Don Jensen, owner of Longmont’s Jensen Guitar Company, has played music, particularly the guitar, since he was a teenager. It wasn’t a professional endeavor, but he recalls spending every free moment he had strumming a guitar.
“I didn’t tour or anything,” he says. “If someone had a wedding and needed someone to play, I’d do that, or you know little coffee shops or a small festival, but most of it was being a hobbyist. I always just loved music.”
Jensen Guitars, which also houses the Willow River Music Music Emporium, is located at 360 Main Street in Longmont. The shop sells electric and acoustic guitars, guitar effect pedals, dulcimers, ukuleles, keyboards, bass guitars, orchestral instruments, music books, world and ethnic instruments, mandolins, percussion, strings, picks, slides, brass and woodwind instruments and amplifiers. Music lessons on a variety of instruments are also available, and the store also rents out and services instruments. It offers new and used gear.
Jensen was born in the suburbs of Chicago and came to Colorado in 1989. Prior to that, he built homes with his uncle in Florida and later Texas and California.
Jensen, who is 62, recalls that most of the people in his family were in the trades. His father was a communications specialist in the military and later repaired TVs and radios. His uncle was a bit of a jack of all trades who worked on cars and built cabinets. Eventually, Jensen began framing homes, building cabinets and so forth. Then he hurt his back.
“Construction wasn’t really a good option,” he says. “I tried everything. I did phone sales. I worked for a realtor for a short time and hated it. And I started to think, ‘Well what am I going to do? I’ve tried everything.’”
He had worked part-time at a Chicago music store, so he began to think about making a living in music, something he liked anyway. He began pestering the owner of Woodsongs – an acoustic music shop and lutherie in Boulder – for a job and eventually landed a gig.
“That was a big inspiration,” he says. “I would love to do this. I started tinkering with guitars, doing little repairs. I had no idea what I was doing.”
Jensen spent several years repairing and refinishing guitars, gradually getting skilled enough to build his own from scratch. He came to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to make enough money working on guitars. Working out of guitar shops, usually in a basement with no windows and a bench, also began to get old, so he decided to open his own small shop on Ninth Street in Longmont in 2010 and has since moved to two larger locations on Main Street.
“It took a long time to build this up,” he says. “Most of it came from personal money. We are just now getting to where we are seeing some profit (after 12 years) so it’s been a long road, but I think it’ll be worth it in the end.”
He’s spent a lot of time building up the new location into one he can be proud of. The stock is displayed nicely, and he’s built “display gondolas” to make the most out of the space. A stage is set up in the rear of the store for live musical performances. They are not a super regular affair, but Jensen brings in guest musicians, local and national, to play intimate shows at the store. He has often hosted bands when downtown Longmont is holding special events on the strip of shops along Main Street.
“When we moved over to the bigger space in 2013, we built in a stage right away,” he says. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to have.”
Jensen says he’s always been more of an acoustic player, preferring the dreadnought style, and he’s always been a fan of Martin Guitars. The guitar maker, he says, is the oldest guitar company on the planet, and has been through growing pains but has stayed family-owned. He respects that. The store stocks Eastman Guitars, and even though they are Chinese-made, Jensen says they are great instruments. (He jokes that, of course, he’ll say that because he sells them, but his tone of voice betrays his sincerity.)
“I’m so in love with some of the Eastman’s I’ve got on the wall,” he says. “They are just the most gorgeous, well-made things.”
Jensen also stocks reissued Danelectro electric guitars, and he says if he had to pick one electric, that would be the one, specifically the ‘59 Jimmy Page model and its weight and feel. It’s the one he takes home at night and the guitar he’d choose if he could only have one electric. (But he likes plenty of other models, and he loves talking about them.)
“That was the old cheap U.S. guitar company back in the day,” he says. “They were the department store guitars. … I love the way they sound, the weight and everything.”
Boulder resident Michael Hibner was in Jensen’s shop on an April afternoon and has been a regular customer for the past several years. He occasionally has attended concerts and presentations by guitar company people who stop by to show their wares. He says the new location seems roomier, and he was enjoying the way Jensen has set up all the stock.
“It’s very community-oriented,” he says. “You feel very welcome with Don. … It’s been real comfortable.”
Hibner plays bluesy, rock’n’roll on the guitar, just for fun, and he first picked up the instrument in 1963. He says he comes to the shop for several reasons, chief among them being Jensen’s acumen as a luthier.
“Don is an exceptionally fine luthier,” he says. “If you have a guitar that needs fretwork or need something mechanically done or repaired or adjusted and so forth, he’s just a wizard.”
Jensen says part of the key to having a successful independent music shop is showing up every day. The profit margin can be slim, and it can take several years to even make it into the black. It’s a grind and not an easy one at that. Small shops have to compete with online retailers and big stores like Guitar Center.
“It’s hard work,” he says. “You have to stay on it. You don’t get a lot of breaks, but if you want to make it work you have to stay on it.”
He adds that service is important to a successful shop, and he shows customers how to care for a guitar in the high desert of Colorado, a climate that can wreak havoc on the wood on an instrument. He also sets up guitars to give them optimum playability and is there to answer questions anyone might have. That’s something an online retailer can’t offer, at least not with a personal touch. Jensen also works hard to keep his inventory up to snuff. As COVID interfered with the global supply chain, he’s found himself looking for replacement items if something he regularly stocks is unavailable. It’s not gone unnoticed.
“People walk in and go ‘Wow, you have inventory,’” he says. “I get on the horn. I get on the computer and find things. I’ve worked hard the last two years to keep the shelves full. … Again, we care and we are hungry.”