The world may know George Benson best by his
golden voice, but lurking alongside his
crooner persona is a hard-core jazzer with
deep improvisational skills and some of the
scariest chops around. Benson learned about
“one take” recording early in his career, and
by all accounts he was a quick study. In these
trial-by-fire scenarios Benson’s fretboard
prowess, great ear, impeccable groove, and
boundless self-confidence made him an
unstoppable force in the jazz community. “I
had such chops in those days and I wasn’t
afraid to try anything,” Benson recalls. “I
would stretch things out and make them
sound wild and crazy—that was just my way
of doing things back then. They once did a
blindfold test on Wes Montgomery and
played him a cut from one of the first CBS
records that I did with [saxophonist] Ronnie
Cuber and [keyboardist] Lonnie Smith.
When he heard it, he said, ‘I know who that
is—it’s that kid George Benson. Man, when
he slows down he is going to be a monster!’”
By the time he was in his 20s, Benson
was a seasoned veteran who had recorded
with such heavyweights as Miles Davis, Jack
McDuff, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine,
Freddy Hubbard, Ron Carter, Jack
Dejohnette, and Hubert Laws. Benson may
have dropped out of high school, but in the
university of real-world jazz he honed his
skills to a razor’s edge and became a hot
commodity as a solo artist. Following a series
of albums on the CTI label, Benson signed
with Warner and, with the help of producer
Tommy LiPuma, broke from mainstream
instrumental jazz once and for all with the hugely successful album Breezin’. Benson’s
rendition of the Leon Russell song “This
Masquerade” made him a vocal superstar,
and the equally popular instrumental title
track basically laid the foundation for the
Benson’s latest album, Songs and Stories
doesn’t stray far from this formula that has
kept him in good stead for the last 30-something
years. Masterfully produced and
arranged, it showcases Benson’s vocals on
the majority of the 12 cuts while spotlighting
his guitar playing on the songs “Exotica,”
“Living in High Definition,” and “Sailing.”
What makes Songs and Stories special is that
it was cut live in the studio. A bevy of toptier
L.A. session musicians were recruited
for the project, including bassist/co-producer
Marcus Miller, drummer John
Robinson, guitarists Jubu and Steve Lukather,
and keyboardist Gregory Phillinganes. For
Benson, it was familiar turf: “These guys
play better when they play together, and they
kept pumping out these new ideas for me to
bounce off of. I think just about everyone in
the studio cried after we did the first song
because they realized it was going to be
something special. It was like the old days,
and it felt so good.”
Do you have to rehearse more for a live recording?
No, because rehearsing kind of blocks
out my thinking. It makes me sound sterile
because I start thinking about all this stuff
I practiced and I can’t get away from it. I prefer
to bounce off the musicians. If someone
plays a chord that is altered in some degree,
I tend to use that as a platform for what I’m
going to play. I like doing it that way because
it makes it a one-time performance. It’s never
going to happen that way again, and I think
that’s what we’re looking for as creative
musicians. Even back when we made those
great recordings with Stanley Turrentine,
Freddie Hubbard, and Hubert Laws, we only
rehearsed the songs once or twice before we
jumped on them. Those records came off
like we had been playing them all of our lives.
They had a freshness and didn’t need any
fixing. Every record should have two formulas:
feel good and sound good. Once you do
that, the rest is left up to the melody and
whatever the song is about.
Although you were recording in a multi-track
studio when you first signed to CTI, why didn’t you
take advantage of tracking parts separately?
Creed Taylor [CTI Records founder] didn’t
have any money back then—he was just starting
his record company—so he couldn’t put
any sweetening on the recordings. We just
went in with the musicians we had, flopped
around in the studio, and made some music.
Whatever happened, that’s what it was. Also,
[Engineer] Rudy Van Gelder didn’t like overdubbing
because he was always afraid he
was going to erase something. He was the
only engineer in the studio, and he had to
do everything himself. So we did straightahead
recording and we either liked the result
or we didn’t. Many of our tracks had a lot of
loose ends because we never went back and
cleaned them up. Some of that stuff came
back to haunt us later. It would have been
so easy to go in and erase all the clicks and
bad licks or whatever, but that was not the
order of the day then.
Was Songs and Stories recorded entirely in
The James Taylor song “Don’t Let Me Be
Lonely Tonight” was recorded four or five
years earlier in Brazil. It was still live in the
studio, but with Brazilian musicians. I had
those tracks and I’d thought about putting
out the whole album, but it wouldn’t have
gotten played in the U.S. and no record company
here would have agreed to put it out.
You got a great tone on that song. It’s clean
and fat with just a touch of distortion.
That song was recorded with an old Gibson
L-5 that I borrowed from a guitarist
named Toninho Horta, a brilliant player who
did a lot of recording with Pat Metheney. It’s
the only song on the album that I used the
L-5 on, but that’s why it’s fatter sounding.
Other than your signature model Ibanez, what
other guitars did you use on this album?
For “Sailing” I pulled an old D’Angelico
out of my closet. Every time I use this guitar
I get a smash, and I don’t know why. I
used it on the album I did with Earl Klugh
called Collaboration, and I cut “Morning” with
it with Al Jarreau. I also used it on a song
called “Hypnotic” with Boney James. I’ve
had nothing but number-one hits with that
guitar, so I figured. “Well, let me try it again.”
So we pulled it out and sure enough it had
the right voice for this song.
Have you requested any changes to the Ibanez
GB model over the years?
They may have switched the pickups and strengthened the pickguard, but nothing
major has changed. It does sound better,
though, so maybe they’ve done something
internal to it.We used the GB30TH on this
album, which is the 30th Anniversary
model. It has a Japanese kimono finish, so
not only does it sound beautiful, it looks
What amplifiers did you use?
I’m still using my Polytone Mini Brute
with a 12" speaker. We also ran a direct feed
just in case any problems come up with distortion.
The engineer fattened my sound up
beautifully, so it sounds like a full-sized
Does recording live affect how you play?
It’s better when it’s live because it forces
me to pretend that I’m playing for an audience.
It’s like, “Well, this it, I’ve got to make
it happen right now.” In that situation I’m
on all fours so to speak, and my brain is
working overtime. I also knew the guys were
all watching and probably thinking, “Is this
the same George Benson? Where has he
fallen behind? He can’t be as good as he
was years ago.” I hadn’t played with those
guys for a long time, so I had to come up
On “Show Me the Love” you’re doing a lot of
scat singing over your octave parts. How important
is it for guitarists to be able to vocalize what
It’s an advantage because the melody is
the most important thing that must stay in
the minds of the people who are listening
to you. No matter how many notes you play,
you can’t let them forget what the song is.
What drove you to becoming such a fast picker
in the first place?
The reason I always played so many notes
was because I was using Guild guitars, which
weren’t as resonant as Gibsons. You could
hit a chord on a Gibson and it would last for
several seconds. Guild guitars didn’t resonate
as well, so I would fill those holes by
playing a lot of notes.
Have you always used flatwound strings?
No. When I found out guys were using
flatwounds that was a blessing for me
because I sweat a lot, and that eats strings
up like candy. The tight wraps on flatwounds
makes them last longer, though I still have
to change the plain E and B strings every few
Did you intentionally change your tone for the
solo tradeoffs with Norman Brown on “Nuthin’ But
Yes, I switched to playing with my thumb.
Our sound is so similar, and I did that so
that when we’re trading fours you’d be able
to distinguish one player from the other. I
let Norman have the pick because he’s the
guest, and you always treat your guests right.
He played beautifully, and it was completely
off the cuff—we just threw that together in
Were there any songs that you didn’t think
were going to work for this album?
The Marcus Miller song “Exotica.” I thought it was very smooth-jazz oriented
and I didn’t appreciate it right away. But
everybody I played it for loved it, which made
me realize that Marcus knows what he’s
doing. The melody is very repetitive, and I
was kind of reluctant about that, but there’s
a reason for it. He’s trying build a certain
kind of fervor and I think he achieved it.
Why did you choose an octave approach for
the melody on that song?
It’s the thing Wes Montgomery did so
well. He made octaves a guitar sound that
people could recognize very easily. I have
different formulas for where I use the octave.
Sometimes I start on the third, sometimes
the sixth, or I’ll rattle the notes and turn it
into a chord. There’s some flexibility to go
beyond the octave, but even if you just use
the octaves themselves, they still make the
melody stick out.
Did you ever play with Wes Montgomery?
I was the only guy he ever invited up on
the bandstand to play with him. I came in
the club one night and he goes, “Hey, George
Benson just came in the door.” I shook my
head like, “No!” but he just said, “Nope,
you’re going to have to come up here and
play some.” I was kind of embarrassed
because nobody could play with Wes. He
treated me like a friend, though, and that
was very inspiring for me. The guys in his
band told me that Wes must have thought
I was pretty special because he never did that
with anyone. Later, I wound up owning the
guitar he was playing that night. I auctioned
it off recently and Pat Metheney ended up
with it. It was a Gibson L-5 with a Florentine
cutaway. I’d had it refurbished because
when I got it looked like it had bullet holes
in the body and was ready to fall apart. I gave
it to a cat named Flip Scipio [flipscipio.com],
who found the guy who’d actually made the
guitar when he worked for Gibson in Kalamazoo.
He put it back together, and after
Scippio got finished sharpening it up, it was
better than new. I’m glad to see it ended up
in some great hands. Pat Metheney was just
the right cat, because he loved Wes too.
Wah Wah Watson is featured on “Exotica” and
“ Living in High Definition.” Why did you have him
play on those tracks?
He has his own studio, and he begged
me to give him the song “High Definition.”
I told him, “Okay, but don’t mess up my
song—if it don’t sound good I’m going to
erase it.” But when he got done with it, that
song was so much more interesting than
when we gave it to him. I kept everything
he did, because I thought it was just wonderful.
Watson is one of the most interesting
guys I’ve ever met, and he loves guitar with
a passion. He’s famous, of course, for what
he did on the Isaac Hayes song “Shaft”—
that’s where he got “Wah Wah” from—but
he is also a musician of high caliber and an
How did you get a Smokey Robinson song for
We were in contact recently, and I let him
know how much I loved his music. He heard
about this album I was putting together, and
he was working with one of the guys in my band named David Garfield. So they started
sending me material. When I heard “One
Like You,” I really liked it because it sounds
so much like Smokey. I tried to get away from
it, but I couldn’t. Every time I opened my
mouth, I found myself thinking like Smokey.
Had you ever worked with him before?
Only once when I was about 17. He
came through Pittsburgh in 1960 with the
Miracles, and we were the opening act for
them. Things were running late, though,
and the Miracles had to get somewhere
else, so they wound up opening the show.
I remember them stopping to watch us for
a little while before leaving. Many years
later, I ran into the guitar player in Hawaii,
and he was shocked that I remembered
what guitar he was playing that day. He
was holding a guitar case, so I said, “I know
what you’ve got in there—it’s a black Les
Paul with three gold pickups.” He goes,
“How did you know that?” Some things in
life you just don’t forget [laughs].
Did you know Jubu before working with him on
I hadn’t met him before, but I figured if
he’d been invited to play on this record, he
must be good. He was going over the music,
and when I heard what he was coming up
with, I thought, “I shouldn’t make one comment,
because he has this thing under control.”
I don’t like to confuse musicians, and if you
say the wrong thing, you can send them off
on the wrong tangent. So I left him alone, and
when I listened back to the tracks I thought,
“Man, this young guy is a genius.” He came
up with everything I was looking for and more.
On the song “Rainy Night in Georgia,” he led
me to some of my best playing in years.
Your solo at 1:51 on “Living in High Definition”
sounds like classic CTI-era Benson. What were you
thinking when playing over that minor-7 vamp?
Also, what inspired your vocalizing on that song?
I’d never played a song like that, so it was
a bit of challenge. The guitar fills needed to
be a little more exciting—I didn’t want it to
be just straight-up blues licks—so I came up
with some substitute changes, and melded
them together with a couple of fast licks here
and there. The scat singing was a last-minute
overdub. Marcus Miller was very happy with
what he was hearing, but I said, “Man, give
that mic and let me do some vocal things on
this.” I was thinking about Shakira, and that
kind of Eastern sound, and what I came up with seemed to really make the track come
alive. When I play a song for more than three
or four minutes, things meld together and
start becoming mundane. And if it gets boring
to me, I’m always afraid it’s going to be
boring to my listeners.
How did you learn about chord substitutions?
Ron Carter turned me on to the Miles
Davis song “Impressions,” and while we
were playing it, he said, “George, have you
ever thought about using minor 6th chords
instead of minor 7ths?” I thought, “What
the heck is a minor 6th”—I was so used to
playing minor 7 and 9 chords. I suddenly
realized I could use the minor 6th in place
of those chords. That was an important day
for me, because after Ron told me that, I
thought differently about playing minor
chords. He changed my whole concept with
just that one statement.
How did you end up playing with Miles Davis?
After we did that date, Ron called Miles
and told him he needed to hear what this
kid Benson was doing. So Miles called me,
and I ended up playing on his record Miles
in the Sky. I wasn’t ready for that yet, but it
was an honor that he asked me.
What do you recall from that experience?
I remember [drummer] Tony Williams
trying to give me some direction, and Miles
goes, “Tony, just play your drums and don’t
tell him what to play—he’s the guitar player
so let him play guitar.” I was wishing someone
would tell me what to play, but Miles
didn’t like that. He liked loose records, and
that’s why he left lots of mistakes in his
recordings. Miles was searching for a new
way to get to the public with something
fresh, and he wanted people to know it wasn’t
something he’d sweetened up. I once
heard that he even paid cats not to rehearse
the songs they were going to record. Playing
with Miles was scary for me, but I knew that if I hung out with him something good
was going to come out of it. I tried to convince
my managers to let me play with his
band, but they’d say, “George, you can’t do
it—we think your career is going to blow
open and you’re going to be very important.”
So they stopped me from joining his band,
and I lost something that could have been a
good period in my life. I would have gained
a lot of knowledge and a new way of looking
at things if I had joined Miles’ band for
a year or two.
On Beyond the Blue Horizon you also covered
another Miles Davis song called “So What.” Do you
know what he thought of your version?
That was on the first record I did for CTI,
and after it came out, I ran into Miles one
day. He was coming across the street, and
he hollered out, “Hey George!” I thought,
“He’s going to punch me out because I
destroyed his song.” But instead he goes, “I
love what you did with my song, man.” I just
went, “Whew” when I heard that.
The song “Somewhere in the East” from that
album features possibly your most outside guitar
playing ever. Were you intentionally going for a
different sound on that cut?
Those were the days of the sitar, when Ravi Shankar was a superstar. A kid came
up to me in Buffalo, New York, and said,
“Mr. Benson, I’d like to show you something—
give me your guitar.” He retuned it
and gave it back to me, and told me to play
it just the way I normally would. I started
playing, and I went, “Oh, wow, I’m Ravi
Shankar.” I remembered the tuning when I
went in the studio, and it worked our really
nicely on that song. I never used it again
after that, but I still have it in my head. I
promised the young man I wouldn’t divulge
the tuning, and I never have.
What made you change the groove from swing
to funk on your famous version of “Take Five” from
the album Bad Benson?
That was Phil Upchurch’s idea. He and I
had been friends for many years, and when
he got out of the army, he stopped in New
York to see me. Creed Taylor invited him to
the studio, and that’s where he came up with
the idea, He said, “Have you ever thought
about playing ‘Take Five’ like this [scat sings
the funky 5/4 rhythm].” I thought it was
great, so we jumped right on it. To this day,
if I want to find out what’s new or what’s
possible with the guitar, I’ll call Phil and ask
him what he’s working on. He never ceases
to amaze and surprise me, and that’s the reason
he and I have remained such friends over
You performed a nice solo guitar piece on that
album called “From Now On.” Why didn’t you pursue
that style of playing afterward?
Funny you should bring that up, because
now everybody is trying to get me to do a
solo album. Back then, though, I was never
in that category. I was always trying to be
like Grant Green and Charlie Christian, and
they weren’t chord guys, they were singleline
geniuses. Later, I started hearing all
these wonderful chord pieces from these
great players like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, and, of
course, Earl Klugh. After I had him in my
band for a year, I really started thinking
about chord-melody playing. [See sidebar
for more on Earl Klugh]
How did Charlie Christian influence you?
He devoted everything to the swing, and
it wasn’t just notes he played—it had to fit
within the groove. Learning that was important
for me. Unfortunately I couldn’t conceive
his licks well because he was always going
somewhere that I didn’t expect. I didn’t
understand him harmonically, but I did get
that point about making it swing. Also, the
tonality of his guitar was a most amazing
thing. Very few people ever matched that.
When did you first feel like you could excel in
the jazz world?
When I recorded Giblet Gravy [later
renamed Blue Benson]. I had my Guild X-500,
and man, I was in my world when I made
that record. I was up there trading fours
with the great Herbie Hancock. Years later
it occurred to me: What was I thinking
messing with Herbie? It showed how much
nerve I had in those days. I wasn’t afraid of
ON BACKING GEORGE BENSON
GEORGE BENSON HELPED
to bring worldwide attention
to Earl Klugh by
featuring him on White
Rabbit, one of his most
celebrated CTI-era albums.
Benson had been impressed
nylon-string playing after
discovering him in Detroit.
“He was playing at a club
that his manager owned
called Bakers Keyboard
Lounge,” says Benson.
“Everybody played there—
Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar
Peterson, Joe Pass, all the
greats—and they would
stick Earl in a corner so
that nobody would notice
how young he was. His
manager said, ‘George, I
want you to hear a guitar
player.’ So I asked him to
bring Earl down to where
we were rehearsing. Earl
was very shy, but when he
played that guitar I just
thought, ‘wow!’ There was
no one else doing fingerstyle
guitar like that at
the time—especially an
Earl studied with a teacher
who had studied with
Andres Segovia, so he had
the right technique. When
I first heard him I was mesmerized by what he could do, and he
was only 17 at the time. His manager asked me if I could do
something for him—which was kind of funny because in those
days we were just making it from week to week—but I invited
Earl to be on an album with us, and we went in the studio and
recorded White Rabbit.”
What was it like to be a kid from Detroit and the first record you play
on is with George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, and Ron Carter?
I was 17 and it didn’t really sink in at the time. I was very
excited and very amazed, but I think more about it now at 56
than I did then. At 17, you figure that you might have these opportunities. Looking
back, you realize that not
many people do. So much
of it is being in the right
place at the right time. I
was very green, and no way
was I up to the level of
those guys, but it was a
great opportunity. It got me
in front of some record
people and that allowed me
to get my own deal eventually,
which was great.
What was the session like?
How many takes would you
Oh, with [producer]
Creed Taylor, one or two
takes. They weren’t fooling
around. That’s why he had
players like that. He spent
money on them because he
knew he was going to get
perfection. He didn’t have
to spend it on studio time.
What did you learn from
I played in his band, so
there was a lot that I
learned from him. The
biggest thing I remember
was after a show, we might
go out to breakfast at 2 am
and George would go back
to his room and practice
until 6 am. I figured if
George Benson thinks he
needs to practice that much, then I better do the same thing or
more [laughs]. You don’t make it without that drive and determination.
What advice would you give to young players who find themselves in
an intimidating musical situation?
Don’t let it throw you, because if you think about it too much
it will. The thing that I learned over time is this: Do all your
preparation and you’ll know what you should play. Then go out
there and be yourself. Don’t let an intimidating situation make
you think that you should change your intent. Just do what you
do, even if you feel scared, and be yourself.