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.”