Jeff Beck

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Jeff Beck Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 23/10/18

With Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck is one of a legendary triumvirate who emerged from the British blues boom of the Sixties, all serving time as lead guitarist with The Yardbirds, all going on to blow open the potential of the six-string electric instrument.

But while his contemporaries became household names by continuing to mine and explore variations on the blues, Beck has been more elusive, following a wayward, experimental path through heavy soul, hard rock, jazz fusion and electronica.

He has only had one hit single in his entire life, that awful ’45 “Hi Ho Silver Lining” which was always my cue to leave a teenage party – not that he wouldn’t have thanked me for it – and he remains to this day the most famous unknown guitarist.

Despite the fire in Clapton’s formative years, he’s been treading water for a quarter of a century meandering ad nauseum around an upper register pentatonic existence creating solos that no-one can remember. As for Page, well time to own up – and just like Elvis Costello – I never got the Led Zep thing. On the other hand, the edgier, more mercurial, and rather musically dangerous Mr Beck remains ‘something else,’ suitably disinterested in fame and the steady dignified decline so indelibly associated with ageing rock stars. You see with Jeff, there’s always the outside chance it could be better than ever.

Swinging that axe wildly but often accurately, there’s an astonishingly varied tonality to nearly everything he plays. He turned down the gig with the Stones in ’74 describing the audition sessions as “quaint.” Trust me – he wasn’t joking.

Recommended listening

Beck-Ola (1969)

Blow by Blow (1975)

Vetoeing a possible lengthy stint with The Rolling Stones – frankly he’d have been bored within a year – Beck chose instead to challenge his ever-evolving musical talents by veering off into the unexplored terrain of instrumental jazz fusion with “Blow by Blow,” which was technically his seventh solo album, but only the second to bear only his name on the front cover (his 1968 debut, Truth, was also credited to just him).

To help him achieve this, he recruited former Jeff Beck Group henchman Max Middleton to collaborate on songs and play keyboards, in-demand session bassist Phil Chen, drummer Richard Bailey, and, based on his recent work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, iconic Beatles producer George Martin.

Together, they produced a diverse set boasting funky fusion experiments like “You Know What I Mean” and “Constipated Duck” (a bass-driven standout belying its rediculous title), propulsive virtuoso displays like “Freeway Jam” and “Scatterbrain” (even more catchy than it was spectacularly complex), and a pair of comparatively simple, but equally beautiful melodic improvisations on Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” (Wonder also guested on the track “Thelonious”) and Bernie Holland’s positively sublime “Diamond Dust.” The radio friendly cover of Lennon-McCartney’s “She’s a woman” features Beck playing his guitar through a talk-box, a gadget that he helped introduce to a legion of guitar players including one Peter Frampton who would popularise the sound to a worldwide audience the following year with his multi platnum live album. Diverting the electric guitar signal from the amplifier speaker to the guitarist’s mouth via a special hose-like conduit, the effect of vocalising changes the tone and nuance of the sound, which is then picked up by the microphone.

The album is awash with examples of Beck’s unique tonality. While plenty of guitarists can play fast, Beck can hold one note, bend it, and sustain it, while adding harmonics and distortion like no other. He utilizes the entire guitar, often changing the tone and timbre many times within the course of a song, creating a stately sound that ultimately reflects his own unpredictable personality.

Beck had taken to a brand new musical lexicon like a fish to water and ultimately, these tunes possessed a groundbreaking immediacy that had been sorely missing in previous attempts to fuse rock and jazz. “Blow by Blow” was a million-selling Top 5 album, and another reminder that there was truly nothing Beck could not do with a plank of wood and six strings.

Wired (1976)

Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop (1989)

Rock 'n' Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul) 2011

Recommended reading

Hot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck (Martin Power) 2011 (revised Edition 2013)

Not the definitive account of Beck’s journey from his childhood in 1940s South London to the world-wide success of the 2010 album ‘Emotion and Commotion’ and beyond – the elusive guitarist granted the author no personal insights himself – but an admirable piece of gumshoe work nonetheless, which recounts the man’s musical odyssey utilising archive press articles and fresh interviews with contemporaries.

Though rooted in the blues, Beck’s explorations of funk, jazz, traditional rock’n’roll and rockabilly – that lifelong appreciation of Les Paul endures to this day – is covered in detail. There’s also an extensive discography, including guest session work.

A useful starting point in the pursuit of that Beckology degree.