White Lightning: Ode to the Original B-Bender, Clarence White of The Byrds

by Damian Fanelli
Posted Mar 14, 2013 at 12:25pm

Clarence White was a genuine double threat.

His brilliant, Doc Watson-inspired acoustic flatpicking, which incorporated lightning-fast fiddle lines played on an already-vintage Martin D-28 guitar, helped the bluegrass world recognize the guitar as a lead instrument. Several masters of the genre, including Tony Rice and Norman Blake, list him as a key influence.

As an electric guitarist, White literally built the bridge between country and rock in the late '60s. His work with the Parsons/White StringBender — an ingenious B-string-pulling device invented and installed in White's 1954 Fender Telecaster by multi-instrumentalist Gene Parsons — is simply mind blowing.

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, also was an in-demand session player who recorded with Arlo Guthrie, Wynn Stewart, Joe Cocker and Jackson Browne, to name just a few. He was killed by a drunk driver after a gig in California in 1973, never getting to fully grasp the influence he'd have on bluegrass, country and rock.

There's really aren't many "Clarence White in action" videos to be found on YouTube, but I think I've collected a decent sampling of his work and skills below. Enjoy!

"You Ain't Going Nowhere," The Byrds

Because the better-known Sweetheart of the Rodeo version of this Bob Dylan tune highlights pedal steel guitar, we suggest you check out a live rendition instead — like this one from a 1968 TV appearance.

"Crawdad Song," Clarence White and Bob Baxter

Here's White (on the left — the guy with the beard) on the Bob Baxter Guitar Workshop TV show from 1973, sitting in on "The Crawdad Song." To really hear what he can do on a bluegrass tune, check out the Flatpick album on Amazon.com.

"Nashville West," Nashville West

No Clarence White playlist would be complete without his signature song. Although White recorded the official studio version with the Byrds, here's a stripped-down 1968 El Monte, California, club-date version by another of White's bands, Nashville West, which featured fellow Byrd Gene Parsons on drums. Consider it the perfect product demo for the Parsons/White StringBender!

"Time Between," The Byrds

Feel free to argue, but if you had to choose one album that best demonstrates White's B-bender skills, it would be Live at the Fillmore: February 1969 by the Byrds. The musicians on the album are Roger McGuinn on 12-string Rickenbacker, 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 his B bending! While the most impressive guitar track on the album is the band's cover of Buck Owens' instrumental "Buckaroo," that song isn't available on YouTube. Here, however, is a Chris Hillman tune, "Time Between," from the same live album.

"Dark Hollow," Muleskinner

Did I mention White could sing? He was actually a great vocalist with a distinctive, deep voice that was just right for bluegrass and the spaced-out material the Byrds were recording from 1969 to 1972. Here's another live YouTube appearance by White, this time with Muleskinner, his post-Byrds band, in early 1973, the year he died.

Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World (and a B-Bender player). Follow him on Twitter.