Take your playing from blues to jazz and back with this lesson in the great George Benson’s style

George Benson
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

George Benson was born in Pittsburgh in 1943 and was playing ukulele and guitar in public before the age of 10. As a teenager he worked with organist Jack McDuff and recorded his first solo album, The New Boss Guitar, at 21.

George joined the Miles Davis band in the mid ’60s, featuring on 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’ and the following year won Grammys for Best Instrumental Performance, Best R&B Performance and Record Of The Year. 

From that point, Benson’s career has been staggeringly successful, remarkably diverse and prolific. He has amassed a legion of devoted fans across the world and has gained the respect and admiration from guitarists across all genres and generations.

His dedication and focus 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 jazz has remained a consistent.

He is still a regular face in the New York jazz guitar scene, frequently jamming with with up-and-coming players and taking great joy in ensuring his playing is always on top form.

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, along with contemporaries such as Grant Green and Pat Martino, and there’s a fair bit of blues too, possibly down to his enormous admiration and respect for his friend, the late great BB King, along with some of the bluesy and gospel inspired sounds George picked up from organ legends such as Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith.

The examples that follow explore this bluesier sides to George’s playing. We begin with a typical Benson phrase over a G7 vamp that uses a mixture of approaches combined within a single cohesive line.

Next, we break these ideas up, looking at both Mixolydian scale lines and minor pentatonic sequences, before moving onto chord-melody ideas and double-stop concepts against a G7th static tonality that you can incorporate into both your comping and improvisation vocabulary.

We round things off with a complete solo based around a 12-bar jazz-blues with a four-bar into tag, again in the key of G and full of George-inspired ideas that you can incorporate into your own playing, to add both sophistication and style.   

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 3, Bass 6, Middle 5, Treble 4, Reverb 4

George’s Ibanez signature guitar has been his instrument of choice for four decades so his sound has remained remarkably consistent. Strings are flatwounds with a14-gauge first, while amplification is split between a solid-state Polytone for its warmth and a Fender valve combo amp for a speedier response and punch. Pick a little closer to the neck pickup to achieve something close to Benson’s fat but articulate sound, but go easy on the reverb.

Technique Focus: Exploiting polyphony

We all love the excitement, intensity and power of soloing with a heavily distorted guitar tone. But one big advantage with a clean or moderately driven sound is that you can play more notes at the same time, for instance double-stops of all shapes and sizes (rather than being limited mainy to 4th and 5th ‘power-chord’ shapes that work so well with high gain), three and four-note chord fragments and, of course, compete five and six-string full chords.

Explore an entirely pick-based approach against perhaps pick and fingers on occasion; or ditch the pick altogether sometimes and see what just fingers have to offer

Players like George are never restricted to just single notes. His lines fluidly mix one, two, three or four notes at a time, thinking much more like a piano player at times. So consider mixing all these approaches when improvising as this will give you more textures from which to create.

You will need to think about how you’re going to articulate these ideas, so explore an entirely pick-based approach against perhaps pick and fingers on occasion; or ditch the pick altogether sometimes and see what just fingers have to offer.

George is going the ‘Wes’ route more and more these days, articulating the notes with a brush of the thumb. Curiosity is a remarkably useful creative tool so go into this with an open mind and see what you can uncover. 

Example 1. Benson phrase featuring mixed approaches

We kick things off with an extended Benson-inspired phrase against a static G7 tonality that mixes bluesy single-note lines with some parallel three-note chord sliding chord voicings. 

We then move through a fast chromatic bebop inspired line derived from G Mixolydian (G-A-B-C-D-E-F), although this is decorated with numerous chromatic passing tones, before concluding with as couplet of minor pentatonic blues phrasing and double-stops.  

Example 2. Melodic tools

In this example we’re essentially auditioning one of George’s favourite melodic tools, the Mixolydian or ‘Dominant’ scale (R-2-3-4-5-6-b7) with the inclusion of the bluesy sounding minor 3rd (Bb). Example 2a) defines a one-octave fingering for this scale, while examples 2b)-2f) use these notes exclusively to generate a selection of melodic lines or motifs. 

Note that, usually but not exclusively, the b3rd interval is used as a passing note to the major 3rd chord tone.

Example 3. Minor pentatonic sequences

Benson is particularly fond of using the minor Pentatonic scale (G-Bb-C-D-F), often against dominant 7th chords, as you would in blues-based styles, but also on occasion against straight major and even major 7th tonalities. 

Here we’re using it in various numeric sequences against a G7#9, so you could consider the minor 3rd of G (Bb) to actually be functioning as the raised 9th of G7 (A#). Whatever the rationale, it certainly sounds bluesy and George uses this a lot. 

Example 4. Melodic harmonisation

George is a master at incorporating harmonised lines in with his single-note improvisations, so this example takes the same initially bluesy melodic line and explores how George might develop this by using in turn the following approaches: octaves, parallel big-band chord voicings, and finally block organ-like powerchords derived from octaves, 4ths and 5ths. If you like the sound of the organ-like powerchords, try them with a touch of distortion – it’s mega!

Example 5. Double-stops

Here we’re looking at a selection of double-stop ideas that you can use to define a G7 tonality. Make sure you transpose these exercises to also outline both the IV7 (C7) and V7 (D7) chords. 

Again, we’re looking at a variety of different approaches here, including harmonised arpeggio lines and also blending pentatonic double-stops with single-note lines. With these pentatonic double-stops you can clearly hear the Chuck Berry influence, albeit in a jazz setting.

Example 6. Full solo

We end with a contextualised solo against as 12-bar blues with in the key of G, full of ideas inspired by Benson’s style. We’re using the last four bars of the sequence as an intro and our thinking is loosely divided into four x four-bar ‘topics’, beginning with bluesy single-note lines, moving to some three and four-note chordal ideas. 

Next up we see some jazzy sounding Mixolydian action against C7 (C-E-G-Bb) and G7 (G-B-D-G), with added chromatic decoration. We round things off with some double-stops before finishing on a pair of colourful 7#9 voicings to define the move between V7 (D7#9) to I7 (G7#9).

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John Wheatcroft

John is Head of Guitar at BIMM London and a visiting lecturer for the University of West London (London College of Music) and Chester University. He's performed with artists including Billy Cobham (Miles Davis), John Williams, Frank Gambale (Chick Corea) and Carl Verheyen (Supertramp), and toured the world with John Jorgenson and Carl Palmer.