By Todd Houston
Paradise Guitars began in November 1986, with co-owners Mike Johnston and Gary Phillips in a tiny two-story house on Beloit’s Shirland Ave.
The building’s previous home was The Peg Nelson Guitar Center, which served Beloit for three decades. Paradise eventually outgrew its walls and moved to its current location, 921 E. Inman Pkwy., in September 1988.
Since then, Paradise Guitars has been the area’s leading authority on all things guitar, even doing bass and drum lessons. Today we catch up with owner Mike Johnston to talk about his 30-year musical journey.
RRI: For those who don’t know, you established Paradise Guitars in 1986 when you were just 18-years-old. Tell us a bit about your musical background and what made you think owning a guitar store might be a good idea.
MJ: Well, I was a guitar student of the great Peg Nelson for many years and I also worked in her music store during high school. When she decided to retire, it was the same time I was graduating high school. I decided to buy the business from her and try to make a go of it.
RRI: In 1986 guitar-oriented music was blowing up everywhere. MTV was still relevant and it seemed like every kid wanted a pointy shaped guitar. What were some of the big music trends that you saw during this time?
MJ: Ahh, at that time it was the height of hair metal bands and the guitar business was booming! I was fortunate enough to be able to acquire all the great guitar brands that everyone wanted and I stocked the store full of them. (laughs)
RRI: The vintage guitar market peaked about 10 years ago and has since leveled out but, for a while, vintage guitar prices were absolutely crazy! What was the coolest vintage guitar ever to walk into your store for sale?
MJ: Over the years, we have had a lot of vintage guitars come and go through the store, but my favorite would have to be a 1952 Gibson Les Paul gold top that came in a while back.
RRI: Paradise Guitars offer a ton of different name brand guitars and amplifiers. In your opinion who is making the best “bang for the buck” guitar gear these days?
MJ: There are a lot of great guitar brands out there but I would go with Paul Reed Smith. They are a fabulously well-run company and are great to do business with. They also have price points for intermediate and professional musicians and their build quality is second to none.
RRI: Do you guys make an effort to stock a lot of used gear?
MJ: Yeah, we always try to get in as many used guitars as possible. However, the market has changed mainly because consumers have a lot more avenues to buy and sell used gear now.
RRI: As a business owner, tell us the difference between locally owned and “Big Box” stores.
MJ: The biggest difference I see as a locally owned music store is that I have complete control over what I want to stock for merchandise. I don’t have corporate telling me what to buy or what I have to sell. When a customer comes in, I can sell them what they need instead of trying to push out merchandise just to make a quota. Great employees make a huge difference in locally owned stores as well. I have almost zero turnover here and some of our staff have been with us for over 30 years, not some new kid working the counter every week. That is huge!
RRI: Have you ever had a famous musician come in for a pack of strings while playing in the area?
MJ: When The Beloit Riverfest was going on some years ago we used to have a lot of national acts stop in for an emergency drumsticks and strings.
RRI: I’m going to say a word or phrase and you answer. Ready? Pontoon boating on the Rock River.
MJ: My favorite pastime when I’m not slingin’ string and pick sales at the counter.
RRI: Clinton Voigt (Former owner of Voigt Music Center, Beloit).
MJ: Mr. Voigt was always good to me as a young kid going into his store. Definitely an era that is gone. I miss those days!
RRI: Charvel guitars and Crate amps.
MJ: Back in the day I literally sold hundreds of those brands. There probably wasn’t a guitar player in the Stateline area that didn’t own one or both.
RRI: Eddie Van Halen.
MJ: If you were playing guitar in the ‘80s for most, including myself, he was a huge influence.
RRI: After 30 something years in the business have you ever thought about passing the torch and retiring?
MJ: I’ll tell ya, Todd, after working 30-plus years in retail, I have been taking a lot of time off the past few years, so I’m not around as much anymore. I’ve been fortunate to have some very capable hands keeping the place rockin’! R.
Visit Paradise Guitars online at paradiseguitars.com.