How to play like George Benson

In this series, Christian Miller presents some techniques and licks from iconic Jazz guitarists.

Introduction

As a musician George Benson has led a double life; on one hand as a huge selling international vocal soul and R&B star whose hits include Breezin’, This Masquerade and On Broadway, and on the other the heir apparent to the throne of Wes Montgomery as the generational hard bop jazz guitarist.

What is never in doubt is that the guitar is never far away; and while it might not be obvious to casual music listeners, guitarists can always enjoy a bit of sweet guitar on those pop cuts.

What is also not in doubt is that the man has had a vast influence.

Technique

Anyone looking in George Benson is going to have to deal with the casual – cavalier even – way the man seems to disregard the assumed limitations of the instrument.

Fast doesn’t seem the right word, although he can certainly be that; it’s more like a playful effortlessness that Tuck Andress compared to the physical grace of supreme marital artists. So it’s no surprise that guitarists have been trying to unlock the secrets of his technique for decades.

Jazz guitar

We’ll start with the right hand, where he has a stance that is somewhat iconic among guitar players – the hand grips the pick between forefinger and thumb pad, and the palm of the hand is presented almost upwards, under the strings.

Tuck Andress, the man who made the first in depth analysis of Benson’s technique (at least to my knowledge) points out the advantage of this quite strange hand position; it allows Benson to make all his picking movements by ‘oscillating the wrist’; that is the same axis of movement that one would make when knocking on a door.

According to Andress, this movement can be made faster and more reliably when compared to some of the other common hand movements such as side to side wrist movement common among electric players.

Benson is not unique in his left hand stance, other guitarists who use a similar grip include Carlos Santana, Rodney Jones, Sheryl Bailey, Miles Okazaki, Adam Rogers, Cecil Alexander and Isaiah Sharkey.

Aside from the mechanics of how the picking is done, the actual specifics of Benson’s picking are remarkably similar to those of Django Reinhardt’s approach; parallel evolution perhaps. Each new string is executed with a downward rest stoke, with alternations made on single strings.

Ascending arpeggios are executed with a rake or sweep across the strings. In common with Django, Benson favours combinations of even notes per string when descending which effectively means that he often economy picks when ascending, and alternate picks when descending.

Jazz guitar

Benson’s left-hand technique resembles that of Wes and Pat Metheny (not to mention many blues and rock players) in that it is primarily three fingered, involves a pronated wrist with the thumb over the neck, and the strings are fretted with the pads rather than the tips of the fingers.

Lines are often executed with slides. Benson differs from Wes in that his playing is almost entirely picked – Wes used many slurs. (Although it must be said Benson is also a masterful Wes style thumb player and can often be heard playing this way.)

Improvisation Approach

If sometime student and friend Ritchie Hart (a fine player in the same tradition) is to be believed Benson didn’t have much music theory and was (and presumably still is) primarily an ear based player. In terms of his musical style, it’s often assumed that George is coming directly from Wes, though I don’t think it’s that simple. George himself credits Grant Green as his favourite, and I think it’s possible to hear that in his playing, especially in his early work.

Blues

Blues forms a cornerstone of Benson’s playing. However, there are a couple of elements that might make his blues playing less familiar to players coming from a rock/blues direction.

The first is that Benson’s blues phrases often emphasise the notes of the major blues scale; which is to say the major pentatonic with an added b3, or the same notes as the minor blues three frets/semitones lower.

Jazz guitar

This major blues scale is by far the most common in jazz before the ‘60s – in fact the b7 of the scale is rarely played. You can hear it particularly in the playing of Charlie Christian, one of Benson’s big influences.

The second element is that, as a jazzer with big thick flatwound strings, Benson rarely bends notes (it has been known, however) and his vibrato is subtle. So the bluesiness of his playing come largely from slides and double stops as well as note choice. Some of these ideas remind me of soul guitar styles and even Chuck Berry licks. Notice the mix of major and minor blues scales.

Jazz guitar

However – Benson incorporates all of these elements in his singing, and he is famous for singing his lines at the same time as playing them. In fact, it’s when Benson is singing that I think his playing is at its most bluesy.

Another feature of Benson’s lines is rapid descending pentatonic licks. This type of figure works very well with Benson’s picking.

Jazz guitar

Arpeggios

Benson follows in a long line of jazz guitarists whose soloing is principally based on chord tones, or arpeggios. One great drill for mastering arpeggios for jazz soloing is to practice seventh chord arpeggios on the 1, 3, 5 and b7 of a given dominant chord. You will find a lot of use of these related arpeggios in George’s playing.

Jazz guitar

A very common motif used by bebop influenced players like Benson is the playing a triplet arpeggio of a four note chord with a lower neighbour chromatic on the upbeat – the ‘and’ before the triplet:

With arpeggios there is always the option of substituting chords – something Benson does a lot. For instance, as well as the subs above, a dominant chord can be exchanged with another dominant a tritone away, and the four chords related to that.

Jazz guitar

So, we could exchange G7 with not only Bm7b5, Dm7 or Fmaj7 but also Db7, Fm7b5, Abm7 and Bmaj7, not to mention all the triads and extended chords… And that’s just the start.

Chromaticism

Another aspect of George’s playing is his use of chromaticism. Chromaticism can be confusing for guitarists used to scale based soloing for instance in rock guitar, but actually even the humble blues scale contains a very important example of chromaticism – a passing tone, b5 between 5 and 4 of the minor pentatonic.

One very common approached used by all old school jazz guitarists (and Mozart for that matter) is join up the chord tones of a chord using chromatic passing tones – a bit like a ‘dot to dot’. Here are the most common choices on the chord tones of a G7 chord.

Jazz guitar

Another common example of chromaticism if using lower neighbour tones to dress up a simple arpeggio. There’s quite a few instances of this on the examples of the Musicmuse site.

Tone & Gear

Benson has always favoured hollow body archtop guitars. During the 70s he was often heard playing a double Gibson L-5, or occasionally a single pickup D’Angelico. Of course for most of his career Benson has been famous for playing his Ibanez signature models, starting in 1977 with the launch of the GB10.

Unlike the Gibson, these guitars feature floating Johnny Smith style pickups and a Les Paul style body shape. There are however many variations of the basic model that have been released over the years.

A collector of guitars, he also owned Grant Green and Wes Montgomery’s Gibsons, but eventually auctioned them off due to having not played them. He has reported that the Ibanez’s are best suited to his playing needs, especially live.

To my ears, Benson avoids the singing tone of players like Grant and Wes, and focusses on a much more percussive, almost staccato sound, with quite a quick decay. He generally plays with the volume and tone wide open and favours heavy strings; as heavy as gauge .14’s, usually his own deluxe brand of Thomastick Infeld flatwounds.

There’s no surprise that he favours very clean amps, usually Fender Twins or Polytone Mini-Brutes. I’m not entirely sure if he knows what effects pedals are.

For my part, I did my manful best with a Gibson ES-175 and a Fender Princeton amp. Oh, dear God, some of those licks.

Time/Feel

If I had to choose someone as an exemplar of the perfect jazz time feel on guitar it would be George. But all my examples are actually from straight eights feels (it was easier for pedagogical reasons to choose lines on vamps etc.)

Needless to say he’s wonderful at that too, and I think this raises an important point. 16th note Funk and double time bebop are not as dissimilar as they might seem; George’s phrasing on those pop/fusion cuts is most certainly influenced by bop and by Charlie Parker and this is something you can appreciate in the use of swung 16ths and triplets.

Time and time again I noticed the sheer accuracy of Benson’s rhythmic imagination and articulation. There’s no question if that rhythm is a 16th triplet followed by four 16ths – the execution is perfect, the triplet precisely in time.

If you have spent any time at all with working on your time, you’ll know how difficult this can be to achieve. Record your lines with a click and a DAW to see, coldly, how accurate your timing is.

And I want to bring attention to accuracy. Often it seems like feel and time are considered incompatible… In fact, accuracy of time is an essential prerequisite for great swing, for great time feel generally; the time might not always be ’on a grid’, and time can be ‘humanised’ but players must feel the upbeats at precisely the same time. Listen to this clip with Papa Jo Jones and tap dancer Jimmy Slide to hear the amazing synch between the musicians and the dancer.