George Benson’s velvet-voiced crooning has afforded him
commercial success of the sort that’s virtually unheard
of for a guy who is, at heart, a guitar virtuoso. If you
only know Benson from hits like “This Masquerade” or “On
Broadway”—which are often heard with the guitar solos truncated
to fit a radio-friendly format—or if you thought he was just a
smooth singer who liked to hold a guitar as an accessory, you
might not be aware of his prowess on the guitar. In which case,
you may be surprised to know that he’s a jazz guitar phenom of
the highest order.
Benson’s latest release, the 12-song Guitar Man, showcases more
6-string slinging than many of his previous releases. “That title
was a way to let people know there would be more guitar on this
record than they’ve been hearing in the recent past,” says Benson.
Among the album’s highlights are tributes to two of the jazz icon’s
guitar idols. “Tequila” tips the hat to Wes Montgomery, while “I
Want to Hold Your Hand” is a nod to Grant Green rather than the
Beatles. But though Guitar Man features plenty of guitar, it’s not
quite as over-the-top as the pyrotechnic-laden classics from 1974’s
Bad Benson. This latest effort is more refined and has about just as
much guitar as a successful commercial album would allow, as evidenced
by the fact that Guitar Man reached No. 1 on the Billboard
jazz charts a few weeks after its release.
Photo courtesy William “Billy” Heaslip
We caught up with the smooth operator to discuss the new
album, his gear, and his unique picking technique—which has long
been a hot topic among the hordes of Benson wannabes.
You played a lot of acoustic
guitar on Guitar Man.
Yeah, we used two different kinds
of acoustics—a Yamaha and a
Cordoba. They aren’t very expensive,
but they sounded good.
Did you use any of your
Oh yeah, definitely. I used
the Ibanez GB30 and also a
D’Angelico that I had in the
closet. I only take that out on
special occasions. I got a lot of
my hit records with that guitar.
Do you roll the tone knob
down or do you keep it all
the way up?
I have both the tone and volume
controls basically all the
way up. Something happens to
the tone when I back up off the
volume—I like to feel the bite
of the guitar. Y’know, feel all
Some jazz cats feel like a lot
of that bite has to do with
strings. Are you pretty particular
If I’m on the road, I like to use
.012s. If I’m recording, I like to
use .014s—I can hear more and
dig in more with the .014s. On
the road, I can’t really hear all
that because it goes past me and
out into the audience.
Can you play as fast on the
.014s as you do on the .012s?
Yeah, I think so. I never
thought about that. I better
put that to the test before I say
Photo by Jerry L. Neff
Have you tried any other
Ibanez jazz guitars, like the
Pat Metheny model?
I’ve tried a couple of those and
some of them were good, but
mine is designed with my needs
in mind. I don’t like feedback,
and I don’t like thin sounds. I
want a full sound but I don’t
want to worry about muting
the strings because they’re
feeding back. My GB10 is
unique because it has a smaller
body, which takes care of a lot
of the feedback issues.
You recently auctioned off
some instruments you owned
that originally belonged to
some pretty famous people.
Yes. Pat Metheny bought Wes
Montgomery’s L5 at auction. I
didn’t know it until I ran into
him in Europe and he said,
“George, I got the Wes guitar.”
And I’m happy, because now
I know it’s in good hands.
I worried about it when I
auctioned it off. Also, Grant
Green’s guitar. That’s one of
the best-sounding instruments
I’ve ever heard, but it was in
my closet and I was afraid the
termites were going to eat it up.
Considering the times being
what they were, we did very
well and got a lot of money.
Do you ever play with distortion?
I was thinking about trying
some things out with distortion,
just to see what happens.
I did it with Billy Cobham
and George Duke one day, and
they were shocked. They had a
guitar player in their band, and
I didn’t want to mess with his
pedals. He said, “Just press that
one over there for volume.” I
hit that button and it was like
a rocket ship, man! I started
playing all this stuff and those
cats went berserk. They said,
“George I didn’t know you
could play like that.”