Photos and Story by TODD BEEBE
Music and guitars are an inseparable team. From the Blues to Rock and Roll, Country, Jazz, even Classical music, you would be hard pressed to find a time when the guitar wasn’t a dominant force to be reckoned with. The instrument has iconic names associated with it’s creation and innovation: Orville Gibson, C.F. Martin, Les Paul, Leo Fender, Ted McCarty, Seth Lover and many others will forever be connected to the instrument thanks to their historical contributions which have enhanced the guitars popularity. If you spend any time at all around the guitar and learn how they work and are built, sooner or later one name will come up: Rendal Wall. His name can be found right along side the list of legends previously mentioned. He is literally the ‘Yoda” of the guitar. The “guitar guru”, as he is often referred to, Rendal started working for Gibson Guitars in 1960 and was there in the “golden era” of the company, working on all of the classic Les Paul’s, etc. His knowledge is endless and truly amazing. Ideas just flow out of him like water. Rendal invented so many things that are taken for granted on the instrument nowadays and he is a walking inspiration. He carries on a tradition that started with his Father, Rem Wall, who also worked for Gibson guitar and was a famous Country artist. Rendal’s list of inventions is endless, and includes the TP6 tailpiece, which allows the guitarist to fine tune strings from the tailpiece, and his famous HRW pickups, which have been sought after by guitar players for their warm tone and crisp string reception. Wall was the first person to design guitar strings with equal tension across an entire set, which was unheard of decades ago. It’s considered the industry standard and used by every string manufacturer today. He is still active today, and at 77 is a living inspiration, as he gets up every morning and dedicates his day to the guitar, still working for Heritage in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Retirement is not even in his vocabulary. Much deserved recognition has come Rendal’s way recently, as it has been counted that over 1 million guitars have passed through the man’s hands over the years. That’s right- over 1 million! No one else in the business can claim that number. For quite some time I have wanted to document Rendal’s experiences and his amazing life, so it was an honor to sit down and speak with him recently. Thanks for all of your knowledge Rendal, and everything you have done for the guitar. You truly are a living inspiration my friend.
Todd Beebe: Thanks so much for speaking with me today Rendal!
Rendal Wall: My pleasure!
TB: I want to talk about your amazing life and all of the great inventions you’ve given to the music world over the years. Let’s start way back. Were you born in Kalamazoo?
RW: I was born right here in Kalamazoo in 1942.
TB: I know you definitely came from a musical family!
RW: Yes! I grew up in a musical family. My father, Rem Wall, came up here from the southern part of Illinois and he had a guitar in an old gunny sack and started selling shoes in this area. He started his own band back in the 50’s, Rem Wall and the Green Valley Jamboree, and they started getting noticed. And then somebody said “why don’t you start a radio show?” So WGFG down by the State Theater here in Kalamazoo, they had a recording studio and every week we’d go up there and do our little bit and my dad would let a lot of people on the show that wanted to show their talent and everything. Dad would listen to a couple of measures and say “yeah, yeah, you’re good enough, come on down”, you know? So they’d come on down and be on the show. There were a lot of people from Nashville that stopped by. Then afterwards we got the TV show going. We went off in, I believe it was ’82. We were on for I believe 37 years. So, that was a long time! That’s longer than Bonanza! Then we had the two radio shows for close to 40! We had four and a half million available listeners to our TV shows all those years. We actually invented the TV dinner! (laughs) So we go way back. When the farmers would come out of the field, they would have dinner and watch the show, you know, cause it was on somewhere in that five o’clock range on Saturday. So a lot of the Nashville people back then, Tex Ritter and Little Jimmy Dickens, Mel Tillis, Dottie and Shelly West, people from Nashville that would come up and maybe have a gig around here, they would always call my dad up and be on the TV show as they were passing through, you know? So we got a chance to break bread, so to speak, with a lot of folks in the entertainment business.
TB: Your Father worked at Gibson and then you did too. You started pretty much right out of high school correct?
RW: I started working at Gibson back on 9-9-60. So you figure all those years. I figured up one time, my dad and I total, in this old building, 91 years. So I don’t think there’s anybody in the industry (with that amount of time). I’ve done over a million guitars. They counted a few years back all the guitars that have passed through my hands. And we came up with over a million!
TB: Well congratulations! That’s amazing, what a number!
RW: Yeah, over a million have passed through my hands. A lot I inspected, a lot I’ve set up or looked at over the years. I don’t think too many people can say that! I started when I was right out of high school basically, you know, 9-9-60 is when I started. And up to ’82, that was 22 years I was with Gibson. My dad 37 years, and I’ve been here with Heritage since they started in ’85, so that’s 34 years. So it’s been a long time! Yeah, it’s a lot of guitars!
TB: That’s great! Now, going way back, I want to ask you about your first memories of music? I know you were around your dad all the time of course. But do you remember the first time you ever heard music that really caught your ear?
RW: I’d say the first time was when I was 6 or 7 years old, just getting into the accordion and lap steel. I always said that I started playing when I just got right out of diapers! (laughs) Actually I started out with the accordion. Everybody started out on accordion back in the old days, when you were like 6 or 7 years old. If you wanted to get into music you always started with the accordion, you know? It didn’t fit that well. I never could get the thing squeezing and… it just wasn’t for me! So then I got into the lap steel guitar and Wilbur Marker was my instructor. He was also a Gibson person in the office. He went around the world buying wood for Gibson. He passed on many years ago, but he was my instructor and he took me as far as he could teach me on the lap steel. Nola was my last number on a lap steel. I never will forget that. Then I got interested in the pedal steel. I actually built the steel guitars for Gibson for many years. The 810, the 820, the console type with the old cow tongue pedals and the regular console steels without the pedals. The BR-9’s and stuff like that.
TB: So what was your job at Gibson when you first started out, and what different positions were you in through the years?
RW: When I was with Gibson, I started out on the sanding line. And then they found out that I could tune a guitar and play a little bit so then they hustled me over to be a Fret Filer and Setup guy. Then after that, they made me a Foreman and eventually I had 24 Fret Filer and Setup guys. I had about 8 cleaners, 2 inspectors and I was the last guy in the booth before they were shipped. My booth was about a 12-foot square and had big thick walls and special air conditioning. So when you went in there, you had two doors. You’d open up the door and it had a little ramp and you had a rack of 8 guitars that would come in. You’d shut the door and you could hear your heart beat in there! It was so quiet, but it was a perfect place to check out a guitar for loose screws and any kind of vibration that wasn’t right. Then you’d plug ’em in and make sure the intonation and the action was set and that it played well. Then on it would go. Now back in the 60’s and 70’s we had a 1000 people in this old building, doing 500 guitars a day.
TB: I was gonna ask you when production hit it’s peak. So that was in the 70’s?
RW: Yes. A little bit before 1978 they had a need for somebody in engineering. So, they stuck me in Engineering to do bill of materials. Which, back then- motion or time… if you reached for a tool, that cost you money, that time that it took to reach for it. They got that sophisticated! If you’ve got a 1000 people putting out 500 a day, you know, money is important. Because if there’s guys just sitting there not doing anything, it’s costing you money. So, in the Engineering we actually had time study, where each guitar was broke down, piece by piece, part by part. There was a number assigned to a bridge or the pickups or a brace or a top or a back or a rim. They all had numbers that went in what they call the bill of materials. Then all of those parts were categorized in the various departments and then we did a cost analysis. So you knew exactly what that guitar was going to cost, you know? That was a good job. I liked it, but it wasn’t really for me, because I like to do the picking! I’m a musician! So that was more or less in front of a lot of paperwork. I’m more of a hands-on guy, you know? So from a Foreman, they put me in Engineering and from Engineering they put me in Artist Relation. My boss back then was Bruce Bolan. He went finally with Fender, and then he retired. But he’s a great guy and a great musician. Back then they had what they called Clinicians. Bruce was head of the Clinicians, where they would fly and take the product all over the world. Musicians would load the plane up and they would go to a music store that was maybe just opening and perform on the guitars that were made at Gibson back then. And those were called Clinicians. Well whenever Bruce was gone on a lot of these trips and everything, I was kind of right under him and I would do a lot of the stuff that he couldn’t do when he was away. So that was a good experience for me. Then in Artist Relation I got a chance to deliver B.B. King’s guitar, Lucille. And I believe the one I had was number 17. B.B. had a lot of guitars over the years. People like Wayne Newton would fly into Kalamazoo and I’d be backstage in his dressing room and stuff and it was a thrill for me because I got to meet all these artists! The Scorpions and Kiss, Ted Nugent and so many. The list is like 200. I’d have to stop here and think of all of them that I’ve been with. I actually developed a little box. It would fold out and it was actually a workstation. And I could actually tear a guitar down or change a pickup or change the controls, plug it in and check the electronics. I even built a special electronic amplifier into it. And it was like a suitcase. So I would go like to Wing’s Stadium and when the artist was on stage, I’d be backstage working on it with the roadie for that artist. Steve Howe with Yes! All these guys, you know? It was so much fun for me because back then I was heavy into being a musician myself. So, I really enjoyed being around all the pros. One of the things that I did was pick up a lick from each artist that I was with before I left them! I wanted to learn a little lick from the best, you know? So Les Paul showed me a little lick before. He hits a ninth chord and then goes “da da da da” (sings guitar sounds) I learned that and boy I thought that was really something!
TB: I love it! So you worked closely with Les back in the day?
RW: Oh yeah! I worked quite a bit with Les behind closed doors, on a lot of top secret stuff back then. You know Les was so far ahead of his time. He invented this pickup that was actually designed from a phone! He would unscrew the phone and there’s a little speaker in there, and he got all that stuff figured out. Also, I was real proud that there weren’t too many people that understood what Les Paul’s black box was that he had on his guitar. He pushed the button and it would record and he’d push another button and it would be sound on sound. He showed me how all that worked and everything and it was kind of a big secret back then! But he was a great guy to be around because he had you laughing all the time! I’ve been in an airplane with Les sitting right there on my side. What he was known for was cracking jokes and making you laugh all the time!
TB: You said you started at Gibson in 1960, so you worked with Ted McCarty while he was there of course?
RW: Oh yeah! Ted was the President. Julius Bellson was the Secretary Treasurer and John Huis was Vice President. Those were the three main guys back when we had a 1000 people putting out 500 a day. There were other people that came after them as time went on. Actually Jim Deurloo, who was one of the original owners of Heritage, became manager of Gibson. He was in the corner office. He’s still with us here at Heritage now. JP Moats passed away. Marv Lamb and Bill Paige are both retired, but Jim is still coming and going and working here, just like myself. But back when I was traveling a lot, I was put in charge of the Epi, which was right below Epiphone. So you had Gibson, Epiphone and Epi. The Epi’s were really the least expensive of all three and they were made in Taiwan. So they shipped me over to Taiwan and I had interpreters over there. I had three interpreters. You’d go over to Taiwan and they’d build you samples and everything and then you’d come back to the States and after everything was approved they’d start shipping them to the United States. I also invented a lot of things for Gibson. The slide pickup for the Grabber bass, the top adjust tune-o-matic, the TP6. I invented that in ’78.
TB: That’s the one with the fine tuners right?
RW: Yes! I think they’re still using that. I also worked on the Howard Roberts Fusion guitar. I flew out west, to Arizona. Howard Roberts and I worked on the Fusion guitar together. Howard Roberts was really the prime person to start Guitar Institute of Technology. (GIT) He was way ahead of his time and a great jazz player. I had a chance to work with Howard on the Howard Roberts fusion guitar and a couple of the other models that finally came out.
TB: You started at Gibson in 1960, which was during what many consider the golden era from back in the day. Did you work on the classic Les Paul’s and other models during that time?
RW: Oh yeah! Back in the old days, one of the old guitars that I played in Bye-Bye Birdie at the Barn Theatre was kind of an elusive guitar called a Moderne.
TB: Oh, it’s great you’re bringing that up because that was one of my questions! I love Modernes, and I heard you were one of the guys that played an original one!
RW: Yeah, I played, as far as I’m concerned, it was the last Moderne. It was up in what we called the morgue, where all the old stuff was just put upstairs. There’s a stairs that drops down up front by the office. Certain people were allowed to go up there, but that’s where they stored a lot of the stuff that was just kind of prototypes and stuff that was old. But anyway, in Bye Bye Birdie they had called for kind of a wild, Rock and Roll guitar. So I signed out the guitar and played it
in Bye Bye Birdie. It was such an ugly guitar that nobody wanted to touch it! And then later on in years there was a passenger with a pilot friend of mine. He told the pilot “if you know, anybody that has a Moderne I’ll give ’em a million bucks!” But back then I played it and I put it back in the morgue. I didn’t want that thing! I mean, I’m more of a country picker, you know, and maybe some blues. So I just put it back up there. But then Norlin, that owned Gibson back then, came and cleaned the whole place out. So somebody has it some place! I’ve had guys come in and interview me, writing books about that one guitar.
TB: Oh yeah, there’s a cult following for Modernes!
RW: Yeah! They went to the Barn Theatre to actually look up when I played it, to see if they could find any pictures of me playing it. It’s really an elusive guitar! A lot of people said it was never made. Gibson reintroduced it years later and ran a few of them, but as far as I know I played one of the originals. It was up there all dusty and dirty and all that, and I cleaned it up and put it in the show. Had I only known, I probably could have bought that thing for 50 bucks!
TB: Well this is great to get this, for the record! You’re right, some people claim an original Moderne was never built, so it’s great to hear it straight from the man who played one! Now, from a technical point, you’ve solved a lot of problems for players too.
RW: A lot of fun for me over the years was working with artists. Like when Kenny Rogers would come into town, I’d be back in his dressing room with Chuck Jacobs on the bass and Randy Dorman on guitar. One of my inventions was on Randy’s Heritage Golden Eagle, where I invented the HRW pickup. It won first place in the United Kingdom on a shootout of other pickups. But I talked Randy into putting one of those right at the end of the neck where he had a floating pickup on the Golden Eagle. He wanted a little bit more depth, a little bit more bottom end and a little bit more mid-range. The floating pickup was designed for a little bit more of the acoustical, so it wasn’t giving that bottom end. So I talked him into plowing a hole, which is sacrilegious really to a musician! It’s “hey you don’t want to put holes in my guitar”, you know? (laughs) But this is what you have to do when you have a humbucker pickup. So these HRW pickups that I invented were humbucking. So I talked Randy into letting me have the guitar, ’cause they were gonna be in town for a couple of days. So we got busy and plowed a hole in there. I mounted the pickup and brought it back to him and he hit one note on it and I looked at him and we both realized that the top end was gone. It didn’t have that real excitement on the top end and instantly I had an idea. I said “grab your roadie, grab your stage hand or somebody and go out and get me four washers. Four tiny washers, about an eighth inch.” So they brought them back in and I put them under the pickup ring, the four points where the pickup screws go in to hold the mounting ring on. I lifted the pickup off the top by about a 16th of an inch, just enough to release the weight. The weight of a pickup is like 5 1/2 ounces. That’s a lot of weight on a top that’s trying to vibrate. So I lifted it off the top and Randy, man he just couldn’t believe the difference that it made! So that was my next invention, the HRW pickup with a four-point mounting system. So we started doing that with all the jazz guitars. Kenny Burrell used my HRW’s, Henry Johnson, all the jazz guys. A lot of the Blues guys too. All the big names in jazz. Henry Johnson came in with his Golden Eagle and we put an HRW in there and he actually said to me that’s the first time he was able to hear the sound coming through the amp of what he was picking. And what he was trying to get to come through the amp. So when he would pick and perform, you know, he was hearing it through the amp. He said “I want to send you everything that I own, all guitars, and put that HRW in everything!” He did that and he started giving me credit on his albums and everything. So that was a lot of fun for me. I love working with the musicians over the years and solving their problems. I never will forget Frank Russell, he used to play with Ramsey Lewis. He had a problem in Chicago and nobody could help him out. He had a Fender bass and the pickup was not humbucking, it was just a single coil pickup on that bass. So he came to me through Henry Johnson from Chicago and he said “I wonder if you could take a look at this? In the recording studio, when I play, I have to turn a certain way and flip the bass up a certain way before that 60 cycle hum goes away, so it’s quiet.” So I said “well, let me take a look.” So I took the pickup and turned it upside down and took an ohm meter and checked some things and found out what I had to do. This all happened within probably 20 minutes. I flipped it around and put it all back together and it fixed it. He said “no way!” ‘Cause he had everybody in Chicago trying to figure it out! When you’re around the business of music and spending 8 or 10 hours a day with musicians with all kinds of problems, these are simple problems to somebody like myself.
TB: It’s great that your Father has such a legacy, and then you came in following him too! What a legacy!
RW: Well, this is a neat story and I didn’t find this out until years later: the original, first humbucking pickup, the company wanted somebody to demonstrate to them and play on a guitar, so they could listen to it. It was my dad!
TB: Really?! Wow!
RW: He demonstrated the very first humbucking pickup. I thought that was cool! My dad never talked about it, but it was in a write-up. There’s been so much written on Gibson and Heritage through the years, you know, and I was reading one of the old-time articles and my dad’s name was mentioned in their, Rem Wall was the guy that performed on the very first humbucking pickup, and it was a demo for the company. So he was a part of that history.
TB: That’s great! Now, your Father and the Green Valley boys played on the Opry right?
RW: Well, my dad was real big on the Opry. My dad had a chance to go. He had a lot of records out with Columbia, but Home Is Where The Hurt Is, that sold more records than Elvis back in the old days, in Michigan. Everywhere dad went people wanted his autograph, you know?
TB: That’s what I’ve heard, he was a huge celebrity in Michigan.
RW: Yeah, so I grew up in that environment, where to me, being around the big names in the industry was just second nature. One of the things I’m real proud of is, on our TV show there was a young fellow, Bob Rowe. He is president of Renaissance, which is in Portage, Michigan here. That is a non profit organization that goes around to the nursing homes. So the people that used to watch our TV show for 37 years, over the years some of them wound up in a nursing home. Well those people are the ones that we entertain today! So it wasn’t just 37 years and no more show! We’re still performing, from 1980 on to today! So if you include 37 years plus our entertaining up through today, how many years is that? That’s a lot of years of entertaining!
TB: That’s amazing!
RW: We’ve entertained about every nursing home within an 80 mile radius of here. So we get out and do that at least once or twice a week. Next week I’ve got Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, all nursing homes. So I’m still picking quite a bit!
TB: Oh, that’s great! I’m so glad to hear that!
RW: Yeah, it’s just a way of life.
TB: Now you played drums in your dad’s band too, right?
RW: Yes! The TV show needed a drummer. We needed something to get that beat going! We had a bass player, Hubie Friar. We had the guitar and had the fiddle. We had the Alabama State Champion fiddle player, Jim Bradford and my dad. So I said “well, I’ll get a high hat, a ride symbol and a snare drum and I’ll learn that!” So I started beating on that for the TV show and it worked!
TB: But your main thing has always been guitar?
RW: Well guitar, yeah, and steel guitar and flat top, you know? Because I sang a lot and the flat top was what I liked to play when I’m singing, because the sound is right here. (points to his stomach) You can feel it through your gut, you know what I mean? So it blends well while you’re singing. And if you’re playing electric guitar, the sound is over there, you know what I mean? So you get into the music a little bit better! But it was just so much fun for me to be able to play all these instruments, and bass. I love bass. Today I play a lot of bass. So, I play guitar, bass, very little piano. At one time I had a Solton keyboard from Italy, and it had all the effects in it, and you could put a CD in the side and burn your CD right off of it if you want. And that had background, I created my own background. It had a pedal you’d step on for the bass runs and stuff and I played guitar and had a mic and sang. So I was a one man deal! And then I would back my dad up and we would actually play out, just the two of us.
TB: It’s probably hard to choose, but which guitar model is your favorite of all of them you’ve played through the years?
RW: Well, it depends on the gig. If I’m strolling tables in a place where you have to wear a tux, then it would probably be a Golden Eagle. Because you can hear that as a rhythm type guitar. If it’s blues, it’d probably be a double cutaway, like our 535 or 555. Those are great guitars! In fact, the company made a 555 for me, and it’s just a gorgeous guitar!
TB: Your list of inventions, or things you have enhanced is endless. Many of them are things musicians just sort of take for granted today.
RW: Are you familiar with the PLEK machine?
TB: Oh yeah! Those have really made an impact in recent years. (author’s note: PLEK is a process that has revolutionized guitar set ups. If you’re unfamiliar, learn all about PLEK here: https://plek.com/
RW: When Heritage first started, 36 or 37 years ago, a few years into that, they came out with the PLEK machine. I said “what in the world is that?!” It was showed at the NAMM show. It was kind of a big box that stood tall and you put a guitar in there and there’s a little feeler that pushed the strings aside and it checked the height of the frets. And if one fret was just a few thousandths high, it would give that indication. So then I would get on the computer and I would set that up and that would come back and you’d put the strings aside and it would cut the fret and then it would round the fret. So, I had the very first production model. So there were a lot of things that needed to be improved, right? So I had earphones and a mouthpiece hooked up to Germany in a modem, when modems first came out. 8 hours a day. They were looking in Germany at what I was doing in Kalamazoo, and then they progressively made changes based on what they saw me doing, and they came out with one. Most big companies have them now. The one that we have even cuts the nut. It cuts the spacing, it cuts the depth and the slot dimensions. It’s amazing!
TB: It’s great to see guys like you who help advance all of those things, like the PLEK machine, yet you come from a time when you had to know how to set up a guitar and work on it, hands on, which I think is important too.
RW: A lot of musicians would come a long distance to have me set their guitar up. It’s like a mechanic for a race car, you know what I mean? You got certain guys that know what they’re doing and I kind of got a reputation over the years of knowing what I was doing. So people would send their guitars from all over just to have me set them up. One of the stories that’s fun for me to talk about is all of the instruments you see back in the early 80’s I put on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. I mean Leon Rhodes, Spider Wilson, Jimmy Capp. All these guys instruments, the staff musicians at the Grand Ole Opry, I worked with those guys for so many years. I had a calling card, there was only one like it in the world. Every time I would give it out that was the last time you would see it, because it was a different species of wood from all over the world. Each card was laminated in two pieces, so it would hold up. But it was a different species of wood and the type of wood was stamped right on it so you would know. Like cypress or rosewood or ebony, and it had my name. This was back when I was with Gibson. So when I’d go to Nashville, I’d put that card out there to different musicians and that kind of got around, like “wow, that’s a cool card”, you know? So guys started getting to know me over the many years and then I’d custom build a guitar. I’d take their specs and fly back to Kalamazoo. That’s another thing, I’m a pilot too. Back in the old days I got my pilot’s license. I used to have a Cessna 172. It was a lot of fun! Motorcycles, dragsters, horses, airplanes! It’s been fun, you know!?
TB: That’s great! It sounds like you’ve had many fun hobbies you’ve gotten into over the years, but the music was always there!
RW: Music’s been good! But the most fun I’ve had over the years, as you get older, is helping other people by playing their favorite tune. Especially in the nursing homes. I’ve been in nursing homes where they’re almost in a situation where they don’t hardly respond, and you play their favorite tune and their eyes light up! You know, in some cases they start singing, like Amazing Grace or something. I’ll tell you a short story: we had a preacher in a wheelchair. We did not know at the time that he was a preacher. But there were probably about 50 people in the room. This is back when my dad was living. My dad had a 12 string flat top guitar. I saw him come through the door in his wheelchair and he actually went up and bumped the microphone stand. He was that close to my dad. My dad happened to be singing Amazing Grace. This man was down to like 80 pounds, because he was like really, really fragile. He actually worked himself out of the chair and stood up and started singing to my dad. We were this close and tears were running down his eyes. Amazing Grace, word for word, and both their lips were in unison. Then later on we found out that he was a preacher. So, music touches the soul where medicine doesn’t. It’s amazing! People have been in a coma and we’ll go into their room and sing and play and it’s amazing what music does! That’s the reason it’s so powerful!
TB: Wow! That’s a great story, and you’re right, the power of music is unbelievable!
RW: And each individual that learns guitar or any musical instrument, it touches the soul. I mean, it’s something that’s hard to explain. And I get chills today, if I’m watching YouTube or I see a little kid nowadays that’s 6, 7, 8 years old that hits the right note. They’re so talented! Well people back in the old days, they didn’t have YouTube and all the musicians and all the great guitars and musical instruments that we have today. And these kids are getting younger and younger. It’s amazing! I look at some of the talent that’s out there, and it’s really wonderful! I tear up, if I hear a certain note.
TB: I’m sure you have some very memorable times you’ve played with other great musicians too?
RW: I had a chance to play with Tommy Emmanuel!
TB: Tommy’s amazing! He’s from another planet I think! (laughs)
RW: He called me up one day and he had an old guitar that was made in this factory. It was probably an 8 or 10 dollar guitar, a little flat top. A fellow passed away and before he passed he gave it to Tommy. Tommy took it to Australia and put all these electronics in it. He called me up and he said “Ren, I’d like to bring this old guitar back to where it was made. It’s just something I’d like to do.” And I said “yeah!” m So myself and a friend of mine picked Tommy up and brought him down here to the shop. He plugged that 8 or 10 dollar guitar in and made everybody cry! I’ll tell you what! It’s not so much the guitar as it is the musician. I’ve heard musicians make a cigar box sound fantastic! But anyway, we went back to his bus and he wanted to show me his guitar. So he went inside and brought it out. He let me play it a bit and he could see that I could handle a guitar. It was windy and kind of chilly and he said “come on in where it’s a little bit warmer.” So on the back of the bus, the friend of mine was standing in the hallway and in the back of Tommy’s bus he had guitars all over the place, you know, laying around and battery powered amps. So Tommy gave me a guitar and he picked up a guitar and I played two songs that he’d never heard before. He played note for note harmony on top of me on two songs he’d never heard before and never missed a note! And my friends jaw dropped open! Tommy is so great! I have found over the years, the great guitar players, the great musicians, I’ll put it that way, are still humble after they’ve reached the top. They make you feel like you’re part of the family. They’re not like “it’s all me” you know, that attitude? It’s “come on, let’s play a lick together”, you know what I mean? I’ve been around people that can’t even speak English, from Japan and China, whatever. Pick up a guitar and you’re talking the same language! Music has an international language to it. It’s amazing! And here’s the thing: a guitar’s got what 22, 24 frets and 6 strings? But each person that picks the guitar up interprets it differently. And that guitar sounds different! You put the same guitar with 12 great guitar players, it’s gonna sound different, you know? And boy, I’ve heard some good ones!
TB: Well it’s great too, because once you have the reputation that you do, the trust is there with everyone in the business.
RW: Yeah! Wayne Newton flew into Kalamazoo years ago. He flies into Kalamazoo and they do a big thing at Wing’s Stadium. Well, I’m called up to go down there if they need anything. I was standing by, you know? So a buddy of mine, Dale Sellers was playing guitar for him. He’s a left-handed picker. So, they let me in to his dressing room. I shook his hand and I said “hey Wayne, you don’t know me, but do you remember back when you were on Lucille Ball?” He said “yeah” and his eyes kind of lit up like, you know, you’re taking me back a few years! And I said “you remember that banjo you were playing, and the guitar and all that stuff? Well I’m the guy at Gibson that worked on the guitars for you!” He said “what?!” He gave me a big old hug and just like that, you have trust. You know what I mean? Instant trust with a musician. All the musicians have been that way over the years that I’ve been with. Like Ted Nugent, you know? I’ve been in their dressing rooms, and what’s fun for me is when they’re on the stage, I’m in the dressing room having their cheese and stuff! (laughs)
TB: (laughs) That’s great! So Gibson moved to Nashville in ’84. Were you still with the company then?
RW: I left a little bit before the plant closed. I think it was ’82. They were letting people go and it was either that or move to Nashville and I didn’t want to move, you know? I didn’t want to go to Nashville. I had traveled back and forth there. I mean, it was a great place, don’t get me wrong, and I knew a lot of people. But with the TV show, I knew a lot more people up here. And there’s something about Michigan, Kalamazoo especially. You ask anybody that travels a lot. When you travel and you come back to Kalamazoo, and you step off that airplane, there’s something about the air. You breathe in Kalamazoo! It’s a great place to live. I have no desire to live anyplace else. It’s just a great place to live! Great people, the arts and everything. It’s so wonderful. The people here stand behind the arts and they help people when they need it. There’s all kinds of programs available. It’s just a great place to live!
TB: So you kind of stepped down in ’82 and then Heritage formed in 1985?
RW: April Fool’s Day of 1985.
TB: So when did they call on you? How did you start working here once Heritage was going?
RW: I started May 1st of ’85. They incorporated in April, so I came just about a month after they had started. I came in and picked up a guitar and I said “you need some help!” So we got back into the groove and I did all the guitars. I set up all the guitars, and sales. I sold a lot of guitars to various musicians all over. And that was my job. I invented some things for Heritage. But yeah, I was here right from the beginning. And then when they were sold a couple of years ago, you know, I didn’t want to retire and sit home and watch the TV. I’d rather come in and say “good morning” and “good evening” and then go home and go to bed, you know? I’m 77, but yet music has kept me young at heart.
TB: You can definitely tell it’s in your blood, and that’s great!
RW: First of all, if you’re interested in guitar, I’m interested in you! Bass, piano, whatever you play! I’ve gotten so good that I can usually tell. When somebody comes in I’ll say “you’re a bass player!” They’ll say “how did you know?!” It’s a neat feeling to have. I’ve learned over the years, it’s almost like a sixth sense or something. There’s certain vibes that people throw off. A positive energy or whatever you call it that I’ve been blessed to be able to pick up. And if the vibes aren’t right, if the frequencies not right, then I’m out of there! You know? But playing in the places that you play and seeing the things that you see as a musician, you learn human behavior pretty quick! And there’s certain actions, that if you learn to spot them, you learn to stay away from them. One of the secrets that I think is to be around positive people. If you’re negative in any way, that negativity is gonna be passed on to me. I don’t want that. I don’t need that. Especially the older I get. Some people are blessed to be able to recognize that.
TB: In the early years of Heritage, was it really stripped down as far as employees? Was it just you, Marv, JP, Jim and those guys?
RW: Well, at one time we had 13, 14 people. For 30 something years we had a guy setting up guitars, that put the pickups in. I did a lot of that too. I built almost all of the controls. I went to radio and television school and learned electronics, way back, years ago. So that helped me in building the custom controls.
TB: I’m just amazed by the stuff you’ve invented! We could sit here talking about it for days!
RW: I invented the single VIP and the double VIP which is variable phasing with switches. So you have a three-way switch and the pickups were 4 conductor. So when it was up it was single coil, when it was in the middle it was full humbucking and when it was down towards the floor, I actually put a phase roller on it so that one coil would buck the other coil and I could take it from in phase to full out of phase. I invented that. First a single VIP and then the double VIP. That was another one of my inventions. Remember this: and musicians will tell you this. A lot of them know this if they’ve experimented a lot: the less controls you have, the better off you are. If your pickup goes straight from the pickup to the amp, that’s the best sound you’re gonna get! Anytime you introduce all the other stuff: capacitors, all this, you’re interfering with what it’s trying to do over here on your pickup versus what’s trying to come out of the amp. Like our guitar player, he just goes from the pickup, toggle switch for pickup selection to one volume to the amp. Eliminate all that other stuff, you know? But a lot of musicians say “oh I want three pickups, I want six knobs and two toggles” you know what I mean?
TB: Oh it’s amazing! I see so many players with racks and racks of gear. It’s crazy! I wouldn’t even know what to do with all of that!
RW: Yeah! And one of the things I’ve noticed over the years, you know, you have your catalogs of all your guitar parts now. You have Youtube, you have the construction and how to build and all these luthiers telling all their secrets on YouTube. There’s so many opportunities for people to build their own guitar. Back in the old days we’d have people coming in sneaking snapshots of everything and I’d say “what are you doing?” They’d say “well, I’m building my own guitar.” Well about six months later, here they come wanting to buy a guitar! (laughs) Because it’s not as easy as you thought, you know?!
RW: Another thing I was involved with is Equa Strings. A long time ago, when I did a lot of traveling and I’d go to these bluegrass festivals, the flap top pickers would always break that G string. The thing that I learned is that the strings pull different. I rigged up this little fixture and I put a bucket on it and I put a stop bar on the other end and I started throwing steel balls in the bucket until the pitch came up to 440. So, we’ve got 10 lbs worth of balls down there. So I checked out the tension of the flat top strings back in the old days and stuff and that got me started to realizing that strings sets are not even, they’re not equal. The first string might pull 10 pounds the third string might pull 14 or whatever. So my idea with Gibson back then was the Equa Strings. I wanted them to pull all the same.
TB: And today, every string manufacturer does that, and uses your original readings for string tension. That’s amazing! So do you read music?
RW: Yes! Back in the old days, whenever Hal Leonard or any of the big companies would come out with a new book on how to play guitar, sometimes they would send those to me for proofreading. So that was kind of cool! That was another phase.
TB: It’s great to see how “hands on” you have always been and how eager you are to work with people. You keep everything very down to earth and you’re super approachable too, so thanks for that! I’m sure you grew up around that from day one too, with your father.
RW: That’s just the way it’s been in my life with music. I love it so and I love the people that play. I have, in most cases, had that positive force around the people that play music. Sure, I’ve known a lot of musicians with big names, that have went down the wrong road, you know? It’s the nature of the beast. But I’ve been fortunate, from a young age, to be with a family, especially my father, that kept me going down the right road. I’ve been blessed by having a great dad. Music in the family is important! A family that sings together and plays together, they’ll be together!
TB: Now speaking of which, on kind of a side note, we were talking earlier and you mentioned grand kids. Are they into music at all?
RW: Yes, I have two little twin girls that just got flat tops.
TB: That’s great!
RW: They turned 14 and they’ve got guitars, and one of them picked up a little ukulele. I have four children. My oldest sons used to play the drums and bass and a little guitar. I’ve got a grandson that just graduated from Western last year as an Aerospace Engineer. He’s got a job, he plays guitar pretty good! I told him when he graduated I’d give him a guitar. And he did- at the top of his class!
TB: Oh wow! It’s great to hear that! It’s always the best to hear that young people want to play an instrument and make music. That’s important for sure!
RW: In my earlier years my dad wanted me to practice. Well, you know, as a kid, you don’t want to practice, you want to go out and play, you know? But I learned that steel guitar and learned to play a little bit and over the years. I’m so thankful because look at where I’ve been and who I’ve seen! I’ve gone into Barbara Mandrell’s home. I’ve been on Hee Haw three times. One of my best friends was Roy Clark. Roy just passed away.
TB: Yeah that was such a shame. Roy was so great. This is kind of a strange question, but 3,000 years from now, how does Rendal Wall want to be remembered?
RW: Well, as my dad’s theme song said, “Oh remember me when the candle lights are gleaming. Remember me at the close of a long day. It will be so sweet when all alone I’m dreaming, just to know that you remember me.”
TB: That’s great! Well, Rendal, thank you so much for speaking with me today. You’ve had an amazing life and are still giving the world so much, so thank you. Your inventions have made the world a better place for musicians everywhere, so thank you!
RW: Yeah, you bet, my pleasure! This was a lot of fun!
Rendal is still making the world a better place for musicians everywhere, working at Heritage Guitars in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Check them out at www.HeritageGuitars.com