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Meet Seattle’s guitar maker to the stars

Jack White performs with a custom guitar from Seattle luthier Randy Parsons (Jo McCaughey photo)

When Jack White storms the stage Sunday night at the Grammy Awards, Randy Parsons will be watching and listening with far more interest than even the biggest fan. That’s because White will be shredding on one of his handcrafted creations forged in his little Seattle shop.

Parsons has been White’s personal guitar maker since the pair first collaborated in 2006, when the former White Stripes star and Grammy winner learned of the unique artist plying his craft in an old storage space attached to the Seattle Guitar Center store.

Their first creation was a guitar made of copper for White’s then new band The Raconteurs. White first just talked about painting a guitar copper, but Randy convinced him to actually use the metal instead.

“Usually he’s like ‘Let’s do this and do that’ and I’ll say ‘OK, but what if we do this?’ And he’s like ‘That’s cool’ and then I just do it,” says Parsons.

What he does is unlike any other guitar maker, or artist for that matter. Each guitar he makes is a one-of-a-kind creation, hand sculpted from the finest woods. He incorporates all sorts of unusual items like bones, skulls and other materials you’d never expect to see in any musical instrument.

Along with his work for White, he’s also painstakingly crafted guitars for the likes of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Sammy Hagar, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Peter Frampton and many others.

He’s also become a favorite of wealthy collectors (most of whom he chooses not to reveal) like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Randy created the “Black Vampire” for the billionaire, a priceless work of art carved entirely from rare Gabon ebony, featuring three scorpions encased in the headstock.

“I don’t want to be bored. I could never build the same guitar over and over again, I just couldn’t,” he says of his inspiration.

It’s an inspiration that came to him in the shower two decades ago – “literally,” he laughs. Parsons had put his own guitar down in his 20’s to pursue other work and interests, when one day it struck him: Making guitars was his life’s calling.

“It was this flash and I swear to God I saw everything for the next 20 to 30 years,” says Parsons. “I knew who I was going to be building guitars for, I knew how I was going to do it.”

Since then, he’s devoted virtually every day of his life to his craft. Even as he continues to grow and evolve, he still creates each guitar much the same way he did two decades ago.

“I have a drill press from the 50’s and an old band saw, that’s really it. Everything else is hand tools. It’s a one-of-a-kind thing, it’s been labored over.”

Parsons is trying to outdo even his greatest creations with his latest work. He says after making plenty of electric rock guitars, one day he asked himself “am I full of crap?” and set out to top anything he’d ever done, harnessing 20 years of experience into something spectacular. The result is his “Queen” guitar, an acoustic flat-top with over 50,000 hand cut, hand inlaid pieces.

“Just the neck alone is not just a piece of wood with the fingerboard. The back of the neck is literally over a thousand pieces of wood to make the neck, and then you’ve got thousands and thousands for the inlay,” he beams.

When you look at the “Queen” up close, you can’t help but marvel at the intricacy of the patterns and layers throughout the guitar. It took seven months of going back and forth and designing and redesigning with the wealthy collector who commissioned, and many months more to create what’s nothing short of spectacular.

You’d figure a work of art like the “Queen” is all about appearance. But how it sounds is equally important – or even more so – for Parsons. He’s not precious about his creations. He wants them to be played.

“It’s the most terrifying thing. You go through this extreme marathon process and you just don’t know. I mean when you put that first string on your heart stops like, please sound good,” he says.

They do. It’s why some of the biggest names in music flock to his shop, both for his original creations and to dial in their own guitars. Yet Parsons remains surprisingly humble. He won’t drop names unless you prod him repeatedly, and even then he’s hesitant to divulge most of them. It’s why you don’t see pictures of him with Jack White and other celebrities pushing his guitars.

“I don’t want to whore him out, he doesn’t like it, I don’t like it, so I’m pretty much low key.”

It doesn’t mean he won’t be excited about seeing one of his babies on national TV on Sunday. He’ll be back in the shop the next morning, driven more by his calling than the chance to get rich or build an empire (although he has expanded his guitar tuning and repair business to three shops in the area.)

“I guess I’m trying to create things to leave behind or a history to leave behind because I’m kind of one of these guys who’s obsessed with I’m going to die in five years, I’m going to die tomorrow. You just don’t know,” he says.

While he’ll likely never be a household name like Fender or Les Paul, given the amazing work he’s done the last two decades, it’s safe to say he’s already created a lasting legacy, all from a little shop in Seattle.

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