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George Benson: Still the Coolest of Cats

December 20, 2011
Hear a track from Benson's Guitar Man:
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 signature electrics?
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 the openness.

Some jazz cats feel like a lot of that bite has to do with strings. Are you pretty particular about yours?
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 “yes.” [Laughs.]

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.”



Photo by John Darwin Kurc

How about amps?
I use two Fender Twins. I used to use Polytone Mini-Brutes. Although I love the tone—it’s one of my favorite sounds for guitar and works great in the studio— I found that, in big places, it wasn’t fast enough. It didn’t give me instant sound. Now I’m working with Fender and we’re designing a new amplifier.

When is this coming out?
It’ll be out next year. We’re still working on it now.

Will it be tube or solid-state?
That’s one thing we’re working out. I lean toward the tubes, because the sound is so much more incredible. But I’m not afraid to try solid-state.

Do you think the signature amp will have a distortion channel?
Man ... [laughs] I usually use clean. But you did say something important, though … I better not take that feature out of my new amp.

Guitar Man starts off with “Tenderly,” which you also recorded on the 1989 album of the same name. Both are solo-guitar renditions, but the older version was a minute longer and a bit flashier than this new one.
I was trying to prove a point [on the first one], like, “Here’s what I can do.” I love that version, because I surprised myself on it. I was like, “Man, is that me playing that?” But it wasn’t very tender. This version recaptures the romantic side of that wonderful song. I was trying to do a more romantic version based on the Johnny Smith version. He’s one of my favorite players. Wes and I used to talk about him all the time—how beautifully he played and the tuning down to D, which he made popular back then.

Photo by John Darwin Kurc

When you tune down to D and play the fast runs, do you adjust your fingerings for notes on the low E string or do you just avoid that string?
If you make a mistake, baby, you’re in the wrong place [laughs]. It really doesn’t upset the harmony too much, but you turn a major chord into a blues chord if you don’t watch it.

What prompted you to record Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”?
I did it because I promised Stevie I would. He had heard me sing it once and he said, “You gotta record that George. You must record that.” I kept my promise.

Guitar Man also features pop songs like “The Lady in My Life” and “Don’t Know Why.” Pat Metheny also recorded “Don’t Know Why” on his 2003 album One Quiet Night. Are today’s pop songs becoming the new standards?
Well, that’s the way they’ve always done it. Miles Davis did it. He used to do “Autumn Leaves.” That wasn’t a jazz tune, it was a pop song. When jazz people do it, it takes on a whole new meaning, different colors. Sometimes they’ll reharmonize, which really gives a lift to a song that’s been overplayed.

Was “My One and Only Love” inspired by the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane version?
Oh, definitely. That will always remain an outstanding version of that song and performance, period. It was hard for me to think about recording it, because I didn’t want people to think that we were stepping on the toes of that version. I wanted to pay homage to it, and I think we did a decent job.

Photo by John Darwin Kurc

On “Paper Moon,” your solo starts off with some bending— which isn’t often heard in a straight-ahead jazz context. Why do traditional jazz players typically avoid bending notes?
If you remember, Charlie Christian used to bend notes— and he was the swingin’-est cat there was, man! So I’m not afraid. I think people are used to hearing that in modern music. You know, B.B. King and all the other cats do it. Rock players do it. I’m not afraid to let jazz have a shot at it again, too, since we started it.

Tell us about “Danny Boy.”
Well, first of all, I’ve got Irish and Welsh blood in me. My grandfather told me, “Yeah, yeah, boy, you’re Irish and Welsh.” That was my attempt at creating some bagpipes, or at least the vibe from bagpipes. It worked very well because, with some audiences, we see people with tears in their eyes. They must be Irish or Scottish [laughs]. And when we play in Ireland, people love us over there. I played “Danny Boy” over there for the first time a few years ago, and I couldn’t believe the response I got. It was the best song in the show.

Mike Stern once told me, “George Benson is the best jazz guitar player alive.” Even though you’re essentially a pop star, this seems to be the general consensus among jazz guitarists.
Mike Stern’s a good cat, man. I love him. I remember when he came to New York, my manager said, “Man, there’s a kid in town—you gotta hear him play.” So we went down and it was Mike Stern. He bounced off the wall—he took all the paint off the wall in the place that night! So I knew we had a new star on our hands. He’s a wonderful cat and he plays the crap out of the guitar. You can’t ask for more than that.

But Tal Farlow started it. They asked him who his favorite guitar player was, and he said, “George Benson,” and they said, “Why do you say that?” Because at the time, I was a pop artist and the kids didn’t like the fact that I was getting credit as a guitar player. And Tal Farlow said, “I like him because every time I hear him, he’s playing something new.” I think people like the fact that I keep coming up with new ideas—and they don’t have to be big ideas. Guitar players, they know. Once they hear you, they know your sound. When you play a lick, they know it’s you. “Man this sounds like George Benson, but I’ve never heard him play that before.” And that’s because I practice virtually every day. Still do.



Photo by Jerry L. Neff

What kind of stuff do you work on now?
Ideas mostly, things that people have not heard. Like that thing we did with “Danny Boy.” I worked on that for a long time before I got enough nerve to bring it out. I’ve got a lot of different formulas, and I use them whenever they seem to fit. Say, for instance, my solo on “Tequila.” I started off playing nothing but basic triads with an octave on top. As simple as it sounds, in certain circumstances it works very well.

Your technique is phenomenal. In the beginning, what did you work on to get it to such a high level?
When I got to New York and found all these guys with all this fabulous technique—Pat Martino and Grant Green and a few others— I said, “Man, I’m not gonna be able to make it here.” I knew I couldn’t match those guys. So I started devising my own method and reexamined the fingerboard. If you play a standard guitar, where you’re playing across the fingerboard, you’re playing down the fingerboard instead of going up. If I move my hands in the direction, slide them up as I play the notes, then it’s a logical progression. That kind of thing. I had to examine that over and over again until I got it right. I’m moving in the direction that the sound is suggesting. It’s all about getting from point A to point B. So I said, “Well, let me try it this way.” And I said, “Whoa! This is much simpler—and I can be much more accurate if I do it this way.”

Musicians are also in awe of your seemingly flawless sense of time. Did you always have that, or did you have to work on it?
I listened to Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman band. Benny Goodman rightfully had the name “King of Swing.” There were other cats who could swing, but he consistently swung and he had good cats in the band. I listened to that and realized that I should loosen up a little bit, leave myself room where I could pick up some extra things. Leave a note out here and pick it up later over here— add it to the swing. I began to do it until it became natural, and it’s followed me down through the years.

Photo by John Darwin Kurc

What advice would you give to players who want to develop a stronger sense of time? For example, some people recommend using a metronome, and others are completely against it.
No, some people need that.

So it depends on the individual?
Yeah, well Montgomery used it—I have the one that he used! When I first saw him with that metronome years ago, I said, “Wow, Montgomery uses a metronome! Is that why he’s so good? Maybe I better get me a metronome.” But I never used it. I have a good sense of rhythm.

Your single-note playing is fairly staccato, as opposed to, say, Pat Metheny’s, which is very legato. Is that something you do intentionally? And if so, why?
I did it because my favorite players play like that. Hank Garland, he had a very staccatoy sound. It made it sound more forceful [scats staccato-ish phrase]. It was like, “Wow, it’s like the notes are dancing in front of me!” I don’t have a lot of pressure in my left hand, I never did. I think it came from playing cheap guitars where the winding would come undone on the strings and it would cut my fingers. So I stopped pressing hard. I play very light in my left hand. Django, in order to get the vibrato, had to have a lot of pressure in his left hand. Pat Martino has a lot of pressure in his left hand.

You hold your pick at an unconventional angle. Is there an advantage to that?
There are advantages and disadvantages to every technique I’ve seen. The technique that I have lends itself toward playing phrases that are not based in numbers—y’know, eighth-notes, 16th-notes. It’s not based on that. I’m leaving myself open so I can change from quarter-notes or eighth-notes and stick some fast triplets in there. Instead of playing four notes, if I play triplets I get 12 [scats a triplet-infused phrase]. But if you play with standard technique—if you get used to playing quarter-notes, eighth-notes, 16th-notes, 32ndnotes, whatever it is—you get used to this [scats a fast phrase in steady eighths], and after a while that bores me. So the technique I’m using—which isn’t the greatest, don’t get me wrong—makes it so I can play those phrases and still be within the realm of playing the single lines with the quarter-notes or the even eighth-notes.

Photo by Jerry L. Neff

I imagine this technique is fairly dependent on specific picks or gauges, then.
I use medium picks. They’re not too stiff and they allow me to have better rhythm. And the two edges [on mine] come down to a point that’s straighter than on a Fender pick. I do that because it gives me much more snap when the pick comes off the string.

Do you usually pick every note, or do you integrate hammer-ons and pull-offs or sweep-picking in your speedier lines?
There was a period when I picked every note, but I find that it’s not necessary in the way I’m thinking now—I’m beginning to let up on that. As you get older, you don’t get into the particulars so much as you do when you’re trying to speak a language. So I don’t force that anymore. Kenny Burrell asked me that once, “George, are you picking every note?” I said, “I don’t know— I guess so, Kenny.” And he was the master of the guitar. He and Wes Montgomery dominated the jazz world at the time. So for him to ask me any question about the guitar was phenomenal.



George Benson's Gear

Top Right: Benson’s signature Ibanez hollowbodies feature ornate, vintage-style headstock inlays. Photo by John Mooy. Bottom Right: On his current tour, Benson has a guitar boat with two signature Ibanez hollowbodies and a Yamaha nylon-string. Photo by John Mooy. Left: Two of Benson’s Ibanez signature models—a GB200 (left) and a prototype of the upcoming LGB (Little Georgie Benson)—onstage with a pair of Fender ’65 Twin reissues mic’d with a large-diaphragm Shure condenser. Photo by John Mooy.

Guitars
Ibanez LGB prototype,
Ibanez GB30, Yamaha
nylon-string, Cordoba
nylon-string
Amps
Two Fender 1965 Twin
Reverb reissues
Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Thomastik-Infeld George
Benson Signature .012s
(live) and .014s (studio),
Ibanez George Benson
mediums picks, Monster
Cable, Radial JDI Passive
Direct Box

Youtube It
For a taste of George Benson in action, check out the following clips on YouTube.com.


Benson scat sings with Dizzy Gillespie, then takes a jaw-dropping guitar solo (from 7:48–8:58) that will make you want to quit the guitar.


This rare clip shows Benson in a lessformal setting, playing Miles Davis’ “So What” with a killer band featuring drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and other notable musicians. His killer solo starts at 5:25 and features nearly three minutes of fretboardmelting modal madness.


Benson makes his guitar sound like bagpipes on this solo rendition of “Danny Boy.” In addition to the chordal mastery on display here, check out how Benson articulates even the quickest of single-note runs with his right-hand thumb—particularly in the cadenza (3:00–3:08).