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Bensusan plays a November 2009 gig in Germany with his 1978 Lowden flattop,
which features a cedar top and mahogany back and sides. Photo by Schramberg
So in the beginning a new piece is only in your head?
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 both—imagination and 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 into that?
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?
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.