Back in August at the premier of the film It Might Get Loud, this guy with a rock and roll wardrobe strolled in with his family and took up an entire row in front of me. I overheard him talking about the recent Dead Weather show and his interactions with Jack White and Allison Mosshart backstage. You could tell he was somebody, but I just wasn’t sure who that somebody was yet. Then at one point during the film, his family all began to cheer as he appeared in the film…as Jack White’s guitar maker.
Jimmy Page. Jack White. Joe Perry. Peter Frampton. Modest Mouse. These are just some of the people that Randy Parsons (Parsons Guitars) calls clients. The reputation-building guitar maker never expected his life to turn out this way, especially back when he was a military police officer. In fact, his parents were more surprised that he initially wanted to be in the military than when he announced to his family that he would make guitars for a living…with no prior experience. Fifteen years later, he now might be one of the best guitar craftsman in the trade.
Parsons has been infatuated with rock and roll since he was a kid. He played guitar for many years and always knew that deep down he wanted music to have some important part of his life. In his late 20s, he just had a moment of vision one day, and his mind was set to make guitar crafting his new occupation. It was a long road to get good, and he had help from mentors and literature.
Eventually he formed a business agreement with Guitar Center: his staff does repair work for them (now in five locations throughout the state of Washington), and at his headquarters in Seattle he does the craft work for building new guitars. But it still took ten years to get “the phone call.” The phone call was from Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and fifty other friggin’ bands).
Throughout this interview, Parsons explains why (like White) he has no use for newer technologies in guitar making, and how he’s just fine with his hand tools because it makes his work more authentic and personal. “Just give me a block of wood and a hammer, and I’m fine.” He was joking, of course. I think.
We took a tour of his shop and got a look at a few of the guitars that he is now working on. Among those is a guitar called “The White Mare,” which he got as an idea at an after-party for It Might Get Loud while talking to Jimmy Page (he hand-delivered a guitar he made for Page at this meeting). “White Mare” is a reference to lyrics from the song “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin. There will be ten White Mare guitars made, though he can’t release the names of the recipients just yet. Another creation on the table was a guitar that Gretsch guitars has asked him to create as his own signature guitar, which is a huge honor.
However, even though he has an old-school mentality of using elbow grease and a work ethic to getÂ things done, those rock and roll infatuations are still present in some aspects of his life. When we went to have a coffee, Parsons was dressed in a flannel shirt opened enough to show his rock star-looking necklace, covered up with an expensive looking corduroy jacket. Through research, I already knew that Parsons (44) has four young, beautiful women living in his household (three work for him; the fourth just kind of snuck in the door). None of them pay rent. I had no plans of mentioning this, but Parsons made a point to bring it up. He claims that explaining his living situation is difficult to new women he dates, which isn’t exactly surprising. And upon retirement, he can’t wait to wake up on that first morning in that new home in Hawaii, then going for a drive in his Ferrari. When I mentioned that this sounds very Magnum P.I.-ish, he laughed and said “I would totally fight crime. And I’d have the mustache going. I hear it’s coming back. And then the girls would come live with me there.”
Rv: Explain how you built your reputation as a guitar maker.
RP: You know, I had to get my name out there, and with Guitar Center moving into the area, I came up with the idea to do repair work for them (a service they did not offer). But I also knew as a crafter that my work had to be the best. Lastly, I knew I had to be in downtown Seattle [his original shop wasÂ on the east side, in Kirkland].
Rv: Was there a real breakthrough point for you?
RP: That call from Jack [White] was absolutely the breakthrough point. Jack was looking to have a custom Gretsch guitar made but didn’t want to go through Gretsch and his people made a call to a friend at Guitar Center. So they were looking for anyone out there that could pull this off because he had a crazy idea. And the Guitar Center guy mentioned me. So then his people called my people who gave me three emails to run info through. Finally, they all gave up and just connected me directly to Jack as the info was beginning to be too tough to transfer.
Rv: Was Jack pretty strict with how he wanted his guitars to be made?
RP: It was really the opposite. Everyone told me “He’s kind of a control freak or he can go really dark.” But it’s all un-true. I talked to his guitar tech and he told me that Jack is one of the most mellow, easy-going guys. For a rock star as big as he is and having the money, he’s really well grounded. He can relate to saving $100 bucks or he can relate to when something goes wrong.
Rv: Who came up with the idea for the mic in the guitar? [This guitar “The Green Machine” has a retractable bullet microphone on the bottom of the guitar].
RP: That was his idea. At first I was like “What the hell are you talking about?” He has a lot of good ideas, and I often wonder how he has time to think of these things. On that note, he’s always doing eight projects at once. And the thing with his work ethic is that Jack doesn’t use any kind of substance, where you would assume he’s always hopped up on something to do all this.
Rv: Except for those cigarettes.
RP: Yeah, but he even knows it, so he smokes menthols. He’s a very driven, intelligent guy and it sometimes concerns me that he’s trying to do too much, but he seems to continue to be successful.
Rv: Do you think one of the reasons he chose you is because you don’t really like to advance with technology either?
RP: Well, I don’t know because I don’t think he knew too much about me at first. He wanted this copper guitar made, and he assumed we would just paint a guitar copper. Then I suggested making one out of copper and he was like “You can do that?” And I told him I can do anything. I do everything by hand.
Rv: But could technology make your job easier?
RP: All of these robot machines are calibrated to make the same cut and do the same thing over and over again. But if someone wants something unique done to a guitar, those machines can’t do it, so then they come to me and my hand tools.
Rv: How many guitars have you made for Jack White?
RP: I re-thread, modify, and work on all of his guitars. But I’ve built five guitars for him.
Rv: Did Jack ask for you to be in It Might Get Loud or did the producer want you?
RP: Oh no. Jack insisted that I be in the film. There was a production crew here at the shop for two days with a semi-truck outside, catering and all these cameras, and they used about eight seconds of footage for the film. Now one of the scenes that didn’t make it to the film was with these two vampire guitars (black and red) that I had made for Jack. The film crew spent half a day filming this moment where they brought these guitars to Jack out on his farm and he opens the suitcases for the first time. The storyline didn’t really fit with these guitars but it will be in the DVD version. Apparently, there was forty hours of footage for the film and many things had to be cut out.
Rv: Since the movie came out, has it helped bring you more business?
RP: The answer is no, but one of the biggest things that’s ever happened is the Gretsch guitar company saw the movie and they asked me to make a signature guitar, which is huge.
Rv: In the film, Jack White bleeds all over one of your guitars from playing it so hard. Is that tough to watch happen to your guitar?
RP: I love that. I don’t want to make guitars that get put behind a glass case. I want my guitars to get beat up.
Rv: Have you ever watched anyone pull a Pete Townshend and bash one of your guitars to bits on stage?
RP: No. I’ve never seen that. I mean, if somebody wants to do that…my guitars are kind of pricey.
Rv: Describe your encounter with Jimmy Page.
RP: Jack asked me to go to the film premier in Los Angeles, and to meet Page. I wanted to create a guitar for Page but I only had two months [it normally takes him around six months] to make the guitar for him, so I busted my tail and got it done. He liked it a lot and that’s when I came up with the idea of the White Mare guitar.
Rv: What will be significant about this guitar?
RP: When you look inside of the guitar, there will be different colors. The sound hole will be on the side of the guitar instead of the middle of the face. I can put lights inside of it or anything I want, really.
Rv: So you’ve said that you want to have your part in rock and roll history.
RP: [Laughs] Did I say that?
Rv: Yeah, you did.
RP: All right. It’s true. I’ve been fascinated with rock and roll my whole life, so yeah, to be mentioned in the history books would be a cool thing.
Rv: Would you trade all of this success you have to be a big time rock star?
RP: [Pause] No, I think what I’m doing is what I want to be doing and should be doing. I will build guitars until I die.
Rv: How do you find the people that work for you?
RP: It’s not easy. They usually come to me. They have to be the real deal.
Rv: Has the economy hurt your business at all?
RP: It’s slowed down the repair business and it was scary a year ago. We didn’t see a customer for about a month after that. I freaked out and made some tough decisions, but I think I cleaned up my act as far as efficiency, and how I run my business. Now in the last year we’ve had this slow, slow growth.
Rv: How often do you actually play guitar anymore?
RP: Well, not a day goes by that I’m not strumming someone’s guitar. I’ve learned most styles at a fairly accomplished level: Flamenco, classical (BFA in music from Cornish College), blues, jazz, rock…But I enjoy building them more than I like playing them now. I tell people building guitars is my art….some people paint on a canvas or practice/play their instrument; for me it’s building instruments.
Rv: Being that you’re a busy person, do you have time for leisure or local sports?
RP: The Seahawks are probably my one vice.
Rv: Would you ever raise the 12th Man Flag if asked?
RP: (Laughs) Well, I don’t know why they would want me to. Although Paul Allen (Microsoft) is one of my clients, so who knows?