I discovered the music of jazz guitarist George Benson in the 1980s and was blown away by his flawlessly articulated arpeggios and scalar-runs. Struggling with my own picking technique, I couldn’t comprehend how he pulled these things off. I eventually got to meet the Big Boss, as he’s nicknamed, but it wasn’t until years later when I took a lesson with guitar great Rodney Jones, currently on faculty at the Juilliard School, that I learned the secrets behind Benson’s special way with the plectrum.
Here, I’ll share what Jones taught me. Of course, Benson’s masterful improvisational skills could cover a whole lesson book, so I’ll focus mostly on his picking. And if jazz isn’t your thing, don’t worry: Whatever your style—and whether you prefer an archtop or a flattop acoustic, or even a nylon-string—you can use Benson’s approach to become a more skilled picker.
Benson purportedly developed his picking style as a result of practicing in a cramped car where he had to tilt his wrist at an upward angle. To introduce your pick hand to playing at an angle between 60 and 90 degrees, I’ll start with exercises using open strings. Begin by holding the pick between your index finger and thumb, near its tip. When you play the guitar, the pick should almost be perpendicular to the strings (see Picture 1). In the beginning, this position might seem unnatural, but try your best to adopt it. You’ll get used to it with practice.
The trick to playing the alternate-picked method (Ex. 1) is to make sure that your wrist is relaxed and your pick is doing most of the work. Start the exercise at 60 bpm, or slower if needed, gradually increasing the speed until you can play at a racing tempo with accuracy. Also, play Ex. 1 in the opposite direction, going from string 6 to string 1. And try experimenting with different variations. For example, skip strings every two beats instead of moving to the adjacent string.
Ex. 2 finds you focusing on one string per beat as opposed to changing strings every other beat, as in Ex. 1. See if you can create some of your own exercises based on the first two examples. For example, try jumping between three strings or more, say from the first to the fifth and then the second string.
In Ex. 3, play between two adjacent strings using eighth-note triplets. Each beat starts with a sweep—in this case, a single downward pick stroke used to sound two adjacent strings—followed by an upstroke. In the interest of efficiency, keep the pick as close to the strings as possible when you sweep down.
Benson is a master of playing arpeggios with sweep picking—continuous pickstrokes that allow you to play rapid bursts of sound. Ex. 4 depicts a major-seventh shape—with fingers 4, 3, 2, and 1 on strings 4, 3, 2, and 1, respectively—starting on Gbmaj7 and traveling up the neck chromatically (by a half step, or one fret). Keep this shape in place for the duration of the figure. While you’re sweeping the strings with a single pick stroke, lift each fretting finger just after you play the string it’s on, so that notes of the arpeggios don’t ring together.
As for your pick hand, the key to playing Ex. 4 is to use a smooth sweeping movement, with your wrist angled at 90 degrees, as you sound string 4, right through 3, 2, and 1. Once you’ve got the basic movement down, continue the pattern as far up on the neck as your guitar allows.
In Ex. 5, you’ll use the same major-seventh shape, but will sweep in the opposite direction, using continuous upstrokes to sound the arpeggios. Again, keep your pick hand at a 90-degree angle and let the pick do most of the work by letting it rest on each string during the sweep.
Ex. 6 expands on Benson’s sweep-picking concept while using both a downstroke and an upstroke on each arpeggio. Notice how your wrist is angled in the direction of each sweep, as shown in Pictures 2a–b.
In another variation, Ex. 7 alternates between upward and downward sweeps with major seventh chords spaced a minor third apart. Once you feel that you’ve mastered this week’s exercises, make up your own phrases using other chord types such as minor and dominant seventh.
Now, delve deeper into Benson’s sweep picking via some of his key licks, which are easiest to play on the unwound strings of an acoustic guitar. Ex. 8 starts on a Dm(add9) arpeggio and descends symmetrically in whole steps. Each arpeggio starts with a downstroke on the chord’s ninth and then an upstroke sweep on the lower notes. A G minor triad is given the same treatment in Ex. 9, but starting with an upstroke, followed by a sweep down.
In Ex. 10, you’ll find arpeggios from within the C major scale, each starting with an upstroke proceeded by a sweep down the top three strings. Try the figure as far up the neck as you can—the last bar might be difficult or impossible on a guitar without a cutaway—and then back down the neck.
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Now, tackle Benson’s signature pentatonic runs—great for developing pick-hand technique, not to mention adding excitement to acoustic-guitar solos. Each example is based on the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G) in fifth position, which pretty much everyone knows. Remember, fret all of the notes on frets 5, 7, and 8 with your first, third, and fourth fingers, respectively.
Ex. 11 is a four-note pentatonic lick that Benson often plays. Try it with alternate picking, starting at around 60 bpm and building up to 150 bpm or faster. The trick is to make sure that your wrist stays relaxed at faster tempos, and that you’re not picking with excessive force.
In Ex. 12, the scale is played in four-note groupings: a strenuous workout for both hands. Try it descending as written, and ascending as well. Ex. 13 demonstrates another Benson-approved pentatonic exercise with four-note groupings. Experiment with various picking approaches on this one: alternate picking down up or up down, or even sweeping where applicable.