Ode to the Original B-Bender, Clarence White of The Byrds and Kentucky Colonels

October 22nd, 2014

By Damian Fanelli

Clarence White was a genuine double threat.

His brilliant, Doc Watson-inspired acoustic flatpicking, which incorporated lightning-fast fiddle lines played on a vintage Martin D-28, helped the bluegrass world recognize the guitar as a lead instrument.

Several masters of the genre, including Tony Rice and Norman Blake, site him as a key influence.

As an electric guitarist, White built the bridge between country and rock in the late Sixties. His work with the Parsons/White StringBender — an ingenious B-string-pulling device invented and installed in White’s 1954 Fender Telecaster by fellow Byrd, multi-instrumentalist and machinist Gene Parsons — is legendary.

Whether employing a crisp, bell-like tone (the Byrds’ “Tulsa County”) or a touch of fuzz (the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “The Train Song”), White inserted his dancing, whimsical runs into songs with confidence, knowing that a little can often go a long way.

White, a member of the Byrds, Nashville West, Muleskinner and the Kentucky Colonels (and the New Kentucky Colonels), also was an in-demand session player who recorded with Arlo Guthrie, Wynn Stewart, Wayne Moore, Gary Paxton, the Monkees, Joe Cocker and Jackson Browne, to name just a few. He was killed by a drunk driver after a gig in California on July 14, 1973, never getting to fully grasp the influence he’d have on bluegrass, country and rock.

There really aren’t that many “Clarence White in action” videos to be found on YouTube, but I hope I’ve collected a decent sampling of clips that represent his skills.

Before we get started, if you want to know more about White — before, during and after the Byrds — check out this well-researched and well-compiled site, burritobrother.com. Enjoy!

“You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” The Byrds

Because the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo version of this Bob Dylan tune highlights pedal steel guitar (courtesy of the great Lloyd Green, who I’d love to interview), we suggest you check out a slightly later live rendition instead — like this one from a 1968 TV appearance.

It puts the emphasis on White, his still-Nudie-sticker-free Fender Telecaster and his Parsons/White StringBender (not to mention some fine-looking Sixties women).



“I Am a Pilgrim” / “Soldier’s Joy,” Clarence White, Roland White and Bob Baxter

Here’s White (on the left, with the beard) on the Bob Baxter Guitar Workshop, a local LA-area TV show from 1973, performing a — what I consider — mind-blowing medley of “I Am a Pilgrim” and “Soldier’s Joy” with his brother, Roland, on mandolin and the show’s host, Bob Baxter, on second guitar (later joined by Byron Berline on fiddle and Alan Munde on banjo).

What I can say about this video? First of all, it’s rare in that it shows White’s fingering and fretwork up close. Second, there’s White unusual sense of timing in the first tune (“I Am a Pilgrim”); it’s as if he’s throwing in chord substitutions like a jazzer, while Roland plays it straight on mandolin. It can be disconcerting and confusing, but I love it.

This performance is from a DVD called Clarence White: Guitar Workshop, which is available through Sierra Records, right here.

To hear White playing more bluegrass, check out the Flatpick album on Amazon.com and the extended Collector’s Edition of Flatpick on sierrarecords.goestores.com.



“Nashville West,” Nashville West

No Clarence White playlist would be complete without what some would consider his signature song.

Although White recorded the official studio version with the Byrds (plus an earlier studio version under his own name), here’s a stripped-down 1968 (several sources say 1967) El Monte, California, club-date version by another of White’s bands, Nashville West, which featured Gene Parsons on drums.



“Time Between,” The Byrds

Feel free to argue, but if you had to choose one album that best demonstrates White’s electric-guitar prowess, it would be Live at the Fillmore: February 1969 by the Byrds.

The musicians on the album are Roger McGuinn on a 12-string Rickenbacker 360, Gene Parsons on drums, John York on bass and Clarence White on the B-Bender Tele. He never puts it down, so there’s no escaping it.

While the most impressive guitar track on the album is the band’s cover of Buck Owens’ “Buckaroo,” that song isn’t available on YouTube. Here, however, is a Chris Hillman composition, “Time Between,” from the same live album. It’s a nice coincidence that White appeared on the Byrds’ original 1967 version of this song, back when he was an LA session musician.



“Dark Hollow,” Muleskinner

Did I mention White could sing? He was actually a fine vocalist with a distinctive, deep voice that was just right for bluegrass and the spaced-out-Americana material the Byrds were recording from 1969 to 1972. Here’s another live YouTube appearance by White, this time with Muleskinner, one of his post-Byrds bands, in 1973.



“Hummingbyrd,” Marty Stuart

OK, here’s a bonus for you. White’s legendary B-Bender-equipped Telecaster is still in action, courtesy of country music artist Marty Stuart, who bought the guitar from White’s family several years ago.

Check out this live performance of “Hummingbyrd,” an instrumental B-bending piece Stuart wrote — and titled — as a tribute to White. The studio version of “Hummingbyrd” can be found on Stuart’s 2010 album, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions.

“I always felt a little guilty about not having a recital piece for that guitar,” Stuart told Guitar Player in 2010. “With ‘Hummingbyrd,’ I feel like I finally recorded a song that honors that guitar properly.”

Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado (and a B-bending guitarist who collects B-bender-equipped guitars; he has three at the moment). Follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Posted by Dave Goessling on August 24th, 2011, 15:35 [Reply]

    I think it’s not too much to suggest that Clarence pretty much invented modern country guitar playing. Folks like Brad Paisley all acknowledge his influence.
    Also, most folks probably know that Marty Stuart owns (and regularly plays onstage) Clarence’s original B-bender Tele. He’s very generous about letting players try this historic instrument – if you can make your way backstage before the roadies put it away, they will let you play it. It’s a mind-blowing, humbling experience!

  2. Posted by Danny Craw on May 14th, 2013, 14:30 [Reply]

    In 1972 I gave Clarence an old family heirloom madolin backstage after a show in NYC. He was really humbled by it. On top of being an unbelievable guitar plater he was a gentleman.

  3. Posted by rick ehrlich on June 19th, 2013, 11:58 [Reply]

    according to Gene Parsons, the stringbender did not exist in Nashville West days, he played using his super chikn pickn style including manually bending strings, thru and including Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 68. First use of b bender in a studio cut was Dr Byrds/Mr Hyde later ’68. which all makes him even more amazing.

  4. Posted by Ken Fecteau on October 22nd, 2014, 13:12 [Reply]

    Hi. I enjoyed your article. Clarence was a friend and so his music enduring is enhanced. The gentleman who posted above me is correct. Clarence did not have the bender for Nashville West or Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
    His bending technique was so advanced that the Parsons White “pull string” was initially designed for “playing over the nut” or as Clarence put it, “the need for a third hand.”

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