Interview with Lightning Joe and his wife Marelene, Founders and Owners of Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven
Interviewed by Joseph Timmons of Xombiewoof Magazine
Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven is known as the place to get your Axe, and with one of the largest selection of new and used Guitars, it is no wonder that musicians from all over flock to his store to get just the right one. This family run business, now celebrating 30 years of service in the Central Coast of California, is looking towards doing great things while serving the musical community both locally and abroad. Xombiewoof now gets an interview with Lightning Joe himself and his wife and partner Marelene, to tell us their story and reflect on his career in Music.
A veteran player going all the way back to 1965, Lightning Joe has been known to “slay an entire room full of guitarists with a single lick." He's performed on television and radio, done session work for several studios, held the position of guitar columnist for the music magazine Sound Check, writing articles on all aspects of the guitar for three years, been in more bands than he can remember, like the SLO Motion Blues Band, Tidal Wave Cafe, Stark Raven, Gun Shy, The Shades, Prime Suspect, the 8th Wonder, Fusion, Just Good Stuff, Concrete Window, and The Purpose, to name a few. He's literally played thousands of gigs in some of the most impressive venues in our industry and traveled the road for years, performing alongside of some very impressive heavyweights in the industry such as Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Naftalins Rhythm & Blues Review, The Cash Valley Drifters, Donnie Brooks, Big Joe Turner, Mississippi Johnny Waters, The Curbfeelers, Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers, The Blues Survivors, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Pee Wee Crayton, Carey Bell Blues Harp Band, Ralph Shines Blues Band, Rainbow, Life, among others.
Joe has played nearly every style of music and is currently settled into the role of guitar technician, enthusiast, teacher, mentor, owner / manager and active CEO of Lightning Joe's Guitar Heaven..." I watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and knew exactly what I wanted to do: play the guitar." That was in '65 and it was later in 1980 in a seedy little bar called the Dark Room in San Luis Obispo, California, that Joe was given the tag " Lightning " by fellow members of the SLO Motion Blues Band for soloing " too fast " over the verses of Henry Mancini's Theme From Peter Gunn, and so the legend lives on at 100 East Branch Street in the sleepy little village of Arroyo Grande on the beautiful central coast of California at Lightning Joe's Guitar Heaven where you'll find Lightning Joe and his wife Marelene, their son Joseph and daughter Savanna running a very impressive, world class guitar shop.
Q: What made you decide to open a guitar shop?
Lightning Joe: it all started when we went to a local swap meet here in Nipomo, California. I had gone to connect with someone selling a Bass Guitar I had been wanting, but when we got there we found the guitar was not what we expected. The guy selling the guitar had 3 garage sheds full of instruments, Guitars, Drums, Keyboards, Flutes and junk, lots of Junk… everywhere. My wife and I looked through everything and found some very interesting guitars and gear. I had wanted a job with him; I saw an opportunity to get in a great position.
Well, the guy, who was older and in poor health, said he was actually closing the business down and wanted out. My wife and I decided that since we just sold our first home, this might be a great chance do something we loved, have a business in music. We talked it out and he wanted $12,000.00 for everything, we only had $6000.00, and it was every penny we had. The guy made us a deal, help him sort it out and we buy all the Instruments we could have it the 6K. We set on this task that took more than 3 weeks to clear it up and move it to our shop. We did not start out with the vision of having this go as long as it did, we thought we might coast a bit until something came along, and then I found out this was it, and this was the big gig!
Lightning Joe: No, we opened in Nipomo, and then a second location a few years later, the present store, in Arroyo Grande. But then we let the Nipomo store go about 9 years later to keep the larger location in Arroyo Grande where we were open all week.
Q: In this area, there are not too many stores like yours, was it always like this?
Lightning Joe: No, in the north county there are actually many stores like this, some bigger, some smaller, we all know each other. The musician community in this area is incredible and there is a large demand, and since this is the area on the main highway through California, we get a huge amount of traffic.
Q: looking at your store there is not one area that a guitar is not hanging, in addition you have rows of Amplifiers and glass cases full of Pedals and Gear, where does it all come from?
Lightning Joe: We do a lot of trade work and buying / selling from individuals, we check out trade shows and conventions. We just love having a fun and exciting atmosphere that draws people in. the longevity of the store is we have a passion for what we do. We had started with everything from Guitars to flutes and drums, but we decided to move to just guitars, it’s what we know. Our customers don’t just come to us to buy a guitar; they come to find Their Guitar, and that’s why we have the following we have.
Q: As time went on from when you started to now, how did the changes in the music scene affect you?
Lightning Joe: Wow! There were so many factors, from the invention of MiDi, the disco days, karaoke machines and the Dj’s. The club scenes changed frequently and it became hard for bands to find gigs, it was feast or famine. And then some great places closed, and it was not until recently with all the new clubs and wineries opening up to live music, but it’s still tough.
Q: have you had many celebrities or up and coming musicians come in unexpectedly?
Lightning Joe: well, yes, actually Jon Anderson of Yes lives in the area, we see him all the time, and Jackson Brown, and several local music artists that are famous, but we don’t name drop, the famous artists are just regular people that want a place to get stuff or hang out without the fan chatter of celebrity hounds. We don’t let too many people know who comes in, so they can feel welcome.
Q: Everyone I talked to about Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven had nothing but good things to say and even went to give the impression that your store is a cornerstone in the community. How does that make you feel when you find out that you are not just a guitar shop, but a part of the spirit that drive the music scene in the area?
Lightning Joe: Well, if we were not here, I would like to think someone would be. We have a community center area on the second floor and a rehearsal space and even do shows. (– at this point I mention that I did not even see a second floor) Response: Oh yeah, you have to come and see it, we offer free stages to perform on and even a kind of music museum with my personal collection on display, as well as some choice pieces I have gathered. We have a gift shop and a café, just so much hidden in our walls. We just do what we do, we just hope the community comes in to be a part of it and take advantage of the opportunities. We have seen so many bands start in our store.
Lightning Joe: I would like to see it grow, more venues and places to see bands play, there needs to be steady work for musicians here. California is the source of energy for Music, so why is it so hard for musicians to flourish here. We get so many people from all over, other countries and here on vacation, we get so many calls and requests for instruments, or where to find it if we don’t have it. We get so many people every day and they are looking for Music, so I want to see it develop in the area.
Q: So, where do you go from here?
Lightning Joe: Marelene and I have been together for a long time, and we hope that our kids will continue what we started. We have no intention of ever leaving the business, but our son expects to take over someday, move us out and just cut us a check, he wants us to enjoy out time. We have worked so hard at this and it’s been our whole life, but not a moment has been wasted. We get so much business and the amount we buy, sell and trade is amazing. We feel we will be remembered for what we gave, sometimes people come to us with a need and they have no money, so we will often fix guitars for free, they come back and help us when we need it, we have a large family and it grows every day.
After our interview, Joe and Marelene, left to go open the store, Marelene had lesson appointments to schedule, people to call and Joe had some guitars to repair, tune or trade. After 30 years in business, raising a family and a career in music, they had the energy of teenagers heading to a concert.
Lightning Joe has found his main stage; he leads the biggest band of music lovers in the Central Coast of California, he plays his rig fast and lean, with heart, soul, with a little bit of reverb. I am just wondering where Lightning will strike next!
Want to see Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven, go to their web site http://www.lightningjoes.com
Here is their Virtual Tour Link: http://www.lightningjoes.com/virtualtour.html
Are you in California’s Central Coast? Why not stop in for a visit, Here is their address: Address: 100 E Branch St, Arroyo Grande, CA 93420
Phone: (805) 481-2226 Hours: Tuesday through Saturday - 11:00 –5:00 pm