Jeff Beck is one of rock’s true virtuosos and among its most dynamic instrumentalists.
He is not strictly a “rock” guitarist, having taken much from the world of jazz as well. His style is largely based on improvisation, and he’s cut hybrid jazz-rock albums on his own and with jazz-fusion titan Jan Hammer. Beck’s career has never followed a straight trajectory.
Much like his solos, he zigs and zags wherever inspiration leads him. His quixotic career has included membership in the Yardbirds, two hard-hitting lineups of the Jeff Beck Group and a pair of albums from the mid-Seventies (Blow by Blow and Wired) that set a new standard for instrumental rock. He is one of a relative handful of musicians who have been twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – with the Yardbirds and as a solo artist and bandleader.
Beck is a whiz at wresting precision-tooled melodies and explosive atmospherics from the guitar, combining awesome fretboard technique with mastery of effects and pedals. Writer Gene Santoro hailed “his strong vibrato, his fierce attack and fat tone, his acute microtonal sense of pitch when he bends or slides into a note, his sophisticated sense of melodic and rhythmic playing, his ability to wring painfully true notes from up by the guitar’s pickups, [and] his continuing use of the electric guitar to generate textures as well as notes.” Beck cultivated a singularly expressive voice on the guitar that obviated the need for a singer – or at least gave Beck the option of choosing to work with or without one throughout his career.
Jeff Beck was born in Wallington, Surrey, England, in 1944. Like Les Paul, Beck has always been a compulsive inventor and tinkerer. At 15, he built his first guitar and played it through a radio. His early heroes were rockabilly guitarists Cliff Gallup (of Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps) and James Burton (the mainstay of Ricky Nelson’s band). On the blues side, he gravitated to the fiery, pyrotechnic approaches of Chicago bluesmen Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. He combined all this with Les Paul’s accessible experimentalism in a dynamic, feedback-drenched style that helped shape the sound of rock guitar in the Sixties and beyond.
His early bands were the Deltones and the Tridents, but he didn’t really begin to make waves on the international rock scene until he joined the Yardbirds, where he succeeded Eric Clapton. Beck led this trailblazing blues-rock group through its most successful and creative period, which included the groundbreaking singles “Heart Full of Soul,” “I’m a Man” and “Shapes of Things.” He left the Yardbirds in 1967 and launched his career as bandleader. Initially he had a few solo hits, including “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” which reached Number 14 – the highest-charting single of his career in the U.K. – and featured a rare lead vocal from Beck. It’s become something of a singalong standard in Britain, although Beck’s own opinion of the song is dim: “I didn’t like the song,” he said 25 years later. “It was ghastly, stupid.” More in the mold of Beck’s evolving direction was its flip side, “Beck’s Bolero.” This instrumental showcase hybridized classical form with rock dynamics and featured the Who’s Keith Moon on drums.
The first edition of the Jeff Beck Group included future superstars Rod Stewart, who had been the singer for Steampacket, and Ron Wood, who’d piloted a group called the Birds. Wood switched from guitar to bass at Beck’s request. The first edition of the Jeff Beck Group was rounded out by pianist extraordinaire Nicky Hopkins and drummer Mick Waller (replaced by Tony Newman). This quintet cut Truth (1968) and Beck-Ola (1969), which showed off Beck’s searing guitar and Stewart’s raspy vocals. They also backed up Donovan on his 1969 hit “Barabajagal.” As with the Yardbirds, Beck’s volcanic guitar led the charge through an eclectic repertoire of hard-rocking metal-blues that ranged from rollicking originals (“Plynth [Water Down the Drain]” and the instrumental “Rice Pudding”) to remakes of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” and his former band’s “Shapes of Things.” The Jeff Beck Group, as tempestuous personally as they were musically, imploded shortly before the Woodstock Festival, which they had been slated to play. Wood and Stewart went on to greater fame and fortune with the Faces, while Wood eventually joined the Rolling Stones and Stewart pursued solo stardom.
Beck, who is as fanatical about cars as guitars, got sidelined for half a year with injuries suffered in a November 1969 crash. He rebounded with a solid new lineup of the Jeff Beck Group that included British drumming sensation Cozy Powell, as well as vocalist Bob Tench, keyboardist Max Middleton and bassist Clive Chaman. Like the original lineup, this second edition of the Jeff Beck Group recorded a pair of albums – Rough and Ready (1971) and Jeff Beck Group (1972) – and then called it quits. This time, however, the sound was different, more straightforward and less eclectic, drawing inspiration from American soul and R&B influences.
Beck next turned toward a heavier rock sound by hooking up with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmen Appice. Those two had been the backbone of the hard-rock bands Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, and Beck had met them while touring America with the Jeff Beck Group. Billed as Jeff Beck, Tim Bogart, Carmine Appice – a.k.a. Beck, Bogart & Appice, or BBA, for short - were a power trio and boogie monster that lasted for just one self-titled studio album, released in 1973. (A double live album was issued in Japan that same year.) The highlight of Beck, Bogart, Appice was “Superstition,” which Stevie Wonder had written with Beck in mind.
After the trio’s dissolution, Beck began working almost exclusively in an instrumental vein on music with a jazzier complexion. Not having to accommodate or compete with a vocalist liberated Beck, whose guitar now occupied a front-and-center role. In 1975 he recorded his masterpiece, the all-instrumental Blow By Blow, under the artful direction of producer George Martin. Beck’s imagination had been fired by the jazz-fusion style of Mahavishnu Orchestra and others, but whereas they were jazz musicians who’d embraced rock dynamics, Beck’s situation was essentially the reverse, which made his fusion-ish odysseys more palatable to rock-trained ears. On Blow by Blow, Beck let his guitar sing as never before. His moving interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” displayed his most lyrical playing. Blow by Blow broke into the Top 10 in America, bringing Beck his greatest success as a solo artist.
Beck adopted a more intense, hard-edged style on Wired, the followup album to Blow by Blow, which was also produced by Martin. Most of the compositions came from his bandmates, especially drummer Narada Michael Walden. Wired also contained a stunning reinvention of jazz bassist Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Thereafter, Beck toured with keyboardist Jan Hammer – a Mahavishnu alumnus – and this union resulted in Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live. “Musical turbocharging, total self-propulsion,” is how Beck described it.
Beck kicked off the Eighties by recording There and Back, his first studio recording in five years. Subsequently, he has stuck to this script, emerging infrequently and popping out a few albums a decade. He’s continued to work primarily in an instrumental format, though he did reunite with Rod Stewart for a remake of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” a successful single from his 1985 album, Flash. Tony Hymas (keyboards) and Terry Bozzio (drums) have been Beck’s most frequent collaborators, as he delved into improvised and techno-spiced grooves on such releases as Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989). He also played guitar on projects by Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Diana Ross, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers, and many others. When his old mates in the Yardbirds regrouped as Box of Frogs, Beck provided guitar for their self-titled first album, too.
Beckology, a career-spanning three-disc box set issued in 1991, was cleverly packaged to resemble a vintage guitar case. Two years later, Beck released Crazy Legs, a period-perfect rockabilly tribute to the guitarists in Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps, Cliff Gallup and Johnny Meeks. “It’s me playing exactly what I was trying to learn to play at age 15,” said Beck. At the end of the decade, Beck – who is nothing if not eclectic - released Who Else!, an electronica-influenced excursion. You Had It Coming (2001) and Jeff(2003) further explored his ongoing fascination with ambient, techno and trance music. Such stylistic turns are all in keeping with Beck’s ever-restless modernist musical outlook, which has been a key to understanding his work all the way back to the beginning.
His career has been filled with unpredictable twists and turns, yet there is consistency in the experimental streak that has always been a hallmark of his playing. Above all, Beck’s approach to guitar has reflected a philosophy of freedom and spontaneity supported by formidable technique. An innovator and iconoclast, Beck is a self-directed musician who picks up the guitar only when the spirit moves him. There is only one direction that you’ll find Jeff Beck and his guitar moving: forward.
Jeff Beck (guitar; born June 24, 1944)