Minimalist guitar-craftsman Randy Parsons rocks out in new documentary
Randy Parsons, of Seattle's Parsons Guitars, makes handcrafted instruments for rock stars such as Jimmy Page, Jack White and the bands Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse. Reporter Ted Fry talks to him on the eve of the release of a rock documentary in which he appears, "It Might Get Loud," directed by Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth").
Special to The Seattle Times
The Guitar Maker
There's a gleaming slab of cow skull on Randy Parsons' work bench. Nearby are several smaller pieces that have been sliced with such precision they look like captured frames from an MRI scan. The polished bone is destined for the ribbing and neck of an electric guitar that Parsons is building for an unnamed luminary of the local music community. It's the second instrument in a design run of two that Parsons has dubbed "Strolling With Bones." No. 1 is in the possession of Jimmy Page, making this extremely limited-edition guitar a collectors' item of the highest order.
Parsons Guitars is an unassuming hideaway on Westlake Avenue North adjacent to the superstore of the Seattle Guitar Center, the flagship of five shops Parsons operates. With a shadowy interior swathed in candlelight, worn leather furniture, the lingering scent of incense and a background soundtrack of classic rock riffs, the environment Parsons has created fits his personality and trade in a way that's akin to Dale Chihuly's glassblowing shop on North Lake Union.
Parsons is a modern luthier — a maker of stringed musical instruments — and it's not just his ego talking when he describes himself as the Chihuly of electric guitars. Quick-witted and boyishly handsome, the 44-year-old craftsman exudes a quiet self-confidence and carries himself with an understated swagger that fits with his dedicated rock 'n' roll lifestyle. His client list of rock's elite — Page, The White Stripes' Jack White, Sammy Hagar, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse — has made Parsons a rock star in his profession, one who treats each new guitar like the one-of-a-kind sculpture it is.
But Parsons' guitars are not museum pieces; they're meant to be played hard (even though Paul Allen has one called "The Black Vampire" — with scorpions and spiders embedded in the neck stock — displayed under glass on his yacht). And played hard they are, especially by the likes of White (of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs), who has been one of Parsons' most loyal customers and artistic collaborators.
Parsons and White are featured in the rousing new documentary "It Might Get Loud," directed by Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth"), which opens Aug. 28. Parsons has produced or customized a string of guitars for White over the years, but a crowning achievement for both of them is the one introduced in the movie.
It's a seriously modified Gretsch Anniversary Jr. production model that Parsons chopped into alternate existence by cannibalizing the cord coil from an industrial vacuum cleaner, so the body could hold a retractable green bullet microphone. Parsons named it "The Green Machine," but before the movie is over it also gets christened in White's favorite color, red, with spatters of blood from the guitarist's flayed fingertips.
The synchronicity between Parsons and White is indicative of Parsons' working method. Just like White, who revels in the minimalist thrum of punk-blues virtuosity, Parsons believes that all you really need to build a guitar is a sharp blade and a chunk of fine-grained wood.
"I make guitars the way he makes recordings," says Parsons. "We go back in time, that's part of our art. We both love low-tech materials and low-tech machines. I embrace construction techniques of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Jack uses the same approach when he records. That's why I continue to work with the guy, because he gets that. I reject all the modern tools of the day because I think people are forgetting how to make guitars."
Parsons learned his luthier craft as an apprentice to a gypsy tradesman named Boaz. "We used to drink wine late at night, and he would pull out this handmade Mexican knife and stick it in my face, saying 'This is all I need. You don't need no electricity and saws. All you need is a knife and a piece of wood.' "
In the 15 years since, Parsons has followed that mantra by making limited editions that carry more of the man than the material or machines that were used to create them.
"I never want to do production guitars. I always want to be doing something new and unique, so I'll come up with a concept and build a guitar like you would construct a song. And then I'll do a small run of those guitars with slight variations — may five, six, seven, 10 of those — and that will be like my album. They're all different, but they're all consistent with a theme. And then I move on to something else."
"Strolling With Bones" is a perfect example of Parsons' approach to design and micro-production. "The guitars that are made in China, Japan, the U.K., they're all the same now, because the machines are the same," he said. "It's great that you can buy a $200 guitar now, and they're good. A young person can buy a guitar and it's great, it's good for the stage. But I never want to get into that market because it's done, the big boys have taken that over. But because of that, a new market has opened up for people who want something unique, something handmade, something artistic, more of a one-of-a-kind. That's the path I'm going down."
Parsons seems to have created the dream life of a pop artisan, complete with a work force of four young female apprentices whom Parsons describes as "strays who all came walking in the door with something to offer.
"People roll their eyes; they see my staff of beautiful women who live with me in this big old house in Beacon Hill and think, what kind of nefarious things are taking place? But it's really so much love and respect. They're more like daughters to me than anything. We really are a family."
With little more than bones, a woodpile and a few finely honed knives, Parsons is following a vision. "I'm never going to stop building," he says. "That's what I'll do until I die, I'll be building guitars. Hopefully people will still want them."