On September 20, 1983, Jimmy Page re-emerged into the public eye after the death of John Bonham and the breakup of Led Zeppelin with a thundering ovation at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Instead of a sunburst Les Paul, the model synonymous with his onstage persona with Zep, Page chose as his primary instrument an austere-looking, brown Telecaster with what looked like an additional chrome volume knob behind the bridge.
Of course, it was not a volume knob; Page’s Tele was equipped with a Parsons/White StringBender, which Page had previously used to great effect on the beautiful, melodic, bent-note runs on Led Zeppelin’s classic ballad, “All My Love,” and live on “Ten Years Gone.”
Page had begun to use the StringBender on Zeppelin’s 1977 tour. Prior to that, he frequently bent notes behind the nut of his instruments with his fingers, as can be heard on the unaccompanied “Heartbreaker” solo on Led Zeppelin II and seen on the same number in the DVD of The Song Remains The Same.
Curiously, this was how the StringBender was invented by Gene Parsons (above) and the late, great Clarence White in 1967, some 10 years prior to Page incorporating the device. Parsons recalls, “I was doing some sessions with Clarence White, and he was one of the very first ones to chime a string – the B string, or high E string – and pull it over the nut of a Telecaster” (Ed. Note: strike a harmonic and reach behind the nut to press down on the string and raise the pitch). The sessions Parsons and White were recording were, to the best of Gene’s recollection, for a never-released Rex and Vern Gosdin album.
White, one of the most important figures in country music, was the rare example of a guitarist who was already hailed as a true pioneer, then reinvented himself and became equally staggering as a pioneer in a different style on a different instrument. First, he was a flatpicking bluegrass prodigy, known for both his phenomenal solo and rhythm work while still in his teens. He and his brothers, Eric and Roland, formed the Country Boys, later renamed the Kentucky Colonels, whose 1964 album Appalachian Swing still sounds groundbreaking 40 years later. After making the switch to electric guitar, White became an in-demand session player in Los Angeles, appearing on Byrds LPs as far back as Younger Than Yesterday (recorded in 1966) and helping forge country-rock on their pivotal Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album in 1968, before becoming a full-time member.
But before joining the Byrds (and prior to Sweetheart), White was playing Telecaster in a country-rock band called Nashville West at a club also called Nashville West, in El Monte, California. The group’s drummer was Gene Parsons, and by the time of Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, recorded in the fall of 1968, the pair comprised one-half of the Byrds, along with bassist John York and sole original member Roger McGuinn on lead vocals with his trademark Rickenbacker electric 12-string.
“I Need a Third Hand!”
While Parsons doesn’t recall the specific song from the Gosdin Brothers session, he does remember that White began to record a simple lead part. “He wanted to chime the string and pull it over the nut, and then he wanted to do it at the second position and the third position. He said, ‘Gee, I wish I could do that, but I’d need a third hand!'” Parsons volunteered to be that “third hand,” pushing the strings behind the nut in time with White’s playing.
Afterward, the two wondered, “How can we do this?” Parsons, who later joined the Flying Burrito Brothers and recorded with the likes of Randy Newman and Arlo Guthrie, is a multi-instrumentalist in addition to being a master machinist. (Ed. Note: Gene is not to be confused with, and is not related to, the late Gram Parsons, even though both were members of the Byrds and Burritos at different times.) He remembers that his first reaction was, “Well, I can rig up a bridge on the back of your guitar, and attach cables and foot pedals.”
“If I wanted to play pedal steel, I’d play pedal steel,” White replied tersely. This helped shape the StringBender’s development with some important parameters: Its mechanism should be entirely self-contained and not very obvious or visible; and it shouldn’t, in White’s words, “take my hands out of their normal stance or alter the way that I play the guitar, except that I’m able to bend strings, or pull strings, somehow.”
That was a tall order, but Parsons had prior experience modifying banjos with Scruggs tuners and at one point had even tried to build a cross between a banjo and pedal steel.
Choosing Which String
Parsons eventually came up with the idea of using the shoulder strap as the primary method of bending the note. Parsons procured some pedal steel parts from steel ace “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow. Then the question was which string would be pulled. Gene recounts, “Clarence said, ‘I bend the G string a lot with my fingers, but the B and E strings are harder to bend, and the B lends itself to more combinations with other strings.'”
To cover his bets, though, Parsons first devised a mechanism capable of both raising and lowering each of the top four strings of the guitar, using parts from a Fender 800 pedal steel. But in fairly short order, he and White knew their hunch about the B string was correct, and the multiple-string Bender was jettisoned in favor of a mechanism that would allow the player to raise the B string’s pitch a whole tone. Pushing down on the guitar’s neck would, in essence, pull up on the strap button, which was connected to a hub behind the bridge, where the B string was secured.
“People started calling it the ‘B-bender’ or ‘pull-string,’ which are sort of generic terms that players gave it,” Parsons explains; however, the correct name was originally Parsons/White StringBender. “I’ve done ‘E-benders,'” Gene points out, “but Clarence found that the B was the one that lent itself to the most combinations of pleasing bends used in concert with bending the G string with your fingers.”
The StringBender allowed White to perfect a unique and enduring playing style, as it’s a much different device than the traditional vibrato arm (like a Bigsby) on electric guitars – or “tremolo” arm, as Fender literature incorrectly refers their whammy bars. It was the ability to play a bent note in combination with a stationary note, or having more than one string moving – essentially aping what a pedal steel does – that attracted Clarence and became the foundation of a whole new approach to the guitar. “The StringBender allows for a totally tunable, bendable note,” says Meridian Green, a singer/songwriter and daughter of the late folk singer Bob Gibson. Green joined StringBender, Inc. in 1988 and became the company’s CEO.
“It’s much more ‘pedal-steely’ because you get to hear this one note moving really smoothly from the starting position to a full-step up,” she explains. “And when people get really good, they can do half-step bends and stuff like that.”
But as early recordings of Nashville West (not released until 1976) reveal, White was achieving multiple-bend pedal steel-type licks with his fingers prior to the StringBender’s arrival; so he and Parsons essentially invented a device to fit a style that Clarence was already playing. Of course, White wasn’t the only player, then or now, to emulate steel licks on a standard electric guitar; Amos Garrett, Gerry McGee, Roy Buchanan, Jerry Donahue, Thumbs Carllile, and others incorporated steel-like bends into their playing decades ago.
Parsons had suggested routing out White’s Telecaster for the mechanism, but per White’s request, the initial Bender mechanism was largely mounted on top of the guitar’s back, and covered with a piece of wood shaped like the Tele’s back. This made the guitar look like an extra-thick Telecaster, which was fine with White, who was used to playing Martin D-18 acoustics. Parsons says, “He’d only been playing electric for a couple of years, so he said, ‘That’ll actually help me if you build the body out.’ He also put Scruggs [banjo] tuners on the high E and the A.”
The original patent – for a “shoulder strap control for string instruments” – was filed under the names of Gene Parsons, who invented and built it; Clarence White, who, as Gene says, “invented the need for it and the way to play it” and refined the concept; and Ed Tickner, then-manager of the Byrds, who financed it and arranged for it to be licensed to Fender.
Visiting Fender, Episode I
In 1968, Parsons and White took their design to Leo Fender, who was still a consultant with the company that bore his name after its sale to CBS. Parsons says that Leo, an inveterate tinkerer himself, was intrigued by the idea, and created a prototype for a mass-produced version. “Leo and George Fullerton liked it a lot,” Parsons says, “and the company gave Leo the okay to do a prototype. And Leo built a very nice, easily mass-produced prototype, which was a combination of a couple of ideas – one being the StringBender, the other being a guitar that was pretty much bullet-proof. Leo made Clarence jump up and down on the thing, and it just bent like a spring, but was still reasonably in good tune.”
Unfortunately, though, still in the wake of the CBS takeover, there was a lot of hiring and firing going on, and, in Gene’s words, “We had to re-educate a whole new crew, and they were all kind of looking over their shoulder, realizing that the bunch before them all got fired. So they weren’t wanting to stick their necks out with much new product, and it got stalled.”
At that point, Parsons licensed it to Dave Evans, who built “a sort of sandwich type of Tele” and made some modifications to the Bender. It was an Evans version that Albert Lee acquired, and played some of his most famous solos with; he still uses it to this day, along with a Parsons model. “There are different schools of thought,” Gene allows. “Some people like a short, jerky stroke, which is the way the Evans and the Glaser are. In other words, you don’t move very much, and the string moves a whole tone. I didn’t remember how far the travel of the strap pin moved on Clarence’s original model until I later measured it. In order to raise that B string one full tone, that lever is traveling an inch and one-eighth. That’s much longer than my standard version, which is a half-inch to five-eighths. But a lot of people listen to what Clarence did on those old records and say, ‘How did he get such a sweet bend?’ Part of it is Clarence’s technique, but the other part is that he had this machine that made it easy to do a really slow, linear, sweet bend. So for close to 10 years, I’ve had a long-stroke option available for the ones I produce here. The way I explain it is, it’s not so much the destination when you’re bending, it’s the trip that gives it the intrigue.”
Parsons, now 59, eventually began making and installing StringBenders himself, but sadly, Clarence White died in 1973. He was loading his guitar into his car after a jam session when he was hit by a drunk driver.