Writing about the Grateful Dead online can be intimidating, as there are so many writers that do it so well, and one can feel like shooting a water pistol in the Mississippi.
Anyway, just a simple item I did some looking into.
Box of Rain, the opening song on the Grateful Dead’s 1970 classic American Beauty, was my first ‘favorite’ Grateful Dead song. I clearly recall a spirited discussion in the middle school library with a couple of my friends whether it was Jerry or Bob singing lead. Though it was the early 90s, we were all interested in that era of music, and it wasn’t long before I was deeply into the Grateful Dead, an affinity that has never fully abated over more than 20 years.
Although we realized it was Phil Lesh on lead vocals before 7th grade was over, it wasn’t until recently, when I began to revisit my former love for the Good Old Grateful Dead, this time with the aid of the vast internet resources of the ‘Deadosphere,’ that I learned that ‘Box of Rain’ represented a few firsts. Not only was it the first GD track with Phil on lead vocals, it was also the first track without Phil on bass. (Dave Torbert of the New Riders did the deed as Phil strummed his acoustic guitar.) AND, on top of that, it’s the first album track without Garcia on guitar. He plays piano and the lead is by David Nelson of the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Now, no one had to be paying very close attention to acquire this information, it’s on the back of the record, though I assumed it meant Nelson was playing a guitar on the track somewhere, not necessarily THE lead guitar.
Also by this time I had become a big fan of all things Telecaster, as well as a DIY guitar repair enthusiast, so I had read all about what the B-Bender was, and who had one, and who used one on what etc. But I was still not very clear on what exactly it did and how it sounded, so I got to searching around, and lo and behold – I read on the internets that the solo on none other than ‘Box of Rain’ was a b-bender performance by Nelson. (Google will demonstrate this is all over the place on blogs and forums.)
Here’s a guy playing it on Youtube, albeit from 10 years ago…
Here’s the inventor, Gene Parsons, explaining the B-bender:
The main thing to notice in these two B-bending videos, at least for my purposes in this post, is the player’s left hand. The bends on the B-bender are caused by a mechanism that’s activated by moving the guitar in some way, in both of these cases by moving the neck.
This is a post from the telecaster forum of record ‘The Definitive B-Bender Song List.’ The poster is a ‘Friend of Leo’ meaning a forum veteran with hundreds of posts:
Then the immortal Light into Ashes, the dean of GD internet scholarship:
‘8/2/69 – David Nelson plays guitar in Slewfoot and Mama Tried. He adds a different texture, and I wish he’d sat in more often!’
Then from the comments:
Cross-post from http://jgmf.blogspot.com/2015/08/that-fiddle.html –
[…]I have a more exciting discovery to announce, though… Listening again to the first few tracks of 8/3/69 (especially High Heeled Sneakers), it sounds like there might be a third guitarist in spots. The trouble is, the fiddle in the mix kind of blends into the other instruments; and the mix itself is weak & wobbly, with all the instruments cluttered together; so any third guitar is just a distant noise well in the background.
But in Mama Tried, the third guitarist is unmistakable, and up in the mix. Not only that, but he appears the night before on August 2 in the same spot as well!
In performances of Mama Tried before & after these shows, after the first chorus Garcia just plays a brief lick before the next verse, and the one guitar solo comes before the last chorus.
On August 2 & 3, though, another solo is added after the first chorus, in a very different style from Garcia’s – in fact, it definitely sounds like Clarence White’s B-bender style, very thrilling to hear, played the same way both nights. (Garcia then plays his usual solo before the last chorus.)
The most obvious candidate for this guest guitarist would be David Nelson. Not only was he playing with Garcia at the time, but he also played a (more restrained) B-bender solo in Box of Rain a year later.
I think he drops out of the show after Mama Tried.
On 8/2/69, Nelson also plays lead guitar on Slewfoot (same style) while Garcia is on pedal steel. It’s very cool, check it out.
I believe Nelson also plays the guitar solo in Mama Tried on 6/28/69. It’s not Garcia, it’s in the same style (though slowed-down), and with Peter Grant & John Dawson also guesting, Nelson’s presence is very likely.
Here are the three performances referenced:
There’s definitely a ‘not Garcia’ lead guitar on the first solo break on this version, as described.
This is 8-2-69, the first solo is the tele, and definitely some bending going on. In the same show this guitarist is also audible in the Other One, faintly the entire song, especially around 1:19, from 6:08 on for a bit, and then around 12:30, 13:10, and most distinct from Garcia and Weir from 13:30-14:10, give or take.
listening to this again, the first solo is a standard telecaster with some nifty Roy Buchanan moves, I don’t hear anything too bendy that screams B-bender to me. (Though I won’t pretend I could definitively pick out what’s a b-bender lick and what’s done with the fingers with 100% accuracy.)
In case it hasn’t become clear, what I’m saying that these shows, and (as will be shown) ‘Box of Rain’ was not played on a B-bender, it’s just Nelson’s ‘normal’ style of country inflected guitar, bends done in conventional fashion.
And here’s the argument:
To begin with, the B-Bender, while technically ‘invented,’ was by no means in widespread use at this time. Parsons and White licensed their technology to Dave Evans sometime in 1969, and he began installing them for various guitarists. Evans mentions guitarists he built them for, and Nelson is not on his list.
Of course, if I didn’t just like to hear myself type, I could have made this post one sentence:
Look at this 1972 video – Nelson steps up to the mic at the beginning – No tell-tale B-Bender spool below the bridge on his tele. And watch him bend with his fingers:
But, and this is a bit crazy, here’s a video from 1975, where he is clearly bending with his fingers, and there is also no bending device visible on the front of his guitar:
The solo from Glendale Train (beginning at 56:08) gives a great view from the front of his left hand bending technique.
(now one can certainly still bend with the fingers while using the b-bender, but you can see Nelson’s not dipping the neck like he does in modern times with the bender.)
You can see it here, though that music stand is in the way – he does a good bend around 2:00 in – his left hand is stationary and he dips the neck down to create the bend, in contrast with his hand work in the earlier clips. I don’t know if the one he is playing there is the first one he had made, as Fender has offered a licensed version since 1996.
Of course, if I was actually any good at internet searches, I could have gotten to the bottom of this before I wrote this lengthy post. According to this, Nelson got his first B-Bender (aka Pull-String or Stringbender) in 1972:
In 1971 I purchased an Evans String-pull butcher-block tele at a local Atlanta music store that used to belong to Joe South. Being a NRPS fan I assumed that Dave Nelson was also playing a b-bender tele, but when they came to Atlanta in 1972, after the first album, he was playing a straight tele. After the show I went up to the stage and asked if he had ever used a b-bender. He said no and I offered to bring my guitar to him to check out. I wound up spending a smokey evening in their hotel room. Dave was impressed with the bender and asked if I knew where he could get one put on one of his teles. I said I knew a local Atlanta luthier (Jay Rhyne) who could probably make a copy of the mechanism in my guitar. Dave wound up handing his blonde tele over to me so Jay could do the work on it. I would then ship it to DN when it was done. Fortunately Jay did a great job and DN then became a b-bender player. His work on Box of Rain, and the first NRPS album were all done on a straight tele with traditional bending technique.
(post #12 on this thread, by user commP5)
So there it is – Nelson didn’t play the B-Bender in 1969 or 70 with the Grateful Dead, because he didn’t have one yet. And even after he got one, he still didn’t play it all the time, as can be seen in the 1975 video. I think he is playing it in the 1973 video featuring Jerry Garcia and Sandy Rothman, because I think I see the spool near the bridge, but the video quality is not great, and he doesn’t do any obvious moves in his solo, so its inconclusive.