The Absinthe Of The Wang Bar (Part 5)
Misprint at the fifth episode: Clarence and Gene bend the Tele.
In the absence of regular wanger Jakko, who's busy being a pop star this month, Tony Bacon takes up the tale of internal benders.
So far we've described real wang bars that change the pitch of all six strings, or however many you happen to be sounding at the time. Individual pitch modification of a few strings, even one string only, within a chord is therefore impossible with a standard wanger.
This ability — to change the pitch of a string or strings while sounding a chord — is central to the characteristic sound of the pedal steel guitar, and therefore the racket that reasonably obnoxious Southern men in cowboy hats have come to identify as "country music" (shouts of "yee-hah" will often accompany such identification).
The pedal steel is, by all accounts, a bleeding difficult object to play, hence its rarity in rock line-ups (Sunny Ade's group is an exception to most rules you care to name). So how to get country-ish effects from a solid six-string electric geetar?
This was the tricky problem facing a bunch of country-rock fusionists called The Byrds. Two late-1960s members, Gene Parsons and Clarence White, invented a device out of necessity, by fitting a system of levers into the body of the country rocker's favourite axe, the Fender Telecaster (or a Broadcaster if the royalty cheques had come in).
It's generally referred to as the Parsons/White B-Bender, an unfortunate mouthful which masks a handy little gadget, albeit one that takes a bit of getting used to.
What it does is to change the pitch of the B-string (sometimes the top E-string, more rarely both E and B) by a system of levers and springs mounted inside special body routs and linked to the guitar's strap pegs.
To work the thing you have to push or pull — perhaps "shrug" is more accurate — on the strap, thus activating the levers and increasing the tension on the relevant string. Sounds dodgy, yes? Dave Edmunds has one fitted to one of the rare Fenders in his Gibson-oriented arsenal, a late 1940s Broadcaster.
He told me that he felt a bit of a twerp when he tried the thing out. "I did work out a few things," he said, "but then I saw myself using it for the first time. I was trying it out on a TV documentary on Rockpile and it looked like I was having a fit or something, the way my shoulder was going up and down. It looked ridiculous, so I haven't touched it since."
The inventors of the B-Bender had rather better luck, as you might imagine, and an ear aimed at The Byrds' "Jesus Is Just All Right" will give an idea of the device's potential, thanks to Clarence White's shoulder technique.
There have been variations on the idea of the B-Bender; even Leo Fender had a bash at one when he went to work for CBS in an "advisory" role in the late 1960s. It never got into production, though. Perhaps CBS couldn't quite face the prospect of marketing something called the Fender Bender.
Another similar gadget which didn't really get into production, but which exists as a series of one-offs (a contradiction?), is the Parsons/Evans Bender, the result of a collaboration between the evidently keen bendist Gene Parsons and a chap called Dave Evans.
Albert Lee, who once had the unlikely job of lead guitarist with the Eric Clapton Band, has an Evans Bender built into a Telecaster. He reckons the Evans is a little easier to get on with than the Parsons/White original, but this is largely due to his having learnt to bend on the Evans. The main difference between the two seems to be the Evans' longer internal lever, requiring more of your precious body wood to be routed out.
Lee told "Guitar Player" magazine in May 1981 that noise could be a problem with these bending devices: "Without lubrication," he said, "it sounds like somebody sawing through the guitar. The noise of metal against metal goes right through and into the pickup. In fact, I think there are one or two records that I've played on where you can actually hear it." A fan informs me that Lee's best bending can be heard on an Emmylou Harris track called "Poncho And Lefty".
The other reasonably well-known unit which lets you bend individual strings is the Bigsby Palm Pedal, a tailpiece-mounted set of two levers which you press on with the palm of your right hand and which raise the pitch of the B- and G-string (usually).
Getting any of these things fitted to an existing guitar would be a major job — and you'd have to find someone prepared to do it. If you are keen on investigating this particular area of bending, then the purchase of an already-fitted six-string — like Edmunds' Broadcaster — would be your best bet. But you may well have a long search, and a big outlay at the end. Good luck. Back to you, Jakko.
Feature by Tony Bacon
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