Late last year, shortly after Brent Ferguson and Tim Parnin opened Guitar Riot, their boutique guitar, pedal and amp shop located on Superior Ave. and East 25th St., a group of teens from Kent drove up to check the place out.
"They wanted to play Dr. Z amps because they had never been able to play them," says Ferguson. "I was like, 'Oh my God, that guy can play.' He gave it to the next guy who was better than him. And then the next guy was better than him. They were just these kids from Kent. We were floored."
And then there was the bald guy with a beard who sat down and starting laying down some mean old-school country licks.
"He was unfathomably amazing," says Parnin.
It's that kind of experience that Ferguson and Parnin encourage at their 3,000-square-foot store; their motto is "We make things louder." The place doesn't have an excess of guitars hanging from the walls, but it does carry lines that no one else in town has. It also stocks hard-to-find pedals from Akron-based EarthQuaker Devices (owner Jamie Stillman actually made the guys a sample board of pedals to put in the demo room so players can see which ones they like best). A soundproof room that features plush furniture and insulated walls gives patrons the chance to kick out the jams without worrying about disturbing other customers.
"We put multiple layers of soundproofing materials in here," says Ferguson as he walks into the demo room. "We want people to rock out. Some of the amps have to be turned up to know what they sound like. They can break up at a loud volume, but the tube amps sound better the higher you turn them up."
Parnin jokes that a small corner office with nothing more than a desk and chair is "the executive desk where the suits work." The opposite couldn't be truer. This is a guitar shop run by guitar players. Ferguson and Parnin even have techs on staff that can fix broken guitars and amps, no matter how old they might be.
On Wednesday, Oct. 30, the store hosts what Ferguson and Parnin hope will be the first of many in-store seminars as reps from EarthQuaker Devices and Reverend Guitars will give instructional talks and display their products. A Reverend Guitar will be given away that night too.
Friends since they first met in the '90s at Heights Guitars, Ferguson and Parnin worked closely together when Ferguson was at the Maple Heights-based Dr. Z Amps. Parnin designed the website for the Cleveland company, which Ferguson says is "probably the largest boutique tube amp manufacturer in the world." Parnin, who has played in Cleveland bands for the past two decades and toured with Sweet Apple, a band featuring Dinosaur Jr. guitar hero J. Mascis, certainly knows all about guitars.
"Having toured with J., we hit every good guitar store from all around," he says. "There's no stores that carry these lines between here and Chicago. The people who come in to check out these guitars have already done their homework. We felt the area needed something like this."
The guitars to which Parnin refers include Fano, a California-built guitar that merges popular designs, and the Michigan-based Reverend Guitars.
"They're built in Korea," Ferguson says of Reverend Guitars. "We have a more affordable line and some start at just $750. They're built in Korea, but for a guitar made overseas, they're very consistent when they come in. They're stage-ready and durable."
And finally, the store offers a range of pedals for serious shredders.
"You can change your whole tone and sound just by spending $150 on a pedal," says Parnin. "If someone wants to do that, they can."
Pushing guitars in a time when guitar heroes seem to be a dying breed could be a losing proposition. And that's something the duo acknowledges.
"Kurt Cobain was probably the last guy who made the whole world wanna play guitar," says Ferguson. "It's a lot more fragmented now."
"It's not like people set out to be like [AC/DC's] Angus Young or they want to have Jimmy Page's tone or Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar and amp set-up," adds Parnin. "The people who come in here are tone freaks and they want to create that tone they have in their head."
And Ferguson and Parnin are just the guys to help them find the perfect tone.
"These companies want more personal demonstrations of their equipment," says Parnin. "Guitar Center and Sam Ash would rather sell Telecasters made in Mexico all day long than get involved with some of these lines."
"You read about these brands on the Internet or in magazines," he says, "but at the end of the day, you want to play them and feel them."