Great Guitarists #3: George Benson

Today’s player has a connection to my first featured player, Earl Klugh, and is another guitarist influenced by Wes Montgomery. Any guesses? Read on…

George Benson

Born in 1943 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Benson started performing at the age if eight, and recorded his first single a year later, although it did not garner much success for him at the time. After graduating high school, Benson found work as a sideman, and recorded his first record as band leader, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson in 1964, aged just twenty-one. Amazingly, his guitar during these early years was hand-built for him by his stepfather!

Benson continued a prolific run of albums throughout the sixties & seventies, often with some big jazz names guesting (Earl Klugh played guitar in his band for two albums and tours in 1972-73). He even found time to perform on the Miles Davis track ‘Paraphernalia’ from Miles In The Sky (1968). To date, Benson has released thirty-six albums across the last six decades and still tours regularly, which certainly puts plenty other musicians to shame!

Guitar Style

A lifelong user of archtop guitars, such as his signature Ibanez models, Benson’s playing style comes directly from his hero and number one influence, Wes Montgomery. Like Montgomery (and Klugh), Benson doesn’t use a guitar pick, nor does he employ the conventional classical method in his fingerpickng. Instead, all three make extensive use of their thumbs. When using his other right hand fingers, Benson seems to use the rest stroke style of Django Reinhardt.

What sets Benson apart is his speed, all while remaining fluid and innately soulful. It’s hard to maintain a melodic heart during such fast runs, although Benson’s habit if singing/scatting his guitar lines while improvising them probably helps!

Essential listening

To be honest, Benson’s back catalogue is chock full of amazing guitar work. However, if you’d prefer to stay away from the singing, anything before the 1976 album/hit instrumental Breezin’ is your best bet. Personally, I’d recommend White Rabbit (1972) and the wonderfully titled Giblet Gravy from 1968 (featuring fellow jazz legends Herbie Hancock & Billy Cobham, among others) for starters.

Good King Bad (1976) shows where Benson’s style was heading, with a tighter, funkier backline, which some critics believe led to more focused phrasing in his guitar playing. The title track from this album, Theme from Good King Bad, demonstrates Benson’s soloing prowess wonderfully. Yes, the main theme might sound a little dated to our ears, but stick with it. The guitar solo (over the song’s B section) starts with octave melodies, then three notes at once, moving as melody chords, before Benson really starts to cut loose with some dazzling – yet tasteful – single note phrases.

One of the things that I love about this solo in particular is Benson’s choice of landing note. Namely, where he ends his phrases, and how they relate to the chords underneath. This is something I plan on exploring deeper in a future post, but it’s worth summarising here: with a strong opening and a tight landing will make almost all solos (or the phrases they are made up of) sound great. This is something Benson has done throughout his career, and he still seems to be going strong, continuing to record and perform through his eightieth decade…

As always, let me know what you think. I’d especially love to hear your suggestions for future players to feature, as I plan to return to this series from time to time. Make your voice heard!

Published by timguitar

Guitarist, composer, music therapist and avid bibliophile. Providing an insight into my life as a professional musician, lessons learned as an allied health practitioner, as well as various musings on the world of music in general. Expect plenty of articles about music & wellbeing, classical guitar, jazz, world/roots genres, and all sorts of guitar-related chat.

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