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Guitar Man George Benson

February 14, 2012
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“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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