November 14 - 21, 2000
The "Artist of the Week" web site feature highlights a new flatpicking guitarist each week. With the recent release of the new 33 Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals CD (Sierra 26023-2), we felt like it was time to highlight Clarence White. Special thanks to Sierra Record's John Delgatto for all his hard work in keeping the legacy of Clarence White alive.
A Flatpicker's Pilgrimage
Reprinted from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Volume 2, Number 5 (July/August 1998)
by David McCarty
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Some sounds change everything. The patriot's toll of the Liberty Bell on July 4, 1776. The unfamiliar drone of a piston engine in the skies over Kitty Hawk, N.C. in December 1903. The peal of atomic thunder rumbling off the high desert plain of Los Alamos, N.M. in early 1945.
It's the same in music. Single tones or phrases, so perfect and individualistic, that we chart our lives by when we first heard them. Doc's guitar sound on "Black Mountain Rag." Charlie Parker racing through the head of"Scrapple From The Apple." The crack of Earl's banjo on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." That shimmering opening trumpet note Miles crafts on "All Blues." Tony's opening salvo on "E.M.D." from the first David Grisman Quintet album.
For many flatpickers, things changed forever when they heard Clarence White syncopating through "Listen To The Mockingbird" or rollicking over the changes to "Beaumont Rag." It certainly was that way for me. The very first flatpicking guitar I heard was Clarence White playing "Soldier's Joy" on-stage with the Byrds in 1972 in Indianapolis. I can still remember the power and individualism White gave his guitar voice. Along with hearing Eric Clapton live with Cream and seeing Tony Rice play with the DGQ of the group's first- ever U.S. tour, hearing White whistlestop through such fast, yet unhurried, acoustic guitar playing stands as the most impressive guitar work I've ever witnessed.
Over the years of his life and since his death, Clarence has powerfully influenced tens of thousands of guitarists. Maybe it was the way he turned mundane popular tunes like"Sheik of Araby" and "Listen To The Mockingbird" into personal statements so powerful and profound they still stand today unchallenged, monuments to a guitarist's genius as lasting as the Great Sphinx of Cheops, and just as mysterious in their origin.
Whatever his secret gift, like Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Robert Johnson, Eddie Lang, Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix, Clarence White died long before his full impact on the guitar could ever be felt. This month, on the 25th anniversary of his death at the hands of a drunken driver on July 15, 1973, Clarence's guitar playing continues to inspire awe and fertilize the musical imaginations of brilliant musicians such as David Grier, Tony and Wyatt Rice, Jeff White, Russ Barenberg, Scott Nygaard, Beppe Gambetta (who named his son "Clarence" in White's honor) and thousands more acoustic flatpickers.
Equally brilliant as an electric guitarist, his pedal steel-influenced Telecaster sound, which he literally invented as co-creator of the Parsons-White stringbender, echoes through the playing of every cat in Nashville these days. Even mainstream rock guitarists like Jimmy Page, Jerry Garcia, Pete Townsend and Hendrix readily acknowledged Clarence White as a key influence and favorite player.
The cult of Clarence continues today, with frantic Internet traffic tracking down rare out-of-print copies of Russ Barenberg's excellent Clarence White - Guitar book or trying to trade tape copies of him jamming with folks like Tony Rice. There's even a Japanese newsletter devoted to White's life and legacy - the Clarence White Chronicles.
White's legacy extends even to the instruments we play today. C.F. Martin, Collings Guitars and the Santa Cruz Guitar Company all manufacture replicas of the trademark 1935 D-28 (serial number 58957) with its enlarged soundhole and elongated, bound and markerless fingerboard, and "leopard" tortoise pickguard that Clarence owned (but ironically used only infrequently for lead guitar). Fender even sells a signature model Clarence White Telecaster, modeled after Clarence's original 1954 Telecaster now owned by Marty Stuart.
We're also in the midst of a revival of Clarence's recordings, including raw live tapes never intended for public release, but which his sheer musical genius justify releasing today. Sierra Records, Vanguard and Rounder all have reissued live and studio recordings of Clarence playing with his brilliant bluegrass band, the Kentucky Colonels. Guitarists today can hear in CD clarity a teenaged Clarence on-stage at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival sharing the spotlight with legendary flatpicker Doc Watson, and thoroughly impressing the established master on tunes like "Farewell Blues." Sierra Records is preparing a box set including many previously unreleased tracks of White's acoustic and electric playing and a video of live performances including his fabled appearance on Bob Baxter's Guitar Workshop, a televised guitar show broadcast in Southern California in the early '60s.
Even today, he stands as an innovator of the first rank, bringing burning speed, rhythmic pulsation, and harmonic invention never before heard on acoustic guitar. While there's no question Doc Watson legitimized the role of lead acoustic guitar in bluegrass and folk music, there's no doubt that Clarence White set flatpicking guitar free.
He came into the world on June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day, when a world war raged seemingly everywhere but in tiny Lewiston, Maine. His Mom and Dad both loved music and encouraged all the White children to play. Clarence perhaps benefited most from having older brother Roland, still one of the world's leading bluegrass mandolinists with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, to encourage and help him along the way.
"When he was just four or five, he could chord the guitar, but he couldn't strum it (at the same time)," Roland told Flatpicking Guitar Magazine in a recent interview. "So he'd sit on the left side and make the chords and I'd sit on the right and strum and we'd sing something. Just very simple stuff. Then we'd do vice-versa and he'd get on his knees on the sofa and strum the chords while I fretted. It was a great way to get started."
Living in rural Maine, outlets for entertainment were few. Clarence and Roland's father, Eric Sr., was one of 17 children, so the boys frequently visited with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. "Whenever we'd get together, they'd want to hear us play something, so we'd do three or four songs, then we'd go away and do something else, and then come back later and play some more," Roland recalls fondly. Eric White also used to take the boys to local Grange halls, where they could get up and play.
The family had an old record player and listened to the Grand Ole Opry on radio, but never heard anything like bluegrass until they moved to California in August 1954. An uncle told Roland about someone named Bill Monroe who he might like, and the budding young mandolinist ordered a 45 rpm record of Monroe's classic "Pike County Breakdown" and played it at home.
"I remember looking at Clarence and he had this blank look, which he always did (laughs), but his jaw just dropped because these guys were playing so fast. That's what got us started," Roland says. Records from Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, Mac Wiseman and other bluegrass stars soon crowded the White's record collection. One 45 in particular captured young Clarence's musical attention.
"We had one record that Don Reno played lead guitar on, 'Country Boy Rock and Roll,' and I sort of figured out the guitar part," Roland explains, "so I showed it to Clarence and I sort of stumbled through it. Then Clarence started humming the melody, so I handed him the guitar and he just played it!"
Clarence picked up guitar from many sources, Roland says, and made small breakthroughs, such as seeing the guitarist with Monroe's Blue Grass Boys play with a capo, which "really opened his eyes to what the guitar could do." Continuing the family band they'd had in Maine, Clarence, Roland and youngest brother Eric Jr. performed regularly as the Country Boys, appearing on numerous local radio and TV shows and other venues. Banjo player Billy Ray Lathum joined the band in 1958, completing their conversion to a full-fledged bluegrass band. Late-night TV junkies will even recall seeing the band appear on The Andy Griffith Show.
In 1961, Roland started a two-year hitch in the Army, and when he came back, he was amazed at the progress his brother had made. Doc Watson had played in California during that time, and Clarence "just went off on that," he says. Clarence also had recorded two early albums, "New Sounds of Bluegrass America," and the groundbreaking album "New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass" by Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman that included "Duelin' Banjos."
Suddenly, Clarence White had become an extraordinary flatpicking guitarist. One key to that transformation, Roland believes, and to the ongoing creative development Clarence's playing exhibited right up to his tragic death at the hands of a drunken driver while loading equipment after a gig, was his ability to absorb, understand and then utilize ideas from other players in his own style, both as a lead soloist and as rhythm guitarist.
An avid listener, Clarence explored other kinds of music, especially guitar-related music. Joe Maphis, a Southern California musicians whose rapid-fire electric leads made him one of the early pioneers of electric country guitar, influenced Clarence early on, as did bluegrass players like George Shuffler of the Stanley Brothers. He absorbed the cross-picking style created by mandolinist Jesse McReynolds and turned it into a magnificent technique for extending the expressiveness of the guitar and expanding the use of wide intervals in guitar solos. Eventually, he would bring into play his second and third finger to add even more notes in a banjo-like roll. Clarence fell under the spell of Earl Scruggs' powerhouse banjo playing, and also learned much from his fingerstyle guitar work on Flatt & Scruggs' gospel numbers. The Dobro player in that band, Josh Graves, also influenced White's frequent use of slides and glissando techniques, profoundly altering previous concepts of what was possible on flatpicked guitar.
In the late '60s, the Whites discovered the music of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and Clarence avidly pursued the signature arpeggios and bends of the Gypsy guitar sound. Everything he heard became fodder for his own musical invention. Just check out his second solo on "Alabama Jubilee" on the newly released Livin' In The Past CD on Sierra Records to hear Django's powerful influence as Clarence combines right-hand tremolo and a signature ascending diminished lick into a revolutionary flatpicking guitar sound. Everything he heard, it seemed, was processed and reintroduced into his blossoming musical vision, a trait Roland see as a key element of his genius.
"I got onto Bill Monroe, and that was all I listened to, which is the wrong thing to do," Roland says today. "Clarence never did that. He applied everything he heard and knew and understood to his playing right away."
Trying to explain on paper the distinguishing components of Clarence White's guitar playing is, to quote Frank Zappa, "Like dancing about architecture." Words just don't do it justice. Even using notation and tab, capturing that slippery, elusive syncopation and his unexpected phrasing emphasis can't really be done. It's one reason why you hear so few people mimicking White's style today, compared to other contemporary flatpickers who've spawned legions of imitators.
Russ Barenberg was probably the first guitarist to systematically study Clarence White's flatpicking guitar style and publish transcriptions of his remarkable solos. "Clarence ... introduced much greater rhythmic and melodic flexibility to the guitar. He discovered musical effects that fit the guitar like a glove, and with them added a new dimension to bluegrass without sacrificing any of its strength or drive," he writes in his introduction to the out-of-print Clarence White - Guitar book on Oak Publications. Every serious student of White's playing will benefit enormously from the material in this rare book.
The people who played with him, naturally, have the greatest insight. Richard Greene, fiddler with Muleskinner, told Guitar Player in a 1992 interview that, "Clarence had these key notes - I call them major events - that would be medium-loud and the rest would be kind of quiet. And you didn't hear any pick noise. He kept the overall dynamic range in the lower levels, but within that there was great variation. I don't recall hearing too many people play that way, except classical players like Julian Bream. Of course, Clarence didn't know about that, but he intuitively understood the dynamics of classical music. His playing was so clean, and he was able to play very fast because he wasn't playing hard. If you play hard, it takes more energy per note. So he would save it. He was great at controlling his speed and not rushing it."
The use of the capo, Greene adds, gave White the freedom to incorporate as many ringing open notes as possible in his playing, which helped create that classic tone and signature sound.
David Grisman in the same article says flatly, "I don't think any bluegrass guitarist had as precise a sense of timing. Clarence had that unique way of twisting things around. He was into screwing with time, but in a very accurate way so you knew what he meant." White's ability to play off the beat is certainly his most memorable trait as a guitarist. Roland recalls how his brother would often create a dramatic pause in his playing, both during a solo and in his backup, only to unexpectedly reemerge to reenergize the song with just the right phrase or chord at an unanticipated moment.
Listen to Tony Rice, who grew up hearing Clarence play in California, describe his mentor's style in a 1986 interview from Frets magazine. "The essentials of guitar, as I play it, came from him. All of my left-hand technique I learned directly from Clarence, too - real efficiency of movement. Did you ever notice that about Clarence's playing? It sounded like he was squeezing the notes out, rather than impulsively firing them off."
Rice also cites Clarence's rhythm playing as a key influence. "He used the guitar in a bluegrass band as something beyond just strumming three chords to accompany a vocal." Indeed, close listening to his backup work on the Long Journey Home CD of the Colonels performance at Newport reveals an incredibly advanced and sophisticated approach to rhythm and backup guitar. From Reinhardt's playing, White had incorporated the use of 6th and 9th chords and frequently added intricate passing chords, all dramatically syncopated for maximum impact on the band's rhythmic pulse. Behind brother Roland's mandolin, he frequently inserted complimentary backup licks gleaned from Scruggs banjo playing and other sources, creating a powerful, sophisticated ensemble sound far beyond anything previous heard in bluegrass.
Despite his blazing speed and utter command of the guitar's fretboard, Clarence always chose his notes economically. He listened to the great blues guitarists, studying how they would precisely place one perfect note to accent a vocal and transferred that melodic economy into his bluegrass playing. Perhaps Clarence's former Byrds bandmate Gene Parsons said it best: "Clarence's one guideline was to play the least amount of notes with the most amount of impact."
His guitars and setup also played a key role in his trademark sound. Although the 1935 D-28, which was modified by luthier Roy Noble in the 1960s, is most closely associated with Clarence, he used that guitar mostly for rhythm work, preferring his D-18 for almost all his early lead recording. That guitar was stolen in the late 60s, and he eventually acquired a custom Noble dreadnought and then a rosewood dreadnought from Mark Whitebook, who apprenticed with Noble. Roland says after playing so much electric guitar, Clarence played a Whitebook one day and was immediately struck by the thin neck and fast action. His response was so positive, he purchased a Whitebook, which Roland still owns. (Although to the best of our knowledge Whitebook no longer builds, it is possible to purchase a new Noble guitar. Contact Roy Noble, 8140 East Ave. "U," Little Rock, CA 93543, 805-944-5548.) Clarence preferred heavy, inflexible tortoiseshell picks, to the point that as a joke his friends once gave him a giant tortoiseshell pick over eight inches wide! With his economical right-hand motion, he was able to use the rigid pick to produce an enormously dynamic string attack ranging from booming bass notes to delicate tremolo and double-stop passages.
With his enormous talent flourishing and big brother Roland out of the service, the Country Boys, now performing as the legendary Kentucky Colonels, started playing again and embarked on an East Coast tour that included a stop at the Newport Folk Festival and gigs at many of the prestigious folk music clubs in Boston and other cities. An album was the next step, but the producer didn't have the budget for a full recording session. The result was an accidental classic.
The only reason we got to do the Appalachian Swing album was because we didn't have the budget to do any singing, and we figured we'd cut the budget in half by just doing things instrumentally," Roland explains, marveling at how this now-classic album almost never happened. And so the band did instrumental versions of tunes like "Soldier's Joy," "Prisoner's Song," "Nine-Pound Hammer" and other tunes they'd normally have sung, and created a stunning testimony to Clarence White's skill and musical imagination as he and Roland played through chorus after chorus, often jamming for 10 or 15 minutes and then having the recording engineer cut and splice the best solos together into a cohesive recording. If only those original tapes were available today so we could hear the unedited performances!
The band was at its peak musically then, but sadly the folk boom of the 1960s was wilting and no one ever offered them another record contract. "There just wasn't any work," Roland says sadly. "We started playing in lounges with drums and electric bass and electric rhythm guitar. We just couldn't do anything." Rockabilly guitar pioneer James Burton had heard Clarence play and began turning him on to the session gigs he couldn't take, an opportunity Clarence seized upon to learn more about electric guitar. Eventually, as lead guitarist with the Byrds, Clarence set a standard for innovative playing that matched his reputation on acoustic.
The Colonels all pursued separate careers, with Roland playing guitar for Bill Monroe and joining Lester Flatt's band. But their desire to perform together again never faded. By 1972, Clarence came to Roland and said the Byrds were breaking up and that he wanted to play acoustic guitar again. Roland left Flatt to reunite with his brother for a tour of Europe as the White Brothers. The results of that trip were captured on vinyl by Rounder Records on The White Brothers - Live In Sweden in 1973.
With the Byrds, Clarence had been playing electric guitar almost exclusively, except for a brief acoustic set. But despite having spent the last four or five years concentrating on electric, Clarence picked up the challenge of playing bluegrass guitar again with a passion. Once again, his chameleon-like ability to merge influences brought a world of new electric licks into his acoustic flatpicking style.
"I hear (the difference) a lot on the Sweden album. It was very, very different. I can hear it, but I really can't describe it," Roland says. "He had matured a lot."
Another huge milestone occurred with Clarence's recording of the timeless Muleskinner - A Potpourri of Bluegrass Jam album with Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, Richard Greene and David Grisman. Blazing through country rock to embryonic Dawg music on "Opus 57" to killer flatpicking on"Soldier's Joy," the Muleskinner album set the stage for all future progressive bluegrass and New Acoustic styles. Both albums give some insight into the direction Clarence's playing might have taken had he lived.
"I often wonder what he would be doing now, but I can't answer that question," Roland says now. "I think he would be doing mostly electric, because that was always where all the money was. You gotta eat. I'm curious where he would have taken his style on electric, which was already pretty phenomenal. But I'm also thinking he would have been doing as much acoustic playing as he could."
Flatpicking Guitar would like to thank David Grier for conducting the interview with Roland White used for this article.
All photos of Clarence courtesy of John Delgatto, Sierra Records.
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