My original plan was to focus solely on Clarence White as an electric guitarist, but it would be professionally remiss to sidestep his formidable acoustic guitar background. So, let’s take a brief tour through CW’s stint in the Kentucky Colonels before matriculating to his work on the Telecaster. Above all, this post and the several that follow all seek to answer the question:
WHY CLARENCE WHITE?
Clarence White is one of the greatest guitarists of the 20th century, unique in the canon of six-string pioneers for being the only one to revolutionize both acoustic and electric playing.* As a founding member of the Kentucky Colonels, White brought Doc Watson‘s high speed blues runs to bluegrass. For years, Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin were the genre’s stylistic templates, using the acoustic guitar as a rhythmic bulwark upon which the mandolin players, fiddlers, and banjo players would add their solos. But Clarence had too much music for bluegrass to contain, becoming the first bona fide lead guitarist in a bluegrass band, demonstrating both ungodly speed and a breathtaking sense of timing and syncopation.
Clarence then brought his unique bluegrass sensibility to rock, becoming the first rock guitarist — and practically the first rock musician — to be so inclined. But his “revolution” wasn’t merely marrying bluegrass to rock. In 1968, he had drummer and machinist, Gene Parsons, develop the B-Bender guitar, which featured a mechanism acting as a pulley inside of CW’s Telecaster, essentially transforming the instrument into a kind of handheld pedal steel (pictured below). While Parsons deserves the lion’s share of credit for this brilliant innovation, it wouldn’t have happened without Clarence White. It was his maverick vision of how the electric guitar COULD sound that midwifed the B-Bender into existence. For a full history of the B-Bender — or to buy one, for that matter — please visit Gene’s StringBender website.
35 years after his death, it’s probably fair to say that Clarence’s impact on bluegrass has far outweighed his impact on rock. The shadow of Clarence White hangs over EVERY bluegrass guitarist who’s followed in his wake. He is the benchmark, the standard of excellence, and I can’t see that ever changing. As a rock guitarist, I think his long association with The Byrds, combined with his bluegrass background, have meant that his electric guitar work has been unfairly, but understandably filtered through the narrow aperture of country-rock. However, as we analyze Clarence’s catalog over the next several weeks, months, and years, it should be obvious that his body of work transcends genre and stands with the best musicians of the 20th century, in imagination, spirit, and soulfulness.
Kentucky Colonels – Fire On The Mountain
From a March 1965 gig at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, here’s a :51 run-through of the old-timey country standard, “Fire On The Mountain.” Clarence only plays from :30-:37, but in those 7 seconds he throws down three 100 MPH lead figures, even veering into another key, as he and fiddler, Scotty Stoneman, lead the Colonels through their unique bluegrass bebop. More on that in a moment.
I lead off with this track because the first thing to jump out at you is Clarence’s breakneck speed. However, it’s not like other guitarists at the time weren’t playing fast. Hell, here’s one of CW’s mentors on guitar, Joe Maphis, a very young Larry Collins, and Merle Travis tearing up Town Hall Party in 1958 (watch video). The difference between these cats and Clarence is that no one had previously played that kind of lead guitar in bluegrass.
Clarence White & Doc Watson – Footprints In The Snow
“Footprints” was initially recorded by Bill Monroe in 1945, but he cut the definitive version in 1952 with Jimmy Martin on pile driving rhythm guitar. This version was recorded in July 1964 at the Newport Folk Festival. The song demonstrates that while some musicians can play fast, Doc Watson and Clarence White could play fast and swing. Clarence swings hard against the beat when he drops in from 1:05-1:21, occupying a space both trad bluegrass and completely visionary.
One thing that particularly impresses me — and that tends to get overlooked in the rush to praise their lead skills — is the way both men provide sturdy rhythm guitar for each other. While soloing pays the bills, so to speak, Watson and White never forget that their first responsibility is to the song. This is a major reason why Clarence was so effective in the Kentucky Colonels and also why he was such an in-demand session player. While he could obviously take off on mind-boggling solos, he also knew when not to play, how not to step on the toes of his fellow musicians. This is a very underrated quality and one to keep in mind as we go along.
Kentucky Colonels – The Shiek Of Araby
Django Reinhardt – The Sheik Of Araby
From November 1964, here’s Clarence demonstrating the profound influence of Django Reinhardt, who recorded the track in 1937 with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. While a million guitarists have been influenced by Reinhardt, precious few have matched his creativity, wit, and heavy right-hand like Clarence. This last quality is crucial. Way too many supposedly great guitarists can play fusillades of notes, but their tone is light, airy, and supper-club tasteful, as though the notes have been designed to not offend. Screw that. What I love about Clarence and Django (and just about all of my favorite guitar players) is that their tone is heavy, rhythm-centric, and their overall style displays absolute fearlessness. There is no daintiness to their music, no sense of propriety. It’s as if their guitar sound is attacking acceptable notions of tone, timing, rhythm, and syncopation.
Which brings me back to the notion of “bluegrass bebop.” In the liner notes to the Colonels’ great compilation, Livin’ In The Past, Jerry Garcia calls one-time Colonels’ fiddler, Scotty Stoneman, “The bluegrass Charlie Parker.” While I don’t disagree with this assessment — in fact, it’s pretty perceptive for a damn hippie, heh — I think you can make a case that Clarence White, even more than Stoneman, was the bluegrass Bird. Or Byrd, if you will. Like Parker, CW was a blazing fast player whose melodies swung at all tempos, was deceptively rooted in the blues, and had a borderline inhuman command of time and rhythm. In fact, here’s quotes about both men that curiously mirror one another:
“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.”
–Gene Parsons to Rick Petreysik, “Echoes of a Country Rock Legend,” Guitar Player, September 1992, page 83
“Charlie Parker’s idea of rhythm involves breaking time up. Instead of (Coleman) Hawkins‘ regular accent on the strong beat or Lester Young‘s flowing style, Bird’s accentuation comes alternately on the beat and between beats. The astonishingly rich rhythm of his music comes from this alternation, from the continual oppositions. The variety of formulas he uses in a single solo makes it possible for him to avoid all rhythmic monotony and thus to attain a more nearly perfect idea of swing than perhaps any of his predecessors.”
–André Hodeir, Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, 1956, pages 108 & 110
If you’re a Bird novice, you’re in an enviable position. You get to learn about one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians and a player who dwarfed his contemporaries. In a bigger picture, it’s fitting that in the three years spanning last century’s midway point (1949-51), two artists reigned over their respective fields with such authority that they’re still totally relevant: Hank Williams and Charlie Parker. For starters, I’d recommend a single-disc overview, like the Ken Burns JAZZ Collection, which can usually be found for cheap on Amazon.
Charlie Parker – Ko Ko
Kentucky Colonels – Alabama Jubilee
Ash Grove, LA
April 6, 1965
As for Clarence, here he is from that same March 1965 Ash Grove gig and what I consider to be the finest showcase of his guitar work as a member of the Kentucky Colonels. All of his talents come together on this piece. You get the lightning quick picking, the deft feel for swinging the blues, the solid rhythmic support during Roland’s mandolin solo, and the spirited sense of improvisation and musical freedom that marked his entire career. My only criticism is that the recording itself runs into the red at times, giving a few parts an unwelcome crunchiness. If you can’t appreciate this, you may as well jab a screwdriver in your ear.