“The high harmonics on the Fender Stratocaster have this otherworldly sound. A Fender guitar with a Fender amp is a marvelous thing. And it’s also a marvelous thing with a Marshall amp, they both bring out different qualities.” — Jeff Beck
Regarded as one the most innovative guitarists in rock history, Jeff Beck is the highly revered pioneer of instrumental rock, known for his emotive approach and free form. Beck has achieved legendary status while mostly remaining out of the media spotlight. With most artists tirelessly promoting themselves throughout their entire careers, Beck’s approach is largely unorthodox by rock and roll standards.
Beck has provided me with immense inspiration as a guitarist. His exceptional gift introduced me to channeling melody and soul through the modern sonic capabilities of wire and wood.
Born on June 24, 1944, Beck grew up in Wallington, England, a suburb of London. As a child, he was surrounded by music through his parent’s eclectic record collection. Initially he sang in a choir, but as he grew into his teens and heard jazz and rock and roll on the radio, he began playing guitar.
After a short stint at Wimbledon’s College of Art in London, Beck fully committed to pursuing music. Soon he was playing throughout London, eventually landing gigs as a session musician. However, it was a chance introduction from Beck’s sister to the young Jimmy Page that proved pivotal in the progression of Beck’s career.
Clapton, Beck and Page in the Yardbirds
During the mid 60s, as Page and Beck were working as session musicians, Page received an offer to replace Eric Clapton on lead guitar in the psychedelic R&B band The Yardbirds. However, Page decided to continue earning a steady income as a session player so it was Beck who would replace Clapton.
“No one has ever equaled what Jeff has done,” says Page, who would later play in The Yardbirds on bass. Eventually he shifted back to the guitar, sharing twin leads with Beck.
These legendary guitarists each had their own time in The Yardbirds, and the band, in turn, provided them with an opportunity to experiment, improvise, and learn.
For Page, much of this improvisation became the foundation of the mighty Led Zeppelin. Clapton went on to join John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, eventually forming Cream, then reaching even greater heights as a solo artist.
“I could see they were getting, with Jeff, at something beyond what I was capable of. His thing was so advanced,” says Clapton.
Beck would only record one album with The Yardbirds — Roger the Engineer —before exiting the band. His time in The Yardbirds allowed him to establish many connections in the London scene. This would lead to the formation of his own band The Jeff Beck Group, featuring Rod Stuart, Ronnie Wood and Nicky Hopkins.
The Jeff Beck Group
The Jeff Beck Group was the culmination of Beck’s years of experimenting with sounds and technique. As such, it was a platform for him to truly be heard. The band’s first two albums, Truth and Beck-Ola, were well received. The originality coupled with Beck’s aggressive style proved to be influential towards the development of hard rock.
Beck’s unique use of amplifier distortion and feedback in a saturated, but controlled way would set him apart stylistically. However, after various line-up changes, he finally decided to go solo in 1974.
He embarked on a ten-year journey that would see him playing and recording with some of the finest musicians in London. He continually surrounded himself with amazing musicians, which fueled his creative output. While he has achieved definitive creative success, commercial success was secondary.
“A lot of people think I’m a multi-millionaire, but I’m not. Not at all, not in any way. Not compared with some people you could name,” says Beck who, in a 40-year career, continues to create out of want and need.
Solo Success and Instrumental Rock
Beck’s choice to become a solo artist would spawn a series of groundbreaking instrumental guitar albums, rocketing Beck and the instrumental rock genre into the mainstream.
The first solo release from Jeff Beck was the masterpiece Blow by Blow in 1975. With this album, Beck incorporated elements of jazz, funk, and rock to form a style know as jazz fusion. Blow by Blow, along with Wired in 1976, exemplify the refined, hands-on melodic approach to the guitar for which Beck is known.
Through emulating vocalists and saxophone players, Beck uses a combination of fingers, slide and whammy bar to evoke an incredibly rich and vocal sound. “You reach people with the night notes in the right way,” he says.
Beck is one of few guitarists who can brilliantly capture the emotional essence of a song and fully gift it to his audience.
My first introduction to Jeff Beck came at an early point in my musical journey. I was taking lessons at the time with Gil Namur. It was an extremely inspiring and exciting time for me. Each week, Gil would send me home with a new album to explore. There was Al Di Meola, King Crimson and Pat Metheny, to name a few. I remember Gil putting Beck’s Blow By Blow on his living room stereo one evening after a lesson.
The sounds that came through were like none I had ever heard on the electric guitar. Early on, I realized Beck was a musical risk taker, but also a very reserved player. He never lets his technical ability overshadow the soulful and melodic elements of his vocal-like playing.
I’m grateful that I was exposed to Beck in my important formative years as a guitarist. I had — and still have — a hunger for knowledge and new sounds. A great deal of inspiration came from being immersed in these groundbreaking guitar records. Being surrounded by inspired musicians early on also served me a great deal. I look back at my guitar lessons with Gil as the best I’ve ever had.
For a pioneering guitar legend, the interesting irony of Jeff Beck is that practicing his instrument isn’t always a focus. After the success of his early solo albums, he began to embrace his love of vintage hot rods. While Beck continued through the 80s to release the Grammy-winning records, Flash and Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, he also took time away from the music.
When he isn’t writing, recording or touring, Beck puts his creative efforts towards restoring and building vintage hot rods. Over the years he has built more than 14 cars from the ground up. “I like the studio because it’s delicate; you’re working for sound,” he says. “I like the garage because chopping up lumps of steel is the exact opposite of delicate.”
However, his love of cars has had its consequences. A crash in the late sixties left Beck with a concussion and broken jaw. Several injuries to his hands have also resulted from hours underneath the hood.
As Beck grew into the 90s, he began to embrace electronic music and the intricate Middle Eastern melodies he’d been emulating since the sixties. The series of albums including Who Else, You Had It Coming and Jeff brought two more Grammys through his artistic fusion of rock, jazz, Indian, and electronic music. In recognition of his achievements and contributions, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Upon his introduction, Beck graciously became part of a select group of musicians who have profoundly impacted the music world.
Emotion & Commotion
In February 2010, Beck co-headlined selected tour dates in London, New York, Toronto, and Montreal with fellow guitar legend Eric Clapton. “It was a bit like I’ve got to get my old blues cap on now, because that’s where I came from,” says Beck. The duo will also be working together again this summer as Beck is returning to the stage at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago on June 26, 2010.
Currently, Beck is gearing up for the April 13, 2010 release of his first studio album in seven years, Emotion and Commotion. This release sees Beck playing with a 64-piece orchestra on selected tracks along with guest vocals from the likes of Imelda May and Joss Stone. With instrumental tracks such as “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, the album will be sure to include Beck’s signature guitar mastery.
To experience some of Jeff Beck’s music, seek out and have a listen to these select tracks which are standouts in an extraordinary career. These songs are an excellent starting point for new listeners and a glimpse at his large body of work. Below that, you will find two excellent videos for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
“Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” on Blow By Blow (Written by Stevie Wonder)
“A Day In The Life” on In My Life by George Martin (Written by The Beatles)
“Led Boots” on Wired
“The Pump” on There and Back
“Delcan” on Who Else! (Written by Donal Lunny)
Beck on Video
What Do You Think?
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the music of Jeff Beck. What are some of your favorite songs or albums? How have they affected you? If you have seen Jeff Beck in concert, please share some of your comments about the shows.
“Jeff Beck – Ottawa Bluesfest” bouche @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Jeff Beck” jlapco @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Jeff Beck” MandyHallMedia @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” Geoff B. @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Right Reserved.