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Guitar Heroes: George Benson

George Benson is one of those rare musicians that has a huge following from different groups of fans. For his illustrious work as a pop singer, he is lauded as one of the best having songs such as ‘In Your Eyes’ and ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’ on heavy rotation in the 1980s. Benson’s long career, spanning from when he was just seven years old, has long been rooted in jazz - he has phenomenal technique and phrasing that one could only open to match.

(John Keeble/Getty Images)

George started his music journey by playing the ukulele on a street corner at the age of seven, moving on to the guitar soon after, thus setting the stage for the tornado of talent that was to come.

One of the more unique aspects of his playing was the scatting - he could improvise the perfect solo with his voice and the guitar at the same time. I believe this made his guitar work that much more natural than it otherwise could have been, and helped set him apart - you can hear an example on ‘Give Me the Night’, possibly his most successful song:

George Benson - Give Me the Night

An interesting story recording the solo on this track, is that studio legend and jazz/fusion giant in his own right, Lee Ritenour, actually recorded the solo on this song after a studio technician accidentally deleted the track that contained the guitar solo. Ritenour had to painstakingly copy the scatting, record the guitar part with as close a guitar tone as possible. Under the instruction of Quincy Jones, he was not to tell George about this - he finally revealed the truth to George many years later who simply laughed it off. At least he appeared to understand the dire situation! Here is a link to the video interview with Lee from the team at Vertex Effects.

Loving What He Does

People listen with their eyes, and if someone looks like they’re having a good time on stage, chances are that you will too. Sometimes people over act, which is off-putting to me at least, and sometimes are basically statues. George always looks perfectly natural on stage, and I believe that he is the perfect front man as a result. There is a sense that he genuinely loves what he does, aided by the smiles and passion he puts into each performance.

I have been lucky enough to hang out with members of George’s band, having once been granted a backstage pass to a performance of his at the Royal Albert Hall in London - thanks to his guitarist Michael O’Neill for that one! The show I attended was the second night of a two-night stop at this historic venue, and something wasn’t quite right when he took the stage. His playing was on fire, but the first five or six songs were instrumental only. Then stage hands were bringing tea out to him mid-show, and he kept trying to sing but he couldn’t. Ultimately, the show was canceled and tickets refunded. As I had a backstage pass, I entered the private bar area and was offered the chance to meet George, but that was before he had refused entry to anyone but his son (who travels as part of the crew) and the tour manager - not even the band could go into his dressing room and it was because he was so upset to have let everyone down.

What Can We Learn From Him?

George Benson - This Masquerade

Long has his playing been studied, from the blistering passages to the thoughtful melodies. In fact, beyond ‘Autumn Leaves’ that is frequently called the ‘Wonderwall of jazz’, Benson’s song ‘This Masquerade’ was one of the first pieces that made me look at jazz in an entirely different light - one of awe rather than indifference.

The whole song is packed with ridiculous guitar playing, featuring solos and chord playing that each bowled me over. However, just the intro before the rest of the instruments helped me gain a better understanding of how to imply and outline chords with such a simple outlay. The first three notes support the Fm9 chord on the piano perfectly, and the expertly timed diminished and chromatic line over the Db9 - simple but exactly what the song needed.

George Benson - Love X Love

Wes Mongomery is well known as the godfather of the guitar, and he used to play melodies using octaves. In this song, Benson uses the same style to build upon what would ordinarily be a very straightforward melody - I think this is especially awesome because it combines something from an older artist, but with a contemporary style (at least it was in 1980 when this song was released).

George Benson - Turn Your Love Around

Since I have grown and matured as a musician, I have become interested and more appreciative in the sometimes forgotten details of songs. One example of this is how clever an arrangement can be, and the horn section in this song is the ideal thing to explain my point.

The horn section, including a flute which is relatively uncommon, is sparse; you only hear them when you need to, and there is no reason for anything more. The melody they play, despite being harmonized within the section itself, is simple but effective. Not everything has to be complicated!

George Benson - On Broadway

This song, despite being written by a team of writers and performed by other artists such as The Drifters, was brought to life by George in a clearly more musical context, but also by extending the simple one bar phrase. In an interview with Rick Beato, Benson discussed how, after a discussion with Quincy Jones, he changed the character of the song - the pattern now became two bars, a small change with a big result.

Rick Beato Interview

Also, there are not many people who can say they performed this on an album alongside Jim Henson and Ozzy Osborne - who knew Kermit the Frog had a hit record?!

A Simple Sound

George has always had a simple approach to his guitar tone. For the last 40 years he has worked with Ibanez guitars, ever since a delegation from the company brought him products to try out, traveling all the way from Japan to Los Angeles for the meeting.

A hugely successful partnership followed, with the guitars being simple but straight to the point - a workhorse if you will. Despite having a signature Fender amp at one point, Benson prefers to use the controls on the guitar to change the tone, which is always clean - as interesting as it would be to hear him play through a distorted amp, laden with time-based effects, it just wouldn’t feel right.

Instead, the approach always seems to be a clean sound that is shaped to fit perfectly amongst the other instruments in the ensemble. There is an inherent joy and euphoric simplicity in plugging a great guitar into a great amp.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned in my Guitar Heroes blog post about BB King (you can view it here), there are few people that are said to be as influential as both a singer and guitarist. Remember, this is about an artist and not a band.

One of the main things I take away from George’s masterful playing is the short, blistering sweeps and quick changes to a point further up the neck. Being able to have at your disposal the ability to create that space in your playing is very useful, then you will not be restricted to one area of the neck, or be stuck with a predictable pattern leading up to a target note. Of course, these big jumps are a bit jarring if you just go straight there - pulling it off is a skill you need to master both physically and theoretically if you are aiming to use it effectively.

I challenge anyone to try and find something about this great musician’s playing that they don’t like - there is literally something for everyone! Fast songs, slow ones, love songs and authentic jazz - he even has some wild-west sounding tunes and others that could be used in a musical. Just don’t expect any melodic death metal, as you may be a little disappointed!

If you are interested in learning any of George’s material, or incorporating some of his ideas into your own playing, then reach out to one of the amazing teachers at the American Guitar Academy!


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