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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 24, 2011 9 years ago

Guitar Hero

Kurt Kiehnle is turning his passion for music into a business selling custom-designed electric guitars. He's finding customers at the bar and online.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Forget the music store.

To sell his custom electric guitars, Kurt Kiehnle decided to open the RockHouse Grill in Fort Myers, a bar and restaurant with a stage. Customers can grab a burger, listen to a band jamming on stage and play some of the guitars hanging on the wall. “People love to see these things and hold them,” Kiehnle says.

That's just one of the ways Kiehnle plans to sell Scream Guitars, electric guitars that he can decorate with any logo or artwork a customer might want. Besides selling on the Internet, Kiehnle has plans for selling autographed guitars on television shopping channels.

By day, Kiehnle, 46, is an advertising manager for a Fort Myers television station. By night, he and business partner Tone Stabley run the bar and assemble and paint guitars. “If you're really passionate about something, you find the time,” Kiehnle says.

Kiehnle says he was motivated to become an entrepreneur from fear of losing his job in the advertising downturn. “I've got to build something to protect myself,” he says.

Kiehnle admits he's taking a risk, but he's using his savings and isn't borrowing any money to launch his venture. “I've been working for The Man for so long,” he says. “You've got to roll the dice.”

Scream Guitars was born from Kiehnle's passion for music. Kiehnle (pronounced keen-lee) plays bass guitar, an interest that started in high school when he was member of a New York City area rock band called Hold the Mayo.

Last summer, Kiehnle ordered a bass-guitar kit from a Chinese company that also supplies Fender, the well-known guitar company. He asked Stabley, who is a gifted graphic artist, to paint the guitar with the face of the Incredible Hulk on a black background.

Both Kiehnle and Stabley were so impressed with the results of that first guitar that they ordered 100 more kits from the manufacturer, rented a warehouse and built a paint booth. Kiehnle says he's invested $10,000 in the venture, which now sells through the Internet ( and in the RockHouse bar. Guitars cost from $499 to $999.

Kiehnle and another group of business partners from his hometown near New York City bought the former Porky's barbecue restaurant in the San Carlos area of Fort Myers for $75,000 and signed a new 10-year lease. Now called the RockHouse Grill, it's just five miles from Florida Gulf Coast University.

Kiehnle says Scream Guitars is not competing with the big electric-guitar sellers like Fender. Instead, he's pushing the custom designs that might appeal to collectors and amateur musicians. “It can hang in your office,” he says. “I'm going after the novelty aspect of it.”

Bars could be a source of new customers. “The bar owners love these things,” Kiehnle says. “My goal is to have a Scream Guitar in every bar in America.”

Kiehnle is building goodwill with bar owners by giving away guitars at their charity fundraisers, such as a recent Hooters event to raise money for cancer. “We found that doing charity tie-ins works well for us,” he says.

Another way he plans to sell the guitars is to pay for celebrity musicians to sign them. The going rate for signatures is $100 to $150 each, but those signatures can double the value of a guitar depending on whose autograph is on the instrument.

But Kiehnle says he'd rather have another outlet to sell those signed guitars, like shopping channels Home Shopping Network or QVC. “I don't want to be responsible for selling them,” he says.

If Scream Guitars grows as he expects it to, Kiehnle says he may seek outside investors for capital. Ideally, Kiehnle says $100,000 would be enough to launch an effective marketing campaign.

Rock on.

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