Austin Daze Interview

Casper Rawls

 

AustinDaze:  Can you tell us how you got involved with music and how you decided to make your life as a musician?

 

Casper:  A lot of story right there.  I’ve been playing music since 3rd grade.  My dad bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday.  We went to the toy store when I was in 3rd grade, and we didn’t have a lot of money, my dad was career Air Force. He told me I could have any toy I wanted in the place.  And I picked the guitar.  So I’ve been playing since then. My folks got me an electric guitar and an Alamo amp when I was 11. My first performance was around then for a Christmas/New Year’s party for our school at John T. Floore’s Country Store. That’s near San Antonio, a famous honkytonk.  I ran into a guy from that first band at the grocery store about 10 years ago and he had a picture of us all playing there dated December 1966.  Ever since then, I’ve wanted to play music and I always have off and on.  I’ve had a lot of other jobs, and things, but I’ve always come back to music.  I moved to Austin right out of high school in the summer of 1973.  A friend of mine I went to high school with, David Spellman, had a club over on West 5th, I think. I can’t remember, it was a lot of years ago; it was on the other side of Lamar right by the railroad tracks.  Back in those days I was drinking quite a bit. High school and college years are kind of fuzzy because I was drinking a lot. I beg forgiveness from all the people who knew me back in those days, a miracle I survived all that.  Anyway, David Spellman first got me into playing music in Austin I met up with a country band from a little post on the bulletin board at Ray Hennig’s Heart Of Texas Music shop.  I used to hang out there a lot.  That band was called The River City Rounders and was led by a guy named William Johnson.  He has passed now, but was always a big supporter of my playing, just a great guy. So I got into playing a lot of honkytonks with them like the Skyline Club, and a place called Shorthorn Lounge, and Dessau Hall, they’re all gone now. They were old dance halls and bars.  The Shorthorn was kind of a rough place, it should’ve had chicken wire around the bandstand, but it didn’t.  And Dessau Hall was really a family place and the Skyline, well of course you know the history of the Skyline Club up on north Lamar, a very famous honkytonk.  This was in the mid-seventies and I also played with another group called The Country Sound, a bigger country outfit. We played The Broken Spoke, Lumberyard, and Silver Dollar Saloon.  My friend Duane Hamilton was the drummer in that group and we recently played again together.  From then on I got real lucky and a lot of people hired me to play guitar and I just continue to learn.  To this day, every gig is a learning experience.

 

AustinDaze:  Since you’re a master of both styles, which do you prefer, acoustic or electric?

 

Casper:  Oh, it’s all music to me; I’m not a master of anything.  I’m a master of learning.  I’m a master student, I would say.  I’m learning every day.  I love to play acoustic; I love to play electric, whatever. I didn’t actually play a lot of acoustic guitar until I got the call from Toni Price.  I never played much acoustic except occasionally on a session.  And she needed someone to fill in on acoustic guitar.  I didn’t even own an acoustic guitar since my little cowboy guitar that my Father bought me.  So I went to South Austin Music, and they let me have one that I could make payments on because I was so broke.  So I paid a little bit a month and finally paid it off.  And when I paid it off, Billy Welker, my good friend at South Austin Music told me that guitar used to belong to Natalie Zoe.  So I bought Natalie’s acoustic, I still have it, and have used it on a bunch of records.  That’s how it works in Austin, it’s all connected.

 

AustinDaze:  Another friend told me that you were a roadie for Supertramp.

 

Casper:  Well, I wasn’t a roadie; I was on the crew, setting up the rigging. When I first started all that, when I was going to school at UT Austin, I ran into a buddy of mine that had a job over there by campus where I was living.  I was walking by one day and he asked what I was doing, and I said, “Well you know, trying to go to college.” But I was getting my real education in the Clubs around Austin like The Rome Inn and Antone’s on 6th.  Anyway, they needed help and he asked if I wanted a part time job.  I said, “Yeah, I don’t have a lot of hours, so I’d love to do it.”  So I started off helping them build the speakers and cabinets.  Then they had a big concert there off 290 with Peter Frampton and Carlos Santana, I don’t know what year it was, it was a big gathering up there, big rock concert.  They said they needed some help setting up the speakers and helping on the stage.  So I went to do that, helping out setting up the speakers. I got to have lunch with Carlos Santana.  I was sitting back there eating lunch with Carlos Santana.  Wow.  Peter Frampton was on the show, and we talked about his guitar.  He had a unique thing that hooked into the guitar so that he would play while he talked, and it would make a sound like he was talking through the guitar. He showed me how all that worked.  Now I’m just a kid from UT, and was like whoa, this is cool.  So later in summer the company got the contract for the Styx tour, and one of the guys couldn’t go because he had their other system out with The Doobie Brothers. So I went out on tour with them for the summer.   That worked out okay, so I went out on a full tour with them after that, like 115 cities basically rigging up speakers.  Until then, speakers were just piled up on the side of the stage.  Styx was one of the first groups that decided they wanted to lift the speakers up in the air, so people could see better and people could hear better in the higher sections of the arenas.  And of course sell more tickets.  So they figured out how to do that, the company I was working for, American Concert Sound, a guy named Bill Stephens.  And he hired me to help make speaker cabinets, then we worked the big Austin concert, then I went on the road. Basically, I went out on the road with Styx for about a year and a half.  Between Styx tours, I got hired to go on other tours with Heart, Kansas, Charlie Daniels, a bunch of folks. Amazing people.  I was on the crew.  So my job would be to set up this stuff up before they got there, and either fly on to the next date or stay there and tear it down.  Of course all this time I am still playing and practicing the guitar when I can.  And all those bands were really supportive.  After that, I came back to Austin.  Around 1980 I moved to Mississippi to join a band with my friend Webb Wilder and Suzy Elkins. We had a band called The Drapes.

 

AustinDaze:  Sweet.  When was that?

 

Casper:  It was 1980 through 1982.  My mother got really ill, so I moved back home down to San Antonio after that group disbanded.  She got stable for a while, and Supertramp called me to go on tour in the summer of 1983, and it lasted about a summer, so it was okay for me to go.  I went out with Supertramp for that summer.  So to answer your original question, yeah I did work for Supertramp.  They were the greatest people you ever want to work for.  We used to fly all over Canada, they were really huge in Canada.  They would make us crew guys sit in first class, and they would go and sit in coach.  They would give us their first class tickets.  They were such great people; I have nothing but respect for them.  Actually, one of the last shows they played was at the Irwin Center.  After the tour was over, they broke up.  That particular band of Supertramp didn’t want to do it anymore, so that was their last tour.

 

AustinDaze: So how did the Leroi Brothers come together?

 

Casper:  Oh that would be another great interview, a whole book really–The LeRoi Brothers. They were already going great guns before they contacted me.  In the band I was in with Webb and Suzy, we came to play Austin at a place called the Back Room when it was over there on Riverside.  It was an itty bitty place.  It was way different then, more of a singer songwriter’s bar for lack of a better term.  And we played there and a couple other places, that band was called The Drapes, with Webb, Suzy and Gene Brandon who went on to drum for Omar.  And somehow the Leroi Brothers saw me play in that group. Don’t know what happened, but Don Leady left the band. I played one show with the LeRoi’s around 1984 at a place called The Ritz on 6th Street.  And they cleared the place out of everything and put sand in there.  They wanted to make the club like a beach.  The band sounded great, but it was a horrible gig.  Absolutely horrible.  So I played that show with them and they had already been talking to Evan Johns about coming down to play guitar to replace Don. And Evan came down and played in the band.  So I figured well, they’ve got it together; they got their path picked out.  Then about a year later, I got a call from their manager, Gary Rice, saying we need you to be in the band.  I don’t know how the band felt about it, but Gary said, “You’re going to be in the band.” I said “OK, we’ll give it a shot, if they like it and I like it, we’ll make it work.”  My first gig with The Leroi Brothers was July 1985 at Liberty Lunch as a 4 piece. Joe Doerr had moved on as well.  And I stayed in that group 25 years.

 

AustinDaze:  Did you take Evan’s place or did you both play?

 

Casper:  No, Evan was gone by the time I got there.

 

AustinDaze:  So he started the H-Bomb or Reform?

 

Casper:  I don’t really know about any of that.  Gary Rice called me, and said, “Evan’s not in the band anymore and you are.”  That was the message I got. I am very fortunate and very blessed to have worked with that band for so long.  Just wonderful.  All over the country, all over the world.

 

AustinDaze:  Do you still play with them, or do you and Steve play?

 

Casper:  Me and Steve play.  I left the group in 2010 I think, I don’t remember the exact date, summer I think. I got so busy with other things: Doyle Bramhall, Earl Poole Ball, James Burton and then I’ve got my own gigs.  It just wasn’t fair to the band for me to always not be there. So I made the decision to leave the group.

 

AustinDaze:  Can you tell us the story of how you met Champ?

 

Casper:  Champ I met with the Leroi Brothers early on.  He would come and watch us play around town, when we were in town.  We used to tour quite a bit when I first got in the Leroi Brothers.  We were gone for months and months at a time.  And Champ would come and bring his fiddle and sit in with us and play.  He would always smile.  Just being Champ.  He would maybe sing one with us, or just play on some of the Cajun-flavored numbers with us.  And we would see each other around town.  Not until I joined up with Kelly Willis did we become better acquainted. Champ and I played a couple of years with the Kelly Willis band.  We went all over the place.  We even went to Mexico, played a gig in Monterrey, Mexico.  We played the weekly Toni Price show, and whoever else would hire us.  Champ and I played a bunch of shows together.  I would say we played on a weekly basis, one or two times, maybe even more, a week for 10 or 11 years.  We were always playing somewhere together, like when I would fill in at his regular Wednesday gig at Threadgill’s, or he’d call with parties, or a union gig.  I was real fortunate that he called me to fill in when somebody up there at Threadgill’s was gone.  Like Marvin Dykhuis would be out on tour or Rich Brotherton wasn’t available.  I was lucky to fill in up there. So we got to do a lot of playing. When young Warren Hood was … young.  He still is young to me, but he was much younger then.

 

 

AustinDaze:  So how did you get your name?

 

Casper:  R.S. Field, he named me Casper a long time ago. And it stuck in Austin. In my hometown, they don’t know me as Casper. I was just in Shreveport visiting some of my relatives and they don’t know me as Casper.

 

AustinDaze:  Where did it come from, the name Casper?

 

Casper:  You’ll have to ask R.S. Field.  That’s your next interview.  When R.S. comes to Austin.

 

AustinDaze:  So you’ve been here a while and seen Austin change so much.  How do you see the changes affecting the musicians?

 

Casper:  Hard question.  I see it good and bad.  Austin is always going to have a great component of cool music.  It’s just kinda getting harder to find because they are mowing a lot of the places down. It’s going to take some evolution for the music to find solid ground in all this growth.  But it will.  Of course over there in East Austin, they picked right up on it.  So I have no worries about the Austin music scene.  I do hope some more real cheerleaders and patrons of the scene will appear.  Maybe they are and I just don’t know about them yet.  Guys like C-Boy, Clifford Antone, Robin Shivers and Danny Roy Young have all gone on.  But Steve Wertheimer, Curtis Clarke, Joe Ables, David Cotton and Mr. White at The Spoke are just total champions of Austin music.

 

AustinDaze:  Do you think the grass roots thing might take over, things like Sessions on Mary, where people just say, “You know what? I want to have music, so I will just make it happen with no real commercial plan.  We’re just going to have people that want to play music and you’re going to be here, and it’ll be awesome.”

 

Casper:  I certainly hope so.  I’m counting on it.  That’s one of the beauties of Austin.  People figure out how to do it.  They don’t wait around for stuff to happen, they just go and do it.  I’m remarkably upbeat about it.

 

AustinDaze:  You’re optimistic.

 

Casper:  Oh yeah, I’ve always been optimistic about Austin music.  When I got here, I didn’t know anybody.  I didn’t know anything. Amazing how far I’ve gotten in my life and career, meeting all these wonderfully talented people through the years and getting to play with a lot of them. Then seeing them build their careers and go on to bigger things.  I see that for the next generation as well.  Is Austin changing?  You bet, it always has been. Can musicians still afford to live here?  I hope so, that would be a whole other interview.

 

AustinDaze:  If you could play with anyone you haven’t played with yet, who would it be and why?

 

Casper:  Well, there are a lot of folks who have passed on that I’d love to have played with.  Unfortunately, that’s not going to work until I’m lucky enough to get into heaven.   That’s a good question.  I’ve already been blessed to play with James Burton a lot.  Talk about inspirational. I’ve always wanted to play with Eric Clapton because Eric Clapton was a big influence growing up.  Where I grew up, we were out in the country; we were in the middle of nowhere.  There was a great dance hall by my house, and I’d ride my bike down there to John T. Floore’s Country Store and see and hear great country music.  I’d just sit out there on the street and listen to it and actually meet some of the players.   Just amazing.  But somewhere along the way I got a record by Cream.  And I loved that guitar playing.  It made me really want to learn about blues music.  Because it was approachable.  Before that I was listening to records that my cousin gave me of 45s by Ricky Nelson with James Burton, Merle Travis, and Chet Atkins. That is really hard.  You gotta really dig into that and know what you are doing.  So I got into listening to Eric in addition to still trying to work out James Burton and Don Rich’s guitar parts. Eric Clapton opened the door for me to a lot of other blues guys that I later got to meet up here in Austin through Clifford Antone.  I read an interview in Guitar Player Magazine about Eric, and he was talking about Freddie King, and I was lucky enough to meet and get to know Freddie King.  And then he talked about Hubert Sumlin. I got to know him through Clifford over at Antone’s on 6th Street.  So it’s just a big circle of wonderful music.  Wild that a British guy led me to American blues players.  So yeah, there’s a bunch of people I could name that I would love to play with.  But I’ve been real fortunate to get to play with a lot of my heroes: Buck Owens, James Burton, Tom Brumley the great steel guitarist for Buck Owens, Roy Nichols, Hubert Sumlin, Albert Lee, Gene Parsons from The Byrds.

 

AustinDaze:  You’ve been doing the Buck Owens’ Tribute for a long time. How did that come about, that he played with you guys one time?

 

Casper:  Well, I went out to interview Buck Owens with my friend Dan Forte for Guitar Player Magazine.  I am grateful that he let me tag along. I had written Buck before then, a couple of letters.  Once after Don Rich died.  And he wrote me back a real nice letter saying thank you for thinking of us, I appreciate you thinking about Don passing away.  Then later on I wrote him one, I saw him in a magazine and he wasn’t doing anything, he was retired, and said, “What are you doing Buck? Are you going to play again?”  And he wrote a real nice letter back saying, “Yeah, I’m thinking about recording again.”  And so I went out to interview him with Dan Forte.  And we talked and did the interview, and I reminded him I had written him some letters, and he goes “Oh yeah.”  And then The LeRoi’s made an EP with Charlie Sexton producing, we were going to tour Europe, so we made like a 6 song EP for our label in Paris.  We cut this song called Rhythm and Booze.  One of Buck’s rockabilly songs.  And then Buck heard it.  And he called me up and said, “Man, I just love this track you guys cut, Rhythm and Booze, I just love it, I’m wearing it out.”  And I said, “Cool, I’ve been out to see you Buck, and I’ve written you letters.”  And he said, “Oh, you’re that guy!”  He put two and two together, that I was the guy who had written him and been out to interview him.  He put a face with the name.  And that I played guitar on that cut.  So we became fast friends ever since then. He was always accessible, it was great, you could just pick up the phone and if he wasn’t there or busy, they would find him.  I always had questions about those recordings, the Capitol recordings.  He asked me to send him things I was playing on or projects I was working on. So I’d send him things. Sometimes I’d get a nice note back, “I like the guitar on that, love the singing, love the arrangement.” Sometimes nothing at all.  It’s just a great thing to know you had a friend out there of that stature. We became good friends. We started the Birthday show and invited him.  He showed up in 1995 and had a blast.

 

Austin Daze: Are there other young guitarists/musicians out there you’ve had a chance to play with that we should watch out for?

 

Yeah, All of them.  There are so many gifted young players I would not want to slight anyone by only pointing to a few.  Safe to say Austin Music is in some very capable and very talented younger hands.

 

Austin Daze: Give us some wisdom or advice from what u have learned about making music I can pass on to other musicians

 

First of all, I am the last guy anyone should take advice from. It is by the grace of God and the love of my wife Nancy that I am still earthbound.  Buck told me to always be on time and wear a clean shirt.  After fifty years with a guitar in my hands, that’s worked for me.

AustinDaze:  Thank you very much.

 

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Parsons/White Stringbender

Parsons/White Stringbender

Vintage Guitar Magazine, April 2004—Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. and Dan Forte

The Parsons/White Stringbender
Vintage Guitar Magazine, April 2004
Used with Permission of Vintage Guitar Magazine

On September 20, 1983, Jimmy Page re-emerged into the public eye after the death of John Bonham and the breakup of Led Zeppelin with a thundering ovation at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Instead of a sunburst Les Paul, the model synonymous with his onstage persona with Zep, Page chose as his primary instrument an austere-looking brown Telecaster with what looked like an additional chrome volume knob behind the bridge.

Of course, it was not a volume knob. Page’s Tele was equipped with a Parson/White StringBender, which Page had previously used to great effect on the beautiful melodic, bent-note runs on Led Zepplin’s classic ballad, “All My Love,” and live on “Ten Years Gone.”

Page had begun to use the StringBender on Zeppelin’s 1977 tour. Prior to that, he frequently bent notes behind the nut of his instruments with his fingers, as can be heard on the unaccompanied “Heartbreaker” solo on Led Zeppelin II and seen on the same number in the DVD song of The Song Remains The Same.

Curiously, this was how the StringBender was invented by Gene Parsons and the late, great Clarence White in 1967, some 10 years prior to Page incorporating the device. Parsons recalls, “I was doing some sessions with Clarence White, and he was one of the very first ones to chime a string—the B string, or high E string—and pull it over the nut of a Telecaster” (Ed. Note: strike a harmonic and reach behind the nut to press down on the string and raise the pitch). The sessions Parsons and White were recording were, to the best of Gene’s recollection, for a never-released Tex and Vern Gosdin album.

White, one of the most important figures in country music, was the rare example of a guitarist who was already hailed as a true pioneer, then reinvented himself and became equally staggering as a pioneer in a different style on a different instrument. First, he was a flatpicking bluegrass prodigy, known for both his phenomenal solo and rhythm work while still in his teens. He and his brothers, Eric and Roland, formed the Country Boys, later renamed the Kentucky Colonels, whose 1964 album Appalachian Swing still sounds groundbreaking 40 years later. After making the switch to electric guitar, White became an in-demand session player in Los Angeles, appearing on Byrds’ LPs as far back as Younger Than Yesterday (recorded in 1966) and helping forge country-rock on their pivotal Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1968, before becoming a full-time member.

But before joining the Byrds (and prior to Sweetheart), White was playing Telecaster in a country-rock band called Nashville West at a club also called Nashville West, in El Monte, California. The group’s drummer was Gene Parsons and by the time Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde recorded in the fall of 1968, the pair comprised one-half of the Byrds, along with bassist John York and sole original member Roger McGuinn on lead vocals with his trademark Rickenbacker electric 12-string.

“I Need a Third Hand!”

While Parsons doesn’t recall the specific song from the Gosdin Brothers session, he does remember that White began to record a simple lead part. “He wanted to chime the string and pull it over the nut, and then he wanted to do it at the second position and the third position. He said, “Gee, I wish I could do that, but I’d need a third hand!” Parsons volunteers to be that “third hand,” pushing the strings behind the nut in time with White’s playing.

Afterward, the two wondered, “How can we do this?” Parsons, who later joined the Flying Burrito Brothers and recorded with the likes of Randy Newman and Arlo Guthrie, is a multi-instrumentalist in addition to being a master machinist. (Ed. Note: Gene is not be be confused with and is not related to the late Gram Parsons, even though both were members of the Byrds and Burritos at different times.) He remembers that his first reaction was, “Well, I can rig up a bridge on the back of your guitar and attach cables and foot pedals.”

“If I wanted to play pedal steel, I’d play pedal steel,” White replied tersely. This helped shape the StringBender’s development with some important parameters. Its mechanism should be entirely self-contained and not very obvious or visible; and it shouldn’t, in White’s words, “take my hands out of their normal stance or alter the way that I play the guitar, except that I’m able to bend strings, or pull strings, somehow.

That was a tall order, but Parsons had prior experience modifying banjos with Scruggs tuners and at one point had even tried to build a cross between a banjo and pedal steel.

Choosing Which String

Parsons eventually came up with the idea of using the shoulder strap as the primary method of bending the note. Parsons procured some pedal steel parts from steel ace “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow. Then the question was which string would be pulled. Gene recounts, “Clarence said, ‘I bend the G string a lot with my fingers, but the B and E strings are harder to bend, and the B lends itself to more combinations with other strings.’ “

To cover his bets, though, Parsons first devised a mechanism capable of both raising and lowering each of the top four strings of the guitar, using parts from a Fender 800 pedal steel. But in fairly short order, he and White knew their hunch about the B string was correct, and the multiple-string bender was jettisoned in favor of a mechanism that would allow the player to raise the B string’s pitch a whole tone. Pushing down on the guitar’s neck would, in essence, pull up on the strap button, which was connected to a hub behind the bridge where the B string was secured.

“People started calling it the ‘B-bender’ or ‘pull-string,’ which are sort of generic terms that players gave it,” Parsons explains; however, the correct name was originally Parsons/White StringBender. “I’ve done ‘E-benders’,” Gene points out, “but Clarence found that the B was the one that lent itself to the most combinations of pleasing bends used in concert with bending the G string with your fingers.”

The StringBender allowed White to perfect a unique and enduring playing style, as it’s a much different device than the traditional vibrato arm (like a Bigsby) on electric guitars—or “tremolo” arm, as Fender literature incorrectly refers their whammy bars. It was the ability to play a bent note in combination with a stationary note, or having more than one string moving—essentially aping what a pedal steel does—that attracted Clarence and became the foundation of a whole new approach to the guitar. “The StringBender allows for a totally tunable, bendable note,” says Meridian Green, a singer/songwriter and daughter of the late folk singer Bob Gibson. Green joined StringBender, Inc. in 1988 and became the company’s CEO.

“It’s much more ‘pedal steely’ because you get to hear this one note moving really smoothly from the starting position to a full-step up,” she explains. “And when people get really good, they can do half-step bends and stuff like that.”

But as early recordings of Nashville West (not released until 1976) reveal, White was achieving multiple-bend pedal steel-type licks with his fingers prior to the StringBender’s arrival; so he and Parsons essentially invented a device to fit a style that Clarence was already playing. Of course, White wasn’t the only player, then or now, to emulate steel licks on a standard electric guitar. Amos Garrett, Gerry McGee, Roy Buchanan, Jerry Donahue, Thumbs Carlisle, and others incorporated steel-like bends into their playing decades ago.

Parsons had suggested routing out White’s Telecaster for the mechanism, but per White’s request, the initial Bender mechanism was largely mounted on top of the guitar back, and covered with a piece of wood shaped like the Tele’s back. This made the guitar look like an extra-thick Telecaster, which was fine with White who was used to playing Martin D-18 acoustics. Parsons says, “He’d only been playing electric for a couple of years, so he said, ‘That’ll actually help me if you build the body out,’ He also put Scruggs (banjo) tuners on the high E and the A.”

The original patent—for a “shoulder-strap control for string instruments”—was filed under the names of Gene Parsons, who invented and built it, Clarence White, who as Gene says “invented the need for it and the way to play it” and refined the concept; and Ed Tickner, then-manager of the Byrds, who financed it and arranged for it to be licensed to Fender.

Visiting Fender, Episode 1

In 1968, Parsons and White took their design to Leo Fender, who was still a consultant with the company that bore his name after its sale to CBS. Parsons says that Leo, an inveterate tinkerer himself, was intrigued by the idea, and created a prototype for the mass-produced version. “Leo and George Fullerton liked it a lot,” Parsons says, “and the company gave Leo the okay to do a prototype. And Leo built a very nice, easily mass-produced prototype, which was a combination of a couple of ideas—one being the StringBender, the other being a guitar that was pretty much bullet-proof. Leo made Clarence jump up and down on the thing, and it just bent like a spring, but was still reasonably in good tune.”

Unfortunately, though, still in the wake of the CBS takeover, there was a lot of hiring and firing going on and, in Gene’s words, “We had to re-educate a whole new crew and they were all kind of looking over their shoulder, realizing that the bunch before them all got fired. So they weren’t wanting to stick their necks out with much new product, and it got stalled.

At that point. Parsons licensed it to Dave Evans, who built “a sort of sandwich type of Tele” and made some modifications to the Bender. It was an Evans’ version that Albert Lee acquired and played some of his most famous solos with; he still uses it to this day, along with a Parsons model. “There are different schools of thought,” Gene allows. “Some people like a short, jerky-stroke, which is the way the Evans and the Glaser are. In other words, you don’t move very much and the string moves a whole tone. I didn’t remember how far the travel of the strap pin moved on Clarence’s original model until I later measured it. In order to raise the B string one full tone, that lever is traveling an inch and one-eighth. That’s much longer than my standard version, which is a half-inch to five-eights. But a lot of people listen to what Clarence did on those old records and say, ‘How did he get such a sweet bend!’ Part of it is Clarence’s technique, but the other part is that he had this machine that made it easy to do a really slow, linear, sweet bend. So for close to 10 years, I’ve had a long-stroke option available for the ones I produce here. The way I explain it is, it’s not so much the destination when you’re bending, it’s the trip that gives it the intrigue.”

…it’s not so much the destination when you’re bending, it’s the trip that gives it the intrigue – Gene Parsons

Parsons, now 59, eventually began making and installing StringBenders himself, but sadly, Clarence White died in 1973. He was loading his guitar into his car after a jam session when he was hit by a drunk driver. He had just turned 29. As for his original StringBender equipped axe, country star Marty Stuart now owns it.

Hand-Crafting The StringBender

Back in the 1960’s, though, after Parsons completed White’s guitar, the next player who wanted a Bender was Bob Warford, who had played banjo with the Kentucky Colonels and was playing guitar with Linda Ronstadt and the Everly Brothers. “He emulated Clarence like crazy,” Meridian says, “but sadly lacked a Bender.”

“I gave him my drawing,” Parsons continues, “and he had a friend who worked in a machine shop and he modified it slightly, but built himself a StringBender with a little coaching from me. So that was the second one.”

Then, when Parsons first went into production of StringBenders, there was a transitional design. “I made the strap lever in one piece and, in order to install it, I had to route all the way to the bout just above the neck. So there’s a big slot there, with a big aluminum plate that covered it. It looked a little bit clunky. It was a little bit on the crude side, but it worked. Then I refined it by making the strap lever in two pieces so I could just put a slot there and not route all the way to the back face of the guitar; in other words, have the strap level working in an elongated hole rather than a deep cut in the guitar. I could put just a little trim plate over that, which looked much more sanitary and it kept more of the integrity of the body of the guitar.”

In the mid-1970’s, the design of what has come to be known as the Classic Parsons/White StringBender (to differentiate it from the version that Parsons and Meridian Green would later create for Fender), would be finalized.

“I realized that I needed to go to a little bit more modernized, more refined design,” Gene says. “So I began building what is currently the Classic StringBender.” Since then, Green speculates there have been between 1,500 and 2,000 guitars equipped with the Classic Parsons/White mechanism in Parson’s machine shop in Caspar, California, 150 miles north of San Francisco.

Over the years, variations by other manufacturer’s have surfaced. Joe Glaser’s aforementioned unit, which is much more compact and pivots from the guitar’s neckplate, has been the choice of Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, Ron Wood, Keith Richards, Brent Mason, Brad Paisley, whose setup operates the G string, and Diamond Rio’s Jimmy Olander, who prefers a Glaser double-bender hooked up to the B and G. HipShot, which operates with a level at the base of the guitar’s body (against the player’s hip), is an option for players who don’t want to route their guitar; it’s endorsed by Will Ray of the Hellecasters. And Frank Reckard, who followed Albert Lee into Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, had a custom-made unit attached to the back of his Les Paul Junior, fashioned by Thomas J. Sullivan—the “SulliSteel”—although he now plays a Glaser-equipped Music Man. A more elaborate system was designed by the late Phil Baugh, featuring cables and pedals going to each string—a concept Steve Hennig later employed in his self-designed variation.

Branching Out in the Mid ‘80’s

Meridian Green’s association with Gene Parsons began in 1986, when Parsons was still machining all of the parts for his StringBender mechanism by hand, except for the unit’s pull hub which, due to the complexity of the machining required, he farmed out. Because Green and Parsons were both working musicians who wanted to resume playing live, Green suggested that Parsons stop machining his own parts and have them produced for him. At first, Parsons was incredulous.

“We’d have to do bigger runs than we can afford,” he told Green, who replied, “Well, that’s only if we don’t let anybody do the installations. Why don’t we figure out how to get some other people doing the installations?”

The result was a series of StringBender-licensed firms installing the units, which simultaneously allowed Parsons and Green to spend more time playing, rather than producing parts and modifying guitars. (Parsons and Green have both recorded several CDs available on stringbender.com; however, Gene continues to personally install StringBenders to this day and welcomes inquiries via parsons@stringbender.com.)

Fender, Take II

In the late 1980’s, Meridian also contacted Fender, by then free of CBS’s control and busy setting up its innovative Custom Stop. She eventually hooked up with Fred Stuart, then a senior master guitar builder with the company and a man Green describes as “the most amazingly enthusiastic builder at the Custom Shop, especially as far as Benders go. He had the Telecaster tattooed on his bicep—he’s serious about this stuff!”

Stuart produced a Clarence White Model Tele with the Classic StringBender installed that was sold by the Custom Shop, which proved to be a surprisingly popular axe. And Stuart, Parsons and Alan Hammel of the Custom Stop collaborated on a unique doubleneck Telecaster with two six-string necks, each with its own Bender mechanism. This guitar, originally produced for a NAMM show and since purchased by a collector, can be seen in the coffee table book Fender Custom Shop Guitar Gallery by Richard R. Smith and the Pitkin Photography Studio (Hal Leonard, 1996). Other variations have included an electric 12-string and a baritone.

The Working Man’s Bender

According to Stuart, Fender produced about 200 Classic Parsons/White StringBender-equipped Teles virtually by hand in the Custom Shop—a surprising number for such a seemingly esoteric feature. Based on those numbers, in the mid ‘90’s, Fender decided to truly mass produce the device offering an “American Nashville B-Bender” Telecaster with two Telecaster pickups, a Stratocaster middle-position pickup, and a Strat-style five-way selector switch. But first, Parsons and Green had to redesign the Bender’s mechanism to better suit assembly-line production.

Parsons’ original mechanism required that the guitar be routed and then all the parts installed into positions carved into the wood of the route—a complex and labor-intensive procedure. This was fine for the craftsmen of the Custom Stop, but impossible for an assembly line, where each person is skilled in only one or two tasks. Green suggested they flip the design over, making the entire mechanism mount onto a back plate that attached to the guitar. Parsons and Green obtained a new patent and licensed the newly dubbed Parsons/Green design to Fender. The new unit also simplified routing by relocating the B-Bender tuner (a small wheel designed to ensure that the bent note at its peak is in tune) to the back plate as well, rather than requiring a separate hole in the top of the body as in the Classic Parsons-White mechanism.

“All of the components are mounted onto the plate,” explains Gene, “and then it’s screwed onto the guitar as a unit. Fender wanted to make a lot of these things and install them easily. On the Parsons/Green, instead of a hub, we have more like a pedal steel mechanism, which is a rocker arm or a pendulum; instead of revolving, it actually tilts, like a lever. It mounts onto the plate and it has a little tower that protrudes through a little hole that goes all the way through the guitar and comes up behind the bridge.”

This newer style also doesn’t stick above the guitar’s face as high as the hub (the wheel that would turn the B string behind the bridge to raise the pitch when the strap level was pulled down) stood up on the original version.

The result is a Bender-equipped Telecaster, easily affordable for the most serious players. The mechanism, though designed for mass production, works as well as the original Parsons/White. About the only unfortunate aspect of the whole enterprise is its Nashville moniker, which suggests the instrument is only suitable for country players. With StringBender players as diverse as those already mentioned, as well as Pete Townshend, Bernie Leadon, the Black Crowes, and Metallica, nothing could be further from the truth.

Tangents With A Framework

Since licensing the B-Bender design to Fender, StringBender, Inc. has come up with some surprising variations on its form. In addition to Teles, Parsons has installed units in Les Pauls—Jimmy Page has played a StringBender-modified Les Paul since the mid 1980’s, most prominently on “Thank You” on the 1995 MTV “Unledded” special—and the company has produced Double Benders, which allow the player to bend both the B and G strings. They also make a nifty B-Bender that installs in acoustic guitars with surprisingly minor modifications.

Parsons enthuses, “That’s the one that I’m in love with right now. There were some inherent problems with that; for starters, putting any kind of machinery in an acoustic guitar has the potential of taking sound away from the guitar because of the mass of it. Also, how the hell do you get this thing inside an acoustic guitar? It’s kind of like building a ship in a bottle. So the first prototype I made, we built the StringBender and then built the guitar around it. It took me about 15 years to work out all of the bugs, but I eventually made all the components so that they could be installed through the soundhole. It attaches to the guitar’s neck block. It’s a beautiful device, very light, and it can be installed without doing any modifications to the top of the guitar. I engineered the device so there’d be a minimum of metal with the maximum of strength. A slot has to be made in the bout for the strap lever to come through with the current model, but the pulling lever goes into the bridge pinhole. It’s just a foolproof, wonderful gadget, and it works really well. It’s a very musical apparatus.”

Casper Rawls, guitarist with Austin’s Toni Price, as well as the LeRoi Brothers, has several Bender-equipped Teles and an early version of Gene’s acoustic Bender and has demoed StringBenders at several NAMM shows.

“The true genius of Gene Parsons is his continuing evolution of his music and his device,” he says,. “He didn’t just co-invent [the Bender and his own niche what became ‘country-rock’] and sit back; he continues to refine and improve both. The new acoustic Bender is flat-out amazing.”

Parsons speaks in equally glowing terms of Rawls, claiming he can tell where Casper has been on tour by the calls he gets from new customers. On a given night, Rawls will quickly dispel any notion that the gizmo is strictly for country music—playing blues, rock, Cajun and even surf music, seamlessly incorporating the StringBender all the while. “He’s our man in the field,” Parsons laughs. “He’s been a wonderful advocate of StringBender, spreading the word. He goes around and plays it, and people can’t believe what they’re hearing. So they ask, ‘How are you doing that?’ And he’ll take the time to show them what the StringBender is. We’ve gotten a lot of inquiries as a result of that.”

Just what makes the StringBender so special? Green speculates that the basic design that Parsons and White hit on has endured all these years because of its logical and intuitive mechanism. “When you go to bend a string, you’re bending with your left hand already. The brain wiring is already running through the left hand. So if, instead of pushing up one string, you push down on the neck with your thumb, it still goes down the same neural pathway. Which is why I think so many people are able to incorporate it as such an integrated part of their playing style.”

The StringBender has survived, evolved, and flourished for more than 30 years and, hopefully, players in a variety of styles will still be bending their B strings for at least another 30. Nothing would make Gene Parsons and Meridian Green (and, no doubt, Clarence White) happier.

–Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. and Dan Forte