Jeff Beck: The Guitarist’s Guitarist

Remembering the life and career of England’s greatest axe man

Jeff Beck on the cover of his 1976 album Wired (Image: Epic Records)

The guitarist’s guitarist has passed.

Jeff Beck died Wednesday at the age of 78 after a short battle with bacterial meningitis.

Realistically, it’s not a surprise when a beloved musician passes away in their late ’70s, but it’s never not a shock. Especially when it happens to someone like Beck, who was active up until the end. He released his most recent album, 18, last July and finished the tour for it in the fall.

For a long time, The Yardbirds were regarded as the source of rock guitar gods. Eric Clapton was the first. He’d go on to Cream and Derek & The Dominoes before a long solo career peppered with racism and anti-vax beliefs. Later, there was Jimmy Page, a studio player who tossed new ideas and tweaks in the formula. Those were things, like the playing with a cello bow trick, he’d keep doing when The Yardbirds broke up over musical differences, freeing him to play the heavier music he wanted in Led Zeppelin.

In between, there was Beck, a nimble player who, even by the high standards of Yardbirds membership, was the most skilled of the bunch. 

There was a fuzzy Indian-inspired riff on “Heart Full of Soul”, which gave way to the cleaner, serpentine trip East on “Over Underway Sideways Down”. He had a feel for the blues. “Evil Hearted You” could fit in nicely on any garage comp while “Shapes of Things” takes it squarely into psychedelia. Beck certainly had a love and respect for the blues that never reeked of being a dilettante, but it was just one shade in his palette.

For a brief time, we got one of rock’s “What if” scenarios when both Beck and Page were in the band at the sametime. Sadly, there was very little recorded with that lineup, although they do appear together in the classic existential mystery Blow-Up. Performing a laughably “disguised” cover of “Train Kept-a-Rollin” called “Stroll On,” Beck performs a guitar smash that serves as a reminder that Hollywood wouldn’t be in his future.

 

VIDEO: The Yardbirds in Blow Up

Neither would The Yardbirds. Beck left a few shows into a Dick Clark package tour, due to differences both musical and professional.

Beck would release 17 studio albums over the next 54 years, a career in which he never stayed settled for long, switching up styles with little regard for widespread commercial considerations.

That’s not to say Beck didn’t find an audience, starting with the Jeff Beck Group, which was the first big break for Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. Given how much similar music followed, it’s easy to forget how fresh Truth was when it came out. Stewart’s rock wail was ready for its closeup. Beck attacks the heavier material in a way that suggests he and his amplifiers are turned up to 11. And both elements came together in songs like “I Ain’t Superstitious” with Beck’s slinky, playful wah-wah.

But there is also subtlety and beauty (that version of “Greensleeves”) that showed that Beck was not some ham-fisted bloozeman.

The album also featured the only true musical payoff of Beck and Page together, the classic instrumental “Beck’s Bolero.”

 

 

If its follow-up, Beck-Ola, was a touch below Truth in terms of quality, it still had the quality musicianship and that Beck-Stewart pairing to recommend it. As influential as Cream or Zeppelin, the group wasn’t slated to last.

Beck was always a man who knew what he wanted, not unlike Neil Young. But he was also a perfectionist who, at least in his younger days, could rub bandmates the wrong way. Although his frustrations were often with himself. Years later, he told Guitar Player that he didn’t enjoy albums from his most successful and still beloved period, saying, “I shouldn’t have done Blow By Blow. I wish I hadn’t done any of them, because they’re just mistakes on record.”

The band was booked to play Woodstock, but in a move Beck later regretted, he broke up the band instead. By that point, Stewart had already recruited Wood and Truth’s drummer Micky Waller to play on his first solo album. 

While Beck’s move didn’t help his fortunes, it had the very pleasant unintended consequences of Stewart and Wood forming The Faces with Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones. 

Similarly, his reported decision to turn down an offer to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones led to their classic second lineup with Mick Taylor.

Beck’s mechanical skills weren’t just limited to how he got his guitars and gear how he wanted, but in his love of the automobile. If others of that generation indulged in perhaps more illicit pleasures, his rock star indulgence was his car collection. He took joy in doing a lot of the modification and restoration work himself.

As the story went in a subsequent GQ piece, Eric Clapton attempted to show off his Ferrari collection to Beck. An unimpressed Beck said, “Anyone can buy one of those,” walking Clapton over to his car, a restoration, adding, “These, you make.”

Unfortunately for Beck, he was in a serious car accident that resulted in injuries, including a skull fracture, that sidelined him for a year.

Upon his recovery, two more albums under the Jeff Beck Group moniker followed. His playing was in fine form on both, but none of the singers were at Stewart’s level.

The accident had kept Beck from his initial plans, to form a trio with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice from Vanilla Fudge. Those two had gone on to form Cactus, which put out four albums over three years. But with Beck dropping the Jeff Beck Group project and Cactus breaking up, the trio of Beck, Bogert & Appice was back on.

 

 

Beck wanted to play something heavier and felt this new power trio was the new sound he was looking for. It wasn’t. Despite the players involved (Bogert’s underrated bass in particular), it was more lead weight than Led Zeppelin.

The next sound was more of a left turn than a full-180. Beck had hinted at a jazzier direction on the last Jeff Beck Group album, but he was about to dive in with both feet.

Jazz fusion is a tricky beast. Lean too much in the rock direction and you lose the feel so intrinsic to jazz. Go too far the other way and, well, you’re just making jazz. At its worst, the result was just painful noodling. Remember Derek Smalls’ Jazz Odyssey from This is Spinal Tap?

 

 

Beck walked the high wire perfectly on Blow by Blow and Wired, his only two platinum albums. His playing stayed true to both sides, thrillingly unpredictable in its execution.

His recording pace slowed. 1980’s There and Back kept some of the jazz fusion elements, this time incorporating them into what’s more of a rock album. If not at the level of its predecessors, there’s a lot to like, especially in the blistering precision of the solos.

There was a brief hit reunion with Stewart on a cover of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” off 1985’s Flash, but Wet Willie’s Jimmie Hall handled the rest of the vocal duties on an album that’s a bit of a mixed bag. Working with people like Nile Rodgers and Arthur Baker showed a welcome willingness to explore, but as fluid as Beck was, the album’s production definitely dates it.

It’s also easy to tell the decade in which 1989’s Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop was produced, but the execution was better. It remains one of his best (and most fun) albums and best showcases for his guitar skills.

 

AUDIO: Jeff Beck “Guitar Shop”

Simply put, Beck was a man who could play anything, from classic to experimental. He could sound rough or delicate. And that same joy he found in restoring cars is evident in his solos, leads, chords and tone. No Yyngvie Malmsteen, Beck was a guitarist with tremendous feel.

Between his evident talent and creative restlessness, it’s easy to see why he was THE guy for a lot of guitar players who were on posters on countless walls of fans and aspiring generations of musicians.

His follow-up as a personal labor-of-love. Crazy Legs was an album of Gene Vincent covers, a tribute to Vincent’s guitarist Cliff Gallup, who had been one of Beck’s most loved influences.

His exploration took an unexpected (and surprisingly productive) turn at the end of the century when he released Who Else? and You Had It Coming in consecutive years.

The switchup here was Beck working with electronic and techno rhythms. If this particular wire walk wasn’t quite as successful over two albums as his jazz fusion efforts, Who Else? comes pretty damn close. At times, he elicits sounds that tether the electronic rhythms. At others, his ability to coax nontraditional sounds accents them perfectly.

As with There and Back, the third album of the sort-of trilogy — 2003’s Jeff — was a merger of most recent explorations with his rock base. He clearly was having a ball with the idea, unafraid of leaving any ideas on the table. If not his most traditional effort, it showed he still had the capability of thrilling and surprising almost 40 years into his career.

From there, he mixed a 64-piece orchestra with some of the most subdued music of his career 2010’s Emotion & Commotion. 2016’s Loud Hailer was more trad rock, but not stodgy. It showed Beck as a willing collaborator and deserved a better commercial fate. It certainly pulled collaboration off better than 18 (about which Beck was not the problem).

Beck’s seeming disdain for remaining tied down to one idea or a single genre didn’t always pay off, but his pleasure at exploration, coupled with his talent, creativity and touch resulted in a career on record and live that could very rarely be called “boring.”

He earned every bit of the respect he earned from his peers and love from his fans.

 

 

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

One thought on “Jeff Beck: The Guitarist’s Guitarist

  • January 14, 2023 at 1:34 pm
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    Thank you for another beautifully written overview, Kara. This one in tribute to my (and many other guitarists obviously) lifelong inspiration and the supreme example of how to remain true to your craft regardless of the countless distractions and pitfalls of the business. Jeff refused to play by anyone else’s rules, set trends instead of following them, constantly re-invented his tonal approach, employed and showcased an ever evolving cadre of brilliant players and in doing so, achieved the status of living legend.

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