From his family bluegrass band to joining the Byrds and driving the invention of the StringBender, White’s hybrid style and repertoire has inspired generations of pickers since he came on the scene as an in-demand session player in the ’60s.
In the mid 1960s, the Byrds were one of a handful of bands that defined the era. Built around tight vocal harmonies and Roger McGuinn's jangly Rickenbacker 12-string, their chart-topping music incorporated elements of folk, early rock, country, and psych. But by 1968 the original lineup had disbanded and version two—featuring multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Gram Parsons—was also ending. By mid-year, McGuinn was the only remaining original member. But he had an ace up his sleeve: In July of that year, he reunited with founding bassist Chris Hillman and they recruited guitarist Clarence White into the band.
White wasn't just another guitarist. As a session musician, he had already played on three Byrds' releases. He was also a bluegrass wunderkind. Though he was only 24 years old, by 1968 he had almost a decade's worth of recording and touring experience, and his early recordings with the Kentucky Colonels had redefined the role of bluegrass guitar.
When he joined the Byrds, White was a relative newcomer to electric guitar, but he would soon innovate a way of playing that instrument. He and his bandmate Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) invented the StringBender (often called a B-Bender), which let him execute pedal-steel-like bends without taking his hands off the neck.
White's originality and mastery of the instrument put him in the unique position of revolutionizing not one, but two distinct styles of guitar playing. Whole schools, encompassing acoustic flatpickers such as Tony Rice to steel-inspired Tele players like Brad Paisley and Marty Stuart, trace straight back to White. And yet White, despite his stature, remained an understated team player.
“His concern was to make the artist sound good," says Gene Parsons. “He was a minimalist, just putting in what was really necessary. He used to say to me, 'What you don't play is as important as what you do play.' Some of the things he originated, you'll hear guitar players emulate today. The turnarounds, phrasing, and off-time things he used to do have inspired guitar players for the last 50 years."
White, in spite of his resume and extensive discography, was just getting started when he was killed by a drunk driver in 1973. But his legacy lives on. We spoke with his older brother Roland White (whose incredible book, The Essential Clarence White: Bluegrass Guitar Leads, explains the intricacies of his brother's bluegrass playing), Clarence's close associates Parsons and Herb Pedersen, and even some of his musical heirs, like Brad Paisley, to tell White's story.
Going to California
Clarence White was born on June 7, 1944, in Lewiston, Maine. His family was French-Canadian (their last name was originally LeBlanc) and music was an important part of their lives. His father, Eric, was a multi-instrumentalist, as were his father's siblings who lived nearby. Clarence's mother often played their massive collection of country and popular records around the house, and his older brothers and sister sang, harmonized, and played instruments. Between the radio, singing, and practicing instruments, music was ever-present.
White began playing guitar when he was 5, although his father gave him a ukulele to play until he was big enough to handle the larger instrument. By the time the family relocated to Burbank, California, in 1954, the White siblings—Roland on mandolin, Eric junior on banjo, and Clarence on guitar—had the beginnings of a band and, judging by what happened next, they were already somewhat accomplished.
Soon after moving to California, the family band—first calling themselves the Country Kids and then the Country Boys, before finally recording as the Kentucky Colonels—began winning talent contests and performing on local radio and television. They shared stages with established greats like Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Lefty Frizzell, and many others, and eventually landed a spot performing on the nationally televised The Andy Griffith Show.
“When the show broadcast a few weeks later, we started getting calls from our cousins in Maine," recalls Roland White. “They said, 'We saw you on The Andy Griffith Show, how did you get that job?' I thought it was just a local show. We didn't know it was nationwide."
In 1959, the Country Boys started playing at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. Their lineup at that point was Roland and Clarence on mandolin and guitar, Eric on bass, plus Billy Ray Latham on banjo, and LeRoy Mack on Dobro. The club was the local center of the then-booming folk revival. It was their first time playing through a proper PA, with onstage monitors, which was the kick Clarence needed to step up as a soloist. “It made it a heck of a lot easier," Roland says about being able to hear themselves play. The club was also their introduction to a more sophisticated, college-educated audience, and connected them to other like-minded musicians their age.
“I met Clarence in Los Angeles in about 1963," says multi-instrumentalist Herb Pedersen. “My band, the Pine Valley Boys—a bluegrass group from Berkeley—came down to play at the Troubadour, which at that time had an open mic on Monday nights. It featured artists like the Kentucky Colonels, David Crosby, and Roger McGuinn as single artists, Chris Hillman was in the Golden State Boys at the time, and that was right around the time I met Clarence. It was just astounding to meet these guys."
White recorded his first album, The New Sound of Bluegrass America, with his band, renamed the Kentucky Colonels, in 1962, when he was just 18. In addition to White, the album features Latham on banjo, Mack on Dobro, and Roger Bush on bass—Roland had been drafted, stationed in Germany, and missed those first sessions—and Merle Travis, Johnny Bond, and Ralph and Carter Stanley all had a role in its production, while Joe Maphis wrote the liner notes. Featuring cross-picking and other advanced techniques, White's lead style had evolved from his first days at the Ash Grove, and the album represented a new stream in bluegrass music with guitar as a prominent lead instrument.
An early White family band photo of the Country Boys, taken in the 1950s. The lineup included siblings JoAnne White on bass, Roland White on mandolin, Eric White on banjo, and Clarence White on guitar. Photo courtesy of White Family
“Doc Watson was one of the first lead guitar players on acoustic guitar," Pedersen says. “He played fiddle tunes on the guitar and that was pretty amazing. But Doc's style was pretty rigid: It was pretty much note-for-note, and it didn't swing all that much. He just played the fiddle tune like you'd hear it on a fiddle. But with Clarence, he would incorporate different little push beats and that kind of thing. He was a very sly guitar player. He would sneak things over on you and you had to pay attention."
After Roland's discharge from the army, the band did a number of East Coast tours, which included shows in New York, Boston, and a feature at the Newport Folk Festival, and recorded a second album, Appalachian Swing!, in 1964. White's guitars at this time were a duo of Martins: a D-18 and his iconic D-28 Herringbone (now owned by Tony Rice), although the guitars suffered their share of abuse. In addition to manhandling his instruments (He filled one guitar with sand and shot the D-28 with a BB gun.), he ran over both guitars one evening after a gig in Massachusetts, doing significant damage to the D-18. The guitars were repaired at Herb David Guitar Studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which White claimed improved the sound of the D-18.
White was a discerning musician, but a utilitarian gearhead. Consider the humble beginnings of his D-28. “We found that in McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica," Roland White says. “We would go to pawnshops once a month in L.A., and we went by McCabe's and there was this guitar in the corner. The fingerboard just had tape around it, but it was taped to the neck. We asked, 'What do you want for that as it is?' The guy went back and talked to his boss and I think he said either $25 or $35, so we bought the guitar. It was Clarence, my brother Eric, Billy Ray, and myself, and we scraped up money and gave it to him. We took it home and my dad said, 'I can't fix that.' So we took it to this guy in L.A., Milt Owen. He said, 'I can put the neck back on there.' But he looked it over, and the top had been sanded thin. He said, 'You'll never be able to use heavy Martin strings on there. You're going to have to use light-gauge strings, because the top will bulge. You won't be able to play it very well.' He put the guitar neck and fingerboard back on there, strung it up, and I think we paid him $15 to do it. We picked it up a week later, brought it home, and Clarence played it a bit. But he said, 'I can't play it with these strings. I'm going to put on some heavy-gauge strings.' Sure enough, the top bulged up at the bridge. The only way he could play it would be in open G or put a capo on to play the G chord like an A, and then after that it would get real sharp."