GEORGE BENSON RELEASED SONGS
and Stories [Concord] this summer, and
almost immediately hit the number one spot
on various smooth jazz charts. Look for a new
interview with Benson in a future issue, but
here’s where his head was at three decades ago.
George’s stepfather introduced the sixyear-
old boy to the electric guitar, causing
the youth to wonder how the sound managed
to get through the wire to the
amplifier. Informal lessons followed, but
it wasn’t until ten years later, when George
Benson went on the road with Brother
Jack McDuff, that he considered himself
a real guitarist. His first love was singing
R&B tunes. In fact, his first recording was
for RCA—a vocal at the age of ten. He continued
singing and recording throughout
his teens in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
Then, at 19, he joined McDuff for a musically
fruitful relationship that lasted more
than three years. The need for greater personal
expression caused Benson to go out
on his own with a small band. Wanting to
play only jazz, finances dictated that the
group often had to work rock jobs with
go-go girls dancing around feverishly. But
times and conditions have changed. George
has now recorded nine albums as a leader,
numerous others as a sideman, and he
performs all over the world.
How did you acquire your vast jazz knowledge?
Environment is the key. If Jack McDuff
hadn’t needed a guitarist bad enough when
he was in Pittsburgh, I’d probably be playing
R&B instead of jazz. Then, my
environment became jazz, and I tried to
absorb as much as I could from other musicians.
I have spent a lot of time teaching
myself theory and harmony so I could be
free to express myself on the instrument.
I learned which relatives and substitutes
could be played against the root of a
chord—like Em related to G, and so forth.
Can the notes in the chord you’re playing
against hang up your melodic ideas?
Not necessarily. You might not feel like
playing pretty all the time. Instead, you
might want to play something nasty. Also,
you might want to play something out of
context with the tune. It might be a note
that creates so much tension it becomes
unpleasant, but you want it to sound that
way. The trick is knowing how to resolve
that idea. This is where your knowledge
of harmony and theory comes in.
What influences the way you play?
The total parts of a song—the melody,
the mood, even the words. I never try to
get away from the basic concept of a song.
Even while I’m improvising, the melody
of the song is always in my head—though
the single lines and chords I use are all
George Benson. But I’d be lying if I said
I wasn’t influenced by Wes Montgomery’s
sound when I play octaves.
How did you develop your fluent technique?
Speed comes from knowing where
you’re going, and the easiest way to get
there. The easiest way for me to go is laterally
across the fretboard, instead of
vertically along it. This also gives you a
better ascending and descending sound
to your playing. It also breaks up position
playing, and makes
you freer to express
yourself, because you
can reach notes you
couldn’t play if you
were a position
from Robert Yelin’s piece
in the January 1974