The remarkably talented, diverse and prolific George Benson is, says John Wheatcroft, much more than just a musician’s musician.
John Wheatcroft delves into the playing of a jazz guitar titan - the awesome George Benson.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1943 Gerge Benson started early, performing live on guitar and ukulele before he was even 10. He served his apprenticeship as a teenager with organist Jack McDuff and recorded his first solo album, The New Boss Guitar, just as he reached his 21st birthday.
George was a member of Miles Davis’ band in the mid ‘60s, featuring on the albums Paraphernalia and Miles In The Sky. Benson continued his solo career with releases for both Creed Taylor’s CTI label and Warner Brothers. In 1976 he recorded the massively successful album Breezin’ which won him three Grammys, for Best Instrumental Performance, Best R&B Performance and Record Of The Year.
Benson’s career has been staggeringly successful, diverse and prolific. He has amassed a legion of fans across the world and has gained the admiration of guitarists across all genres and generations. His dedication to his craft has remained true throughout his career and even when his music has shifted towards a more pop, soul or R&B direction, his commitment to staying on top of his formidable jazz chops and his championing of the jazz genre has remained consistent. Still a regular on the New York jazz scene he frequently jams with up-and-coming players, ensuring his playing is on top form at all times. Oh, and did I mention that he has an incredibly soulful, expressive and downright funky singing voice too?
Benson’s playing has passion, commitment and what he refers to as a sense of reckless abandon. His tone is warm and full but there is an edge and attack to his delivery that gives his sound vitality. His main influences include Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Pat Martino and there’s a fair bit of blues in his sound, due to his enormous admiration of the great BB King. He’s also famous for his remarkable scat singing, literally singing along with his improvisations with tremendous dexterity, expression and accuracy.
The following eight examples are typical of what George might play when improvisating. It’s a great idea to learn these lines as written; then, once you’ve got the idea under your fingers why not try singing along while you play, just as George might do? You’ll develop a much stronger connection to the music this way, internalising the rhythms and melodies much more organically. Once you’ve tried these ideas, adopt a similar strategy with your own improvisations. Even if you don’t actually sing the notes out loud, just thinking in this way can improve the musical content of your playing enormously. As always, have fun…
It’s not all about the technique. It’s about getting your point across and making a memorable Impression George Benson
NEXT MONTH John examines the playing style Nat King Cole’s fine guitarist, Oscar Moore
George Benson with one of his Ibanez GB signature models
George’s signature Ibanez has been his guitar of choice for almost four decades. Strings are medium gauge flatwounds with a .14 first string. Amplification is a solid-state Polytone for warmth and a Fender valve combo for speedy response and punch. Aim for a clean, balanced tone and pick a little closer to the neck pickup to achieve something close to Benson’s fat but articulate sound. Go easy on the reverb.