Longtime friends Clarence White (left) and Gene Parsons (right) played in the Byrds and Nashville West together. Parsons built the first version of the StringBender for White’s Telecaster and installed it in 1968. Photo courtesy of Gene Parsons
Gene Parsons on Building Clarence White’s StringBenderTwo instruments associated with Clarence White took on a life of their own after his passing. One was his battered Martin D-28 Herringbone, now owned—and often played—by Tony Rice. The other was his 1954 two-tone sunburst Telecaster that he and Gene Parsons modded with the first StringBender—ultimately attached to the B string. The instrument was White’s only electric guitar, and he used it throughout his career. Today it’s owned by country legend Marty Stuart.
“I’ve picked up Marty’s somewhere along the way,” Brad Paisley says about his encounter with the instrument. “It’s heavy. It’s a double-bodied guitar—that was before they had it all figured out—it’s like two Teles for the price of one.”
Below, Gene Parsons tells us the history behind the StringBender, some of the challenges they faced developing it, the reason White preferred an extra-thick instrument, and White’s ease in learning to manipulate the device.
What was Clarence’s reaction when you first cut up his guitar?
I’ll tell you the story. We were doing a session and we got the basic track down. Clarence used to chime a string and pull it over the nut—a lot of people do that now on a Telecaster, raise it up a full tone—and he said, “Gee, I wish I had a third hand. I want to do this in the second and third position.” I said, “I’ll be your third hand. You get the position and I’ll pull the string over the nut.” We were fooling around there. We didn’t use it because it was pretty crude, but we heard that sound. Clarence said, “You’re a mechanic and a machinist—figure out a way to do that.” I said, “No problem. We’ll put a steel-guitar mechanism on there, some cables, and foot pedals on the floor.” He said, “No, I want it to go in the guitar case. I don’t want any stuff that I have to hook up to it. I want my hands to remain in their normal stance.”
Original schematics from the official 1968 patent for the StringBender developed by Gene Parsons and Clarence White.
I thought about it for a while. There was a guy down in San Diego who did volume swells with the strap. He had a lever hooked up to a volume control, and it was spring-loaded. All he had to do was push down on the neck and he could make the volume swell, rather than use his little finger on the control knob. I thought, “Ah ha! That’s what I’ll do. I’ll hook it up to the shoulder strap.” I got some parts from Sneaky Pete [pedal-steel guitarist Peter Kleinow] and drew up some drawings. I showed them to Clarence, and he found another guitar to play. He handed me the guitar, and the first thing I had to do was cut about a 1 1/4" square out, clear through the guitar, behind the bridge. I did that, and the next morning I went over to Clarence’s house, sat down at the breakfast table, and slid this piece—that 1 1/4" sunburst piece—across the table. He looked at it and said, “Oh God.” I said, “We’re past the point of no return now.” But as it turned out, it was a successful operation. The patient survived. And Clarence invented a way to play that changed music.
“I went over to Clarence’s house, sat down at the breakfast table, and slid that 1 1/4" sunburst piece across the table. He looked at it and said, ‘Oh God.’ I said, ‘We’re past the point of no return now.’ But as it turned out, it was a successful operation.”—Gene Parsons
Did it take him a while to get used to it?
No. He started doing it right away. I documented his playing before he had a string bender—it’s on the record on Sierra Records, Nashville West—because I wanted to have that to refer to after I installed the string bender. Clarence was using the string bender almost too much when he was on his learning curve. He got all the licks together quickly. He was incorporating them and not using his other licks—which he had such a big repertoire of—and was relying on the string bender. I brought the tape of him playing without a string bender and played it for him. He went, “Okay, note to self, I got it.” After that, he used all his old licks, and incorporated the string bender with them. He had his wonderful and unique style, and it developed rapidly.
Clarence White’s original StringBender-equipped Telecaster, which is now owned by Marty Stuart. Note the metal plate, indicated by arrow, covering the slot where the 1 1/4" of sunburst body was removed to accommodate the bender. Photo by Frank Chino
Did he make suggestions or tweaks, or did you improve it during those first few years?
No. At first, we didn’t know whether we were going to pull the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th string. We figured it would probably be the 2nd string, because you can easily bend the 3rd string, and the 1st doesn’t lend itself to as many combinations. But I put four pullers on there, just so we had some flexibility. We experimented with the first string for a while, with a little button under the elbow, under the forearm—but we discarded that. The design changed quickly because it was a heavy device. The steel guitar mechanism stuck out the back of the guitar, and I needed to put a cover over it. Clarence said, “I never got used to the thin body of a Telecaster. I’m so used to the D-18 I’ve been playing since I was a little kid. Why don’t you put an extra body—like three-quarters width of a body—which is the same shape as the guitar body on the back, so that it would be about the same width as a D-18.” That’s what I did. Not everybody wanted that, of course. I didn’t do any more string benders for a while. But then I had people approaching me, wanting to do it, and I came up with the current design—or at least the forerunner of the current design—which is the quieter, much more reliable, lighter design that we use today.
Does the strap only move if you actually push it? Will it activate if you’re jumping around onstage?
Different people have different approaches. It’s spring-loaded and it’s adjustable. You can adjust the tension on it. If you don’t want it to activate by itself if you’re jumping around onstage, you go with a tighter spring tension. One of the times that I saw Marty Stuart, I was messing with the guitar, and it had almost no spring tension on it at all. I said, “Marty, we need to tighten up or replace this spring.” He said, “Don’t do that. I like the neck to just drop. I hold the neck up.” It’s all in what you get used to. But it can be adjusted so it takes some effort to activate it so that if you’re doing calisthenics onstage, it doesn’t activate by itself.