GILLETTE — When Tom Kalenberg was in ninth or 10th grade, he fell in love with rock music.
He recalls hearing “I Had Too Much to Dream” by the American psychedelic rock band The Electric Prunes.
“The sound of that song just blew my mind,” he said.
Fifty years later, he’s able to share his love of guitar-based music with other people through his store, Tom’s Guitar House.
Located at 206 Warren Ave., it’s an actual house, where more than 150 guitars hang on the walls, along with about 40 other stringed instruments, including banjos, mandolins and ukuleles.
In the early 1970s, Kalenberg was an autopilot technician in the Air Force. He was stationed in Thailand in 1974 and met a guy “over there who just amazed me.”
“Just the sounds he was getting out of it, to see somebody reproduce the songs that I’d heard from professionals, it just amazed me,” he said about the man’s guitar playing.
The next year, Kalenberg started “messing around” and taught himself how to play the instrument. Fast-forward 10 years and he started collecting guitars.
Kalenberg’s collection started growing in the 1990s. He went to pawn shops and garage sales, any place where there were guitars, “just to check them out. You never know what’s going to strike your fancy,” he said.
Originally from Hutchinson, Minnesota, Kalenberg moved to Gillette to work on an oil rig with his brother. He spent about 30 years in the oil fields, getting out in 2005. After that, he spent several years delivering pizzas. His most recent job before retiring in January was driving around town for Spring Creek Designs.
Opening up his own guitar store had been in the back of his mind for more than 20 years, he said, but he never thought it would happen.
Then this year, the building came up for sale, the price was right and the zoning was perfect. He moved most of his collection into the store.
He said his wife of 39 years, Sue, wasn’t too crazy about his collection when it started to grow, but she was glad when he was finally able to make his dream come true, and she’s been “really good about helping.”
The first guitar he sold, a 1946 Gibson, also was his most expensive. It went for $2,400. He’s sold most of his high-end guitars and is working to get more of them into the store.
“It was exciting at first, but now the reality of trying to make a business is kind of a damper,” he said.
He understands why people would rather buy their instruments online.
“The stuff that kids want, you can go on the internet and get it a lot cheaper,” he said. “But if you want to have it looked at, you can’t just send it back.”
After decades of working for someone else, this is a change of pace. But Kalenberg doesn’t think of himself as his own boss.
“For me, it’s not a job. I just come down here and hang out with my guitars,” he said.
He plays every day for about an hour and a half, and sometimes the music plays itself, he said, and he just goes along for the ride.
“When I pick up a guitar, I start off from where I left off the day before and try to do something different,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll sit down and just stuff will start coming together. … I just go where the music takes me.”
For Kalenberg, the beauty of the guitar lies in the variety of sounds you can get out of it.
“With a piano or a horn, you have a certain sound, but with the guitar, there’s so many variables,” he said.
He prefers the acoustic guitar to the electric.
“It’s more fun to me to get music without electricity, it’s just a more natural feeling,” he said. “With an electric, you can get carried away too easily.”
The ’60s and ’70s were the best decades for music, Kalenberg said, citing bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
“Bands weren’t afraid to be different. That’s what was so great about it,” he said, admitting that he might be “stuck in the past.”
“There’s very little modern music that I appreciate,” he said, making an exception for Michigan four-piece Greta Van Fleet. “It just doesn’t have any soul. A lot of it’s got good messages and stuff, but I think young musicians have just lost the art of creating new music.”
Kalenberg credits music for saving his life. It’s a way for him to say something without saying anything.
“I pick up a guitar and I can express myself, even though I don’t write words or anything,” he said. “If I didn’t have (music), I probably wouldn’t be here. I used to have a lot of bad habits.”
Now, music has become his habit and he’s excited to help others start the habit as well.
“If I can help anybody get into the guitar as an instrument, I’ll do whatever I can to help them and point them in the right direction,” he said.