When thinking of DIY mods that become iconic because of the player behind them, a few obvious ones come to mind: Keith Richards’s “Micawber,” Eddie Van Halen’s original “Frankenstein” guitar, Brian May’s homemade "Red Special," or Ry Cooder’s original “Coodercaster.”
Clarence White’s “StringBender” Telecaster is somehow overlooked in these mod discussions. Maybe people don’t even realize what they were hearing was made possible by a mechanical guitar hack. Maybe it’s because Clarence White died young (hit by a drunk driver at age 29) or that The Byrds never quite reached superstardom.
But the original mod, conceived by White and fabricated by bandmate Gene Parsons, changed the way generations of players would think of the guitar. Unlike a slowly scooping blues bend that milks all the semitones in between two notes, the immediate and precise whole-step bends enabled by the Parsons/White StringBender device – sometimes called a B-Bender or pull-string – provided a pedal steel-like sound.
White tastefully employed the StringBender’s abilities while playing folk, rock, country and psychedelia, making people rethink where it was appropriate to use that type of bending. The mechanical innovation was eventually sold by several manufacturers as a bolt-on mod, but even more significantly, it led players like Arlen Roth to figure out ways to replicate the sound with their hands.
The list of players who have been seduced by the mod read like a who’s who of Telecaster masters: Jimmy Page, Albert Lee, Steve Wariner, Brent Mason, Brad Paisley, Ricky Skaggs, Ron Wood, Keith Richards, Jimmy Olander, and Will Ray, just to name a few.
The B-Bender mod itself seems like a magic trick, a feat of mechanical engineering that requires some careful thinking to understand. But the sound it makes bypasses the brain and cuts straight to the heart.
How a B-Bender Works
The basic concept of a bender mod is that you can move the guitar in a way – pulling down on the guitar strap or pulling the guitar away from your body – that will raise the the pitch of a selected string one whole step via a lever system.
Clarence White settled on the B string, as it provided the most possibilities in conjunction with bending the G string by hand, but in theory you could create a lever for any string.
The original build by Gene Parsons, now owned by country artist Marty Stuart [see video above], features an additional piece of wood on the back of a Telecaster, almost like a double-thick body, to contain the lever system.
Modern interpretations are more streamlined. Joe Glaser devised a system with levers on the neck plate that route through the body and seamlessly integrate into the bridge. HipShot has a mounted unit that does not require routing.
Gene Parsons himself equipped thousands of guitars with his Classic Parsons/White StringBender in his northern California workshop, though it’s gone through several iterations since the original collaboration with Clarence. Parsons also worked with Meridian Green to create a licensed version for Fender, which eventually appeared on the Fender American Nashville B-Bender Telecaster.
From Clarence to Marty: The Journey of the Original StringBender
Marty Stuart has been using the legendary original StringBender Tele – he simply calls it "Clarence" – as his main axe since 1980.
As he notes in the video, he's the first to admit that he felt like an unworthy heir. Clarence White's brother, Roland, got Marty his gig with Lester Flatt. He remained friends with the White family. So when Clarence's widow Suzy was looking to sell some her husband's belongings, Marty was one of the first people she contacted.
He bought the StringBender along with some of Clarence's other possessions, keeping the Tele mostly as it was when White played it. It still has the Strat pickup at the neck that Parsons and White installed, as well as the two banjo tuning pegs (though Marty moved one from the fifth to the sixth string). And, of course, the stickers, tape and grime have been left untouched.
Marty has worked to honor the guitar's history and talents by using it on tour and in the studio extensively. His latest album, Way Out West is an homage to that Californian desert country of the '60s.