The Top Ten George Benson Riffs Of All Time

June 22, 2006

Benson eventually moved on to embrace Latin, orchestral, and pop styles, and though he ultimately gained more renown in the mainstream for his great vocals, he’s always included ample amounts of his unparalleled soul-jazz guitar on every record, particularly on his run of CTI albums. (Produced by Creed Taylor during the ’70s, these recordings have been enjoying a resurgence in popularity among the acid-jazz set in recent years.) Currently, Benson remains a vitally influential guitar force, an old-school original, a national treasure, and an all-around nice guy.

Ready to be dazzled? The following ten examples run the gamut from hard-boppin’ soul jazz to sophisticated Latin-funk and pop; from cool melodic heads and chord melodies to blazing solo improvisations. And no matter how scary it looks on paper, rest assured that Benson’s earthy, blues-based riffing anchors his many “outside” excursions and provides an ideal gateway for any guitarist eager to embrace the mysteries of jazz. Take your time investigating these excerpts and incorporate them into your playing a few notes at a time. There’s no need to rush. Benson’s riffs sound great at any tempo. So relax, dial up a jazz-box sound, and enjoy the ride!

10. “Hello Birdie” from It’s Uptown with the George Benson Quartet (0:00-0:37). A fantastic entry-level tune for aspiring soul-jazzers, this bouncy 6/8 Benson head is a joy to play. Follow the repeat signs and footnotes to map the two-bar organ intro and 12-bar chorus (both of which have been compacted into this 10-bar transcription). The melody consists of three parts: a four-bar I-chord riff that travels from a slurred 5 (Db-D) down to a hammered 3 (Bb-B) one-and-a-half octaves lower; a transposed two-bar IV-chord figure, identical to the first half of the I-chord riff except for the b7 (Bb) that replaces the last root; and a pair of grace-hammered four-note chromatic runs that cover the b3, 3, 4, b5, and 5 of the II (A7) and V (D7) chords followed by a recap of the second half of the I-chord riff played an octave higher. Pay attention to the staccato markings throughout. Try adapting the split bass/chord rhythm in the intro to create a full 12-bar accompaniment figure based on the given changes.

9. “Ain’t That Peculiar” from It’s Uptown with the George Benson Quartet (1:35-1:46). Jazz artists who covered pop and R&B hits of the ’60s ran the risk of sounding corny, but Benson never failed to deliver the heavyweight musical goods, no matter how commercial the setting. This ultra-hip IV-I-V excursion begins with a characteristic three-bar A blues lick spanning the eighth, fifth, and third positions. After a short pause, Benson launches a series of ascending arpeggios—Gmaj7 in bar 4, and C#m7b5 (or A9) in bars 5 and 6—tagging each one with two descending A Mixolydian scale tones, thus extending the IV-chord tonality well beyond the return to the I. He breaks out of this pattern with the “outside” run in the second half of bar 6 (a happy accident, perhaps?) and then locks into the organ-approved chromatic-bass-notes-against-pedal-E moves in bar 7. A few wide intervallic skips and a pair of grace hammer-ons to D# nail the change to the V chord.

8. “Song for My Father” from Jazz-Club: Guitar and Talkin’ Verve: Roots of Acid Jazz—George Benson (0:08-0:39). Benson delivers his funky chord-melody take on this Horace Silver standard over a moderate Latin jazz groove. (Let your inner bassist imagine a low root [F] on beat one, a pair of 5s [C] on the and of beat two and on beat three, and another root on the and of beat four.) Except for the anticipated Eb7 at the end of bar 2, all of the chords in the pickup and first two measures are Fm or Fm7 inversions voiced with the current melody note on top, and Benson fills the melodic gaps between these chordal syncopations with pairs of transitional single notes. Chromatic minor thirds walk us down to the bVI chord (Db9) before the C7 break and cool C7#5#9-Fm11 resolution in bar 6. Omit the pickup at the end of the second repeat and head for the bridge. (Don’t know it? Get out your Real Book, soldier!)

7. “The Cooker” from The George Benson Cookbook (0:22-0:32). True to its title, this up-tempo six-bar blues chorus in Ab lasts a mere ten seconds, but features more frantic cookin’ than an hour in Kitchen Stadium. Benson wastes no time heading straight to outer space by transforming an already “out” b5-6 motif into an ascending whole-tone sequence played entirely on the B string. (Heed those staccato markings.) He breaks the tension via a very inside D7 lick that coincides with the IV chord (Db9), then waxes Bach (yes, Bach!) with a thirty-second-note pickup into an implied Dbm-Ab cadence in bar 4. The follow-up involves a slippery position shift that facilitates a pair of descending major-9th arpeggios (with Dbmaj9 landing squarely on the V chord) and a chromatic drop to the root.

6. “Body Talk” from Body Talk (0:08-0:15; 2:03-2:08; 2:30-2:38). A funky Latin ostinato (bar 1) sets up the groove for this pair of solo excerpts that go from simmer to full boil. Benson keeps the heat low in the first solo snippet, which combines organ-esque oblique double-stop pull-offs and bluesy split octaves. The second excerpt burns through four bars of sixteenth-note runs and culminates with a repeated syncopated figure. Highlights include a raked Bm arpeggio, the sax-like thirty-second-note slur present in several other examples, cooler F#sus4 and A arpeggios surrounding an already cool Bm7 sub, and a series of rhythmically displaced descending diatonic E7, Dmaj7, and C#m7 arpeggios.

5. “Take Five” from Bad Benson (0:00-0:24). Phil Upchurch’s arrangement of this Dave Brubeck classic epitomizes Benson’s CTI sound. Upchurch’s funky, chordal rhythm figure (Gtr. 1) sets the stage, then underscores Benson’s subtle phrasing variations of the twice-repeated melody (Gtr. 2). The up-stemmed parts played on the repeat are notated to the right of the slashes in the tab, and the Am7 that replaces the final pickup on beat four leads to Abm7, the first chord in the bridge. (Back to the Real Book? ’Nuff said.)

4. “California Dreamin’” from unknown live recording; studio version available on White Rabbit. This four-bar solo excerpt was culled from a live cassette given to me by mentor Don Mock at G.I.T. back in 1978. For some reason this particular run—played over a generic Im-bVII-bVI-V (or Am-G-F-E7) progression—really spoke to me, especially that crazy outside Ebmaj7 arpeggio in bar 4. So, I did what any self-respecting jazz thief would do: I copped Benson’s moves note-for-note and proceeded to use them in a multitude of musical situations for the next 28 years. Here’s hoping you’ll be inspired to do the same. (Thanks, Don, and thanks, George. It’s a beauty.) Hint: Try dropping this lick into “Hit the Road Jack,” “Stray Cat Strut,” “All Along the Watchtower,” or “Stairway to Heaven.”

3. “This Masquerade” from Breezin’ (3:47-4:00). Decorated with Benson’s signature scat singing, this Im-IV-based solo excerpt illustrates a cool and useful jazz substitution in the first two measures. We’re entering the Im-IV (Fm7-Bb9) progression midway, so think of bar 1 as a long pickup. Here, Benson relies heavily on the notes of an Abmaj9 arpeggio (Ab, C, Eb, G, Bb) for two good reasons. First, Abmaj9 is the relative major of Fm7 and both contain three common tones—Ab, C, and Eb; additionally, the G and Bb in Abmaj9 act as the 9 and 11 of Fm7, a pair of sweet extensions. Secondly, the Abmaj9 contains all of the natural tension-inducing extensions of the IV chord as well as its root. Check it out: Ab, C, Eb, G, and Bb are the b7, 9, 11, 13 and root of Bb. The rest of the riffage centers around the F blues scale embellished with half-step grace slurs into the aforementioned G, and peaks with a syncopated climb to C. Don’t forget to scat along with every note.

2. “Breezin’“ from Breezin’ (0:19-1:00; 2:05-2:11). Soul jazz or smooth jazz? Seriously, before you blame Benson for the birth of the latter genre, consider that this funky groove is fathoms deeper than your typical smooth fare. Benson’s infectious intro hook and soloing are ultimately more memorable than the song’s melody, which is built around a simple D major scale ascension from A to A followed by variations of a 3-root-6-5 (F#-D-B-A) motif. Here, Benson’s diatonic thirds (Gtr. 2) flutter over Phil Upchurch’s soulful mix of chords and single notes (Gtr. 1) in bars 1 and 2, while bars 3 and 4 illustrate one of Benson’s most recognizable solo trademarks—octaves embellished with their 4 or 5.

1. “Clockwise” from It’s Uptown with the George Benson Quartet (0:00-0:29; 1:27-1:32; 2:14-2:19). My pick for the all-time feel-good George Benson riff combines the head and a few licks from this absolutely burnin’ up-tempo blues. Benson’s stop-and-go intro, swinging head (complete with diminished/chromatic tones), and breathtaking solos are guaranteed to keep your heart racing from start to finish. Follow the written form through the second repeat of the head (A section), then D.C. back to the top, ending at fine to segue into the solo section, which utilizes a standard blues progression. (Note: Jazz tunes played at this breakneck tempo are commonly notated in cut time, but I’ve opted to transcribe this one as a six-bar blues [I-I-IV-I-V-I] in half time.) Since this ensemble D.C. riff replaces the first and second measures of the progression, each blowing section begins on the IV chord (C9) and continues through the remaining progression. Each successive chorus repeats the entire six-bar progression until the ensemble cues the next in line with the riff from bars 1 and 2. The swinging single-note riffs that follow are excerpted from the I-IV-I change (bars 1 - 3 of the A section) during Benson’s blazing solo. We’re out of space, so you’re on your own.

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