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.