Ren was originally born Lawrence Ferguson on February 26, 1946, in Detroit, Michigan. As was family tradition on his father’s side, all first born males were to be named after their paternal grandfather – in this case, Ren’s grandfather, Lawrence. Not a big fan of the nickname “Larry,” Mrs. Ferguson intervened, instead giving him the nickname, “Ren,” after a favorite artist. “My mother, who had been an artist at Disney for a while, had a great admiration for an airbrush artist named Renwick,” he recalls.
Ren began his luthier career, as it were, in shop class at Westchester High School, in Westchester, California. By the early sixties Ren had a Harmony guitar and his brother had a banjo – both rather poor excuses for instruments. Ren decided he could make a banjo in shop class for his brother. “I had no idea how complicated instrument building was back then,” he says. “I soon found out how critical tolerances had to be for frets and bridges and the like.” Ren’s father had a furniture business with a spray booth in it, and he got to experiment with refinishing wood furniture that people would trade in – in addition to plenty of Nocasters and Telecasters. “I ruined a lot of potentially expensive guitars back then,” Ren recalls.
Later in high school he took a job selling guitars at a local music store, Westchester Music, which is now part of the runway at LAX airport. Westchester Music was a big store with a large record department in those days; they offered lessons on piano, organ, guitar and most any other band instrument. The store had a large rental department, and Ren was kept busy. “I learned a lot about what it takes to keep band instruments in service,” he explains. “The airport would break about one guitar a day, and they would ask us to replace the instrument or repair it. Often the passenger would sell me his broken guitar or even give it to me after being reimbursed by the airport for the damage – I had a big stack of guitars from airport passengers. Back in those days it was easy enough to get a brace from Martin or a neck from Gibson.” Ren cut his luthier teeth learning how to rebuild these broken guitars before taking a brief hiatus from Westchester to sell Dobros for the Dopera family. “I would hustle Dobros on the street, in clubs or wherever there were musicians I could demo the instrument to. I even designed a thin profile Dobro we called the ‘Californian,’ which was going into production about the time that the company was bought up by Mosrite and Buck Owens and ultimately moved to Bakersfield,” he says. Eventually he set up classes teaching guitar and mandolin building in California before being drafted. While in the Navy he met two brothers, the Millers, who kept telling him how beautiful Montana was; soon after his discharge from the Navy in February of 1969, he traveled to Montana for his first Mountain Man Rendezvous, an event where men cavort as rugged outdoorsmen from days gone by.
“I still wonder what would have happened to me financially if I had stayed in California and built guitars, instead of coming up here to Montana to eat dirt and chew grass,” he says. Ren wonders if he would have had Bob Taylor’s place in history as the premier California guitar maker.
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