Saturday, December 09, 2006

He took it all too far but boy could he play guitar

2 posts back I used a YouTube of The Byrds, featuring a guitarist not really well-known outside the guitar world and Byrds aficionado circles, Clarence White.

As has probably been obvious by any who read here regularly, I am a guitar junky. I don't play as much or as well as I used to, due to spinal cord damage, but I'm still totally in love with the instrument, and fascinated by those who play it really well. And Clarence played really well, and was a true innovator.

Clarence grew up in the bluegrass world. Here's an early picture (He's on the right):

Growing up in Southern California, I watched country music shows produced locally. One was Cal's Corral, produced by Cal Worthington, eccentric car dealer. I clearly remember in high school, in the '60s, seeing the Kentucky Colonels on Cal's Corral, and thinking that while they looked pretty grim, man could those boys play, especially the guitarist.

While there had been flashy country players for a long time, the conservative and traditional bluegrass world hadn't adapted yet. Solos were played by the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin players, once in a while the dobro, with the guitar used as a rhythm instrument, to augment the bass. Clarence really helped change that becoming one of a group of young bloods playing dizzying leads on Martin D-28s.

Here are the Colonels on the Andy Griffith show:

Seems pretty ordinary so far, right?

For those with iTunes accounts, go there now for a real treat. Search for Clarence White. Now play the first selection, "Bury Me Beneath The Willows." Go ahead, I'll wait.

. . .

Pretty nifty finger picking, you're probably thinking, right? Well, no. That's Clarence using only a flat pick in his right hand. Starting to get it?

To see how that works, watch this clip from a few years later, demonstrating what could be done with a flatpick. The first song is a bit ho-hum, but wait for the second, you'll clearly see what the fuss was about:

Clarence was attracted to the growing alt country scene here in L.A., and quickly adapted to the electric guitar, becoming one of the most prolific session players around. And here is where his second innovation came along.

After playing on several seminal country-rock records, including the Byrd's Sweethearts of the Rodeo, he was asked to join the Byrds. While country electric guitarists had been bending strings to simulate pedal steel licks for some time, Clarence wasn't satisfied with this. He brainstormed with the Byrd's drummer, Gene Parsons, who was a pretty handy guy with tools, and the B-string bender was born.

Here is an early clip of Clarence using the bender with the Byrds:

Here he is much later in the Byrds career, with a much different look. By now his style had adapted from straight flatpicking to a much more advanced hybrid style, using both the pick and fingers:

And here's a picture I took at the old Ash Grove on Melrose (now the Comedy Store), in 1970. A bunch of rockers who all started playing in bluegrass bands at the Ash Grove got together for a bluegrass night. That's Chris Hillman far left playing mandolin, and Bernie Leadon, original guitarist in the Eagles on banjo, admiring Clarence's playing:

And for those who really want a treat, here's "Eight Miles High" from the Fillmore East:

Sadly, Clarence died July 14, 1973. Who knows what else he would have done.

Here's some links to fan sites, and discographies: