‘Guitar god’ Jeff Beck (1944-2023) was one of the greatest British rock musicians

Jeff Beck.Image Redferns

Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck weren’t just some of the best British guitarists the 1960s produced. The musicians of the kind for whom the nickname ‘guitar god’ has been coined also started their careers in the same band: The Yardbirds.

One of them, Jeff Beck, died Tuesday in a British hospital at age 78 of acute meningitis, his family said Wednesday evening. Beck may not have been the most famous of the three, but he was the greatest musical innovator. He was the first rock guitarist to incorporate Eastern influences into his playing, which would also be the basis of hard rock – later called heavy metal. In the 1970s, he was also one of the first rock ‘n’ roll stars to popularize jazz and fusion.

Born Geoffrey Arnold Beck in 1944, Jeff began his career in London in 1965 when he succeeded Eric Clapton as guitarist for The Yardbirds, a very popular beat group at the time. It was on the advice of the intended replacement Jimmy Page, who did not dare to do it himself at the time, but eventually joined the band in 1966. However, the collaboration between the two guitarists was so difficult that Beck gave up a lot and left The Yardbirds during an American tour.

The Yardbirds scored the biggest hits with Beck still in their ranks: songs like Heart full of soul and The shapes of things is characterized by his crystal clear, harsh yet melodic guitar playing, enhanced with heavy fuzz distortions. The shapes of things from February 1966 is known as the first British psychedelic rock classic and was released three months before the groundbreaking Paperback author from The Beatles.

The Yardbirds were the pinnacle of London swinging sixties and was also asked by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni to star in his film in 1966 Blow upwhere we see Beck smashing his guitar as Pete Townshend often did back then.

Rod Stewart

After twenty months with the Yardbirds, Beck would make waves under his own name and prove less successful than Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. He delivered with the album Truth in 1968 a blueprint for the sound that Page would later develop in Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant as singer. This was partly due to Rod Stewart, the then-unknown singer, who asked Beck to sing in the band he was with Truth taken. The bassist was a Ronnie Wood.

For both Stewart and the current guitarist in The Rolling Stones, Beck’s band was mainly a springboard for new adventures with The Faces, which emerged from the Small Faces. Stewart’s raw R&B voice in combination with Beck’s sharp rock ‘n’ roll guitar would also be a big influence on The Faces.

Why Beck never managed to manage or keep a band for long is not really clear. Looking back on his career, you see a man who has never been comfortable sticking to the same sound for long. He actually stopped scoring hits after his solo single Hi-Ho silver lining from 1967.

But he continued to develop his game. In the 1970s, for example, he was influenced by the jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, with whose band the Mahavishnu Orchestra he toured. Beck’s jazz rock fusion sound on albums like Blow by Blow (1975) and The cable (1976) would have a huge impact on both rock and jazz development in those years.

And where Clapton focused mainly on blues and Page on rock, Beck liked to listen to soul music. A somewhat forgotten wonder at his abilities can be heard on the song Looking for another pure love on Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece Speech book from 1972.

A year later, Beck made a spectacular contribution to David Bowie’s filmed farewell concert Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which unfortunately did not reach the film registration of DA Pennebaker. The admiring look from Bowie to Beck (viewable on YouTube) alone is worth its weight in gold.

Musicians musician

So Beck remained mainly the album artist admired by colleagues and guitar students. He was often asked for session contributions and made beautiful instrumental albums such as There and back (1980). He was also regularly seen in the Netherlands for e.g. North Sea Jazz.

But a rock star like Clapton and Page wanted to be, it was not possible for him. Jeff Beck was the musician-musician who released an album every few years for the past four decades without terribly shaking up the pop world. Sometimes it resulted in a hit, such as People are getting ready by Curtis Mayfield, sung by Rod Stewart in 1985 on the Nile Rodgers co-produced album Flash.

But Beck wasn’t happy with the pressure that came on him from the record industry to score hits. His latest achievement is the album 18 which he released last year with actor Johnny Depp. An unfortunately bad record with mostly messed up covers of The Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye, mainly due to Depp’s vocals.

It’s actually a shame that one of the best rock guitarists pop history has produced has his name associated with this flop. Jeff Beck deserved a better apotheosis of an impressive career.

Three highlights of Jeff Beck’s work

The Yardbirds – It happened ten years ago (1966)
Not the biggest hit from The Yardbirds, but one of the meanest. The single featuring both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck was released a week before they were allowed to play at Antonioni’s Blow up.

Jeff Beck – Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (1976)
Derived from The cableone of Beck’s finest albums, where we hear the guitarist at his most soulful, in what is one of the most beautiful compositions (Charles Mingus!) in jazz history.

Jeff Beck – Where were you (1989)
Not a very good record Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop from 1989, but exemplary of his oeuvre from the last forty years. And as so often, there’s a great, soulful song on it. Where were you lets you hear Beck at his most delicate.

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