When I first heard a couple of weeks ago that Jeff Beck died, I was sad, of course, particularly because he’d been taken by bacterial meningitis, a relatively uncommon occurrence these days. But I can’t deny that it just didn’t affect me the way I would’ve been devastated by the passing of Eric Clapton, or Jimmy Page, Beck’s fellow travelers in the British rock pantheon.
I came of age musically with Cream, and then Led Zeppelin, and for some reason I still can’t quite figure out, I never immersed myself the same way in Beck’s musical offerings. I’m not alone in this. Beck never got anything close to the worldwide fame, attention and appreciation of Clapton or Page, even though he was arguably as influential among recent generations of guitarists as either of them. They don’t call Beck “the guitarists’ guitarist” for nothing.
Beck’s death forced me to sit down over the past fortnight and finally listen closely to Beck’s catalog — his days with The Yardbirds (1965-1966), his time as leader of the Jeff Beck Group (1968-1973) and as a solo artist (1975-2023). What a revelation! Why did I wait so long?
There’s a clear reason, it seems to me, why Beck’s music often didn’t do as well on the charts as his compatriots’ albums did. Beck was far more experimental, innovative and willing to go beyond the blues or blues-rock favored by Clapton and Page. From his earliest recordings, he pushed the guitar to produce new, unusual sounds; he embraced the possibilities of incorporating jazz chords and free-form tempos in his jazz fusion period and beyond; and he spent most of his solo career recording instrumental tracks without benefit of a vocalist, pretty much a requirement if you’re going to make the pop charts.
I recall hearing Beck’s amazing blues-drenched 1968 debut album “Truth” in a record store around the same time I was snatching up the Cream and Zeppelin LPs, and I was compelled to buy it, but curiously, I didn’t listen to it all that often, and I didn’t buy any subsequent Beck albums. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I didn’t much care for the vocals provided by a young Rod Stewart. (In fact, I’ve never liked Stewart, particularly after he converted to a more pop-oriented approach.)
After getting the advice from a few Beck fanatics (especially my friend Ira) who pointed me toward the “essential” songs in his catalog, I found myself feeling more and more foolish that I failed to give this virtuoso his due. Each album in his repertoire — especially 1975’s “Blow By Blow,” 1989’s “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” and 2001’s “You Had It Coming” — contains tracks that had me picking my jaw up off the floor. Holy smokes. I now hereby acknowledge, belatedly, what my electric guitar player friends have been talking about all these years.
As Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash put it, “It’s a lot easier to appreciate Beck’s guitar playing if you’re a guitar player. He just had such a natural control over the instrument. It’s the ability to make it do something that you’ve never heard anybody else do. ‘Blow By Blow’ is the album I had when I was a kid. Jeff would go from love songs to a really blistering, hard-rock, heavy-sounding guitar without ever going over the top.”
Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil added, “Jeff Beck was an incredibly proficient guitarist, but he wasn’t Mr. Pedant. The late Seventies to late Eighties were full of guitarists who were preoccupied with technique, like the guitar wasn’t a voice but a tool to be mastered. Jeff Beck wasn’t that way. He used it as a microphone. He was confident.”
When Beck was just a boy, his parents pointed him toward the piano and encouraged him to learn the classics, but when he heard the great Les Paul on the radio playing “How High the Moon,” Beck asked his mother about it. “That’s an electric guitar,” she said. “It’s all done with tricks.” He replied, “Well, that’s for me!”
He was inspired by blues guitarists like B. B. King and R&B-leaning players such as Steve Cropper, and began learning on a borrowed guitar. He even made attempts to build his own guitar using cigar boxes and fence pieces. This early inventiveness became an integral part of his adult life, as he loved to tear apart and rebuild everything from guitars to cars, marveling at how things worked and how he might alter them to make them go faster, farther, louder.
As a teen, he met Page, and began playing in a succession of regional groups, most notably The Tridents, who played “flat-out R&B, like Jimmy Reed stuff, and we supercharged it all up and made it really rocky,” Beck recalled. “I got off on that, even though it was really only twelve-bar blues.” He also did some work as a session guitarist for a couple of records, although they went nowhere.
Then at age 21, he was recruited to become the guitarist for The Yardbirds, a promising British blues band that had just scored a Top Ten pop hit in the US called “For Your Love.” Truth be told, the position became open because Clapton, who considered himself a blues purist, didn’t want to play pop music and left to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (and then Cream). He suggested Page as his replacement, but Page was involved in lucrative session gigs, so he declined but instead lobbied for Beck to fill the slot, who eagerly jumped at the opportunity.
He was with the band for only a year and a half, but the work he did with them was significant. First came “Heart Full of Soul,” another Top Ten hit that featured Beck on what has been called the first use of a fuzz box to deliberately distort his guitar to sound like something else, in this case a sitar. This was followed by the #11 hit “Shapes of Things,” a cover of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and the manic “Over Under Sideways Down,” all showcasing Beck’s edgy stylings. When the band lost its bass player, Page, who had grown bored with session work, agreed to temporarily take on the assignment. Once a new bass player was found, Page reverted to guitar, and for a few months, The Yardbirds boasted both Beck and Page on guitar, producing the psychedelic “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and a heavy metal-ish remake of the jump blues tune “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”
But Beck disliked the constant touring and either left the group or was fired, depending who’s telling the story. (“They fired me,” said Beck from the podium at The Yardbirds’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.) He was a self-described perfectionist with a bad temper, which earned him a reputation as being somewhat difficult to work with, but he managed to pull together a lineup of future stars to comprise The Jeff Beck Group: Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on bass, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards and John Paul Jones on bass and keyboards. They recorded “Truth” in 1968 and “Beck-Ola” in 1969 but then disbanded. Beck remembered, “The 1960s was the frustration period of my life. The electronic equipment just wasn’t up to the sounds I had in my head.”
Different configurations of The Jeff Beck Group came and went, as did a lineup called Beck, Bogert & Appice in which he collaborated with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge. Only one of the albums from this period made the charts in his native England but they all reached the Top 20 in the US.
When Beck joined up with Beatles producer George Martin in 1975, he made a significant departure from his blues-based work and reached #4 on the US album chart with the all-instrumental “Blow By Blow,” which includes the luxurious ballad “‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” the ambitious “Freeway Jam” and a bonafide Beck tour de force, “Diamond Dust.” If you do yourself one favor this month, give this record a listen. Beck’s guitar here is truly inspired.
The follow-up, 1976’s “Wired,” was a little heavy on the use of Jan Hammer’s jazz-fusion synthesizer noodling for my tastes, but Beck continued to shine with his guitar soloing, and the album again sold well in the US. He toured with Hammer’s group, released a live album with them, and also worked with jazz bassist Stanley Clarke on a few projects.
In the early ’80s, Beck was no longer the tempestuous rebel, eager to mix it up with a wide range of artists. He performed at several benefit concerts with Clapton, Page and others. He was fond of doing cover versions of well known songs (The Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” come to mind), but none was more successful than his 1985 reunion with Stewart for a scintillating new arrangement of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which peaked at #5 on the US Mainstream Rock chart.
He contributed to records by a broad variety of other artists, from Bon Jovi to Seal, from Ozzy Osbourne to Roger Waters, from Tina Turner to Paul Rodgers, from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Robert Plant, and also worked with newer stars like Kelly Clarkson and Joss Stone in more recent years. “Who’s gonna say no when I got the call? I was proud that someone remembered I was even alive,” Beck joked in an interview in 2019. Most unusually, he recorded and performed with actor Johnny Depp, who happens to be a credible vocalist and guitarist as well. Their 2018 album “18” included reimaginings of such classics as Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby,” “Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and John Lennon’s “Isolation.”
When Beck was inducted into the Rock Hall as a solo artist in 2009, he was genuinely humble about it. “I couldn’t believe I was even nominated,” Beck said shortly afterwards. “I thought the Yardbirds was as close as I’d get to getting in. I’ve gone on long after that and gone through different musical changes. It’s very nice to hear that people have been listening.”
Page, who rarely speaks publicly about other musicians, wrote on social media last week, “The six-stringed Warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave around our mortal emotions. Jeff could channel music from the ethereal, his technique unique, his imagination apparently limitless. Jeff, I will miss you along with your millions of fans. Rest in peace.”
Said Sir Paul McCartney about his fellow Brit: ““Jeff Beck was a lovely man with a wicked sense of humour who played some of the best guitar music ever to come out of Great Britain. He was a superb technician who could strip down his guitar and put it back together again in time for the show.”
Jeff Beck was never a prolific artist, releasing a new LP only every 5-7 years for the remainder of his life, but he made those releases count. I’ve compiled what I consider the most impressive and/or intriguing tracks from each of his albums (Dig his wondrous cover of “Over the Rainbow” from “Emotion and Commotion”!), and I invite you to revel in these selections for the first time (as I just recently did) or refamiliarize yourself with them if you’ve been away from them for a while.