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Master Milwaukee luthier celebrates 40 years of restoring guitars of the stars

Denny Rauen has been a Milwaukee lutheir for 40 years. He has made guitars for Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, and Leo Kottke.
Posted at 3:37 PM, Sep 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-09 18:50:51-04

MILWAUKEE — A master luthier in Milwaukee who has worked on guitars for some of the biggest names in music is celebrating a major milestone.

Denny Rauen has worked on guitars for Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Buddy Guy the legendary blues musician, Leo Kottke a famous fingerstyle guitarist, and so many more. This year, Rauen is celebrating 40 years of 'Rauen Guitars' in Riverwest. He couldn't imagine doing anything else.

"That's just part of me, you know. That part of me that loves fixing things, and how do things work, and I have natural sort of physics sense," he said.

He opened his shop in 1982 after working a few spells with larger manufacturers like S.D. Curlee and Dean Guitars. He was a production manager and designer for those companies. However, his true passion was hands-on work with guitars. So he left those jobs to open up his own shop.

Denny Rauen
Rauen plays a bass he is working on to make sure everything on this instrument is finished.

"My first instrument as a kid, my brothers broke it within a few weeks. So I was under the process of learning how to fix it," he said.

While he started making one-of-a-kind instruments, he transitioned to restoring and repairing guitars.

Rauen's workshop is filled with guitars and parts of guitars. There are stray guitar necks and guitar bodies just waiting to be worked on. All of them are in various stages of completion. When asked about the kind of backlog he is experiencing, he said that's impossible to tell. Some guitars take more work than others. Some clients might need their guitars back sooner. Even though it might seem like a daunting task to be in the middle of so many different projects, he loves the work.

"I'm actually a player too, and I really like the nuts and bolts, and the changing thing that happens when you're in repair and customizing, and building boutique guitars.”

Rauen takes hours on each guitar perfecting the most minute details. He spent about 10-15 minutes making sure the tuning was just right on a bass he was fixing. The clientele that Rauen has expects the highest level of craftsmanship. That means a lot of time is spent on each instrument.

"Guitar players in general, really musicians, don’t really make a lot of money. But what they require, and what they want and the amount of hours they spend to perfect their craft is off the chart."

So each guitar needs to have the perfect sound and feel that resonates with the customer in just the right way.

Luthier
Denny Rauen sitting inside his shop Rauen Guitars in Riverwest.

Like a musician, Rauen doesn't do this for the money. In fact, he said it's not a very lucrative business. What keeps him going every day is his love for guitars.

"It's not the money. Don’t fool yourself there. To do this work and succeed at it, first thing you’re going to have to do is love the bohemian lifestyle."

Rauen is a self-proclaimed hippie and an activist. This is the lifestyle that suits him.

"What do I love about what I do? That's a good question. Everything."

He has even contributed to the innovation of guitar making. He said he was the first person to come up with the multi radius fret board or a compound radius in 1978.

"(It's) a unique radius that goes on the fingerboard, and it's all about rock and roll. It's about being able to bend the note and it hangs and at the same time being very comfortable by the nut for your chording."

There has been an issue with others claiming they made it first, but Rauen wants to set the record straight. He said he was the first one to publish the information in American Lutherie and String Instrument Craftsman. According to his website, this is why he didn't patent it.

"Like many before me, sharing ideas is commonplace in the art of lutherie. My long professional life in the world of string instruments is wonderful and having shared my creation so luthiers around the world can freely use it is my small gift to the luthier community and worth more than anything money can buy."

He doesn't regret not getting the patent, but he would like people to know where this popular design came from.

After working with guitars all of his life, he is ready to make a change. Rauen is beginning to scale back his work. He wants to focus on recording an album. Plus, he's thinking about taking on a mentoring role and allowing would-be luthiers to rent a workbench in his shop.

Denny Rauen
Denny Rauen plays a song off the album he is recording.

Rauen doesn't reflect on his career much. That's not the type of person he is. He is in the moment. Which also means that when you ask him about his status within the luthier community, all the guitarists he has worked with, and the legacy he is leaving, Rauen is incredibly bashful.

"If someone were to be like, 'oh Denny he’s a legendary luthier.' How would you respond?" TMJ4 reporter James Groh asked.

"I’d go - what legend? I don’t know about that," he responded.

He will let his guitars speak for themselves.

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