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September 2014
more... GearMay 2008Hipshot ProductsParsons Guitars

Close Up The Honky Tonk: A Look at Pull-Strings

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Close Up The Honky Tonk
Although the term “B-Bender” refers to a specific string-bending mechanism developed in the sixties by Gene Parsons for Clarence White, it has since become an eponym, encompassing all of the contraptions that allow guitarists the freedom to bend strings by specific amounts without worrying about left-hand logistics. With various implementations of a simple lever, players are free to tackle precise bends within complex chord shapes and ear-piquing double-stops – many of which would be unattainable, short of learning the pedal steel.




The benders available today run the gamut from the relatively non-invasive Hipshot – requiring little more than removing and reinstalling the rear strap button and a fresh set of strings – to the Parsons/White system, which requires a skilled installer to remove a good-sized chunk of wood from the body. Other notable systems – such as those from designers Joe Glaser and Charlie McVay – are similar to the Parsons/White in being irreversible propositions for the guitar in question while requiring comparitively less-invasive installations.

Whatever they’re called, in the hands of skilled pickers, bender-equipped axes can melt minds. A nearly imperceptible shrug becomes the basis for a dead-on Ralph Mooney impersonation. A neck being pushed away from the player – looking like a simple strap adjustment – produces an incredible-sounding one-up/one-down bend that is impossible to replicate on a standard guitar. If you’re looking for a new way to wow your bandmates, look no further.


Close Up The Honky Tonk
January 18th 1972: American country-folk-rock band The Byrds on the eve of the 1972 Midem Festival at Cannes. Skip Battin (rear), Gene Parsons (left), Clarence White (right) and Roger McGuinn (front). Photo by Michael Webb/Keystone/Getty Images
The Parsons Project
The overall way in which the effect is achieved is common to all of the systems – a mechanical bending of a specific string or strings by a predetermined amount allows the fretting hand to remain stationary (or not). When picking up a B-Bender equipped guitar for the first time, it takes a while to wrap your head around the need to rely on chord shapes instead of familiar modes and scales, but once the light goes on, you’ll be resolving A-shaped add 9 chord fragments to vanilla voicings and back in no time. A short while later – after realizing how much work and effort is needed to truly master a pull-string guitar – you’ll wonder who had the chops to need one in the first place.

That person was Clarence White, a phenom in L.A.''s burgeoning bluegrass scene during the early-sixties. Clarence was fundamental in the development of what we today recognize as "hot" bluegrass picking before reaching his twenties. After nearly single-handedly defining a genre, Clarence began pursuing a studio career on the electric guitar - at the urging of James Burton, no less. The drummer for many of these sessions, as well as fellow future Nashville West and Byrds member, was Gene Parsons.

"One of Clarence''s innovative guitar techniques was to chime the high E or B string and bend it up a full tone by pulling the string down above the nut." Gene explains. "This worked great in open position, but on a particular tune he wanted to play the lick up the neck. He needed another hand to do it." Even though Gene was able to lend his help that time, he was able to foresee the need for something that allowed the player to retain their bending autonomy.

"I knew there had to be a way for Clarence to bend the string himself. I offered to install pedals and cables like those used on pedal steel guitars. Clarence refused because he wanted something that would fit inside his guitar case," Gene recounts. "After a couple of weeks of thinking about it, I came up with the idea of using the shoulder strap to actuate a string-pulling, note-bending mechanism. Not only would it fit into the guitar case, it would actually go inside the guitar! I drew up some plans that incorporated a steel guitar bridge that Sneaky Pete Kleinow procured for me. After a little convincing, Clarence bravely agreed to let me install this contraption in his beloved Telecaster. He said, ''Just don''t show me until it''s done.''" The result of Gene''s hot-rodding skills was the famous maple necked, sunburst Tele with the Plymouth Satellite badge and "Germany" decal adorning its face that routinely delivered seemingly impossible bends. The guitar is now cared for and played by Marty Stuart.

Close Up The Honky Tonk Today, Gene''s StringBenders are available in three different models. The original Parsons/White, which is the direct descendant of Gene''s first bender, is available directly through stringbender.com for $985 installed on your Telecaster or ASAT. Gene can fit these contraptions to Les Pauls or other types of guitars, as well as install additional features such as the popular long-throw option, for a slight up-charge. There is also a StringBender system available for acoustic guitars and Gene has worked with Meridian Green to develop the Parsons/Green bender.
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