Bensusan plays a November 2009 gig in Germany with his 1978 Lowden flattop,
features a cedar top and mahogany back and sides. Photo by Schramberg
So in the beginning a new piece is only in
Very often, it is completely and only in my
head and has nothing to do with the guitar.
I like it to stay that way until I feel the time
is right to give it an actual sonic form with
what I have in my hands—a guitar—without
losing the content to comfort zones dictated
by my instrumental technique. Of course, I
also find lots of inspiration just by wandering
on the instrument. So, it’s a combination of
talking with the guitar,
looking for the right notes.
Your style is all over the map. Can you pinpoint
some of your influences?
Oh, they’re so varied. It can go from Arabic
music—I was born in North Africa—to Celtic
music and songs from central France, Brazil,
India, Cuba, Mali, and beyond. I’m a sponge
and am constantly listening to a lot of different
things. But at the end of the day, I’m trying
to put all these different sounds—which
I’ve learned not by studying techniques and
theory, but through osmosis—through my
own filter to see what comes out. My music is
also influenced by my life today and the world
in which we live, which is not the perfect
place. And thanks to music, for the last 40
years I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled
all over world, experiencing a lot of different
cultures and geography. This has definitely
informed my music as well.
You sometimes scat sing in the manner
of George Benson. How did you get
When I first heard [Brazilian singer-songwriter]
Milton Nascimento, it occurred to
me that he was not only a great singer but
a painter who creates beautiful moods with
the color of his voice, and that inspired me
to augment my guitar playing with my voice.
At the same time, I got into scatting through
George Benson, and later I was influenced
by the amazing things Bobby McFerrin does
with his voice. But I’ve tried to scat and sing
in my own way—what’s the point of copying?
In the 1980s, you turned to effects to create
lush acoustic-electric soundscapes, but it
seems that lately you’ve all but abandoned
electronics. Why is that?
Bensusan played his entire set at the 1986
Festival d’été de Québec under an umbrella
held by Bob Walsh. Photo by Henri Pichette
I was reluctant to enter that world to start with,
but once I did I went all the way. I was like a
child in a toy store. It was amazing to discover
ping-pong delays, to be able to record more
than a minute of myself playing, then add layers
and layers on top of that. I did sound-on-sound
effects live onstage for 15 years, and my
music reached a very inspiring place—though I
know that some people weren’t happy with my
experiments. Using effects, I felt powerful, but
that ended up being a very dangerous thing. I
started to feel as if I couldn’t function without
effects—and that freaked me out. So, one day
before a new tour began, I took a look at all
my equipment and said to it, “You stay here—
I’m going without you.” I left for the tour with
only my guitar and a cable, wanting to touch
people with just the instrument.
At first, it was difficult to be stripped of
effects. The guitar sounded so small, and on
some sound systems, not so great. But I started
to accept those sonic limitations and work within
that dimension. I concentrated on things like
making a beautiful vibrato tell a story, and after
a while I got to a point where I could do a concert
with no PA—just a guitar and a room. Now
I bring a minimum of equipment on tour—
my guitar, a volume pedal, a reverb unit, two
microphones, a little guitar stand, a music stand
for the lyrics so I don’t forget them. And that’s it,
except for an electric fan to keep me cool—and
that takes up the most space of all.
Has ditching effects changed your playing at all?
Yes. Effects, especially reverb, can greatly mask
the sound of a guitar and cause you to forget
its natural sound. When you just play a naked
guitar, you’re confronted by the pure tone and
understand that it requires a lot of work and
attention to make the instrument sound beautiful.
When I stopped using effects, I found
myself concentrating a lot on my right-hand
attack and on my left-hand touch. I was forced
to address the sound correctly on an acoustic
level, and that’s why these days I record without
headphones and maybe add just a tiny bit of
effects later in the recording process.