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​Paul HeumillerPaul Heumiller of Dream Guitars has found success in a high-end niche.

You might say that Paul Heumiller of Dream Guitars is, well, living the dream. Following youthful visions of rock stardom and then a career as a computer programming consultant, Paul ditched the corporate world for the MI trade when he and veteran performer and clinician Martin Simpson teamed up to launch an online specialty guitar retail outfit and by-appointment- only brick-and-mortar showroom and repair shop nearly two decades ago. Today, the mission of Asheville, North Carolina- based Dream Guitars is straightforward: “To gather together the finest quality guitars in the world, and offer them in an honorable fashion – with real expertise and guidance.”

A love and respect for guitars, passion for building relationships, and a background in technology has proven to be a winning combination for Heumiller. And as an added bonus, it’s granted him the opportunity to see and play many of the “absolute best” guitars in the world, as he puts it, many of which are quite rare and carry with them some incredible stories. For instance, recent finds include a 1935 Larson Brothers Prairie State 15”, a 1938 Larson Euphonon Dreadnought, and an all-original 1930 Martin 000-45 – valued at $135,000. “Only 21 were made in 1930 and much fewer than that exist today in this type of condition,” wrote Paul on the company blog in October 2016, noting that he was able to line up a buyer for that instrument in just a few days.

Beginnings

Originally founded in 1995 in New Jersey and reincorporated in 2004 in North Carolina, the Dream Guitar tale begins earlier, with an aspiring musician born into an American family of German descent. Paul Heumiller was one of nine siblings, five of whom played music. After an early childhood immersed in the abundant stash of records in his home, at age 10, Paul “borrowed” his sister’s Yamaha nylon string and her Alfred books and taught himself the basics and how to read. At 13, an older brother lent him an electric guitar and he was hooked.

Paul describes himself as a ravenous student who studied seriously with many teachers throughout his teens and twenties. Although he was accepted to Berklee, at the advice of his teachers he went straight into performing instead. He spent his late teens and twenties playing music in the Jersey Shore clubs and trying get signed to a label.

“Like so many, I wanted to be a rock star,” Paul confesses. “I wrote and played original music. I was the lead guitarist and singer. Then in my thirties, I got back to serious woodshedding, this time focusing on fingerstyle guitar, by attending guitar workshops. Which is where I met Martin Simpson.”

Martin Simpson, a renowned, award-winning performer and clinician, is a big part of the Dream Guitars story. Heumiller met Simpson at weeklong guitar camp in New York City.

“I didn’t know who he was, but from the very first notes I heard him play, I recognized the sound I’d always wanted to make on the guitar,” Paul recalls. “His tone and his style are magical to me. By the end of the week we had become fast friends and began working together. I took over his website and helped organize his business operations and, in turn, he mentored me on guitar. After a while we started to offer masterclass workshops around the world.” Simpson was the primary teacher, but Heumiller would assist him.

During their travels, they spent a lot of time discussing the vast array of handmade guitars that their students had, while also making time to visit luthiers’ shops. “This was when my interest and knowledge of high-end guitars really exploded and the idea for Dream Guitars was born,” Paul says.

Simpson’s business operations included selling handmade guitars by Stefan Sobell of England. The exposure to high-end and custom guitars had a profound impact on Paul. “As a lifelong player, I had never heard such inspiring tone or played instruments that allowed for such nuance and finesse. Martin and I spent many long hours playing guitars, discussing their attributes and character, their voices.” At the time he had been working as a computer programming consultant and feeling increasingly burned out by the corporate world. So he and Martin started Dream Guitars, focusing on representing only the world’s finest independent luthiers. Although, Martin Simpson has since left Dream Guitars to focus on his own teaching, performing, and recording career, Paul Heumiller has continued to grow the company by refining its digital and retail strategy, and building relationships with suppliers and consumers.

A Company Grows

The first big challenge after launching the company was gaining the respect of high- end luthiers. “Since they only make a few guitars per year, they are rightfully very selective about who represents their work,” notes Paul. Dream Guitars’ credibility was bolstered by winning several awards early on in the company’s existence, notably from Acoustic Guitar Magazine. Another important early milestone was the relocation to the Asheville area in Western North Carolina in 2004.

“The move allowed me personally to slow down and appreciate life more, which, in turn, allowed me to focus more on our clients and to better serve them,” Paul continues. “Also, the people here still valued live music, and acoustic music in particular, which was a welcome change of pace. So the energy of the local music scene runs through Dream Guitars.”

Just prior to the recession of 2008, Dream Guitars embarked on a largescale expansion, which included building new spaces and designing a completely new website. All of these costs came during what turned out to be trying financial times. However, the turbulence helped the company leapfrog a number of it competitors, who were battling the challenges of a difficult economic climate.

The competitive edge that sustains Dream Guitars, according to Heumiller, is an earnest connection with the builders that make the world’s finest guitars, which facilitates a deep understanding of what they are trying to accomplish with their designs. “I’ve gotten to know many of them personally by visiting their shops and attending guitar shows around the world, spending time with them as friends so I’m better able to represent them, and their work, in an honorable way,” he explains. “In addition, all of us that work here are players and we truly care about finding our clients the perfect instrument for them, not just any guitar. Our expertise allows us to really guide folks to their dream guitar among a wide array of great designs and voices.”

Everything they sell is special and unique – instruments that the Dream Guitars team hopes will inspire a guitarist to make new and exciting music. They also recognize the importance of developing long-term relationship with their clients: “We appreciate and value every players that comes to us and we want them to be a client for 20 or 30 years, so we also tell them what guitars are wrong for them and help them avoid making costly mistakes.”

At the same time, educating guitar players about independent guitar makers is an ongoing challenge, as many prospective clients know little or nothing about this relatively niche field. Paul has developed a 21st-century solution to educating his customers: “We spend a lot of time and energy making demonstration videos for our YouTube channel and our website. These run the gamut from builder interviews and pro player performances and lessons to our own demos of every single guitar we’ve sold or are selling. We also develop a lot of content across social media, maintain a blog, and we contribute to various magazines and release several newsletters per month. All of this pays off every time I see the smile on the face of a player who holds a custom-made guitar for the first time. They can’t believe the tone and energy these makers can get from mere wood.”

Keeping Pace with Changing Times

While useful for educating the Dream Guitars customer base, keeping pace with changing technology has been an ongoing challenge. As with many organizations in the MI industry, the company website is Paul and his team’s biggest connection to the community of players around the world – and they are invested in improving it. To that end, they have designed and built a completely revamped website, which debuted in January, that is mobile compatible and has a focus on video content. “The guitars speak for themselves, but we have to get them into the hands of the clients,” Paul explains. “For that magic to happen, the web is one of our best tools.”

This is particularly crucial for Dream Guitars because they do not operate a conventional brick-and-mortar shop: the storefront is open by appointment only to demonstrate over 200 of the world’s finest guitars. While perhaps unconventional, this approach has proven effective for them, allowing the staff at Dream Guitars to provide more focused service and give their full attention to clients in the shop.

It also works because of the nature of their clientele: high-end consumers who want ultimate service and one-on-one consultation. “That’s exactly what they get here,” says Paul. In addition, while many guitar shops have been hurt by the tendency for people to want to trade or sell guitars before buying a new one – a trend which has increased since the recession of ’08 – at Dream Guitars, they have managed to make it work. “We find clients who appreciate the opportunity to trade, allowing us to educate the community on realistic trade values,” he says.

Perhaps the single biggest key to the success of Dream Guitars may be the balance in their business model of dovetailing personal relationship-building with the oftentimes- more-impersonal approach of digital marketing. “We have largely been an online shop since day one,” says Paul. “It was completely by design and is still the way we sell the majority of our instruments. Early on we did actually have a retail shop, but it didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t the kind of business I wanted to run. Especially with all of these high-end instruments, you really don’t want every single guitar player off the street coming into the shop day in, day out.”

Dream Guitars uses digital tools to expand the company’s reach. “We always reinforce our online presence by meeting clients and builders in person as often as we can. I’m very active in the community, and I attend many guitars shows around the world to meet new clients and maintain my relationship with long-term ones. As you’d expect, people love coming to our shop to visit, but for many of our clients that’s not an option, and there’s no shop near them that has the quality of instruments that we do, so the internet allows us to make connections with many players across the globe who might otherwise remain isolated from fine guitars.”

He continues, “Having come from a computer background, I love that we’ve harnessed technology to become a shop which can serve anyone, anywhere in the world. We are one of the innovators for online guitar marketing; I’m pretty sure we were the first site to ever record a video of every guitar sold, and we’ve been doing that for years at this point.”

To that point, Dream Guitars has amassed an impressive digital library of guitar samples, which they have dubbed their “Listening Studio.” With this free online tool, players can search by many criteria, including maker, body size, woods, and more. They can also create playlists and educate themselves about the kind of sound they want, and the types of instruments that can offer that for them.

Memorable Moments

While highly reverent of many of the incredible instruments that pass through the Dream Guitars operation, Paul Heumiller actually points to his repair shop as providing some of his most memorable moments over the past few decades. “Clients send us guitars from all over the country, and there have been numerous times when we’ve been able to restore a gem to its former glory,” he says.

“Just recently we finished undoing some horrible repair work on a 1931 Martin OM- 45, which was very fulfilling. On the day it arrived I played it and it was as dead as cardboard. I knew something was wrong, and we found a huge spruce patch had been glued to the inside of the guitar in an attempt to repair a top which was bellying up. We painstakingly removed all of that and built a new bridge plate. Now the guitar practically leaps off your lap when you play it, just like a good pre-war Martin should!”

It’s not always the top-end instruments that make an impression for Paul and his crew. “Another unique repair – on a less valuable guitar – was for a sweet local man we’re fortunate to call a client. He brought us a homemade guitar that his grandmother learned on and that he, in turn, learned with as a boy himself. By the time it came to us it was unplayable, had no finish on it at all, and appeared to have been made from barn wood. While the guitar has little monetary value, it had real deep meaning to him and he asked us to do all we could to bring it back to life. We did and the smile on his face when he played it for the first time in years will stay with me forever.”



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