George Benson at 81

March 22, 2024 marks the 81st birthday of George Benson, one of the most inspiring and influential jazz guitarists of our time. If you are a musician who enjoys playing and learning blues or jazz music, then it’s very likely you’ve heard of George Benson. If his name and music are new to you, it’s likely you’ve heard his distinctive guitar playing, as he has been a prolific performer and recording artist for the past sixty years, playing with everyone from Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder and Chaka Kahn. His list of accomplishments is astonishing: ten Grammy awards, triple platinum record sales, more than two hundred recordings as a leader or sideman, countless international tours, consistently sold-out concerts, and adoring audiences all over the world. His contribution to the tradition of guitar playing in jazz and popular music cannot be understated and his influence on the generations of guitarists who have followed him is undeniable. There are few guitarists alive who have so profoundly impacted the tradition of guitar playing.

Benson is considered one of the great innovators of jazz guitar, effortlessly fusing blues, r&b, jazz, and pop music into his own personal style, with a sound that is deeply soulful. Born and raised in the historically African American neighborhood of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, he first began performing publicly as a young child. His earliest musical outings were as a vocalist, singing blues and honkytonk songs in drug stores and informal settings within his community. He developed his natural talents into his teenage years, eventually connecting with several brilliant artists at an early age, including the famed organist, Jack McDuff. In high school, his interest and ability to play jazz music began to blossom. He cites Charlie Parker’s soulful version of the jazz standard “Just Friends” from the Charlie Parker with Strings record as a watershed moment in his approach to incorporating jazz music into his guitar playing. 

It was during these later teenage years that Benson developed his signature sound, playing solos that are steeped in the blues, but with an added depth of harmony and language commonly found in jazz music. At the age of 21 in 1964, Benson was signed to the Prestige label to release his debut recording as a leader, titled The New Boss Guitar of George Benson. This record features his brilliant guitar playing in a quartet setting that also includes the great Jack McDuff on organ. 

Much of the music on this first record expresses the scope of influences Benson continued to draw from for the next sixty years. The eight-song record includes several blues songs, a few popular jazz standards including “Will You Still Be Mine” and “Easy Living,” and ends with an up-tempo burner that shows off Benson’s astonishing facility as a soloist. This recording is a must have for any aspiring guitarist. It is a masterclass in how to play guitar, how to swing, and how to arrange guitar within a small group setting. Benson’s single note lines, his chord vocabulary, the guitar arrangements for each song, particularly on “Easy Living” which features his chord-melody playing, and his general musical feel are all extraordinary.  The unique fusion of jazz, blues and popular songs come together in a musical expression that is both accessible, and original. Benson is quoted as saying “I kind of take from everybody and it comes out like me,” which is evident on this record. Incorporating these various musical languages into a personal style and expression was groundbreaking. The New Boss Guitar of George Benson sounds as fresh, inspiring, grooving, and innovative today as it did in 1964. If you are new to Benson’s music, this is a great record with which to start.

From this first recording as a leader, through the hundreds of other recordings and thousands of performances throughout his career, Benson has solidified his place among the great artists of American music. He is revered among musicians and vocalists, and particularly guitarists. His name is synonymous with jazz guitar. His towering influence can be heard in many of the great jazz guitarists such as Bobby Broom, Mark Whitfield, Peter Bernstein, Russell Malone, just to name a few. Pat Metheny, also one of the most prolific and celebrated guitarists of our time, has remarked “If George made a guitar trio record every year, the world would be a better place…. He is one of my favorite guitar players of all time, right there with Wes, Django, Kenney Burrell, and Jim Hall.” Nearly every jazz guitarist from Mike Stern to Jeff Beck has cited him as one of their absolute favorite guitarists. 

After decades of performing all over the world, Benson has recently announced he will stop touring. At 81, he has certainly contributed more than most to the music we love. Fortunately for us, we can access his extensive back catalogue of live performances online and continue to enjoy and learn from his work for generations to come. Thank you for the inspiration, Mr. Benson!  

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