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The Guitar Guru

Those who know Rendal Wall say he’s ‘the real deal’
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Rendal Wall in “Rendal’s Guitar Lounge” at Heritage Guitar Inc.

© 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

Those who know Rendal “Ren” Wall call him "the real deal.”

Whether they are referring to his prowess as a professional musician, songwriter, inventor or luthier (builder of stringed instruments) — first at Gibson Guitar Corp. when it hailed from Kalamazoo and now at Heritage Guitar Inc. — or to his down-to-earth personality, Wall, 76, is somewhat of a legend with millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers alike.

Surely Wall’s five-plus decades of professional experience factors in — he is a bit of a “guitar whisperer,” able to find any little problem or nuance with a new or old guitar by simply playing it. According to George Braymer, owner of London Style Design in Portage and a musician, Wall has something many musicians don’t possess.

“He actually wanted to understand the guitar,” Braymer says. “There’s not a lot of guys out there anymore that actually do that — the ones who do are in Berklee School (College) of Music.”

But these compliments about Wall’s guitar knowledge also apply to his personality.

“He’s unpretentious,” says longtime friend Bob Rowe, a recording artist and founder of Renaissance Enterprises, a West Michigan-based nonprofit. “He’s down-to-earth. He means what he says and he says what he means. You always know where you stand.”

He’s also a fixture in the community. “Rendal Wall is Kalamazoo,” Rowe says. “He’s deeply rooted in the community. He cares about the community. And he knows so many people … .”

Braymer had the opportunity to meet Wall 30 years ago at 13, when Braymer recently started playing his dad’s Kalamazoo-made 1968 Les Paul Custom Gibson guitar. He was visiting bass player Jim Best in Richland when Wall stopped by.

“I didn’t know who Wall was,” Braymer admits, laughing, “but I found out pretty quickly.”

Braymer learned of Wall’s musical skills and that Wall had friends everywhere. Braymer, who still plays the guitar, says that it’s not often that different people consistently say the same things about a person, but in Wall’s case, he says, this holds true.

“He’s just genuine,” Braymer says.

‘Whole ’nother story’

Wall greets newcomers to Heritage Guitar, at 225 Parsons St., the former home of Gibson Guitar, as if addressing old friends. With warm, smiling eyes, the 76-year-old makes you quickly feel at home in this building where he has spent 55 years of his life, choosing to chat with you in “Rendal’s Guitar Lounge,” a room Heritage named in his honor where musicians “pick” on their guitars with abandon.

“They had to name it for someone,” he says with just a hint of a Southern drawl and then chuckles. “Why not me?”

'Why not?’ is right. It would take a trilogy to detail Wall’s history and the many positions he has held in the music profession for Gibson Guitar and then for Heritage, where he became well acquainted with national recording artists like BB King, Barbara Mandrell and Chet Atkins, to name a few. When Wall recalls these individuals, he often tosses his hand or adjusts the bill of his baseball cap and says, “But that’s a whole ’nother story.”

Family ties

Music and the Wall family married long ago. Rendal’s father, Rem Wall, was raised by his father, a coal miner in Southern Illinois, and started singing and playing the guitar as a young boy. After graduating from high school, Rem moved to Kalamazoo with a sack lunch, 10 bucks and a guitar covered with a gunnysack, according to Ren’s copy of a faded magazine article, “The People of Gibson.” As Ren explains, his love-struck dad was chasing after Roberta Black, a newly minted nurse who had accepted a position at Bronson Methodist Hospital. Rem succeeded in his pursuit, marrying Black, and they had Ren and his two siblings.

In 1948, Rem started a band called Rem Wall and the Green Valley Boys, performing an hour-long show on WKZ0-TV3 called The Green Valley Jamboree, which became the longest-running country music program worldwide, lasting 37 years. The band also had two radio programs that aired for 40 years on WKZO and WGFG.

In the 1960s, Columbia Records signed Rem Wall to record seven records, including “Home is Where the Hurt Is” (which went gold) and “Keep on Loving You.” Around that time, Roberta became ill and Rem could no longer tour to promote his records.

Rendal followed in his father’s footsteps. He says he was barely out of diapers when he picked up his first instrument, an accordion. He took accordion lessons but quickly tired of the instrument and moved on to the lap steel guitar. He then took to playing a pedal steel guitar, which is a console-type, double-necked steel guitar with 10 strings on each double neck, eight pedals and four knee levers.

“It’s quite a deal,” Wall admits.

When Wall was 10, his father’s band needed a drummer, so Rendal, who had also taken drum lessons, began playing with the band in shows and in area bars.

“I learned about life at an early age,” he says, laughing.

He moved into singing and playing guitar with the band, which was inducted into the Michigan Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977. “We were the only band inducted as a group,” Wall says. “I was kind of proud.”

The Green Valley Boys still play today, volunteering with Rowe’s Renaissance Enterprises.

Last man in the booth

Rendal and Rem not only played guitar together, but they also breathed life into the instruments for 91 years between them.

In 1948, Rem started working at Gibson Guitar in Kalamazoo and was there for 37 years. In 1960, the younger Wall came on board.

Ren started out sanding wood on Gibson’s white wood line and eventually became foreman of final setup, supervising 24 fret filers, eight cleaners and two inspectors. Fret filers level, round and polish the frets (the pieces of metal imbedded in the neck) and set the action (string height), Wall explains.

Wall was the last person to touch every guitar before it shipped out. A worker would roll a rack of eight guitars up a ramp into a thick-walled 12-foot by 12-foot soundproof booth where Wall waited.

“You could hear your own heartbeat when you went in there (because) it was so quiet,” Wall says. “It was like a big vault.”

Wall would check each guitar’s electronics and action, making sure everything worked right and that it played well. In Gibson’s heyday, Wall handled about 500 guitars a day.

“I don’t know if it was my favorite (job),” he admits, “but it was one of the jobs that I had that I was proud of because there’s a lot of responsibility there toward the end. The company had a lot of money in (the guitars) by that time, because all of the finish was on, all the parts were on and ready to go. If something was wrong and they missed it further back at the other inspection station, it could be real costly.”

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Over the years, Gibson Guitar management discovered that Wall possessed a multitude of talents, moving him into various positions, including research and development manager. Wall has designed countless guitar parts, guitars and pieces of photography equipment. Many of his inventions remain in use today, such as equal-tension string sets. Back in the 1960s, strings on a guitar pulled at different tensions, which caused the strings to twist and made them feel different beneath an artist’s fingers.

“If I see a problem, I tend to see a solution,” Wall says.

Wall showed his idea for the equal-tension string sets to Stan Rendell, Gibson’s president at the time, who sent Wall to Norlin Industries in Chicago to further develop the idea, and the strings went to market.

“Other string manufacturers picked up on this idea, and now every manufacturer makes even-tension string sets,” Wall says.

Another innovation came after a telephone call from Ted Nugent. Wall says Nugent rang him up and said, “Hey, Ren, I want a guitar.” Wall asked, “What kind?” and Nugent simply replied, “You know what I want” and hung up. Wall asked Nugent’s secretary for a photocopy of the artist’s hand to measure Nugent’s fingers and hand width so the guitar’s neck would perfectly fit it. “He thought that was so awesome,” Wall says.

Since then, when making any custom guitar, Wall will request an image of the artist’s handprint. Guitar players, he says, are finicky about the way their guitar feels.

“It all has to be — I’d use the word ‘surgically’ — correct,” Wall says. “Otherwise it won’t fit their hand and they have to change their technique in order to play perfect and the way they want to play.”

But it was Wall’s Gibson Wall-Board Guitar that grabbed the attention of Vintage Guitar Magazine. In June 2016, the magazine published the story “Out of the Woods, Off the Wall,” naming the Wall-Board “one of the wildest instruments to leave the factory.” Wall designed and built the Wall-Board in 1964 using a Gibson Firebird solid body “without the wings” (only the neck through the center section). He created a retractable strap in the tail of the guitar’s body and a guitar case that resembled a hunting rifle case.

“I was the (magazine’s) centerfold,” Wall says, laughing, "and this is one of the most prestigious magazines going. I was just beating my chest when I got in that magazine.”

Artist relations
But, of all his jobs, Wall’s favorite was as assistant artist relations manager for Gibson and Heritage. He was the liaison between the companies and artists in jazz, country, bluegrass, blues, and rock ’n’ roll, including Vince Gill, Eddie Van Halen, and members of the Eagles and Metallica. Wall also helped design and deliver custom guitars to the artists.

His eyes shine when he recalls eating dinner with the members of ZZ Top, playing golf in the Roy Clark Open, appearing three times on Hee Haw, a country music and comedy variety television show that ran from 1971-1993, and spending time backstage with artists like Kenny Rogers and Randy Travis. Wall even became close friends with Les Paul, the jazz, country and blues guitarist and one of the pioneers of the electric solid-body guitar for which Gibson became globally famous.

“You name ’em,” he says of musicians, “and I’ve been with ’em over the years.”

One of Wall’s most memorable occasions came when he and fellow Gibson employee Jim Reno traveled to Indiana to deliver a guitar to legendary blues artist BB King. After the delivery, King began a performance, which he dedicated to Wall. King even stopped the show and asked two people in the front row to move so that Wall and Reno could watch the show right down in the front.

“Then we went backstage and got to talk to him in a private setting,” Wall says. “That’s another reason why I liked artist relations, because I got to do things that not too many people had a chance to do unless they were a part of the band.”

But the job wasn’t always so positive. Bill Monroe, the legendary mandolin player considered the father of bluegrass, sent his 1923 Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin — today worth $1 million, says Wall — to Gibson for some fretwork. While at the factory, the workers refinished it. Big mistake.

“You don’t do that to an old instrument,” Wall explains. A furious Monroe retaliated and scratched the Gibson logo off the mandolin headstock. “That was a big deal,” Wall says. “That news went all over the world.”

It was Wall’s job to convince the irate musician to replace the headstock veneer on his instrument with the Gibson logo. Wall flew back and forth to Nashville for almost a year, he says, before the singer finally relented and admitted him into his dressing room at the Grand Ole Opry. Monroe handed Wall the mandolin and asked, “What do you think?”

“I looked him in the eye,” Wall says, “and said, ‘You know good and well that when you did that with the pocketknife that hurt you (and) that hurt the company. Let’s kiss and make up.’ After a couple times of kicking me out of the dressing room, he finally let me fly it back to Kalamazoo.”

Wall worked at Gibson until 1982, when Gibson moved its operations to Tennessee. In April 1985, four former longtime Gibson employees opened Heritage Guitar in Gibson’s former factory at 225 Parsons St. Wall joined the fledgling guitar company a month later. Now, 33 years later, he’s still there.

A million guitars

One million. That’s the number of guitars Wall figures he has handled during his time with Gibson and Heritage. With all he’s done, however, he has faced only one career challenge: retirement. He just can’t leave his well-loved second home.

“I should have retired 10 years ago,” he says.

These days Wall fills in at Heritage where needed — taking wood deliveries, assisting customers on the phone, and helping with tours of the Heritage facility.

“I’ll go in there and tell a couple jokes and get the crowd ready,” he says, grinning.

Visitors to Heritage are magnets for Wall and he finds deep satisfaction from their reactions.

“The main thing is that music brings joy to people,” he says. “They’ve got a smile on their face when they walk through that door.”

And Wall doesn’t plan to stop playing music anytime soon.

“‘When the lights go out, I wanna be pickin’, like Les Paul said.”

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The 'Guitar Whisperer'

“I don’t know if it was my favorite (job), but it was one of the jobs that I had that I was proud of because there’s a lot of responsibility there toward the end. The company had a lot of money in (the guitars) by that time, because all of the finish was on, all the parts were on and ready to go. If something was wrong and they missed it further back at the other inspection station, it could be real costly.”

– Rendal Wall on being "the last man in the booth"