 30 years, Rauen Guitars! Honesty, integrity, fairness and amazing skill have contributed to your success. 

When Pam is asked “Why has Denny been so successful?” she cites a book called The Living Treasures of Japan. The treasures in the book are people. “They were artisans, craftspeople who were so good at what they did that they were one of a kind,” she answers. 

“That’s what I think of him. It takes more than being good at something, it takes everything.”