One of the things that Rolling Stone magazine does pretty well (and quite regularly) is making lists. “The Best Albums”, “The Best Singers” etc. In 2015, the magazine did a “100 Greatest Guitarists” list. There’s much to nitpick with it (Joni Mitchell all the way down at number 75? Really?), but the one thing that always struck me as odd was the fact that both Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page ranked higher than Jeff Beck. The thing is, the trailblazing guitar legend, who passed away after a sudden illness on 10 January at the age of 78, was never as famous as his contemporaries, but he was arguably way more influential.
Back in 1965, when Clapton left the cult English band The Yardbirds in a huff because the band wanted to play pop songs and not the blues, Beck was drafted in, at the recommendation of his childhood friend Page. Beck’s tenure with the group would last all of 20 months, but in that time, he helped the band craft futuristic soundscapes that would go on to influence generations of guitar players. Jimmy Page would succeed him but after Beck left, The Yardbirds were a spent force.
Beck would continue to plough a defiantly individualistic path as a solo artist, veering from genre to genre with a sure-footed nimbleness that took in hard rock in his albums with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood in The Jeff Beck Group (Beck-Ola, Rough and Ready, The Jeff Beck Group) and jazz fusion and soul in his two monumentally successful instrumental albums from the mid Seventies (Blow by Blow and Wired). Beck was never a prolific musician, but when he played, everyone listened. And unlike his contemporaries who were only too happy to play blues rock with ever-diminishing returns, Beck’s music has taken in everything from electronica to jazz, always played with a sense of adventurousness and taste. It’s no wonder that guitar players as different as Kirk Hammett, Jon Frusciante, David Gilmour, Brian May, Steve Van Zandt and Joe Satriani all regard Beck as a key influence.
Along the way, Beck won 5 Grammys (including three in 2010) and became something of a musician’s musician. His touch, attack and mastery of tone and volume were second to none, and he also had the unique gift of playing melodic lines that were never obvious ones. As with all truly great musicians, he retained his ability to surprise the listener right down to his final concerts towards the end of last year.
It's difficult to cherry pick just a few tunes from a genre-bending career that lasted six decades, but, as tributes go, it still is a fun thing to try. No matter how much you read about him in the aftermath of his passing, it is always better to hear him play. Here are six performances from Jeff Beck’s peerless career that provide an insight into his greatness.
The Yardbirds: Shape Of Things(1966)
When Jeff Beck joined The Yardbirds, they were a hard rocking outfit with a predilection for playing revved up delta blues. Around this time, they were trying to crack the pop charts with songs like For Your Love. With 1966’s garage rock raver Shape Of Things, they transitioned to the avant-garde of rock, riding on Beck’s absolutely brilliant solo. A mix of feedback, distortion and overdriven raga motifs, it was unlike anything on pop radio at the time. Beck was never one content to play easy solos and his early fascination with the tonal possibilities of the guitar made The Yardbirds iconic.
Jeff Beck: Beck’s Bolero (live) (2016)
Beck was never one to play a 15-minute solo when three minutes would do. This 2016 version of one of his early solo classics, Beck’s Bolero, is a case in point. Co-written by Jimmy Page, this stand-out track from Beck’s solo debut Truth (1968) featured Keith Moon on drums and John Paul Jones on bass. Beck builds on Page’s bolero rhythm to churn out a delectable melody, transitioning to a psychedelic slide section, then breaking it up with some proto-metal power chords before returning to the melody with a completely different tone and feel. Here’s Beck, at the age of 72, killing it.
Jeff Beck: She’s A Woman (live) (1974)
By the mid-1970s, Beck had pioneered and exhausted all the guitar tricks of conventional rock, be it blues or hard rock. This live re-imagining of a Beatles classic, performed just before he would go to Abbey Road studios to record his smash-hit album Blow by Blow with producer George Martin, shows off each of Beck’s hallmarks: feel, precision, melody.
Stevie Wonder featuring Jeff Beck: Superstition (live) (2009)
Beck and Wonder were great friends and collaborators in the mid-Seventies, to the extent that the two also co-wrote music together. One of Wonder’s big hits from the time, the impossibly funky Superstition, even had Beck suggesting the drum part that opens the song. Wonder had promised it to Beck for Blow by Blow, but under pressure to have a hit, released it as a single in 1972. Beck did cover it in the album Beck, Bogart and Appice in 1973. In 2009, when Wonder performed an electrifying version of Superstition for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary show, Beck was on hand to kick out the jams with some sly funky guitar. Watch out for those swooping notes and percussive whammy bar action. Wonder was left grinning from ear to ear.
Jeff Beck: Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers (live) (2007)
One of the absolute highlights of Beck’s late career discography is the live album recorded at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London in 2007. Live At Ronnie Scott’swas a major hit, garnering Beck a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for a beautiful cover of The Beatles’ A Day In The Life. However, his reading of Stevie Wonder’s Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers(which Wonder had contributed for Blow By Blow) is superlative, especially his interplay with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Tal Wilkenfeld. If there’s one performance that shows just how unique and brilliant a guitar player Jeff Beck was, this is surely it.
Jeff Beck and Imelda May: Walking In The Sand and Please Mr. Jailor (Live) (2010)
One of Beck's earliest influences was the guitar player and innovator Les Paul. So when singer Imelda May invited Beck to play at a Les Paul tribute concert, he jumped at the chance. Both May and Beck absolutely shine in blistering covers of two Les Paul classics.