Randy Rhoads: Thumb's Up

Originally published in Guitar World, March 2010

What has eight strings, a blue quilted-maple veneer and Randy Rhoads’ thumbnail encased in acrylic? Kelly Garni’s new custom bass guitar, a one-of-a-kind homage to his friendship with the dearly departed guitar hero.

Kelly Garni’s music career came crashing to a halt one drunken evening in 1978. That was the night the bassist had a terrible fight with his best friend Randy Rhoads. Garni came perilously close to shooting the legendary guitarist to death during the brawl, and ripped from Rhoads’ thumb the long fingernail that he’d spent a long time growing—either as a glam rock affectation or for use as a cocaine shovel, depending on who’s telling the tale.

Rhoads and Garni made up their quarrel the very next day, but the fight marked Garni’s departure from Quiet Riot, the band that he and Randy had started while still in their teens. Rhoads himself quit Quiet Riot shortly after Garni and, of course, attained heavy metal immortality with Ozzy Osbourne in the early Eighties. But for Garni, leaving Quiet Riot meant leaving rock and roll. He sold his bass guitar and laid aside all thoughts of a career in music. His connection with both Randy Rhoads and rock music, however, would prove more enduring.

It was Garni’s girlfriend who found the severed thumbnail the day after the fight, on a carpet in Kelly’s house, where the altercation had occurred. Garni has carried the nail with him throughout his post Quiet Riot life, which has included stints as a paramedic, a process server and a photographer specializing in, among other things, call girl photos for Las Vegas street newspapers and brochures for Nevada’s legal brothels.

For him, the nail is a treasured memento of Rhoads, who died in a plane crash in 1982. And for the devoted cult of Randy fans, it has become a holy relic on roughly the same order as the Shroud of Turin or a fragment of the True Cross.

“It’s not the sort of thing you’d throw away,” Garni says. “It always meant a lot to me. It’s a piece of my friend.”

When he recently decided to return to music, following an appearance at a Rhoads tribute concert in Vegas, Garni needed to get a new bass guitar, and he decided that Randy’s thumbnail somehow needed to be part of the instrument. “I’m a big believer in mojo,” he says. So Garni enlisted the aid of Australian luthier Perry Ormsby to help him realize his vision.

“I heard about Perry on one of the Randy Rhoads tribute web sites,” Garni says. “I contacted him, and he turned out to be a great guy. He really has the same kind of inner beauty, peace, wisdom and talent that Randy had. So I asked Perry, ‘Is there any way we can use Randy’s fi ngernail as an inlay or somehow incorporate it into the bass?’ And Perry came up with the brilliant idea of having the nail in acrylic in the shape of a plectrum mounted inside the headstock.”

The eight-string bass is loosely based on a Rickenbacker that Garni once owned. A quilted maple veneer, stained a lustrous shade of blue, rests on an inner core of Tasmanian black wood. The rosewood fingerboard is adorned with Chinese turquoise, Afghan azurite and exotic wood inlays that spell out the musical notation for “Hey Joe.” “That was the first song that Randy ever taught me,” Garni explains. The fingerboard is further bedizened with green, red and blue fiberoptic lights.

Electronic appointments include custom hand-wound pickups with wooden covers. The body’s back features a laser-etched portrait of Randy as well as a hole in which Ormsby embedded microfi che containing transcriptions of all the Quiet Riot songs that Garni recorded with Rhoads, plus personal notes handwritten by Garni and the luthier. All together, Ormsby spent about 56 hours working on the bass, spreading the time out over a five-week period. When the instrument was finished, he flew to Las Vegas to hand-deliver it to Garni. “There are videos of the whole thing on YouTube,” Garni says. “I really enjoyed meeting Perry. I hated to see him go back to Australia.”

The instrument will serve Garni well in his new role as the bassist for No Sky Today, a band he has formed with Randy’s elder brother, pianist Kelle Rhoads. Says Rhoads, “The band came about when Kelly and I did a benefit concert for the troops in Ohio about a year and a half ago. A manager named Frank Powers liked what he heard and decided to put together a group around us. He handpicked the players: [guitarist] Wayne Findlay from the Michael Schenker Group, [drummer] Scott Phillips from Wasted and a singer named Paul Jones. My contribution is very much like Don Airey’s contribution was to Ozzy Osbourne’s band. It’s not just keyboards—it’s full-on, classical, grand piano, which is what I do.”

The quintet recorded a debut album at Sonic Lodge recording studio in Grove City, Ohio. Garni describes the group’s music as “slammin’ and head-bangin’. But it’s got a lot of classical influence, too. Someone said it’s like a cross between Velvet Revolver and Alice in Chains–meets-Pantera.” At press time, No Sky Today were in discussions with two different record labels and hope to release the album soon. Meanwhile, Garni is keeping busy with a full schedule of Randy-related fan activities, including his web site, randyrhoads.us.

And so, more than 32 years after that fateful fight, Kelly Garni is picking up the threads of his musical career and rocking once again. And with his custom Perry Ormsby bass, he’s well equipped for the gig. One might even say he’s nailing it.

“I wanted the bass to be a tribute to my friend as much as it was a good-playing instrument,” Garni says. “With the nail in there, I feel like a little piece of Randy is still onstage with me.”

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