Randy Parsons is a luthier based out of Seattle, Washington. He is not your typical luthier- he had no formal training, just a passion for the instrument he loved from the time he was a child, and a creative mind.
Randy started playing guitar when he was 11 years old, and in high school, he had hopes of becoming a rock star. He attended Cornish University in the 80’s and studied classical and jazz guitar, but he soon found out it wasn’t for him.
After college, Randy joined the military because he felt he needed the discipline, and eventually ended up working as a support officer at the Bellevue Police Department. This didn’t satisfy him.
His love of music and passion for the guitar never left him. It was at this point that he decided he needed to pursue a career that involved music and guitar and his quest began to learn everything he could about the instrument. He spent the next five years researching, buying materials, traveling, learning from other masters in the industry, and through a lot of trial and error, has become a well-respected luthier.
To be sure, he is not a guitar manufacturer, but an artist, who’s every creation is unique and crafted from very unique and organic materials like copper, bone, recycled tires, insects, and exotic woods- and the very wealthy scope him out and ask him to “do his thing” for them- and he does. Some of his most notable clients are rock icons Jimmy Page, Jack White, Sammy Hagar, and a recent un-named billionaire.
Of particular interest to Guitar Girl Magazine is his roster of past and present employees- luthiers, guitar techs and shop managers that are all females! And as you will read from this interview, they thoroughly love working with Randy at Parsons Guitars and the cool vibe at the shop.
Guitar Girl Magazine caught up with Randy and this is what we learned.
Who were some of your musical inspirations growing up?
Anyone and everyone that my two older sisters would listen to…Led Zepplin, Heart, ’70s rock.
You mentioned to me that your sisters were a big influence in your life. Did you listen to music together or attend any concerts?
My sister Gail took me to my first concert when I was 13. After that, my other sister Diane took me to all the concerts that came to town. Guys knew, if you wanted to date her, her little brother was part of the deal.
You studied classical and jazz guitar formally at Cornish University in the ‘80s. When did you decide that you no longer wanted to pursue music as a profession?
There were too many talented musicians and I just couldn’t see myself making money. After four years of music college, I was burned out on the whole idea. I completely moved away from the guitar. It was like a love story, the thing I loved, I let go. But it came back!
I’ve read where you earned a C- in woodworking class in high school. Obviously, at the time, the passion of working with wood didn’t inspire you. At what point did you realize that you wanted to start making guitars?
Actually, in high school I did very good. I took a few classes in college which didn’t turn out well, but I actually blame the instructor.
Did you study formally to become a luthier?
No. I taught myself through trial and error, I traveled, met people and got my hands on anything related to the subject. It was a five year journey.
You’ve done very well from a business standpoint in branding your name as a repair shop in Seattle by aligning yourself with the Guitar Center stores in the area. How has that helped your career as a luthier and having the opportunity work with such greats as Jimmy Page, Jack White, Sammy Hagar and other rock icons and wealthy individuals?
Guitar Center was great! Somebody in the company recognized that I was doing something special, they provided a small space for me to do my work, and eventually it grew into a custom guitar shop. “Build it and they will come” was my attitude. After about 10 years, 7 days a week and staying true to my craft, they did.
The guitar market is tricky, you can’t just build a guitar and give it to a famous Rock Star, they’ll return it! The big names don’t want to be used to sell a product. With Jack White, it’s REALLY tricky, he absolutely does NOT do endorsements of any kind. But once he understood what I was all about, he asked if I would be in the movie “It Might Get Loud.” I remember telling him, “I would need to check my schedule,” ha ha!
Have you had a chance to sit and jam with any of these great legends of rock?
Not yet, almost, but someone was sick.
I understand you don’t use “plek” machines or any heavy machinery in your shop. What sort of tools do you use to make your instruments?
I use small hand tools, things I’ve built myself. The second you start investing in big tools, the creativity stops. You start building for profit…you gotta for the fancy tools you just bought. I’m not saying nice tools don’t have their place, it’s just for me, I’m still enjoying the slow builds, using my hands which usually results in new accidental ideas.
You’ve definitely carved yourself out a niche market as one of the top luthiers of unique, custom guitars and famous musicians and wealthy individuals seek you out to design unique and special guitars for them. Do most of them come with their own ideas or do they give you free reign to create something unique for them?
I hardly ever do anyone’s ideas. Collectors and musicians come to me and say “just do your thing.” It would be like telling a painter or musician what to paint or write. I’m very fortunate that I can do that, it’s taken 20 years though. They can suggest a theme though, I like that.
You use some very unique materials in your guitars like cow bone, recycled rubber tires, and other organic materials. Why did you choose these types of materials?
These are just ideas that come to me, usually the result of trying to do a theme. Another reason I don’t like hi-tech tools or doing production type construction, I’m free to always think, “What if we did this and used this?”
How long does it take to complete a custom-made guitar and how many guitars do make a year?
It varies, 6 months to a year. I only build a small hand full a year.
You mentioned that you are working on a new project for an unnamed customer that is called The Red Queen which you describe as a cross between Alice in Wonderland meets Cirque de Soleil and that the guitar has over 50,000 pieces. What types of materials are you using in this guitar and when will we learn more about it?
Yes! It’s my favorite build so far. It’s built from Bloodwood, flame maple, mother of pearl and gold. I drew it up for a local Billionaire, on paper it seemed almost impossible to pull off. I spent a year and a half building it by hand. I really needed to find out for myself if I was capable of building something like this, or if I was just full of crap.
You’ve employed several women in your shop, a luthier and several repair techs. Can you tell us a little about them?
I’ve had many employees, but there are four very special ones (Dagna, Natalia, Caroline and Persia). They’ve been with me for many, many years and they are a huge part of who and what we are. I really couldn’t function without them, we even take trips together. We’re putting out our own Ouija Board this year, with a twist. Each girl is on the board in each corner, they all represent something different and thus become part of the game. It’s a positive energy Ouija Board, we’re calling it “Bruja de la Mesa”, table of the Witch.For the girls:
Do you play guitar or any other musical instruments?
Dagna Silesia: Actually, I play bass. I have played guitar and some drums in the past, but bass is where I belong. I have recently picked up the cello, but I am still in the beginning stages of learning.
Persia: I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 16 years old, and I also played bass in the all-girl band The Dolly Rottens.
Caroline: I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12. I also play bass in a band called The Break Up!
Dagna, what inspired you to become a luthier and did you study formally?
I was living in Sweden and when I got out of high school I knew that I would have to do something else besides playing but didn’t know what. None of the school programs were appealing to me at the time, and I scored a job at a music store, where I was learning some very basic repair. Then I found this school for luthiery in Phoenix, AZ, and immediately knew that this was for me!
Dagna, I understand you perform most of the inlay work on the guitars which must be a very tedious job at times…you must be a very patient person. Are you instrumental in the design of the guitar and are you able to make suggestions based on your knowledge?
Yes, patience is definitely my virtue. That’s the thing, a lot of people can learn the technique of inlay art, but not many people have the patience to be precise, and spend the time on every piece to make it look perfect. I love that kind of work. If the design is ever not favorable to the execution, yes, I’ll make suggestions. On certain projects I will work on the design directly with customers and make suggestions.
Persia and Caroline, what made you one day say, “I want to learn to repair guitars?”
Persia: I’ve always loved the music industry and wanted to be involved as much as I could and make a living doing it. Yes, I play guitar, but I knew that I probably could never make a career from doing it- there is so much talent out there and everyone wants to be a rock star. I did band photography for a long time and was very successful at it, but in the local scene where bands couldn’t really pay you more than a few bucks and a spot on the guest list. I realized though through the pictures I took is that I loved capturing the instruments themselves and that’s when I thought, “What if I got a little more behind the scenes?” I was walking into Guitar Center one day to buy some strings and stumbled upon Parsons. I walked in and asked if he was looking for an apprentice, and he hired me a week later on my 18th birthday. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, and my life has been greater ever since. Right place at the right time, I guess.
Caroline: I’ve always loved guitars. I’ve been playing since I was 12. When Randy offered me a job, I realized, why not learn how to repair guitars myself? Why not see how they’re made from scratch? I’ve always appreciated the sounds guitars produce, but never have I appreciated how they’re created and the craftsmanship that goes into it- all the little details that make guitars up as a whole.
Persia and Caroline, did you have any training prior to joining Parsons Guitars or are you learning on-the-job?
Persia: Prior to Randy, I had zero experience with guitar repair. My job interview was literally, “Can you tune a guitar? Can you string a guitar? All right you’re hired.” Now that I’ve been working there for five years, I couldn’t imagine taking on someone that had no experience, but I’m glad he took a chance on me. I think my biggest benefit when I started there is that I’m really good at talking to people, and I’m a fast and anxious learner. Otherwise, the industry can be really intense and eat you alive. Even Randy would get mad or frustrated with me about something I did wrong or forgot to check on an instrument, but I wouldn’t talk back, and would fix my mistakes and try to burn them in my brain so I wouldn’t do it again. I hate it when he’s mad at me!
Caroline: I had no prior training at all. I was intimidated at first, but the more you work hands-on, the more confident you get and you actually understand the process.
I understand Randy oversees all of the repairs in the shop. How is he to work with (I know I’m probably putting you on the spot with that question)?
Persia: Working with Randy sucks – no I’m just joking. He’s actually really great to work with. I consider my days at the shop almost like days off- I get to listen to music all day, work with awesome and famous guitars, meet cool people, and me and Randy just talk, tell stories, share secrets, cry on each others’ shoulders (okay, maybe I’m the only one that’s needed a shoulder to cry on…) and so on when we’re back at our benches. Spending that much one-on-one time with someone gets you close. He’s also a very smart and interesting person, so he has a lot more to teach me than guitars and I love that. He’s almost like my dad or my best friend in a certain sense. There is one thing that annoys me about Randy though – HE IS SO MESSY! None of our tools really have a place and they ALWAYS go missing. I swear we haven’t bought a screw driver or anything in years and somehow we always find them…some of the tools even have their own nick names like “Red Boy” and “Blue Boy.” Even when we try to keep things clean and in place, ten minutes later it’s a disaster again. Can’t win them all I guess.
Caroline: He’s horrible! Awful to work with! Just kidding!! Randy is an amazing boss to work with. He’s patient and has a calm vibe. It’s actually relieving working next to him because he’s there to watch and teach you. If I have ANY questions or I run into a rare issue on a guitar, he’s right there to help and assist. He’s really a wizard luthier- he can basically do anything.
For all the girls, have you ever felt intimidated or any pressure on the front line in a male-dominated industry?
Dagna: In the beginning, it was pretty obvious I was not getting respect from some customers. I was in my early 20’s and I think that confused a lot of people that I could fix a guitar. A lot of people expect an old, hairy and crabby guy to do that kind of job, and I think it makes people feel safer to leave their guitar with someone like that. But I just had to stick with it and learn from the experiences. I think it worked because I have not had that kind of issue for a few years. I think because I was able to stand my ground and not give in, I developed some pretty good confidence and it shows in my customer relations. And I have seen a lot of stuff, like people not trusting that I did the job right (so I had to explain exactly how things are done, how they work and earn their trust that way) or local competition trying to talk me down to my own customers (in which case again, I had to stand my ground, know that I did the job right and not cave in), in which case it is also important to know how to brush that kind of thing off and not let it affect your confidence. The thing is, the customers that I have won over, they follow me wherever I go. And that’s a great thing to have, a loyal customer base makes one feel very appreciated.
Persia: When I started at Parsons with very little knowledge, I was very intimidated. Dudes try to talk guitar with you because you’re a luthier apprentice and you don’t have a whole lot to say back. Over the years though, as I began to learn more, I would get more frustrated than anything. When guys come up to the counter with a guitar question and instantly ask for Randy, and all they needed was a string change or a question about their pick ups- they didn’t think I was capable of asking because I’m a young girl! I wanted to walk out there sometimes and be like, “Hey, I work here for a reason. I can answer any of your questions or concerns.” I think though that now that I’ve been doing it for such a long time, most of our customers know about me through word of mouth or recognize me from being there helping them out over the years. And the people that don’t know me walk in and are shocked to see a woman behind the counter, and even more shocked when I can talk guitars with them. I don’t know why guitars and being a musician became such a “dude” thing, maybe it was all the groupies that ruined it for the rest of us. But now being a musician or a luthier none-the-less in the music industry, you’re definitely held on a pedestal.
Caroline: Never. I never think about it, or I forget it’s a male-dominated industry. I just appreciate and am grateful that I even have an opportunity to work with Randy and learn from the best.
One final question for Randy. What’s the future hold for you? Do you have any new projects lined up and do you have a dream project/artist that you hope to someday work with?
I’m always developing new ideas. I’m building a very cool guitar called “The Sleeping Hollow. It’s for a new musician named Parker Lundgren who is currently playing with Queensryche, Also, a very big project for a Canadian circus company I can’t talk about 🙂
For more on Parsons Guitars, check out their site at www.parsonsguitars.com.
Photos provided courtesy of Parsons Guitars.