Washburn WDFLB26SCE Forrest Lee Bender Review
In 1967, while playing drums with the Byrds and watching the band’s lead guitarist, Clarence White, try to execute pedal-steel licks on his Telecaster, multi-instrumentalist and inventor Gene Parsons had an idea: what if he could connect a lever from the guitar’s second string to the strap-button on the upper bout, allowing White to raise the pitch of the string without changing his left-hand technique? Shortly thereafter, the first Parsons/White StringBender was born, and the results can be heard on such hits as the Byrds’ “Deportee,” the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love.” Following his departure from the Byrds in 1972, Parsons began refining his string-bending mechanism, and for the past four decades, his StringBender company (stringbender.com) has been building and installing the units. In the 1990s, Parsons designed a version that could be fitted inside an acoustic guitar, and while Martin Guitars experimented with a prototype, it has remained a custom item, available for retrofit into an existing guitar directly from Parsons.
Recently, however, another innovative musician took it upon himself to bring an acoustic guitar with a built-in stringbending mechanism to market as a production model. Working with Washburn Guitars, country picker Forrest Lee Jr. developed his own version, resulting in the WDFLB26SCE Forrest Lee Bender guitar, which we had a chance to check out.
The success of a string-bending mechanism will undoubtedly hinge on the guitar it is installed in. As the platform for the Forrest Lee Bender, Washburn chose a cutaway dreadnought with a cedar top, vine inlay in the fingerboard, and the distinctive Washburn headstock and bridge shapes. The top on our review guitar is lightly colored and streaky in appearance, but with even grain. The instrument’s Indian rosewood back and sides are quite dark, with the grain pattern more visible on the sides than the back. The top purfling, rosette, and backstrip are abalone. The guitar has a relatively heavy finish, and a look inside reveals some glue drops and rough bracing surfaces. Our Forrest Lee Bender arrived set up with medium action and a neck with a modern, somewhat slim, rounded shape.
The string-bender mechanism essentially consists of two levers—one mounted into the bass side of the upper bout and another installed under the bridge— connected to each other with an adjustable metal rod. The first lever sticks out of the guitar’s side through a slot next to the neck heel and attaches to a standard guitar strap via a strap lock. This lever is spring loaded, with adjustment screws for tension and distance of travel. The assembly is mounted to a wood block glued to the guitar’s back. The bridge lever is mounted to a heavily reinforced bridge plate, and a metal shaft pokes through the bridge, taking the place of the second string’s bridge pin, though it is set back slightly from the other pins. Since very little of this is visible without a peek into the soundhole, the outside appearance of the guitar is only slightly altered.
Even though the mechanism might sound complicated, its operation is very simple. It doesn’t do anything until you choose to, so you can just play the guitar normally. But when you’re ready to emulate some pedal-steel licks, the rig is ready to spring into action. Like other string-bender systems, the system only works when wearing the guitar on a strap. This means that it will work best when playing standing up, unless you’re comfortable playing with the guitar riding high enough on the strap that there’s space between the treble side of the body and your lap while playing in a seated position (it would be cool to see a similar setup installed in a smaller instrument that would facilitate greater comfort while playing seated). To bend the second string, just push down (toward the floor) on the neck, and just like magic, the string is raised in pitch a whole step. Bends can be done while fretting, as long as your thumb wraps around the neck to serve as an anchor, and once you become comfortable with the movement, you can add bends to chords or single notes (for some examples and even basic lessons with both Forrest Lee Jr. and Gene Parsons, search for “B-Bender” on YouTube).
I have spent a little time with stringbender- equipped Telecasters, but I’m not particularly adept at playing country-style lead guitar. And yet I found myself having a lot of fun coming up with cool applications for the Washburn bender. Just bending the string while playing first-position chords can be surprisingly effective. For example, raising the second-string C on a simple open-position C chord creates a Cadd9 chord, and bending this note as well as the D at the third fret instantly added a country vibe to a simple I–IV–V progression. Bending in reverse was also cool; for instance, playing a G chord with the second string fretted at the third fret and raised to an E note using the bender, then dropped to the D that would be normal for that position created a great sound. Of course you can also play things that would be impossible to play without some kind of bender, like bending the open string, doing a whole-note bend on the first couple of frets, or bending a note within a chord that is tricky to hold. I even found myself experimenting in D A D G A D tuning, using the bender to play single notes in Irish melodies and fingerstyle tunes.
Through all my explorations, the mechanism of the bender worked very well. The unit operated smoothly, it returned to its “in tune” position, and there was enough tension to avoid accidental bending. I did have to tweak the adjustment screws slightly when I ventured into D A D G A D tuning, which changed the actual string tension, and I suspect that some adjustments would be necessary following a string change.
All that bending is a lot of fun, but how does the guitar sound? When I first looked at the hardware inside the guitar, especially the heavy bridge-plate reinforcement and lever attached to the inside of the top, and felt its relatively heavy weight, I was a bit concerned about how the Forrest Lee Bender would sound acoustically. But strumming the guitar, I was greeted with a solid dreadnought voice. The guitar might not have the complexity and shimmer of a fine, high-end flattop, but it has nice sustain, satisfying bass, and a balanced overall voice. The lightweight cedar top may compensate for some of the mass added by the bender. The guitar could be more responsive to a soft fingerstyle touch, but that is more likely a result of its non-scalloped braces than its mechanical additions.
Because the Forrest Lee Bender is most obviously aimed at players in country bands, its Fishman 301T system, which includes the company’s Sonitone undersaddle pickup and a side-mounted preamp with volume, bass, treble, and phase controls, will likely come in very handy. The preamp includes a chromatic tuner, which works whether the guitar is plugged in or not, and which mutes the output signal when activated. A combined output jack and battery-access-door assembly in the lower bout takes the place of the more common endpin jack. Played through Fishman Loudbox 100 and AER Compact 60 amps, the guitar had a good basic acoustic-electric sound with the controls set flat, and the system’s tone controls allowed me to fine-tune the sound to provide more highs or lows depending on what amp I was plugged into or how the room sounded.
There’s really nothing like the Washburn WDFLB26SCE Forrest Lee Bender on the market. So if you’ve been wanting to add string-bender sounds to an acoustic without the costly installation of something like the Parsons/White system to an existing guitar or are in search of some new musical/tonal/ harmonic ideas, it’s an instrument worth exploring.
SPECS: Cutaway dreadnought body. Solid cedar top. Indian rosewood back and sides. Mahogany neck. Rosewood fingerboard and bridge. NuBone nut and saddle. X-bracing. 25.5-inch scale. 1 11/16-inch nut width. 2 1/8-inch string spacing at saddle. Natural finish. Chrome tuners. D’Addario strings. Fishman 301T electronics. Made in China.
PRICE: $1,783 list/$999 street.
MAKER: Washburn Guitars: (800) 877-6863; washburn.com.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar November 2012