It all began in the San Fernando Valley town of Sylmar where Randall “Sparky” Kramer grew up making his own toys.
“My parents bought me a tool kit when I was 6 or 7,” he says. “Then my mom took me around construction sites to gather wood in order to build airplanes, trucks, guns and anything else boys like to make.”
Kramer first started playing guitar when he was in junior high school. After graduating from college in Riverside, he spent several transient years as a river guide, picking up the mandolin along the way.
“I love the intensity of getting it right. It’s very zen that way. If you’re not focused, it’s a good time to sweep the floor.”
“We played music by the campfire every night,” he says. “There were always lots of musicians in our community, so I was never alone.”
In 1983, he moved to Truckee where he built his home and shop in the newly developed Sierra Meadows neighborhood and opened Sparcaloni & Kramer Fine Woodworking.
Well over 6 feet tall with a snow-white goatee and thick glasses, Kramer emerges through his studio door with the sunlight glowing at his back. He takes me on a tour around his studio full of jigs, molding shapes and guitars, mandolins and banjos of all makes, ages and sizes.
After two decades of furniture building, the impeccable craftsman was at Millpond Music Festival to see stringed instrument legend Norman Blake perform with flatpicking master Tony Rice. There he met Mammoth-based luthier Mark Blanchard. A luthier is someone who builds or repairs string instruments.
“Mark was there with the first six guitars he ever built,” Kramer says.
When Blanchard passed through Truckee on his way to guitar festivals west of the Sierra, he’d often visit Kramer. After one conversation where his friend mentioned he’d maybe like to teach guitar building, Kramer volunteered to be his first student.
“He chose me because he could teach guitar building and not woodworking,” says Kramer. “We did each step side by side. The lessons basically equaled the price of the first guitar I made. At least I knew I’d have something that sounded good at the end of it.”
Right away Kramer went home and built his second guitar so he wouldn’t forget what he had learned.
“I took copious notes, but I think I called Mark every day during that second project,” says Kramer.
The secret to Randall Kramer’s custom guitars lies in a special technique of graphing resonance patterns invented by German physicist and “father of acoustics,” Ernst Chladni. Using a single generator attached to a small speaker, Kramer produces sound waves of various frequencies. By sprinkling “magic powder” (dust from the band saw) on the tops and bottoms of his guitars, he is able to uncover node lines in the cross grains and long grains of the wood.
“The dust settles in the low of the wave where there is no movement,” he says. “The trick is to avoid having the same resonance as the notes themselves.”
Kramer documents the Chladni readings from every guitar he’s ever made in a well-worn notebook, allowing him to build on his knowledge through each project. He offers four custom guitar models. The Prairie Grass is popular with flatpickers.
“It’s got a bit of a dreadnought [a type of acoustic guitar body] sound but much better balanced with a fuller treble range,” he says. “Since most guitar plates are made with uniform thickness, they are going have a good treble or a good bass, but not both. I graduate my tops so they don’t run out of fullness and body. When you play my guitar on the 12th fret, it sounds great. It’s all there.”
Kramer’s newest model called the Schoenberg Quartet features a 12-fret guitar with a 14-fret body shape. He built it for Schoenberg Guitars. It’s an altered throwback to the Martin 000 built from 1929 to 1933 when guitars were first starting to replace banjos as the primary rhythm instrument in popular American folk music.
Once a customer has chosen a guitar shape, he or she has the option of incorporating various types of wood into the neck, body and fretboard. Since 2006, Kramer’s guitars have been made from rosewood, koa, walnut, Adirondack spruce, mahogany, myrtlewood, zircote, Malaysian blackwood, redwood and cedar.
It’s been 10 years since he left behind a successful furniture-making business for full-time lutherie, but, Kramer isn’t looking back.
“I love the intensity of getting it right,” he says. “It’s very zen that way. If you’re not focused, it’s a good time to sweep the floor.”
For more information, visit randallkramerguitars.com.