Jack White is one of your most well-known customers. How did that association begin?
|Left: Jack White hammering away at the Peach Thief guitar Parsons built for White’s wife, singer/songwriter Karen Elson. Right: Randy Parsons poses in jest after White’s round of chiseling on the Peach Thief. “I was trying to make fun of Jack for screwing things up."
It’s just one of those phone calls you get. I had put myself in the right spot, I guess. Some person who knew me knew someone who knew Jack’s drummer at the time. Jack had the idea for a new band called the Raconteurs and, instead of making everything red and white like he does with the White Stripes, he wanted his color of choice to be copper. So he was looking for someone to make a copper guitar. So, Jack’s people called me with this idea for a guitar called the Triple Jet, and it was going to have three pickups and all this cool stuff. On the first guitar, we actually painted the top—it was a copper top with metallic paint. He played that for about six months, and then they started their tour and I didn’t like it. One day, I said, “Why don’t we just make the thing out of real copper?” I took about two months and made the actual Triple Jet #2 out of real copper, and that’s the one he uses all the time now. It’s his number-one guitar.
In the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack White uses a guitar you built with a retractable microphone in the body. How did that design originate?
Jack could call some company and say, “Hey, there’s no budget, sky’s the limit, get your research team on it and make me this guitar.” But with me, I’m just a one-man show. I had to figure it out, and it was a challenge. That guitar has a heavy microphone that he pulls out and screams into. He’s very brutal onstage, so he lets it fly and then retract back up into the guitar. But of course I was like, “Oh yeah, I can totally do that.” I bought a bunch of hair dryers and stuff with retractable cords, and I immediately discovered there was no way those parts were going to work—the bullet microphone weighs at least four pounds. I started talking to people in the industry that do big tools, but all their stuff was just huge and this guitar has a thin body. I finally ran into the Rain Man of vacuum cleaners: I walked into his shop and I just laid it out. I said, “This is the guitar, this is how much the microphone weighs.” And he says, “The Hoover 2002 XL31.” He went to the back of his shop and pulled out this wheel, and I swear to God this must be the only thing on the planet Earth that would fit into Jack’s guitar and pull the microphone back inside. So I bought three of them and just kind of figured it out. That vacuum part is 10 years old, and we had some problems with it breaking down a few times on the road. I freaked out and went back to this guy to buy some more, and he had no idea what I was talking about. I’m like, “Man, come on! I came here six months ago and I showed you the guitar,” and he just looked at me and said, “Nah, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So we’re kind of screwed. We’ve got one wheel left, and that’s it. But I think that’s what Jack likes. He likes the fact that there is only one wheel and that if he’s on the road somewhere and it breaks down, he’s kind of screwed. He’ll have to figure it out.
The guitars you’ve built for Jack have turned out so well that you’re actually doing a signature Gretsch. What can you tell us about that instrument?
The finished Peach Thief features an armrest, a single TV Jones pickup, and petals from four sets of roses that were dried in books for three weeks.
I made a guitar for Jack White’s wife, Karen Elson. She wanted a guitar the color of a peach, and the idea was to just paint it that color. Of course, me and my big mouth, I said, “Why don’t I find some peach-colored roses, dry the petals in books, and then glue them all over the guitar?” And that’s what we did. The guitar is called the Peach Thief and looks like Jack’s Triple Jet, but it has two pickups. I really like that idea of using flowers and organic petals. I came across these sunflowers, but instead of being orange and yellow, the leaves were dark, dark, blood red and black. So the new Gretsch guitar uses these pointy, sharp, sunflower-seed petals all over the front, with kind of a gray-black finish on the back and sides. It’s very dark, very gothic, so it’s actually called Sleeping Hollow. They pulled a Gretsch Anniversary Jr. off the assembly line and gave it to me to modify. I replaced the fingerboard, reshaped the guitar, changed the f-holes. It’s a completely different guitar. They don’t know quite what they’re going to do with it yet, but they came to me because they wanted to identify with the rock-and-roll crowd versus the country cowboy crowd.
Back to your own brand, you’ve got a new model coming out in August.
It’s the Diablo Antigua [August cover image], which is my new line and what I’m most excited about. I’m working with this incredible metal artist named Shawne Reeves, and this thing looks like it’s 500 years old. It’s got this cool copper etching all over the top, and the fingerboard is actually made from recycled newspaper and car tires. It’s got aged copper block inlays. It has the cow skull construction and some other hidden stuff inside. One of the cool things about this guitar is that all the hardware goes through a two-step process. First, we copper-plate all the hardware before we do our acid treatment, because we turn everything black after it’s been coppered. It just has this unique look that you can’t buy anywhere. It also has a killswitch and a boost control—which are two things production guitars usually don’t have.
What’s the price point for the Diablo Antigua?
It ranges from $5000 to $7500. Most things at Parsons start there. What I’m trying to do is avoid doing production guitars. I’d rather offer my clients something that has value because it’s handmade by me, so we do a small run every year of no more than 50 guitars.
A $5000 guitar is not entry level, but it’s not outrageous either. A customer could easily drop that on a high-end axe off an assembly line. How do you create handmade quality while still keeping prices at least somewhat reasonable?
It’s tough, because ultimately I want people to play them and be able to buy them. Five [grand] is kind of the area where, if I can get that much, I can continue doing what I do. I don’t want to get greedy and just sell to collectors or rich people. But at the same time, I recognize that $5000 is a lot of money for a guitar. What I’m trying to say to someone is that you can spend $5000 on a Les Paul and it’s going to hold its value and you’re going to get a quality instrument. But you can also buy a guitar from me—that’s actually made by me—and it may be worth a lot more in the future. This is the birth of a new company.