Rob Olsen is living a double life. He has been a fixture on Ohio’s live music circuit since leaving Wisconsin for Dayton in 2017, but few people realize he also runs Höfner, a major German instrument manufacturer.
Many music fans recognize Höfner as the maker of the violin-style electric bass Paul McCartney has played since his time in the Beatles. The company, which has been making violins, guitars and other string instruments since 1887, had weathered its share of ups and downs when Olsen was hired in 1998. He went on to expand the business by designing or co-designing numerous new models, focusing on improved quality in production and raising Höfner’s profile.
Olsen brought on members of revered acts like Cheap Trick, Wilco and Tesla to endorse the company’s products. McCartney has been associated with the Höfner bass than any musician but surprisingly he wasn’t officially affiliated with the company until Olsen brokered a deal.
“Even before officially getting Paul McCartney connected, my strategy was to get more people,” Olsen said recently. “I didn’t want to live off of Paul McCartney, even though that would be a great living. So, we got Cheap Trick, Bon Jovi and other bands and younger musicians too. There’s actually a 9-year-old Internet star where every video has millions of views. It’s just a matter of opening your eyes.”
Gem City transplant
Olsen needed a fresh start when he moved to Dayton. His major requirement was a location within driving distance of Sweetwater, the major online retailer of instruments, equipment and accessories.
“I do a lot of work with Sweetwater in Fort Wayne, so I needed to be close,” Olsen said. “I didn’t want to be in Fort Wayne. I really like Cincinnati, but it was a little too far, so I ended up choosing Dayton. The beautiful thing about moving here is it was a good way to start playing with some fresh musicians. It’s centrally located too. I play in Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton a lot and I love it because it’s like driving across town. I can get to Chicago and Nashville in four-and-a-half hours. I can get to New York in eight hours.”
Since relocating to Dayton, Olsen has backed more than a dozen different singers and also played in several groups, including cover band Curious Animals and the Fleetwood Mac tribute Fleetwood Dreams.
“I’ll play with one singer one day and then I’ll play with somebody else the next day,” he said. “It’s a lot but that side of it is the sanity for me. It’s in my blood. I have to do it. But I’ve slowed down purposely because my travel is picking up. I’m down to a few gigs a month now. I’m down to five or six projects now instead of 10 or 20, which is better.”
Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Olsen was born in Minneapolis, but his family moved to the suburbs of Milwaukee when he was 2 years old. He says life was pretty unremarkable until he discovered rock ‘n’ roll.
“I started playing guitar when I was 13,” Olsen said. “I played a little baseball and football but when I hit 13 and heard ‘Smoke on the Water’ and ‘Crazy Train” and other guitar stuff, that’s all I wanted to do. Playing guitar is where I found who I was. I remember being confused about school, sports, people and girls, but once I discovered guitar, it was like home.”
Olsen formed his first band a week after picking up the electric guitar. Other than a few breaks, he has continued to play guitar in bands and with solo artists. He has been working in musical instrument retail almost as long.
“I started in music retail when I was 17,” Olsen said. “I ended up being a natural because I didn’t look at it as being a salesman. I was helping people by talking about guitars and I did that for 13 years. It got to the point where I had a line of five people deep all day long, including lunch. We were doing millions of dollars out of Wisconsin before the Internet.”
One day, Olsen received an unexpected call about a product manager position with Höfner. He turned down the offer and, instead, recommended several friends for the job. When none of them worked out, Höfner finally convinced Olsen to come on board.
“At that point, I already had an inkling what to do but I had questions,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, let’s go for it,’ and I had a complete stomachache. At that time, Höfner was not even on people’s radar. They knew McCartney played it but for some reason didn’t know anything else about the instruments. I turned over every rock at the time. It took a little while but after maybe two years, I realized I did the right thing.”
Olsen has had the opportunity to be involved with every aspect of Höfner’s business over the past 23 years. Today, he handles the dealer network, sales representatives, artist-relations, pricing, sourcing, marketing and often designs or co-designs the instruments from his home in St. Anne’s Hill. It seems like this longtime Wisconsin resident is now a confirmed Daytonian.
“I rented a house here just because I needed to get away,” Olsen said. “I came here thinking I’d end up going back to Wisconsin but found myself calling it home. I really like Dayton. I’ve made friends. I’m actually pro-Dayton now. I’m treating this more like my home than anywhere.”
More info: www.hofner.com.
Contact this contributing writer at 937-287-6139 or e-mail at email@example.com.