Two great guitarists from two different generations were gracious enough to take time out of their busy touring and recording schedules to talk to Musician’s Friend.
George Benson was just about to embark upon a world tour that will see him in Germany, Serbia, Switzerland and Italy by the time this issue lands in homes. Summer will find Bonamassa in Europe as well, with a heavy concentration of dates in the United Kingdom come the fall. Both artists are promoting new recordings, Benson, a beautiful recording called Guitar Man that features an all-star group, and Bonamassa with a recording featuring vocalist Beth Hart, as well as a more funk-oriented release called We Want Groove.
Musician’s Friend: The Ibanez George Benson was introduced in 1978. Have there been any changes at all to it over the years?
George Benson: Very few changes in the GB10, which is one of the first models I did. I did one called the GB20, which was more a full-size jazz guitar. The GB10 is a kind of hybrid guitar. It's in between things. I did that so that cats who travel would have the opportunity to put their guitar right up above their head on the airplane.
MF: Really? So the dimensions were specifically cut to accommodate the overheads?
GB: That was one of the great advantages of having that size. And another was to eliminate the feedback that used to happen when you turn the volume up.
MF: That happens with big box guitars.
GB: Big box guitars get this low-end hum. It wears you out.
MF: Same question for you, Joe. In putting together your signature instruments, like the one that's based on the Goldtop, what design considerations did you communicate to Gibson in producing it?
JB: I wanted a '50s style Goldtop, obviously. The lowered logo, like an early '57 Goldtop, except we didn't do the triple ply guard. We did like an English blackguard, like the kind of pickguard that was on Jeff Beck's guitar – probably home-made, at that point. The other thing that was critical was the shape of the neck. At that point in time I was really into big profile necks, like big chunky '58 type necks, so we kind of made a neck like that. The black back was critical for the aesthetic. It’s based on a guitar that essentially came into my dad's guitar shop and it was broken so many times that they'd spray painted it black to hide all the breakpoints. That's because those Les Pauls would break if you lean them up against chairs and they fall over.
MF: George, you used to play the Guild Artist Award. Did that kind of have a tendency to feed back a little on the low end?
GB: It taught me something. It taught me how to set my guitar so that I wouldn't get so much of it. I could get rid of 75 to 80% of it through some of the way that I tuned the amplifier, but the GB10 was a natural because it didn't have that very, very low end. I could turn the volume up on stage playing with synthesizers and saxophones and loud guitar, background guitars. So it really worked beautifully for what I designed it for.
Plus it's also a very strong instrument. My guitars used to break. The neck used to snap on them because of temperature changes, things like that. It was always getting adjustments. I used to take it to the store and they would have to readjust my guitar every two, three days and I got tired of that. So my deal with Ibanez was that they would build me a guitar that was roadworthy, where you wouldn't have to have a batch of tools. So they made everything work pretty much by hand. You could adjust it without tools. Not only the tailpiece and bridge, but the tuning pegs.
MF: Joe, a minute ago, you mentioned your Dad’s shop. You grew up around music stores. Particularly among guitarists with a blues orientation, you obviously have a great love of the gear.
JB: Oh, yeah. I'm a guitar geek. I collect. That's essentially what I am, is a collector of rare things and cool things from the '50s and '60s. Some people collect '30s motorcycle advertising. Some people collect old light fixtures and tennis rackets and golf clubs. Some of us collect '59, '60, '58 Les Pauls.
MF: Do you visit music stores very much these days?
JB: Every day off. When we go out, we want to find the junk shops. We love old music stores that are just full of junk and we can rifle through it, because you do find the odd gem. Again, I'm not looking for Strats and Teles and the usual suspects. I want to find stuff that nobody has, because that's the collector in me. I’m looking for some weird old pedal or tube amp or some kind of nonsense that.
MF: George, which George Benson model are you playing live these days? The GB10 or the GB20?
GB: The one that I'm playing now is called the LGB 300, meaning Little George Benson, and that guitar is spectacular. It has a – I don't know if you remember the Johnny Smith guitar. It had a neck and fingerboard that were spectacular and that's what I wanted on this new guitar. At first Ibanez didn't know what it was. They said they had never heard of it. I said, “What?!” Then they called me back and they said, “You know, we found the guitar. We know what the neck is. We know what the fingerboard is.” I said, “That's the one I want on this guitar.” And they did it. Man, it is easy to play. You can play chords or solos on it. You know, single line stuff. So that's the guitar I think is right for what I'm doing now.
MF: Moving on to amplifiers, Joe, have you ever experimented with any of the amp modeling technologies?
JB: Why? I mean, if I need a sound like a super lead Marshall. I can just plug in a Super Lead Marshall. I'd rather plug in a real Twin. And it's not necessary to have the vintage ones. It's like if someone said here's a model of a blackface Twin, and I'm looking at the price tag of it and it's got the same price tag as the reissue of the blackface Twin. I'd just take the Twin.
MF: What amps are on the road with you these days?
JB: A bunch of vintage Marshalls, small box 50s, DSLs. I have a Suhr amp and a few others.
MF: George, what can you tell us about the new Fender amp that bears your name?
GB: Fender asked me, they said, “What's your favorite amp? I think we know what it is. I think you play Polytone.” I said, “I do. I've been playing Polytone for years.” So they ask, “What is it you like about Polytone?” I said, “Because it makes the guitar sound natural.” It does not hype the high end or the low end. Just has a very natural sound.
I said, “But you know, I know what Fender is and why they do what they do, but as a jazz player, these are the things I look for.” They said, “Well, maybe we can contour the electronics to give you what you need.” I said, “Let's see what it is we can do.”
When I told them what I liked, first thing they did was start juggling around some tubes. When they hit a certain sound I said, “Hey, man, I like that.” I've got clarity and I've got low end and high end where it's supposed to be. Real low end and real high end, not overhyped. Plus it gave me some headroom that I didn't have before. With Fender, once you turn up to two or three you are too loud, you know [laughs].
Then we had to deal with the cabinet, the material we used on the cabinet, the cosmetics of the amp. The weight of the amp we wanted to keep to a minimum. I said, “You know something? When I was a kid, it didn't make no difference that this amp weighed almost a hundred pounds, but today, [laughs].” So they said, “You know something? We could bring that down because the speakers we're using now are different. We can use a different speaker.” So we cut the weight probably in half. You know how good that is for cats like myself? There’s a lot of cats who play restaurants, night clubs, and all kind of odd gigs here and there, you know what I'm saying?
MF: Now, both of you are singers. Joe first, are you particular about the microphones you use?
JB: I've been using a Beyer(dynamic) for a long time, M88, M69. I used to use M88, but now my main live microphone is the M69.
MF: How about you, George?
GB: We experiment with them. We've got a wireless that I'll use. I can't even tell you what it is right now.
MF: How about in the studio?
GB: In the studio we still mess around with the 57 or 58, whatever.
MF: For vocal?
GB: Sure, man. And then there's the Shure SM7. That's what we used for the vocal on “Give Me the Night.”
MF: And how about stage monitoring? Do you have a consistent strategy there? Joe?
JB: I started using in-ear monitors last year and for singing there's no better thing. 100 percent of the time. I mean you lose the beauty of walking around the stage and playing the sweet spot, but given a good engineer you can get around that. It just sounds better.
MF: How about you, George?
GB: I still use the floor monitors. The other way gets too complicated for me. One of them drops out while you're trying to play or sing, and you're in trouble. So we use monitors in front of me on stage. My band uses those big ear things, the earplugs.
MF: Joe, on the subject of gear minutia, how married are you to your slide preference, your capo preference, preferred string brand, et cetera?
JB: I use Ernie Ball strings. They make them 11 and 52, but I would use them whether I had an endorsement or not, because I like those. I use Dunlop slides, metal slides. I don't like glass slides. But I used those way before I had a deal with them, also. Everything that I use gear-wise is stuff I use anyway. Now that they're nice enough to endorse us and give it to me free, but I was also a paying customer for many years.
MF: That makes sense to me, if a manufacturer identifies a respected artist who's already using their gear and say, hey, how about we establish a relationship? As opposed to…
JB: Right, it’s not phony. I mean there's people that show up every day with a bag full of pedals that they built and they go this a better than a Tube Screamer. I go, no, it's not. Stop saying that. It's different than a Tube Screamer. Tube Screamer is a legendary icon pedal. It's awesome and it sounds great. There's a reason why everybody from metalheads to blues guys use them, because they got it right the first time. You're not going to re-invent the wheel. Show me something that's different. Show me something that's funky. What's your take on a ring modulator? If I had a nickel for every time I've seen a modded Tube Screamer, a modded this, a modded that – I'm like, guys, you're losing the plot. Who's inventing the next Univibe? Who's inventing the next Rotosphere?
MF: How about you, George. On the little stuff, for gear, it's not the biggest piece of gear, but is there a pick that you prefer?
GB: I design my own picks. They're slightly different than the standard, what you would call the Nick Lucas type or the Fender type. They're very close to Fender type, but I did my own shavings on it and I had Ibanez copy it. So Ibanez makes the George Benson guitar pick.
MF: That makes sense.
GB: But I plan to do some things with Fender, like straps and things like that, some novelty things guitar players need or would like to have, perhaps, on the stage to brighten things up, give them some new ideas and things like that.
MF: How about cables? Are you pretty steady with the cables that you use?
GB: The Monster people gave me some cables to go on the road with. We experimented with for a few years. Perhaps Fender will design a cable. They've got plenty of cables of their own that I like to experiment with, see what happens.
MF: Cool. Maybe moving a little bit away into something a little more touchy-feely, are there specific qualities that you seek in your bandmates?
GB: Actually, the best band I ever had probably was the Breezin' band because it had variety in it. The attitudes of the musician's were slightly – their experience in life was different. Jorge Dalto was from Argentina, so he knew Argentine folk music very well, but he wanted to be a jazz player, but he brought all of that folk music along with it. So he really had a good understanding of harmonies and so forth and so on and he played colors that you don't hear in jazz music. More related to R&B 2/5 progressions, but he played them very well. Semi-classical, his style was. And then Ronny Foster was the rawest of raw. He just happened to be a – he had great facility, even as a kid, 15 years old. He could play anything. His ears were big. He was an experimenter and I liked that about him. He was never boring at all. I didn't know what he was going to play next. I don't think he knew what he was going to play next. He just dove into his solos with all fours and they were always exciting.
JB: Hey, before we go, I just wanted to tell you that you guys just bailed me out. My Rotosphere died – I've had it forever – mid-show the other night. We thought something was wrong with the loop, but we determined it was the Rotosphere and you guys were nice enough to just overnight me a brand new Hughes and Kettner Rotosphere. Boom, it was there by 10 o'clock the next morning. It's currently on my board and works great, so I'm not only an interviewee – what's the old Sy Sperling commercial?
MF: “I'm not just the Hair Club president, I'm also a client.”
JB: I'm also a client. So you're in a customer service business, as am I, and the readers should know and everybody at Musician's Friend know that the level of service and professionalism and timely shipment is unparalleled.
MF: I appreciate that, Joe.
JB: Hey, I have to jump off in a minute because I have to start warming up because my hands hurt today and I have to start limbering up for around an hour. But yes, I have a practice routine. I try to warm up, but I'm also going to take advantage of this really awesome arena backstage and I'm going to put the amp in the shower stall and I'm going to blast this freaking box.