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 player.
—Excerpted from Robert Yelin’s piece in the January 1974 Guitar Player