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For the Love of Wood 
Randy Allen, Luthier 
by Elena Corey 
Posted by permission. Originally printed in the February '98 issue of Acoustic Musician, 800-679-0070. acoustic@shentel.net

    

Is there a special gift of a sensitive ear which is possessed by people who know how to create beautiful musical instruments which also sound good? Visual artists are rumored to have especially developed imaginations coordinating their minds with their eyes so that they can look at a blank piece of canvas and see their finished masterpiece. Perhaps the process of learning how to take chunks of wood and artfully arrange them so that the finished instrument sounds wonderful to our ears develops the ear of the creator of such instruments.   

Randy Allen says he doesn't know about that, but he does love wood and he loves making musical instruments. I met with Randy and his wife, Penny, recently and discussed with them how that love of working with wood has turned a part-time hobby into a full-time labor of love and successful business. Randy arrived with a brochure, a copy of a newsletter he produces and a scrapbook of pictures, and an eager expectancy, although he had earlier expressed some reserve, wondering what, if anything, was remarkable about himself that would make a person want to read about him.   

That same modesty, I found, showed up in other people's comments about Randy and his work. At least one person said, "He just doesn't know how good he is" about a guitar Randy had made. That unassuming attitude is part of what makes Randy so easy to talk to; he 's a low-tension conversationalist. About the process of instrument making, however, Randy shows considerable passion, and the excitement level in the air increases when he gets to talking about his designs and methods of working. His hands attempt to illustrate his words and to punctuate his sentences quickly so that he can quickly get to the next point.   

He told me that he performs between 150-200 separate task steps in building an instrument. Some of these steps are small, such as "thicknessing" the wood, and other steps are larger, such as choosing the wood to be used for each piece of the instrument. Sanding, measuring, bracing, gluing, clamping, doing inlay, etc. all have their places in the sequence of incremental steps which produce a beautiful, good sounding instrument. Randy related how he had gotten into repairing back in his mid-twenties when he had sent his own guitar to someone else to repair and it had come back without being much better than it was before. So he carefully (and with some trepidation) he did the work over, and in the process, discovered that he seemed to have a natural flair for understanding the construction of acoustic instruments. Ironically, the first guitar Randy built from scratch was a solid-body electric guitar, which, he said, wasn't as much fun, but it was a custom order for someone else, so he built it to specifications.   

Soon friends began asking him to do increasing amounts of minor set-up and repair work and he felt more and more confidence in his developing skills in building instruments. With the aid of a couple of instruction books he was able to build his first guitar. Randy's wife, Penny, at this point, told me that Randy had reportedly taken apart alarm clocks, as a child, to better understand their workings, so that tinkering with things to make them work better just came naturally to him. He demurred a bit, saying that he hadn't at first understood musical instrument making; that he had really had to work at learning his craft.  

For a number of years Randy divided his energies, doing some instrument making and repairing, but hanging on to day jobs in the construction field, for a reliable paycheck. He did cabinet making, spec-building, store-fixtures and other such ubiquitous work, but he said that such a scattering of his energies left him feeling that he'd lost his sense of direction for his life. There also wasn't any enthusiasm for the day job or joy in trying to make four mortgage payments, from his small real-estate adventures.   

After a few long discussions with his wife, Randy decided that it was time to go full-blast into the luthier business. Randy could have loped along, indefinitely doing a little bit of this and that, but he decided to take the full-time plunge back approximately in 1993. Randy and Penny live off the beaten path on a small acreage with plenty of trees nearby, and he has advance orders for his instruments and ships them all around the world. Besides guitars, Randy also has been making resophonic guitars and mandolins. He has also started a luthier supply business supplying woods and a fret slotting service to other builders. Other recent projects have been Mandolin and resophonic tail pieces, in a solid cast design. Mandolins are beginning to move now, for Randy. At one festival, early this summer, his inventory of mandolins was so low that Randy did not have one of his own mandolins to play. He had sold the last one he had built the day before he left for the festival. He felt a bit embarrassed, having a booth featuring his own instruments and going around jamming with a mandolin with someone else's signature on its head. He took a bit of kidding about that, and tries to keep at least one mandolin ahead of demand, so that he will have something of his own to play.   

Regarding his resonator guitar, Randy talked briefly about the designs he has developed. He incorporates a sounpost construction system. The coverplate is held in place with machine screws which is a vast improvement over wood screws that tend to strip out over time. Most of the musicians who are attracted to his resonator guitar creations are progressive in their playing style, and Randy explained to me how that makes some sort of sense. To Randy, each instrument has its own, individual (and possibly unique) voice-some sweet, some dark, some bassy, and players of traditional styles seem to prefer the sound of a sound-well design, whereas more progressive / contemporary stylists seem to gravitate to instruments with a sound-post design.   

Shipping instruments to places like Japan and Malaysia now takes a fairly large share of Randy's time. He has contracts with distributors in a number of far-flung places now. Going to trade shows, having booths at a few festivals also take part of the Allen's time, and Randy reports that he is beginning to see results from previous advertising and marketing efforts, as the demand for his instruments increases.   

Randy and Penny both comment that Randy really likes each aspect of his work - buying large amounts of wood of various kinds, "playing" with it, the clamping process, doing inlay with abalone and other such beautiful materials, interacting with people.   

One of the chores of a luthier is translating the sometimes less than articulate points his clients consider critical for the instruments they are ordering into tangible, accurate characteristics. Many people know, in their ears, the sound they want their instrument to have, but they don't often know what kinds of choices will create that sound.   

Randy told of one client who visited the shop and fell in love with the sound and feel of a certain guitar. He wasn't in a position to buy it right then and shortly after the guitar was shipped overseas. He was disheartened about this, deploring the fact that he had missed it. Later Randy handed him another guitar, quite a bit different from the previous guitar, and asked the guy to play it. The end of that story is that after an initial period of thinking the new guitar wasn't enough like the previous one to suit him, finally came to the conclusion that the new guitar, was very rich and even-toned, and the wider neck actually suited his playing style better than the first one did.  

Randy doesn't go around trying to persuade people to change their choices, of course, but that just shows that Randy had been listening when the guy tried to describe the sound he wanted out of a guitar, and even though the guy had some ideas about what kind of instrument would produce that sound, Randy had a deeper knowledge of that topic. Dropping his eyes a bit, Randy told me about another guy who had sat with tears rolling down his cheeks after he first played the guitar Randy built for him. "You always worry whether the person you build a guitar for is going to like what you've built them," Randy said, "but this guy's reaction really touched me."   

Feedback from people about his instruments has been remarkably positive and encouraging, from his first efforts on. The most usual feedback he receives is the reflection that his instruments are unusually clean, inside and out. And of course, they are easy on the eyes, too. Penny's guitar, particularly, is both a visual and aural testimonial for Allen guitars. Sometimes it is easy to get so submerged in the individual steps of the process that the totality of the emerging guitar isn't apparent until it is completed. Then it is possible to look at the finished guitar, to strum it, and marvel at the wonder of its essence. "Sometimes the thought occurs to me that such a wonderful ending may have been a fluke, and maybe I couldn't build such a nearly perfect instrument again," Randy confessed. A finished, well-done instrument can be intimidating to its maker.   

An additional source of satisfaction for Randy is that, recently, many of the instruments he gets orders for are to be used in spiritual worship. Peter Oliva, who used to play with the Byrds and now plays Christian music, full time, for instance, plays an Allen Guitar. That sort of thing, says Randy, is really gratifying, and the fact that Randy cares what his instruments are used for also says something special about Randy Allen

    

 

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