“I was in Jack McDuff’s band years ago,” says legendary
jazz guitarist George Benson, reminiscing about his stint touring with the
soul-jazz organist. “One night, he took me aside and said, ‘I don’t know
how to evaluate you. You play so tentatively, I can’t understand what it is
you’re trying to say.’” Benson was just 19 at the time and, to hear him tell
it now, had “no real chops.” Before McDuff’s band, he had primarily worked
in R&B groups as a singer who could also play his own guitar lines behind
his singing. “There was no special technique involved there,” he says. “I
just happened to have good ears.” The McDuff gig, however, was serious
business, and the young guitarist found he’d need more than just good ears.
He worked on his approach nightly, onstage and off, gradually developing
a guitar concept that is both highly articulate and very personal. “Another
thing Jack McDuff told me,” Benson recalls,
“is that if you play it like you mean it—even
if it’s wrong—people will believe you. So I
started playing like that, with conviction.”
Confidence and clarity have been hallmarks
of Benson’s guitar sound ever since,
from his 1964 debut The New Boss Guitar of
George Benson, to his pop-jazz crossover success
in the mid ’70s with Breezin’—featuring
the hit instrumental title track, as well as his
Grammy award-winning vocal rendition of
“This Masquerade”—to his ’87 Collaboration
album with fellow guitarist Earl Klugh, and
his continuing triumphs over the past two
decades. When you hear Benson on the guitar,
there’s never any doubt as to what notes are
being played, or who’s playing them.
Benson’s latest recording, Guitar Man [Concord],
showcases his guitaristic strengths in a
more casual setting than we’ve heard him in in
recent memory. The album has its moments of
polished sophistication—such as the orchestrated
arrangement of the Beatles’ “I Want
to Hold Your Hand.” But, for the most part,
Guitar Man features Benson in a live-in-thestudio
setting with his agile backing band.
He really stretches out on the album’s jazzier
tunes, “Naima” and “Fingerlero,” and gets
into some greasy maneuvers on his boogaloo
makeover of “Tequila.” A few solo-acoustic
tracks round out the album, including a
low-key cover of Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know
Why” and a masterful reworking of the Irish
ballad “Danny Boy.” Even with this eclectic
mix of tunes, the album comes across as a jazz
album. It’s the attitude here—even more than
that repertoire—that makes it feel that way.
“One thing I do know,” Benson says, underscoring
the point, “people have not heard me
play jazz like this in a long time.”
What drove you to a more jazz-oriented concept
for Guitar Man?
I just happened to be feeling jazzier for
this album. We wanted to do something
free-wheeling, the way we used to make
records years ago—because that’s what we
are: improvisationalists. We have that mentality,
so we can just go in and put it together
right there in the studio—like, “Hey, man,
let’s try this.” We might drag a few tunes in
with us and say, “I feel like this one might
be important today.”
You’ve got some nice solo-guitar arrangements
on the album—such as “Naima” and “Tenderly.”
Do you put these in guitar-friendly keys?
When I play “Tenderly,” I tune the low
E string down to D. Tuning just that one
tone down really makes the guitar open up
beautifully. That’s a wonderful thing that
was made famous by Johnny Smith years
ago, when he recorded that song. He helped
me to see the value of playing harmonies
with open strings, which makes the guitar
sound closer to a piano. I use a lot of his
elements. I re-harmonized certain parts of
it and added some single-line improvisation
to give it my flavor.
“Danny Boy” is another solo-guitar piece on
Guitar Man. You start creating a droning, bagpipe-
like effect, and then get into some complex
chord-melody work. How long do you work on an
arrangement like that before you feel it’s ready
to be recorded?
Fritz Kreisler was my favorite violinist.
I heard his recording of that song [as “Londonderry
Air”] and, man—that is one of the
most incredible performances of all time. I
listened to it over and over again, thinking,
“Why can’t I make this guitar sound like
that?” So I started experimenting. He had a
great pianist underneath, and I enjoyed his
approach to harmony. He bounced off of
every note and every phrase that Kreisler
played, adding sentiment and meaning to
the notes. So I started playing harmonies
based on, “How can I boost the emotion of
this particular part of the song?” I’ve been
playing it for a long time.
I wanted to get the bagpipes involved
because that is the essence of the music from
that part of the world. The bagpipes have a
drone—one sustained note that goes right
through all the melodies. That’s the root,
that’s the bass. I keep that going, then suspend
the melody above the marching sound
of the drone. It’s tricky, but it’s so effective.
To a certain degree, I captured that vibe.
Though you’re best known as an electric guitarist,
“Danny Boy” is one of several nylon-string
pieces on the album. Playing at home, for yourself,
do you play more electric guitar or nylon-string?
More and more, it’s the classical. There’s a
difference in the spaces between the strings.
I love those spaces. They make the guitar
feel like a piano to me. It makes me think
about harmonies, and it doesn’t allow me
to do tricks. There are no bent notes, things
like that. No sustain. Either you’re playing
it, or you ain’t.
Do you use traditional classical-guitar technique?
No, I play with my thumb. My nails are
so brittle that they break all the time. That’s
why I don’t play classical guitar. I use my
thumb because I know how that feels and
I’m very accurate with it. But it does change
the sound. It’s a hybrid sound between the
classical and electric guitars. I’ve still got
some training to do, in my mind. Sometimes
I play with the same force I’d use for jazz
guitar with a pick, and it gets a little harsh.
I think I can back up off of that a little bit.
What nylon-string guitar did you record with?
“Don’t Know Why” is on a Yamaha.
We did that at two o’clock in the morning,
at a studio in a loft somewhere in Tel Aviv,
Israel. That just happened to be the guitar
that we could get. They recorded the guitar
up close, with three or four mics. We also
used a little amp and some direct signal. We
were searching for a sound that we weren’t
getting. They’d recorded steel-string acoustics
there before, and electric guitars, but
never anybody with a classical guitar like
that. They must’ve thought I was crazy for
wanting to record so softly. But when they
got it, they got it right. And for the other
things, which we recorded in L.A., there was
a Cordoba guitar.
Let’s talk about your electric guitar playing.
Your ideas are always so clear and articulate.
What’s your approach?
My stepfather was the one who made
me aware of it. He taught me the beginnings
of the guitar. I went on the road with
Jack McDuff, and when I came back home I
thought I had accomplished quite a bit. Then
I played for my stepfather and he said, “I can’t
really hear what you’re playing because you
keep fluffing over these notes. You’re not definite
with them.” I noticed that he was right.
I was skipping over some of the notes—fluffing
them. So I went back and started examining
every stroke. I started practicing—not
scales, but blending chords together through
single lines. I noticed where I was making
mistakes, and I cleaned them all up.
I came up with some really nice approaches
to the way I handle the guitar. I never had
technique like Pat Martino, but I devised my
own method, which is very fluid. It allows me
to change ideas along the way. I’m moving
in a certain direction, and I see all these
things underneath my fingers when I play.
“Oh, I’m passing up three or four chords
here. Should I grab some of this harmony?
Nah—I think I’ll keep going.” When I get
to the end, I have to bounce off of that and
go to another phrase, which might take me
back around. I can see just as many possibilities
on the way back. That method works
for me, and it doesn’t take a lot of technique
to play that way.
It sure sounds technical.
Well, I’m not afraid of anything. If there’s
something that I have to get, I’ll find a way
to get it.
Is there a particular pick you use?
It’s called the George Benson pick. Ibanez
makes them. It gets a little more accurate
sound, because I have them straighten the
side edges. A typical pick is a little rounded
on the sides. Mine is very straight. When you
drag it along the string, and you pull it off
of the string, it gives a definite pow. There’s
no ambiguity about that note.
What’s your main electric guitar?
I have a brand-new guitar called the LGB—
meaning, “Little George Benson.” It’s my
latest model for Ibanez. We’ll introduce it
at the NAMM show in January. I designed it
for the road. Years ago, the Gibson L-5 was
the dream of every jazz guitarist. Today, we
have a different mission. We’re playing with
a lot of instruments onstage. Everybody’s
amplified. There are synthesizers, horns. So
we need something that can project, without
having the feedback that we had years ago.
This guitar fits the bill, and it has a nice tone.
Is that the guitar you played on “Naima”?
That’s a D’Angelico that I’ve had since
1970—or ’68—something like that. It’s an
incredible instrument, one of a kind. That
instrument has a very bell-like sound. I leave
it in the closet, mostly because I’m afraid
something’s going happen to it. I bring it out
when I need to emphasize the melody. All
the notes are beautiful. I also used it on the
Michael Jackson tune, “The Lady in My Life.”
After all that you’ve achieved as an artist and
as a guitarist, what keeps it interesting for you?
Discovering new things. There’s a lot out
there. There are a lot of great players. I hear
them playing things that were not played
before. And I know I’ve inspired some of
that, so it’s exciting for me to see that I had
a hand in setting up the new mentality for
the guitar—helping it along.
I was in South Africa recently, at a jam
session. One of those cats jumped up onstage
and was about to beat the crap out of me
in a jam session. There were a lot of exceptional
musicians there that day, watching. I
said, “Uh-oh. Maybe my reputation is gonna
be at stake here.” [Laughs.] I had to go to
my secret stuff on him, to survive. When
I started playing that stuff, he stopped and
said, “Mister Benson, what is that you just
played?” I said, “It’s a secret, man. Don’t
worry about it.” But that’s the thing that
makes it so interesting. When somebody
comes in and shows that they have what it
takes. That’s inspiring.
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