Randy Parsons abandoned the guitar after years of playing in high school and college. He quit, assuming he had no future in music, and ended up working for the city of Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. But then, one day, he received a vision of sorts that sent him on a journey toward custom-made guitars made of exotic and unusual materials—in addition to interactions with some of his childhood heroes.

Page playing the Strolling with Bones flattop Parsons made for him. It features Kasha-inspired bracing and a secret button to light up the interior, and its neck, fretboard, back, and sides are all of ebony.
That journey came after a period of serious introspection mixed with sweat and hard work, a blend of the esoteric and do-it-yourself know-how. Despite starting with zero training as a luthier, he has built a business with five different shops and celebrity clientele that includes Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, Jack White, and Sammy Hagar. He works out of his main Seattle shop, which is run by five women—three of whom are luthiers—and he also has Parsons Guitars repair shops in four Washington-area Guitar Centers.

We recently spoke to Parsons about his history, using bones in guitars, the significance of the number 333, and the fusion of mystic vibes and good old-fashioned hard work.

How did you get into luthiery?

I had given up the guitar. I had been that kid in high school that everyone thought would be a rock star. But deep down, after much soul searching, I just knew it wasn’t going to happen. I gave it up in my 20s and went a different direction altogether. I don’t even think I owned a guitar. It was the furthest thing from my mind. But when I was 28 years old, I was taking a shower one day and I got hit with this vision. It was so strong: I saw myself making guitars for my idols—like Jimmy Page—and having a business and doing the whole thing. It was just a fraction of a second, but it was like an instructional video inside my head showing me how to approach this new life. I remember getting out of the shower—I was shaking—and I couldn’t dry off fast enough. I got in my little Jeep and went down to the hardware store. I had about 300 bucks and I spent it on a band saw, woods, some glue. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was just like, “This is it—this is my life,” and there was no stopping me. It just felt so right and I just went for it.

The Strolling with Bones acoustic Parsons built for Page features a Sitka spruce top with Kasha-style bracing and an ebony neck (left) and an embedded silver “spell coin” the luthier has had since childhood (center). “I figured it couldn’t hurt,” he says. Bones’ interior is supported by four flying braces tied together with waxed leather (right).

You have jokingly said you almost flunked high school shop class. So your wood skills weren’t exactly outstanding. How did you go about the process of learning to build guitars?

I locked myself in my basement for two years. This was before YouTube, so there really wasn’t a lot of information out there. I just started cutting wood and trying to invent how guitars were made based on what I knew. I would buy some crappy guitars and take them apart, but I was just a madman. I think I made over 100 guitars in those two years in my basement. They were crappy and I didn’t even finish a lot of them, but I was on this mission. I told myself, “I need to spend two years and learn this craft the best I can.” That began this serendipitous journey where the right things, the right materials, and the right people just came into my life at the right time.

Who were some of the folks that helped you?

Well, there was Boaz Elkayam. He’s this underground gypsy guitar maker and he’s well known in the classical world. He would travel from country to country and build guitars with small tools. I was so obsessed with building guitars that I decided to build some flamenco guitars, and I thought, “If I’m really going to learn how to make these, I need to learn how to speak Spanish.” A Spanish instructor introduced me to Boaz, and it began this friendship. Boaz actually lived with my wife and me for a year. We would stay up at night and drink wine and talk about guitars. The most important thing he taught me was when he pulled out this Mexican knife he carried around with him everywhere and said, “This is all you f-ing need. Learn to make guitars with this and this is all you will ever need.” And that began my relationship with low-tech tools. And he was right—technology really gets in the way. If you can make your guitar with hand tools, then you’re better off. Famous people will contact a major company and say, “Hey, I had this idea…” and the manufacturer says, “Geez— no, our computerized machines aren’t calibrated to do that.” But I can do anything, because I can make a guitar with a hand knife. I can just conjure up a way of approaching any request. In my shop, there are no CNC machines, there are no Plek and fret machines. There’s none of that crap. It’s all just small tools.

Left: Another view of Bones’ top underside reveals a personalized inscription on the bass-side bout, as well as bracing inscriptions like “Thoracic Spine” and “Right Clavicle.” Middle: Parsons scalloped the bone nut, something he says he picked up years ago while buidling flamenco guitars. Right: The finished Strolling with Bones.

Some of your current work—like the Diablo—uses unusual materials such as bones, skulls, and other organic materials. What led you to incorporate those into your instruments?

That started all the way back with Boaz. We were staying up all night, thinking about what materials we could use for frets. The steel or nickel fret makes sense from a manufacturer standpoint, because you can hammer them in. But you would never use that material for a nut or a saddle. So we were coming up with these weird materials, like beryllium, bone, and this plastic called Delrin. It’s really all about enjoying your art and enjoying life and resisting. I’m very stubborn—I’m trying to resist becoming a factory. I get enjoyment out of becoming a guitar maker, being original, and using different materials.

It’s quite common to use bone for nuts, but what is the benefit of using bone and even cow skulls more extensively throughout the instrument?

Bone is just such a perfect material. I use the skull for interior bracing, and because of its honeycomb construction it’s very lightweight and super, super strong. We’ve got these dead skulls sitting in the desert just being wasted, and I’m going to chop them up and use them for braces. It just makes sense. Tonally, they’re great. They look cool, and it’s a great resource. I do a lot of other things, as far as being green—I recycle materials you would never think of instead of buying new stuff or chopping down trees. Ultimately, I use these items because nothing competes with nature.

Sourcing quality wood can be tough for any luthier, but how does one go about procuring cow skulls?

You can discover this stuff by accident. In New Mexico and Mexico, they’re lying all over the place so people just pick them up and sell them on the Internet. People hang them over their fireplace as a decorative thing. But they’re out there, just lying around. They have to be bleached, dried, and hardened, and all the gunk inside needs to have gone away, but the outside of a cow skull is just so, so tough.