Behind the Scenes with the Bodacious B-Bender
Ever wonder who's the techno-mechanical brains behind those intriguing, tone-stretching B-Benders? Actually, it's multi-instrumentalist Gene Parsons, who rose to superstar status as drummer, banjoist, pedal steel guitarist, and harmonica player with the high-flyin' Byrds.
Gene's lifelong fascination with bent notes actually stems from his early childhood. "When I was a little kid, I was really crazy for steam locomotives, and one of the real big attractions (for me) was the steam whistle", he recalls. "A good engineer wouldn't just blow the whistle. He'd bend the notes and make that whistle moan by pulling that lanyard ever so artfully. And the first time I ever heard a musical note bent down and up was in Earl Scrugg's Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and I said, 'My God! What a sound!'"
Anyway, I asked myself "What is it about the bent note that's so beautiful and haunting", Gene continues. "Well, I think I know. If you go from notes A to B, you're making a statement. But if you bend that note -- from an A to a B -- you're making a journey. You're telling a story, and along with that there's intrigue and suspense. It's a whole new world of music."
For Gene, that whole new world of sonic possibility reached its apex in 1968 when he applied his machine shop skills to address fellow-Byrd and best friend Clarence White's need for a third hand to mimic a pedal steel guitar during a recording session. The result was the Parsons/White String Bender (or B-Bender), a string-pulling device activated by the shoulder strap, which enabled Clarence to raise the pitch of his B string a full tone.
In addition to gracing subsequent Byrds releases, incuding Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde, The Ballad of Easy Rider, Untitled, Byrdmaniax and Farther Along, the Parsons/White String Bender was prominently featured on Gene's first-rate solo recordings, Melodies and The Kindling Collection, as well as on Birds of a Feather -- a brilliant amalgam of country, folk, rock, zydeco, and bluegrass recorded with his wife, Meridian Green. Within no time, other artists began hopping on the String Bender bandwagon, and among those who had them installed either through Gene or the Fender Custom Shop in Corona, California, were Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, David Gilmour, Rich Robinson, James Hetfield, Richie Sambora, Albert Lee, Bernie Leadon, and Peter Buck.
The idea for the B-Bender actually came about during a recording session featuring drummer Gene Parsons and guitarist extraordinaire Clarence White of the Byrds. "We had just put the basic track down, and Clarence was doing this lick where you chime a string and pull it up over the nut on a Telecaster", Gene recalls. "And he said, 'You know, this is really great, but if I could do it up at the IV chord and the V chord, I'd really have something here. I need a third hand.'"
Having spent a lot of time observing his dad's machine shop operation as a youngster, Gene rose to the occasion. He came up with a finely tooled string-pulling device that's activated by the guitar's shoulder strap. Pressing down on the guitar's neck causes the guitar strap to pull up on a lever attached to the strap button. The lever, which is attached to a series of rods and springs, turns the pull hub that the B string is threaded through, thus raising the pitch of the B string a full tone for a pedal steel effect. The device, which was dubbed the Parsons/White String Bender, is featured in Fenders Clarence White Signature Series Telecaster.
B-Benders and their unique sonic qualities have long been favorites of dozens of well-known guitarists whose styles run the gamut from rock, country and blues to metal, alternative and jazz.
The same device is also featured in Fender's American Standard B-Bender Telecaster. "I basically designed a (one-piece assembly) unit that mounts directly to the back plate of the guitar", Gene adds. "The result is a high-quality instrument that's also a little more wallet-friendly than its Signature Series counterpart."
"For those players who think the B-Bender is only suitable for country music, think again", Gene points out. "Ive heard people do some pretty amazing things with it", he says. "For example, I've heard blues artists play Roy Buchanan-type licks where they'll bend the B string and then pull it up two to two-and-a-half tones. Ive also heard jazz guitarists who'll play these really big 13th or 11th chords and then come up with this fluid note provided by the B-Bender. There's a lot of incredible stuff you can do with it, regardless of what genre of music you're into.
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