Byrd and the wire – the amazing invention of Gene Parsons

Matt Hill (Singer and songwriter Quiet Loner) tells us about a remarkable musician whose engineering know-how led to a true guitar innovation. 

How many musicians can you name who are able to play like a demon on the guitar, the banjo and the drums? But who also happened to be in the biggest American band of the 1960s? That’s impressive right? But what if that person also happened to have invented an innovative brand new technology for the electric guitar? And what if that person continues to manufacture each of those products himself by hand in his Californian desert custom shop!??

This remarkable man is Gene Parsons – drummer, banjo player, guitarist, singer-songwriter, and innovative engineer. Best known for his work with The Byrds from 1968 to 1972 he was also in Nashville West and The Flying Burrito Brothers and has enjoyed a successful solo career too.

The innovation he helped invent is the B-Bender (also known as the StringBender). And it played a major role in the development of a genre known as country rock when rock n roll bands started to take on a country influence. The Eagles were perhaps the most famous band of this movement but even the Rolling Stones were getting country at this time!

The B-Bender is all about “putting pedal steel licks in the hands of guitarists”. Gene developed it in the late sixties with his friend, the late great legendary Byrds guitarist Clarence White. In fact the device is often referred to as the Parsons/White B-Bender.

The device is embedded within the body of the guitar and through a switch on the strap button can simulate the bend of a pedal steel guitar on a normal 6-string. Gene makes every part himself, hand crafting them with precision on lathes in his machine shop. In this video he demonstrates it and explains how it came about.

“One of Clarence’s innovative guitar techniques was to chime the high E or B string and bend it up a full tone by pulling the string down above the nut. This worked great in open position but on this particular tune he wanted to play the lick up the neck.

“I knew there had to be a way for Clarence to bend the string himself. After a couple of weeks of thinking about it, I came up with the idea of using the shoulder strap to actuate a string-pulling, note-bending mechanism. After a little convincing Clarence bravely agreed to let me install this contraption in his beloved Telecaster. He said, “Just don’t show me until it’s done.”

The original B-Bender inside Clarence White’s 1954 Telecaster

And so the B-Bender was born. Amongst the first players to use a B-Bender was Bernie Leadon from the Eagles and the first top ten hit using Bender licks was the Eagles ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’.  Since those days, Gene has spent much of his life perfecting and developing this guitar product. He even managed to create a string bender for an acoustic. It took him 15 years to perfect it! In this interview from 2000  he’s asked if it affects the acoustics of such a delicate instrument. Not so says Gene,  “It’s made of cast magnesium alloy. It weighs less than 8 oz. It’s very light and doesn’t touch the top of the guitar at all and retains its tone completely – even when the guitar is used purely acoustically”.

In 2000 I had the pleasure of meeting Gene and spending some time with him and his wife, as I had booked them to play at the Band on the Wall venue in Manchester. He was a real gentleman and a pleasure to be around. Gene loved Manchester as his passion was steam engines and he loved the industrial North of England. It was an odd exchange we had – me wanting to ask him all about The Byrds, The Flying Burritto Brothers and Californian Country Rock and him just wanting to talk about Steam engines, chimneys and local Manchester hero Fred Dibnah!

To me Gene Parsons is an unsung hero of music. He is such an accomplished player, a beautiful singer and songwriter. His 2001 live album “I hope they let us in” is one of my favourite ever records. Not only has he been in one of the biggest rock n roll bands of all time (the Byrds from 1968-1972) but he also understands and appreciate how instruments are made. Watch this video where he enthuses about hundred year old British Banjos and shows you his Custom shop and how he crafts the parts that make the Stringbender. His passion and skill shine through. He is a true original of music.

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