Tell us a little about your latest album, Vividly.

On the last recording [2001’s Intuite], I put my singing aside. But this time I wanted to do a record where songs with lyrics and instrumentals shared the space equally. I tried to create a sequence of tunes that would make sense as a whole and would also make sense if you listen separately to the songs and the instrumentals. For each of the songs—some of which I was happy to collaborate on with my wife, Doatea, and a singer-songwriter friend from Los Angeles named Nina Swan—I was careful to record parts that didn’t conflict with the lyrics. I wanted a listener to be able to pay attention to one element at a time without any confusion. In other words, I treated the voice and guitar like equal instruments. I’m very happy with Vividly, which some people have told me is my best record to date. My guitar tone has improved. I sing better than I did in the past. Most importantly, it’s a record that shows where I am as a musician and as a person.

Improvisation seems to play a real prominent role in your music.

I try to be as spontaneous as possible by approaching a new composition with the notion that it’ll never really be completed. I’ll of course try to learn what I’ve written note-for-note, but very soon after that I will deviate from the piece and play it more freely, giving myself a bit of a vocabulary around the places that my fingers know. I’ll follow a piece to where it leads me. Here’s another way I look at improvisation: At the end of the day, everything we learn on our instrument has to be forgotten, because as much as you work hard to overcome the technical challenges that surface when you approach music, ultimately you need to ignore all that information in order to be fully attentive and reactive to what you are instantly composing.

The “New Lady” acoustic that Bensusan’s signature Lowden is based on (shown here) features an Adirondack spruce top, Honduran rosewood back and sides, a Madagascar rosewood bridge, a 5-piece maple neck, ebony headstock overlay, and sycamore, rosewood, and mahogany purfling. Photo courtesy of George Lowden

What makes for a strong improviser?

It helps to have a thorough knowledge of the fretboard, to know the different locations of any given chord and its inversions, to have multiple positions for scales and modes under your fingers. At a certain point, though, you have to stop thinking about scales and actually play music. Music is much more than just a logical and harmonious juxtaposition of melodies. Inside all this, there is an intact abstraction— a brutal and vibrant jewel—calling for your senses, emotions, and all our human feelings. No words can describe that sensation. If there were, then there would be no need to play or listen to music anymore.

Pierre Bensusan's Gearbox
1978 Lowden S-22 (dubbed “Old Lady”), Lowden Pierre Bensusan signature model (dubbed “New Lady”), signature Altiplanos archtop made by Michael Greenfield, Juan Miguel Carmona nylon-string, Kevin Ryan steel-string

Ernie Ball Volume Pedal, Zoom H4 handheld digital recorder (for reverb)

Headway Pickups piezo pickup routed through Fishman internal preamp (60 percent of the signal), custom mic handmade in Michigan (40 percent of the signal), RØDE vocal mic

Strings and Picks
Wyres .013–.056 signature set, clear Dobro thumbpick