Jeff Beck has been called “the greatest living rock guitarist.” He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, in 1992 as part of The Yardbirds, and in 2009 as a solo artist. Jeff Beck has won eight Grammy Awards in his career, three of them in 2010. He has released fifteen albums as a solo artist, and has performed with many of the world’s top artists. Both Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones at one point wanted him as a band member.
Rolling Stone magazine called Beck “one of the most influential lead guitarists in rock,” who has “helped shape blues, rock, psychedelia and heavy metal.” Hundreds of great players have name-checked Beck as major influence. In fact, it’s hard to find a top guitar player who is not influenced by Beck. His looks are even said to have been the blueprint for the Nigel Tufnell character in This Is Spinal Tap.
Given all the above, one would expect Jeff Beck to be a household name, on par with other guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and his erstwhile Yardbird colleagues Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. In fact, Clapton, Page and Beck are regarded as the big three legends of British rock guitar, sometimes called “the holy triumvirate.” But despite this, Beck has always been less in the public eye than his esteemed colleagues.
The reasons for this are many. Jeff Beck is not a prolific song writer or singer, and other than The Yardbirds has never been a member of a house-hold-name band. He also has shifted genres several times during a career that sometimes followed a bewildering zig-zag course. On top, several health issues, as well as his love of Hot Rods, with him doing the car mechanic work himself, led to him repeatedly taking time out from music. This has made his career not only zig-zag but also stop-start.
But perhaps the overriding reason why Beck is the lesser known of the super-guitarists is that his playing often is more abstract, harder to grasp, and defying expectations. Though he possesses sumptuous technique, he never uses flash guitar wizardry to impresses. Instead every note he plays matters, and his playing is about feel and expression, about playing the right notes in the right way at the right moment with the right sound.
Often Beck’s playing barely sounds like a guitar, and perhaps because he rarely sings, he uses the guitar as a substitute, making it sound like a voice. It is the spirit, the feel, the spontaneity, the creativity of his playing, the capacity to go beyond what’s considered possible on the guitar, that’s the biggest influence on other players, and why he is often called “the guitarist’s guitarist.
So how did Beck become such a groundbreaking and influential player? Geoffrey Arnold Beck was born on June 24, 1944 in south London, and was just eight years old when he realized the guitar was his destiny. He listened to guitar players like Gene Vincent, BB King, and Steve Cropper, and because his parents could not afford to buy a guitar, he began playing on a borrowed instrument, and even tried to make his own guitar.
During Beck’s teenage years his older sister introduced him to Jimmy Page, and the two became friends. Beck played in many different groups, and made his recording debut in 1962, at the age of 18, with the single “Dracula’s Daughter”/“Come Back Baby” by Screaming Lord Such and the Savages. Beck also played with bands like The Nightshift, The Rumbles and The Tridents. In 1964 he performed as a session player on a single by the Fitz and Startz.
In March 1965, Beck’s career took a sharp turn upwards when he was invited to replace Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds. Beck remained with the band for 20 months, during which time the band enjoyed most of its greatest hit singles, and recorded an album that is regarded as the band’s magnum opus. Released self-titled in the UK in 1966, and as Over Under Sideways Down in the US, the album became known as “Roger The Engineer.”
During his time with The Yardbirds Beck played guitars like a 1954 Fender Esquire, a 1958 Fender Telecaster, a 1959/60 Gibson Les Paul, and he used a Vox ACX30 amplifier. He provided the band with a far wider range of musical influences than Clapton, and also a far more varied palette of sounds, including distortion, wah-wah, echo, feedback, and more. The band laid the blueprint for psychedelic rock, using Indian and middle-Eastern influences, and Beck pioneered many different and novel guitar effects, for example the ToneBlender MK1 fuzz box.
On May 16, 1966, Beck organized a historic session with Jimmy Page, The Who’s Keith Moon on drums, John Paul Jones on bass and Nicky Hopkins on piano. Beck played his Les Paul, and Page a Fender Electric XII 12-string guitar. The result was an instrumental called “Beck’s Bolero,” with Beck playing a heavily distorted solo that alternates between major and minor. Phasing, echo and feedback effects can be heard, and the track ends with a backwards guitar recording.
Beck left The Yardbirds at the end of 1966, to focus on a solo career. In 1967, he recorded “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” which became his greatest hit. Beck came to regard “Hi Ho Silver Lining” as a bit if a millstone, likening it to “having a pink toilet seat hung around your neck for the rest of your life.” The B-side, “Beck’s Bolero,” however, has remained one of his favourite tracks, which he performs in concert to this day.
Beck’s first solo album, Truth, was released in the US in July 1968, and is widely regarded as a milestone in his oeuvre, as well as one of the stepping stones for heavy metal. Beck mostly used a 1954 Fender Stratocaster, and his playing was described at the time as “incendiary,” “blistering,” “blazing,” “having his amp up to 13” and “breaking ground for generations of metal ax-slingers.”
Beck’s next step was to form the Jeff Beck Group, which released Beck-Ola in June 1969. The album is a development of Truth, dominated by heavy blues and heavy rock influences, though with less compelling material. By the end of the sixties, Beck had switched to using Marshall Super Lead amps and played his Strats more often than other guitars, allowing him to use whammy bar effects.
In 1971, a new line-up of the Jeff Beck Group, released the album Rough and Ready. It saw Beck writing most of the material and marked a shift towards jazz-rock, soul and even AOR. With the same line-up, The Jeff Beck Group recorded an eponymously-titled follow up, released in May 1972, which pushed the music even further into soul territory.
Beck disbanded Jeff Beck Group and formed a power trio with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, which in 1973 released an album called Beck, Bogert & Appice, which met an underwhelming critical and commercial fate. The highlight of the album was Beck’s version of Stevie Wonder’s superhit “Superstition,” which the singer had in fact originally written for Beck.
By this stage, Beck was no longer interested in being a “maniac lead guitarist.” He wanted to widen his horizons, and many new aspects to his playing came to fruition on his second genuine solo album, Blow by Blow, released in 1975. Produced by the legendary George Martin it became Beck’s best-selling solo album to date, and it is still regarded as a highlight of his career, with Beck playing a 1954 Gibson “Oxblood” Les Paul and a 1959 Fender Telecaster “Tele-Gib,” as well as other instruments.
The album showcased the first signs of the slower, more lyrical, melodic side of Beck’s playing, with echoes of Roy Buchanan, where a combination of the volume button, whammy bar, and his hands create violin-like sounds. Beck started playing phrases that sound like they’re sculped out of thin air, and that mimic the human voice.
George Martin also produced the equally highly-rated successor, Wired. Released in 1976. It earned Beck his first Grammy nomination. Next was the album, There and Back, released in 1980, and again featuring music strongly influenced by jazz-rock.
Beck’s next album, Flash, released in 1985, was a big-budget pop release trying to break Beck to a larger audience. It earned Beck a Grammy, for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, but also fairly average reviews. Beck has spoken regretfully about “Flash,” saying “It was a sad sort of time for me. I didn’t have a grip on what I should be doing or what was expected of me.”
The eighties appear not to have been a good time for Beck in general, as he didn’t release or perform much because of a battle with tinnitus. Instead he spent a lot of time with his cars. However, Beck must have put his time off to good use, because his 1989 album, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, was a masterpiece. It’s also the first album on which Beck plays with his fingers rather than a pick.
In many ways, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, lays down the blueprint for the guitar style of the second part of his career. There are hard-hitting rock work-outs, as well as tracks in which he creates sounds using his fingers, whammy bar and volume button. Rather than just using the whammy bar as an effect, he learned to play actual melodies with it. The album won Beck another Grammy, again for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
Beck’s next genuine solo album didn’t appear until 1999. Who Else! featured a lot of industrial-sounding electronica. He recorded two more albums in a similar vein, You Had It Coming (2001), and Jeff (2003), and the latter two albums each yielded him a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance
Beck shifted course dramatically with the far more lyrical and varied Emotion & Commotion (2010). It sees Beck performing three classical pieces, in which he almost literally made his guitar sound like an opera singer. The album earned him two Grammy Awards and two Grammy nominations. Beck’s most recent album is Loud Hailer (2016), which is one of his freshest and most exuberant, with rock-based songs full of attitude.
Throughout all this Jeff Beck has continued to develop and refine his guitar playing, distilling it to its very essence. Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of Beck’s astonishing guitar skills can be found on his many live albums, and no more so than on the 2008 DVD, Performing This Week… Live at Ronnie Scott’s, which went platinum in the US, a very unusual feat for a concert DVD.
He used a Fender Custom Shop Strat for the Ronnie Scott concerts, with a Klon Centaur overdrive pedal (replacing his Pro Co Rat), and modulation effects like rotary speaker, ring modulator, and flanger, plus a Lexicon reverb and a Marshall JTM45 amplifier.
Until covid came along, Beck’s live performances were jaw-dropping excursions into the outer limits of guitar playing. Today, coming up for his 77th birthday, Jeff Beck is working with Johnny Depp on a recording project, and continues to be one of the most innovative and instantly recognizable guitarists alive. New releases and his return to the live stage are eagerly awaited.
Written By: Paul Tingen
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