Talking More Music with George Benson

Part two of a conversation between the guitar legend and Marcus Miller

George Benson
George Benson (photo: Austin Hargrave)

When was the first time you were sitting in a club or listening to music in the car, and you hear a guitar solo, and it’s just 100% clear that this particular guitarist is influenced not by Wes Montgomery, not by Charlie Christian, but by you, by George Benson?

That was an eye-opener, and it let me know that what I was doing was not in vain. It happened to me early—one of the guys from Sly and the Family Stone, the guitar player.

Freddie Stone?

My favorite lick that I played on every record, because I only knew a few licks. And I heard him play that lick on one of their records. I told my wife, “That’s my lick! He’s playing my lick!” She says, “Oh, why would a group that popular play something of yours? Why would he even bother to play something by you?” Then later he told me, “Yeah, it was George Benson’s.”

But Norman Brown is the best answer to that question you just asked. I think his first records were recorded on my [Ibanez] GB-20, which is the jazz version of the GB-10. It’s a full-bodied guitar, the GB-10 is a ¾-size body thickness. The articulation he gets from that—and he is a great technician, in the sense that he has great chops—and cleanly played with nice phrasing in it would’ve been impossible on a [Gibson] L-5.

How do you deal with that? Because there’s another version of George Benson who would’ve been resentful of someone like Norman Brown who is so clearly influenced by you. He’s influenced by Wes, but he’s influenced by you in the fact that he’s playing that style against contemporary music, he’s soloing and he’s singing at the same time. We haven’t even talked about that part yet. And you’re so gracious with musicians who are so clearly influenced by you, and that’s not always the case with musicians. I remember a friend of mine, a trumpet player, was playing at a club in L.A. and Freddie Hubbard was at the bar and my friend was like, “Wow, it’s Freddie Hubbard!” And the guy came up to Freddie after the set and said, “Man, I’m so honored that you’re here.” And Freddie said, “Man, play your own shit! Stop playing my stuff!” You could be that guy, but I’ve never seen you do that. I’ve seen you encourage, I’ve seen you praise, it’s incredible. Does it ever affect you any other way than that?

Can you imagine where I came from, man, to be jealous of what another cat has come up with [who] says that I influenced his career, and I’m one of the reasons why he is who he is and plays like he plays, that I had something to do with that? Of course, his accomplishments are his own. I learned that from all the cats—Lou Donaldson used to say, “Hey, I come from that era with Charlie Parker. But Charlie Parker didn’t practice this horn. I practiced this horn, and that’s me playing.”

They were on Lou Donaldson’s case for being influenced by Bird.

There were a lot of those guys. But that’s how things are. Somebody hears something, it’s only a stepping stone to someplace else. Pat Metheny used to want to play like Pat Martino and me. I remember his very earliest records, I heard some of my licks and I heard some of Pat Martino’s licks. But the guy who came out from that, Pat Metheny, is a giant musician.

He’s very much his own guy.

Yes, very much. I mean, I’m proud of what he’s accomplished. If I had anything to do with that, good. And I’m proud of Norman Brown and people like him because they did what happened to me; they told us we couldn’t handle jobs, we can only play blues and the funky stuff, and the soul stuff. Now he’s gone way beyond that. He’s taken us to another level, he’s showing us another way of doing things. Because no one man can show all of that by himself. It’s nice to have somebody else who supports or contributes to your ideas from another point of view, and shows people what it is that I’m trying to accomplish. He got the message, and says here’s where we’re going from here.

I’ve seen you walking around the house and there’s always a guitar in your hands.

Yeah, I’ve got about 45 of them here.

No matter where you reach, there’s a guitar.

In my office now, there’s about six of them that I haven’t put back in the closet yet, and they gave me a new Fender amplifier. That is fabulous, man. You’ve got to hear this, you’ve got to see this amplifier.

I noticed that when you’re walking around the house practicing, you never use a pick.

No, I don’t. I think it’s a mistake. Young Earl Klugh—I call him “Young Earl” because I’ve known him since he was in his mid-teens—showed me what was possible because he studied with a classical trainer who studied with Andrés Segovia. Earl had proper training. He is a classic example of what music can do when you understand it from different points of view and you know what’s possible. I remember our conversation and he said, “George, nobody wants to hear anybody play classical stuff.” And I said, “Earl, they’ve been telling me ever since I went to New York what I can’t do. Everything they told me I couldn’t do, I went lightyears beyond that.”

We’re talking about I couldn’t sell records. John Hammond told me that the greatest jazz player in the world only sold 20,000-something. I said, “No, man. We’ve got three and a half billion people”—at that time—“and Miles Davis only sold 20,000 albums?” He said, “That’s what he sells.” I said, “Well, how many do you think we’re going to sell?” He said, “Somewhere between three and six thousand.” Wow. Then I was very disturbed and I told him, “Man, I think if you put something on there that people want to hear, they’ll buy it.” That was 1966 when I said that to him. In 1978 when he came by my house to do an interview, he said, “George, you were right.” I had forgotten I had said that and I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You said that if you put something on a record that people want to hear, they’ll buy it.” And by that time we had sold almost a hundred million dollars’ worth of records.

Marcus Miller

Marcus Miller has played bass on more than 500 albums. The artists with whom he has collaborated in the past four decades include everyone from Miles Davis to Beyoncé. His latest album as a leader is 2018’s Laid Black, released on Blue Note Records. He is also a veteran film-score composer and the host of Miller Time on SiriusXM’s Real Jazz channel.