Out of all the musicians that came out of the first and second wave of British Rock and Roll, Guitarist Jeff Beck stood uniquely by himself. Beck mined a lot of genres of music in his 50 year plus career. From Blues to Rock and Roll to Jazz/Fusion to Reggae to Funk to Swing to Rockabilly, among many forms. Some of the approaches he embraced included Classical-like motifs.
Jeff Beck is unparalleled as a guitarist. Both in this lifetime and within the next, that’s for sure. He had a unique blueprint as both a player and as a composer. His influence is as dense as London fog and he will continue to influence present & future generations.
There are many guitarists that can emulate players such as Eric Clapton and even, occasionally, Jimi Hendrix. Yet, there is something about Jeff Beck’s guitar playing that was all his own. His tone, touch and approach to guitar playing are almost impossible to mimic. I have been playing guitar for 56 years and Jeff Beck’s playing remains a delightful puzzle and a profound influence.
Beck never chased after the Rock and Roll lifestyle. He was never an addict or an alcoholic. As he did not partake of anything stronger than the occasional beer, Jeff Beck was remarkably healthy. It appeared to me that he lifted weights and was in good physical form. His main vices were collecting antique hot rod automobiles. He also owned quite a few classic guitars in his lifetime.
In tribute to Jeff, Fender made a Jeff Beck Signature Stratocaster a few years back. Set up to his specifications, it remains a daunting guitar to play. Beck was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a member of the Yardbirds (1992) and also for his solo work (2009).
Therefore when I heard the news reports that Jeff Beck had died on January 10, 2023, from bacterial meningitis, I was extremely saddened and shocked. He was not even remotely on my next “musician-to-be-a-casualty” list. He was, is, and remains, a large chunk of my musical DNA as a guitarist.
In the wake of his death, I started flashing back to years ago when I was learning and, years later, relearning his instrumental version of Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We Ended As Lovers.” That song was given to Jeff Beck as sort of a gentle apology from Stevie Wonder. They met around the time of Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album, “Talking Book.” He had encouraged Jeff to record the song, “Superstition.” Beck planned on releasing his version of the Wonder classic with his upcoming power trio, Beck, Bogart & Appice. Ultimately, the trio released their version of “Superstition” on their self-titled 1973 debut.
But the song was too powerful for Stevie not to record it first in 1972. Stevie offered Jeff, “‘Cause We Ended As Lovers and the track Thelonius.” ( Wonder played clavinet, uncredited, on “Thelonius on Blow By Blow”). “Cause We Ended As Lovers” originally started off as part of an album, “Stevie Wonder Presents: Syreeta,” which was a showcase for Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta Wright. It was originally a vocal tune and the late Syreeta Wright was a great singer.
Beck recorded the track on the 1975 album, “Blow By Blow.” That song always spoke to everything that I loved about Jeff’s playing. He had a guitar style that was both playful and gritty and, at times, possessed a lilting tenderness with a broad, expressive technique. “Blow By Blow” remains my favorite among many special Jeff Beck albums and his version of “Cause We Ended As Lovers” is the go-to version of that song.
In the wake of his death, guitarists as diverse as Brian May, Joe Satriani and Steve Lukather have waxed eloquent in their admiration of Beck. Satriani called him a “genius.” Fusion guitarist John McLaughlin once called him “the best guitarist alive.” Eric Clapton called him “the most unique guitarist.”
Like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck changed the sonic landscape of modern electric guitar.
In fact, the two people Jimi Hendrix wanted to meet when he first arrived in England were Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. It is difficult to consider some of the innovations of Jimi Hendrix, like Hendrix’s use of the Stratocaster tremolo arm and the use of harmonic feedback, without the early influence of Jeff Beck.
Jeff was born Geoffrey Arnold Beck on June 24, 1944 in Wallington/Surrey, England. His parents were Arnold and Ethel Beck and their first house was at 206 Demesne Road, Wallington. Like fellow guitarist Keith Richards, Jeff Beck’s earliest musical experience was singing in the local church choir at the age of ten. (Rock and Roll tidbit: Keith Richards sang as a child in his choir before the Queen of England at Westminster Abbey. He remained in the choir until his voice changed. Before that he was the choir’s lead soprano singer.)
With the advent of Elvis Presley, Jeff Beck desperately wanted to play a guitar of his own. But his actual first influence was even earlier with the innovative guitarist, Les Paul. Jeff first heard Les when he was six years old when he and his mother heard Les and then-wife, Mary Ford, sing and play the classic, “How High the Moon.” Hearing the sound of Les Paul’s guitar, Jeff asked his Mother,“ What is that instrument? She told him, “It’s an electric guitar.” Jeff’s response was, “That’s for me!” Other early influences on Jeff Beck’s playing was Gene Vincent guitarist, Cliff Gallup.He was also greatly influenced by B.B. King, Steve Cropper and Lonnie Mack.
Jeff borrowed guitars from friends and as a teenager made several attempts to make his own Stratocaster guitar. He eventually got the first of many good guitars, largely Fenders. Beck attended the Sutton Manor school and the Sutton East County Secondary Modern School. From childhood, Jeff always had great skills as an artist and painter. After leaving secondary school, he attended the Wimbledon Art School.
While at Art School, Beck had a series of part-time jobs as a car spray painter, a groundskeeper on a golf course and as a painter/decorator. While attending Art School Jeff Beck was introduced by his sister Annetta to future Yardbird/ Led Zeppelin guitarist, Jimmy Page. They were both teenagers with a passion for American Blues and an innovative sonic landscape before them.
While still attending art school, Beck played in a succession of bands including Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages. In 1962 they recorded a single for the Oriole label, “Dracula’s Daughter/Come Back Baby.” Screaming Lord Sutch was an interesting character in British Rock. He based his stage act largely on the work of American R&B shouter, Screaming Jay Hawkins. Hawkins would start his sets, screaming and bursting out of a coffin, scaring the audience nearly to death.
Despite his somewhat bizarre, Hawkins-influenced stage act, Sutch worked with some of the cream of British Rock and Roll including musicians like Beck, future Deep Purple guitarist Richie Blackmore, drummers Keith Moon, John Bonham and Charlie Watts, and future Rolling Stones pianist, Nicky Hopkins. In 1963, after being given a Masters Class in R&B by Rolling Stones pianist and co-founder, Ian Stewart, Beck formed a band called Nightshift. They recorded a single, “Stormy Monday/That’s My Story,” for the Piccadilly label. Later in 1963, Jeff Beck briefly joined up with the Rumbles, a Croydon band. Beck showed a great skill for mimicking guitar styles by the bands of Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. Still further along in 1963, a busy year for Beck, he joined the Tridents, a band from the Chiswick area. The Tridents were closer to the Jimmy Reed-influenced R&B that he wanted to play. The Tridents charged up the music they were playing so that it had a real rocking edge. In 1964, Jeff Beck appeared as a session guitarist on the Fitz and Startz single, “I’m Not Running Away/So Sweet.” It was the first of countless sessions as a guest guitarist.
Leaving the Tridents, in 1965, Beck was recruited by the Yardbirds replacing the outgoing Eric Clapton. Jeff Beck was recommended by friend Jimmy Page as a great replacement for Clapton. The Yardbirds recorded the majority of their top 40 hits during Beck’s short, but significant, stint with the band. He only recorded one full album with the Yardbirds titled, “Over, Under, Sideways Down” released in 1966.
In May 1966, Beck recorded an instrumental entitled “Beck’s Bolero.” Excluding the members of the Yardbirds, Beck recorded this track with Jimmy Page on 12 string rhythm guitar, Keith Moon on drums, session player and future Led Zeppelin member, John Paul Jones on bass and Nicky Hopkins on piano. “Beck’s Bolero” was a special tune. It influenced musicians such as Duane Allman, who was an ardent Beck fan. In June 1966, Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds as a second lead guitarist.
This dual guitar line-up of the Yardbirds was filmed performing a scorching adaptation of Johnny Burnette’s Rockabilly classic, “Train Kept a-Rolling,” for the Michelangelo Antonioni 1966 film, “Blow Up.”
Jeff Beck was fired from the Yardbirds during a 1966 U.S. Dick Clark Caravan of Stars Tour due to consistent no-shows and his explosive temper and perfectionism. In 1967, Beck recorded a series of singles for pop producer Mickie Most, including “Hi Ho Silver Lining and Tallyman,” including some rare vocal outings from Jeff Beck.
Later in 1967, he formed the Jeff Beck Group and signed a contract with Columbia/Epic Records. The personnel of the group was Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on bass and Ansley Dunbar on drums, replaced early in the game by Micky Waller. Additional personnel was Nicky Hopkins on piano.
The Jeff Beck Group released two albums for Columbia/Epic: 1968’s “Truth” (released under the name “Jeff Beck”) and 1969’s, “Beck Ola.” Touring incidents led to the disbanding of the group in July 1969. Beck started to form a band with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, but the group was put on hold when Beck fractured his skull in a December 1969 auto crash.
In 1970, with regained health, Beck started forming a band with drummer Cozy Powell in conjunction with producer Mickie Most. He filled out the lineup of this group with vocalist Bob Tench, keyboard player Max Middleton and bassist Clive Chaman. This band recorded the 1971 album, “Rough and Ready.” On this album Jeff Beck wrote or co-wrote six out of the seven tracks on the record. (Keyboardist Max Middleton wrote the seventh track.) The sound of this version of the Jeff Beck Group was vastly different from the previous, also on Columbia/Epic. They were a distinct and gritty Blues-Rock band, a grittiness that is largely owed to Bob Tench’s bluesy vocals.
In 1972, Jeff Beck released an album titled simply, “The Jeff Beck Group.” This album was recorded at TMI studios in Memphis and produced by one of Jeff’s heroes, Steve Cropper. Cropper and Beck collaborated on a track featured on the album called, “Sugar Cane.” This album is another one of my favorite Jeff Beck albums. In particular, I like the versions of Don Nix’s “Going Down” and Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” After the previously mentioned Beck album, “Blow By Blow” this is another go-to Jeff Beck album.
After this album was released the Jeff Beck Group disbanded and Beck started to collaborate again with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmen Appice. They toured as The Jeff Beck Group with keyboardist Max Middleton and vocalist Kim Milford, replaced shortly with Bob Tench. At the conclusion of a 1972 summer tour, Bob Tench and Max Middleton left, leaving the Power Trio of Beck, Bogert & Appice. As I wrote earlier, this was the same group that wanted first dibs on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”
In April 1973, they released the album titled “Beck, Bogert and Appice” on Epic Records. They were a powerful trio. Tim Bogert was a great bassist and a great vocalist. They attempted to put out a second album, produced by Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller, but the band dissolved before they finished.
I find it interesting that there was an innate restlessness in Jeff Beck’s approach to music. He portrayed a sense of always searching for new sonic possibilities, using a variety of guitars in his music. Ultimately, the Stratocaster was his go-to guitar for the majority of the rest of his career. By the time Jeff Beck started to record the album “Blow By Blow,” I felt that he had found a comfortable place to create. He started to record this landmark jazz-fusion album in August 1974 with Beatles producer George Martin at the helm.
Released in March 1975, “Blow By Blow” remains Jeff Beck’s most successful album, reaching #4 on the charts. This landmark album was followed by the equally innovative “Wired,” in 1976. The British tax structure tended to punish successful British musicians with a 90% tax bracket so Beck moved to the United States for some tax relief.
In 1978, he connected with “Return to Forever” bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Greg Brown. Brown dropped out and Beck continued to play with Clarke in an ad hoc band.
In the 1980’s, Beck started doing a lot of guest spots with various colleagues. In 1981 he did some stunning work with Eric Clapton for Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman Ball. In 1982, he participated in a series of concerts for ARMS (Action Into Research for Multiple Sclerosis), which raised funds to battle Multiple Sclerosis. Ex-Faces bassist, Ronnie Lane, had MS and found that spending time in a hyperbaric chamber, which is used for deep bend syndrome for divers, offered relief.
The personnel for the ARMS Concerts featured the cream of British Rock and Roll, which at times included Bill Wyman, Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts, Joe Cocker, Ronnie Wood and the Yardbirds Three, namely Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. The hope was to offer free hyperbaric chamber treatment for all MS patients. That never quite panned out.
In 1985, Beck released the album “Flash” (Epic) that featured a variety of vocalists, most notably former bandmate Rod Stewart. They had a hit from that collaboration with their version of the Curtis Mayfield classic, “People Get Ready.”
He had a four year break from recording until his 1989 all-instrumental album titled, “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop.” For years in his playing technique, Beck had switched back and forth between playing with a pick and his fingers. “Guitar Shop” marked a distinct shift in Beck’s playing where he threw away all picks and picked guitar only with his fingers for the rest of his career. This technique brought an even greater individual sound to Beck’s guitar playing.
From the late 1980’s until his death in January 2023, Jeff Beck continued to grow and innovate. He continued to guest on various artists albums from Buddy Guy to Paul Rodgers and Brian Wilson among many distinct musicians. In the course of his career, Jeff Beck won 16 Grammy Awards. He continuously released great work including tribute albums to Les Paul. In recent years, Beck and Johnny Depp collaborated on some very succinct work. Included in those collaborations is a stunning version of John Lennon’s classic song, “Isolation,” with Depp on vocals. Beck always made the music trade lists of the “best and most influential guitarists.”
Too many musicians of Beck’s generation could be legitimately be accused of being sexist, but not Beck. He showcased a many women musicians in the last couple of decades of his life. Most notably the great Australian bassist, Tal Wilkenfeld. In a recent post on Twitter, Wilkenfeld stated how Beck treated her like a daughter, protecting and promoting her great skill as a musician. His last touring band was comprised of all women, all brilliant.
As a musician, I found Jeff Beck’s guitar playing to be a continuous inspiration. His sense of melody, tone and touch continue to inspire me. His use of effects, like the tremolo arm and the Wah-Wah pedal, continue to be a touchstone for any guitar player seeking to become a sonic warrior like Jeff Beck. Part of my sadness over his passing is that I never had the opportunity to see Jeff Beck perform live. Most of the time I was either gigging or I was broke–but that does not diminish the effect he had on my own playing and the playing of so many guitar players throughout the world. There will never be another one like him.