Ghost in the machine The supernatural talent of Randy Parsons

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In a previously nondescript suite of offices overlooking downtown Ventura’s entertainment district, a labyrinth of hallways now artistically embellished and lit only by the occasional sconce leads to various rooms where a kind of magic is quietly being practiced. Vices, clamps and drills rest on a large table. Necks, pickups, tuning pegs, pick guards, wires and other vital parts are scattered about like burnt offerings from sacred rituals. Somewhere in this gothic still life there’s a dead scorpion, maybe a cow’s skull. “Oh, and the place is definitely haunted.” 

So says celebrated luthier Randy Parsons who recently moved his operation from Seattle to a 7,000-square-foot space above the Ventura Theater. Probably best-known for his work with Jack White, a relationship that was immortalized in the film It Might Get Loud, Parsons has also built guitars for Jimmy Page, Sammy Hagar, Parker Lundgren, Death Cab for Cutie, Peter Frampton, Joe Perry and Modest Mouse.

His guitars, which sell for as much as $65,000 and often take a year to make, are something of a miracle. It is not unusual for Parsons to begin projects with little to no clue how to manifest his rather elaborate ideas, yet somehow he always gets it done — and to tremendous effect. To wit: the Red Queen. Commissioned by a high-profile multimillionaire whose name Parsons will not disclose, it was inspired by the artistry of Cirque du Soleil (a big influence on Parsons’ aesthetic). It’s made from exotic materials including African bloodwood and flame maple and required 50,000 or so individual pieces to assemble. It was his first attempt at inlay. “Not only did I want to do inlay,” he recalls. “It had to be better than anything else. I got ill making that. I had three layers of [magnification] on . . . it was just exhausting.”

Working in what will be the Queen’s Studio, 
Parsons has created a tranquil environment to craft 
instruments that are as much art pieces as stage gear.

Photo by: T. Christian Gapen

Before the Red Queen, there was the Triple Jet, built for Jack White when he started the Raconteurs. As Parsons tells it, White’s people contacted him to see if he could modify an existing Gretsch to look like copper, his hue du jour. Parsons asked why he didn’t just have Gretsch do it. They said White wanted his own Gretsch signature model, but he didn’t want the people at Gretsch to make it. When the job was complete, Parsons received a personal email from White thanking him. Parsons replied that he’d be happy to assist him with any additional luthier services, that he had a lot of ideas. With affectionate glee, Parsons recalls White’s response: “Cool man, I think we should just leave it the way it is. It’s a beautiful thing.” But Parsons couldn’t. He told White that rather than just painting the guitar the color copper, he wanted to use the actual metal. White took the bait and Parsons found himself in a bit of a quandary: How in the world does one go about making a copper guitar?

“I had no idea what I was doing.  My friends were saying, get a torch and melt it on there. [White] asked what it would cost and I pulled a number out of my butt. I made it and it was awesome. It was stunning.”

A creative symbiosis exists between Parsons and White that is rooted in their shared fascination with old things, artisanal methods and authenticity. Though Jimmy Page will always be a hero for Parsons, he says he has become partial to White. “My favorite artists are usually about the whole package, not just the notes on the guitar. The circus that they’ve created around them and the fact that he is one of the coolest, smartest people I’ve ever met . . .  the experience of being part of his career has been amazing.”

Randy Parsons wasn’t always a craftsman. He wasn’t always an artist. In his youth, he was an avid guitar player, the guy everyone expected to see commanding arena audiences. But he saw no real future in guitar playing so he took the military route instead, later working in law enforcement. A vague discomfort, however, gnawed at him until one day in the shower he had a vision. It would be the first of many. He cashed out his 401K, purchased a bunch of tools and raw materials, holed up in his garage for two years and taught himself how to make a guitar. It was a transcendent ghost-in-the-machine process that would set the tone for things to come.

“I felt like I’d been there before. All of a sudden I knew about wood. I could put a piece of wood in my mouth and smell it and taste it and know if it was old enough. I could write a book of the weird creepy cool things that have happened. There’s something else involved. It seems at times someone is guiding my direction, even my hand.”

Later, a fortuitous encounter with Boaz, an acoustic guitar guru with MacGyver-like skills and a shaman’s heart, helped shape his course. His tutelage could be reduced to one basic premise: Learn to make a guitar with a pocket knife, and you can do anything. To this day, Parsons uses nothing more sophisticated than hand tools to work his voodoo.

Parsons’ workshop above the Ventura Theater has abundent light, 
nice views and maybe a few ghosts.

Photo by: T. Christian Gapen

And yet despite his track record and contrary to his confident demeanor, he is highly self-critical. “Every guitar I make, I know I can do better. I’m trying to learn something with each guitar. I torture myself. ” He also never knows what a guitar will sound like until it’s strung. “I wish sometimes I was a furniture maker. It would be so much easier, but the guitar has to sound better than something you’d buy in a store and that’s the challenge.”

Keeping with the pervading theme of Parson’s career, the story of how he came to call the sleepy seaside town of Ventura his new home is as serendipitous as it is by design. “I maxed out my business plan in Seattle,” he recalls. “I achieved everything and more. I needed a change. Life goes by so quick, you start asking questions: How do I want to live my life? I started thinking about California like everyone does,” he laughs.

So a year ago, he and one of his female assistants, Caroline, took a recon road trip from coastal San Luis Obispo to L.A. At some point they ended up at Starbucks on Main and Chestnut before heading home. It wasn’t until they were looking at photos from the trip that they noticed a “for lease” sign in a window above the Ventura Theater. “I said, ‘This is it. This is the only place we’re going.’ ”

“I get these visions,” he explains. “And when I get a strong one I’m convinced it’s going to happen. It gives me the guts to make it happen.” But living by your wits, despite encouragement and confirmation from on high, has its drawbacks and they often involve money.

“My name is pretty big but the money usually comes a lot later,” says Parsons. “I’m not a business person, I’m more of a creative spirit. I had to basically cash out and see how much money I had. I had enough to really fill a moving truck and get down here.”

But when he arrived in Ventura, the deal wasn’t entirely sealed and he spent four nail-biting days in the moving van with his cat, riding the waves of uncertainty. “I’m in California. I’m in Ventura in the parking lot of a Motel 6. The signs were there; I saw the vision. I’m asking myself, ‘Why am I living in a car?’ ” That’s when good fortune came calling once again in the form of Seattle magnate Bernt Bodal. The CEO of American Seafoods (featured in an episode ofUndercover Boss) and once-upon-a-time rock star in Norway (he played bass with Eddie Vedder and Roger Daltry) was on the other end of the phone. “In his heavy Norwegian accent he said, ‘How are you?’ I said, ‘I’m living in a car.’ I moved into the theater [building] the next day.

“He’s always been a good customer and he’s very interested in what’s happening here. He’s a musician himself. I consider it that I have an involved partner; he gave me a fishing pole, not a bucket of fish,” says Parsons.

It’s been about four months since Parsons began the process of transforming the dingy offices into his rock ‘n’ roll lair. With the help of Caroline, who moved with him to Ventura, he’s managed to put his unique stamp on the space, chipping away at lofty but attainable goals for Parsons HQ that will ultimately offer luthiery classes, workshops and repair services in a museum-like environment.  

Parsons’ assistant Caroline with one of the murals she is painting in a kitchen.
Photo by: T. Christian Gapen

To prepare for and partially fund that phase of the business — something he envisions as a destination point for guitar enthusiasts from all over the world — he is offering a limited number of customized guitars for between $1,500 and $3,000. Customers are handed a clipboard with a laundry list of one-of-a-kind handmade components from head stock to body as well as boutique hardware and accessories. Imagine Build-A-Bear for musicians, but in this scenario, your purchase increases in value. “They are not just coming in and buying a guitar,” says Parsons. “I’m going to sign it, date it, document it. It’s something from our shop from the first year, so in 5, 10, 15 years people will be like, ‘Wow! I’m so glad I got that guitar!’ I didn’t want to do something like Kickstarter. These guitars are like issuing stock. At the end of the day, you spend as much as you would in a big box.”

He goes on to explain that mass-produced guitars, even the higher-end models, are routinely customized with boutique parts such as machine heads and bridges, sort of like adding aftermarket features to a new car. He’s giving the customer an opportunity to pick and choose those features from the beginning, in addition to the added value of owning a unique, signed and numbered Parsons guitar. “We wanted to add an experience. It should be special and that’s what I’m trying to give people.”

Adding to Parsons’ mystique is the nature of his relationships with the lovely young women who have worked and sometimes lived with him on and off for 15 years. Parsons is a rock star in his own right, and lovely young women are par for that course, but he insists it’s all very innocent.  He regards them as daughters. One of them, Persia, will be joining him and Caroline shortly, and a third, Natalia, is expected sometime this year.

The shop in Ventura is a work in progress. Though Parsons welcomed the public for a soft opening earlier this month, it won’t be official until sometime in March. Following him up the flight of stairs to the heart of the operation, one imagines Willy Wonka leading the golden ticket bearers into the chocolate factory — and for guitar enthusiasts, it is a candy shop of sorts, though the décor is more reminiscent of an opium den or a haunted house.

And what about those ghosts Parsons is sure reside at 620 E. Main St.? Are they just remnant energies of a man driven to obsession by the pursuit of perfection? Frenzied molecules from a kinetic disturbance that only an artist’s mind could produce? Whatever it is that haunts Parsons Guitars, one thing is certain, the spirit of rock ’n’ roll is alive and well there — it just looks like a chunk of wood and a handful of bones.