Clarence White: A Byrd Who Truly Soared
On a cool summer evening in Lewiston, Maine, in 1948, 10-year-old Roland White is teaching his little brother Clarence how to play guitar. The four-year-old can't quite get his left hand around the guitar's neck, but with his right hand he strums with exuberance and determination as his older brother forms the chords. Within 20 years of that first lesson, Clarence White would emerge as one of the most influential and gifted guitarists of the past century.
As a youngster, Clarence was exposed to both Appalachian fiddle tunes and French Canadian jigs, the music of his ancestors. He took a special liking to the guitar, and in 1954, when the White family moved to Burbank, California, 10-year-old Clarence and his brothers Roland and Eric formed a band called the Country Boys. Within a few months, the group began performing on local stage, radio and television shows, and subsequently attracted a cult-like following.
In 1961, after a few personnel changes, the Country Boys changed their name to the Kentucky Colonels and cut their first record, New Sounds of Bluegrass America, for the Briar label. During this period, Clarence also met a musician who would have a profound influence on his playing -- the legendary Doc Watson.
Borrowing Doc's revolutionary idea of incorporating lead guitar breaks within bluegrass tunes, Clarence began injecting his own brand of unorthodox, back-of-the-beat fills and breaks. That new direction and focus culminated in 1964 with the release of Appalachian Swing, a landmark album that showcased Clarence's sophisticated fingerstyle cross-picking and blazing speed as well as the Colonels' tight ensemble playing.
By early 1965, Clarence was also captivated by the British bands that were replacing acoustic instruments with raw-sounding electric guitars. So Clarence bought himself a Fender Telecaster, practiced like crazy, and, with coaching and encouragement from James Burton, eventually began getting session work in the Los Angeles area.
In 1966, he signed with Gary Paxton's Bakersfield International label, where he met banjoist/guitarist/drummer Gene Parsons and Cajun fiddler Gib Guilbeau. The three musicians formed a studio band [later known as Nashville West] for Paxton's fledgling label. In the meantime, Clarence's reputation as a hot session guitarist began spreading like wildfire. Among the many artists who enlisted his services were the Everly Brothers, Rick Nelson, the Monkees, Gene Clark, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and the Byrds.
It was around this time that Clarence and his buddy Gene Parsons invented a device that was built into his Telecaster which enabled him to raise the pitch of his B string a full tone to create a pedal steel effect. It was dubbed the Parsons-White String Bender, and it caught the attention of Byrds' bassist Chris Hillman, who talked founder Roger McGuinn into letting Clarence join the band as a full-fledged member. Roger was convinced, and Clarence began an association with the band which would last more than five years and catapult the guitarist to international superstardom. The combination of Clarence's string bending licks, Roger's sparkling workout on his blond electric 12-string Rickenbacker 370, and the turbocharged rhythm section of drummer Gene Parsons and bassist Skip Battin (who replaced Hillman's replacement, John York) created a country-rockin' sound that bordered on otherworldly, especially on tracks such as 'Chestnut Mare,' 'Lover of The Bayou,' 'Jesus Is Just All Right' and 'Just A Season.'
Even after the Byrds split up in 1973, Clarence kept busy. In between both acoustic and electric guitar session work with other artists, he reunited with the Kentucky Colonels for a European tour, and joined bluegrass friends Richard Greene, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and Bill Keith to record the classic Muleskinner album.
He also began working on a solo album and was in the midst of a blockbuster country rock tour with Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Gene Parsons, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and other artists, when tragedy struck. On July 14, 1973, while loading equipment into his car after a gig in Palmdale, California, he was struck down and killed by a drunk driver.
In the following section, musicians and friends pay tribute to Clarence White -- an individual David Grisman has dubbed a 'virtuoso human being and guitarist.'
Clarence was important in my life both as a friend and as a player. He had two very different personas. There was Clarence White the incredible bluegrass guitar player, and then there was Clarence White the incredible electric guitar player. His approach was very different in the two instances. He brought a kind of swing -- a rhythmic openness -- to bluegrass, and a unique syncopation. His feel has been incorporated by a lot of other players, but nobody has ever quite gotten the open quality of his rhythm. In the bluegrass world, the instruments characteristically are on top of or slightly in front of the beat. Bluegrass is a kind of forward-leaning music. Clarence's playing was way in back of the beat, and that added an openness that was really breathtaking.
His playing had a stately quality about it. He was influenced a lot by Doc Watson, but as soon as he got the idea of what Doc was doing, he immediately expanded in a dozen different directions. He also added a bluesy quality -- you can hear that best on 'I Am a Pilgrim.' He also listened to some Django Reinhardt, and you can hear some of that influence on the tune 'When You're Smiling.' Clarence had wonderful control over the guitar. He could play at any speed -- bluegrass tempos -- and even double them up. He's the first guy I heard who really knocked me out. He was totally accurate and he had wonderful economy.
He was, of course, the first guy to get a lot of mileage out of the String Bender, but he also played fingerstyle cross-picking, which was a real big departure for him because he was a flatpicker on the acoustic. He played almost like a bluegrass banjo player on the electric guitar. He also took advantage of the light setup and the Telecaster snarl to get a kind of nasty, biting sound. He wrote a whole new book on bluegrass and electric guitar. In fact, there's been nobody like him since. His playing is what the guitar is all about.
Clarence's picking really impressed me. He knew no fear of the guitar. A lot of guys play very fast and do some great things, but very few have that sense of certainty, and Clarence had it. He'd start a thought and carry it all the way through. When he played, he made it count.
I first met him when we were both 16 years old, and he was just astounding. He was with the Country Boys, and he looked wonderful and played great. He wasn't doing a lot of lead work then; he was basically playing rhythm, adding runs here and there. Of course, the Country Boys eventually became the Kentucky Colonels, and at that point Clarence's technique was really developing. He was becoming a lead player. When all of us started to plug in around 1965, he did too. There was no String Bender then, and he was doing these things on the Telecaster -- copying steel guitar licks -- that were really innovative. I used him on Younger Than Yesterday, and he did fabulous solos on 'Time Between' and 'The Girl with No Name.'
He was just one of the most innovative players around. He always used the right notes. It seems like everybody who starts out tends to slug measures with thousands of notes, but the older and more seasoned you get, the more you tend to underplay it. Clarence did just that, and his sense of timing was just amazing. He was a fabulous musician. I was privileged to be able to work with him and to steer him into a situation that got him acclaim. His going into the Byrds made him a national treasure.
Clarence was a major influence. I never heard guitar played like that before. I was really into Maybelle Carter, that simple autoharp kind of guitar. Clarence's syncopated rhythms just moved me; it was bluegrass that went to another level. When I saw him perform, I thought his personality and the way he looked was so cool. He was James Dean cool. He was Bob Dylan cool. He instantly became my idol. I really tore into his style of acoustic playing and tried to make it fit into what I was doing with Lester Flatt, which was hard to do. But what really threw me for a loop was Sweetheart of the Rodeo, especially the song 'One Hundred Years from Now.' That bender was just incredible.
Somebody once called his style quirky, and that's about the best description I ever heard. It was the way he placed his notes. As a country player, he was a monster. As a rock and roller, he was so original. Had he lived, I'd have to believe that Clarence would have eventually wound up in a country band, and I think that, hands down, he would have been the greatest guitar player there ever was.
I have his Telecaster, and that guitar has a following. Almost everywhere we play, people come up to me and want to touch it. That guitar is always welcome to anyone who wants to play it. That guitar is to be shared. I feel lucky to even be holding it.
Clarence was my best friend. You couldn't have met a more honest, really nice fellow. When we played together in the Byrds, Clarence was always experimenting with new licks. He'd leave these big holes -- these anticipated beats -- and he'd just kind of leave you hanging out in the middle of nowhere. And then all of a sudden he'd come up from underneath, in a totally unexpected place, and really stretch out. That's what was always exciting about his playing. He'd knock you right out of your seat. Every night was a new experience. It wasn't rare for him to do something totally out of left field.
He and Doc Watson were probably the first guys who made the acoustic guitar a real lead instrument that could actually compete with a banjo, a fiddle, and a mandolin. When he would take a solo, people would stand up. He was unbelievably fast, and he hardly ever practiced. But he'd always have a guitar in his hands at least some time during the day.
One night we were playing at the Whisky, and when we were in the dressing room, this really well-dressed black man wearing a hat with a feather in it walks in and says to Clarence, 'Are you Clarence White?' And Clarence says, 'Yeah.' And the fellow says, 'Well, I really love the way you play guitar. I've been listening to you for years, and you're one of my favorite players.' So Clarence says, 'Wow. Thanks a lot. What did you say your name was?' The fellow says, 'I'm Jimi Hendrix.'
Clarence had an extreme dynamic range from soft to loud, but within mezzo-forte. It was sort of compressed, but very dynamic. He had these key notes -- I call them major events -- that would be 'medium loud,' and the rest would be kind of quiet. And you didn't hear any pick noise. He kept the overall dynamic range in the lower levels, but within that there was great variation. I don't recall hearing too many people play that way, except classical guitarists like Julian Bream. Of course, Clarence didn't know anything about that, but he intuitively understood the dynamics of classical music. So that right away sets him way off to the side of all of the bluegrass players.
His playing was so clean, and he was able to play very fast because he wasn't playing hard. If you play hard, it takes more energy per note. So he would save it. He was great at controlling his speed and not rushing.
Clarence played only in a few positions. He'd use a capo, because to him tone was everything, and if you have to hold a barre chord down, you're not going to have that open string ringing the same way. His left-hand movement was very contained and economical. He made sure his finger was really pushing that string against the ebony, as opposed to just getting it there. Where you put your finger and how far it's up against the fret is very critical to tone production, and he was very much on top of that. He held the pick between his index finger and thumb, and he would move the other three fingers around. It was very subtle.
He brought a lot of black blues guitar playing to white acoustic bluegrass guitar, which sets him apart from other players. And I have not heard anyone play electric guitar like Clarence. He was forging his own ground, just like he did on the acoustic guitar. I remember hearing him play stuff in the bass register of the electric guitar that I had never heard before. It was very funky, very rocky.
He used to define the chord by playing an open low bass string -- like an A or E or D, even G sometimes. He would have that ringing and then go up top and play something either in the chord or against the chord. When the chord changed, he'd play another bass note. That was pretty innovative, but how he syncopated was absolutely unique. No other player after Clarence ever got that down. Most of the bending I did, especially with the Eagles, was certainly influenced by Clarence.
I met Clarence when I was nine years old, and he was 15 or 16. He was a very serious musician and a very straightforward individual. He definitely influenced me to a large degree because he was the first rhythm guitar player I had heard who took playing real serious. He used the guitar in a bluegrass band as something beyond just strumming three chords to accompany a vocal. In fact, on a scale from 1 to 10, on the acoustic bluegrass stuff I'd have to give him a 10 plus, and for being a real innovator on the electric guitar, I'd also have to give him a 10 plus. He was definitely an idol.
Clarence's style was already developed by 1962. I don't think any bluegrass guitarist had as precise a sense of timing. Nobody was syncopating like he was. Clarence had that unique way of twisting things around. When we used to do 'Bury Me Beneath the Willow,' he would play the guitar part a whole quarter of a measure off. He was into screwing with time, but in a very accurate way so that you knew what he meant. And he didn't play very hard. He had a very light, precise touch. There was very little motion. You couldn't believe what was coming out of him. Some guys look like they're really working, and he was expressionless. They used to make fun of him because he always looked real serious.
When he died, I really felt a musical void, beyond losing the person. I thought, 'Well, this is it. I'm never gonna hear this again.' There'll never be another Clarence.
I only saw him play a time or two around 1973, but I remember him having a really neat sound. Man, I just couldn't believe how this guy played. But I didn't think he played electric guitar like he played acoustic guitar -- at all. I didn't see any relationship whatsoever. To me, it seemed like two completely different directions. You would never know it was the same person, which was really neat. He got a different sound out of that Tele that nobody else got. And the string bending stuff was just amazing. I thought Clarence was great, and I wish I had gotten to know the guy.
I was influenced by the B-bender when I first heard Clarence use it. I could tell immediately that he was doing something no one else had ever done before. His electric playing was along the lines of James Burton, but he also had this unique approach. It was very concise. And he also played really great flattop. A lot of people can't make the transition from acoustic to electric, but he did it beautifully. I especially like the stuff he did on the [Byrds'] Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. I also like his playing on 'Old Blue' from Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde. He was a great musician.
Clarence was a major influence on me. First of all, he was a monstrous flatpicker. He was absolutely tremendous. And he was a phenomenal electric guitar player. Clarence and I did a couple of festival gigs together in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was with the Byrds at the time, and I was with a British band called the Nick Greenwood Band. Anyway, he was a real gentleman. After one of the gigs, he went back to his dressing room to get his Telecaster and to show me how the String Bender worked. He absolutely knocked me out. What struck me about his playing was the way he was able to use all of his fingers at the same time he was flatpicking. That just blew me away. Plus he used a hard-shell pick. I really like the work he did on the Byrds' Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde. I remember borrowing heavily from that one -- especially his 'wild man' stringbending stuff. He was a huge hero of mine, and he's the one who got me started on my stringbending journey.
Roland White [Clarence's brother] and I played a lot together when I was with the Seldom Scene, but to my great regret, I never actually met Clarence. However, I was a huge fan of his playing, and he certainly was an influence on my playing. He was one of the first people in the bluegrass field to do lead stuff on acoustic guitar. Before him there was, of course, Doc Watson, Don Reno and George Shuffler, who used to play with the Stanley Brothers, or Earl Scruggs, who recorded some lead stuff -- but fairly simple, straightforward stuff. And Clarence came along and sort of took what Doc Watson and the others were doing and took it several steps further. His playing followed a lot of what Doc Watson did in that there's a strong melodic backbone to the solos. But he really embellished the melody very tastefully and came up with his own little phrases and a lot of syncopated things. In fact, a big part of his playing was the syncopation he put into it. It was his timing and the notes he left out as well as what he put in. I think the first recording of his that really opened my ears and got me wanting to learn that style was the break that he took on [the Kentucky Colonels'] 'Huckleberry Hornpipe.' That break contains a lot of what I love about his style -- really distinctive phrasing, and great tone. When you listen to his stuff, you also get the sense that a lot of it's off the top of his head. You don't get the feeling that they're studied breaks. There's always a high level of spontaneity in his work.
Before the Parsons-White String Bender was even invented, I remember Clarence pulling the strings up over the nut and doing all kinds of weird things on electric guitar, and I thought, 'What is he doing?' And then the String Bender came out, and of course he mastered that immediately. To tell you the truth, I think he was the most inventive guitar player of all time. He was extremely creative. I think every one of us [bluegrass musicians] has been influenced by him, including Doc Watson.
Clarence definitely was an absolute killer musician. An ace. I'd put him in the Top 10 list of guitar players, along with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.