Whenever lists and discussions come up debating the greatest guitarists of all time, a peculiar pattern emerges. Justifiably, Jimi Hendrix is always number one, followed by the usual suspects: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen. Unjustifiably, one of the most revered names in that list remains unknown to most: Jeff Beck.
The British guitarist, who died Jan. 10 at the age of 78 after a brief bout with bacterial meningitis, was one of rock music’s pioneers, with practically every single guitar player in his wake showing traces of styles that originated with his playing. Barring Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Eric Clapton — three guitar heroes who preceded him — Jeff Beck branded the guitar as a simultaneous weapon of mass destruction and pollinating tool for musical exploration. He did so perhaps more than any other guitar player not named Jimi Hendrix.
Even then, Beck preceded Hendrix by a two full years — an eternity during a time when popular music was experiencing a Big Bang of discovery.
Beck’s place in that list is unusual in the sense that he did not experience the commercial success that his peers did. He didn’t shake the hips of three generations like Keith Richards, he wasn’t the soundtrack to countless coital excursions like Jimmy Page (or at least not nearly as many), he wasn’t the inspiration for 38% of all middle schoolers after the year 1978 attempting to play so fast their pants tightened, like Eddie Van Halen. Neither did Beck have the hit-songwriting chops or the life story that Clapton had. So why is Jeff Beck regularly ranked among or even above all of these guitarists? It’s a simple cliché of a statement: He was a better guitarist than all of them.
Every guitarist has a thing: Keith Richards' is a crankshaft-like steady right hand that powers the rhythm of rock 'n’ roll’s most eternally youthful moments. Jimmy Page turned the notion of playing guitar into an elephantine sexual expression of what many people would call “big dick energy.” Eric Clapton transformed a trickle of blues imitation into a volcanic explosion of passion. And Eddie Van Halen took the instrument to its technical limits while still finding a way to express personality. Jeff Beck did all of that, and more, while flying just under the commercial radar for nearly 60 years.
While Beck may not necessarily have been a composer, he became one every time he touched a fretboard. His interpretation of the material he chose to record made it feel like he was writing on the fly and coming up with something new at every turn. Of course, he was. He chose notes in an order that was seemingly unthinkable to most guitarists, whose overreliance on typical scales and chords led to swaths of rock ‘n’ roll mediocrity. He took paths that were unmarked and effectively cleared them for other guitarists to explore.
All guitarists who followed suit were just that, following suit.
Perhaps it was that very thing that prevented Jeff Beck from experiencing greater commercial success. He clearly operated on a musical level that was far beyond most people’s understanding of music; it was often beyond comprehension. At times, you can only nod your head to it or simply sit and absorb. But if people can’t dance or fall in love to your music, chances are you’re going to sell fewer records than you should have.
In fact, Beck’s closest brushes with real commercial stardom came at disparate moments in his career. In 1975 and ’76, he released two albums that are often pointed to as pinnacles of "fusion" music: Blow By Blow and Wired. Unlike jazz fusion excursions by bands such as Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra (both of whom Beck played and/or toured with), Beck’s pair of albums attempted to radically centralize the concept of fusion as a musical style that didn’t veer too closely to any particular genre — it was equal parts jazz spontaneity, rock exuberance, funk kineticism and even classical precision (check out the string-kissed workouts “Scatterbrain” and “Diamond Dust” for starters).
Beck’s other brush with stardom came during an impromptu jam with Stevie Wonder in 1972 for what would eventually become Wonder’s Talking Book album. Beck came up with a drum beat so good that Wonder wrote a song around it called “Superstition.” Wonder agreed to give Beck “Superstition” to record for his newly formed power trio Beck, Bogart & Appice, and later recorded the song himself. You already know which version was the hit.
One of the guitar-giant triumvirate to emerge from The Yardbirds (preceded by Eric Clapton, later joined and then replaced by Jimmy Page), Beck made an immediate impression on the fledgling Yardbirds. The distorted guitar leads on “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” and “Heart Full of Soul,” the eastern raga of “Still I’m Sad,” and especially the psychedelic swirl of “Shapes of Things” helped expand the dimensions of popular rock music’s possibilities even before Hendrix’s game-changing debut in 1967.
Beck’s first full-length attempt at making an impression under his own name was through The Jeff Beck Group, a heavy-rock quartet that featured rhythm guitarist-turned bassist Ron Wood and up-and-coming 22-year-old singer Rod Stewart. The resulting albums, 1967’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola, were among the first to display the "heavy blues" sound that would be refined and expanded by bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath at the dawn of the 1970s and form what eventually would be referred to as "metal."
The Jeff Beck Group underwent several incarnations, including a hit collaboration with Donovan titled “Barabajagal (Love Is Hot)” and a stint in Memphis recording R&B records before splitting up in 1973. At that point, Beck decided to pursue more eccentric musical endeavors with his solo career.
In the 1980s, he stopped using a guitar pick, introduced electronica into his sound and went further into musical niches that kept him off the charts but persistently in the minds of those who knew of his innovations.
When Beck was inducted into the Rock 'n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, Jimmy Page played rhythm guitar behind Beck on a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” during which Robert Plant’s opening screams were replicated by Beck — on his guitar.
Jeff Beck could play literally anything: rock 'n’ roll, blues, surf music, rockabilly, Indian raga, jazz, funk, R&B, psychedelia, metal, electronica, classical and more. On top of all that, he could play all of that without a guitar pick, just with his fingers.
It’s difficult to describe Beck’s outlandish musical innovation to non-musicians without simply playing Jeff Beck’s music as an example. One simply has to experience it. Here are 10 tracks to help appreciate Jeff Beck’s endless musical innovation.
1. “A Day in the Life” from Performing This Week: Live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (2009)
Jeff Beck first attempted an instrumental version of The Beatles’ classic for producer George Martin’s 1998 album In My Life, which was later used during a pivotal scene in the 2007 Beatles-themed jukebox musical Across the Universe. Perhaps because of the film’s popularity, Beck later recorded his definitive performance of the song in his intimate live album Performing This Week: Live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, which earned him a Grammy in 2010 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Not much can be said about Jeff Beck’s tender-to-terrifying rendition of the Lennon/McCartney song that can’t be understood by simply listening to it. 2. “Beck’s Bolero” from Truth (1967) Truth’s centerpiece, “Beck’s Bolero,” was composed by Jimmy Page (despite objections from Beck himself, who claims the pair wrote it together) and features an explosive second half that is debatably the first "heavy metal" moment in music, preceding “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by two years and “Black Sabbath” by four. The players on “Beck’s Bolero”? Jeff Beck on lead guitar, Jimmy Page on rhythm guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano and Keith Moon on drums. 3. “Freeway Jam” from Blow By Blow (1975)
The centerpiece of Jeff Beck’s turn to fusion, Blow By Blow, “Freeway Jam” finds the exact intersection at which electric jazz, rock 'n’ roll and funk meet. Beck’s guitar lead patiently never goes into "shred" mode, preferring long, sustained notes and clever, memorable melodies as opposed to displays of technical virtuosity. 4. “Blue Wind” from Wired (1976)
The first of Beck’s numerous collaborations with keyboardist Jan Hammer (who plays both synthesizer and drums on the track and would later go on to find fame as the composer of the Miami Vice score), “Blue Wind” displays Beck in his first move toward a more neon-tinged, electronic, new-wave influenced direction — years before new wave even existed. 5. “I Ain’t Superstitious” from Truth (1967)
The Jeff Beck Group capped off its debut album with a heavy rendition of Willie Dixon’s blues standard that has become the definitive modern rendition of the song for an entire generation of rock musicians. A young and hungry Rod Stewart snarls with endless swagger, paired with Beck’s snarky wah-wah guitar, practically making the recording a duet between the raspy-voiced superstar-in-the-making and the effortless guitar master. Years later, metal titans Megadeth went so far as to record a thrash metal cover of Beck and Stewart’s rendition of the song on their genre-defining 1986 album Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?6. “Brush With the Blues” from Who Else! (1999)
Jeff Beck plays the blues. Straight and simple. Yet somehow, not straight as it normally would be, given that it’s Jeff Beck playing. 7. “Going Down” from Jeff Beck Group (1972)
Originally performed by the Alabama State Troopers and later recorded in an R&B-tinged arrangement featuring Max Middleton’s honky-tonk piano on The Jeff Beck Group’s self-titled third album, “Going Down” features Beck and company (including future drum icon Cozy Powell) doubling down on down-home American rock 'n’ roll styles. It's a far cry from Beck’s original “rude” British blues, but he nails it nonetheless. 8. “Hammerhead” from Emotion & Commotion (2010)
Just because Jeff Beck never really composed didn’t mean he couldn’t compose. Written with keyboardist Jason Rebello, the track brings together The Jeff Beck Group’s crushing heaviness and Blow By Blow’s slick spontaneity and orchestral grandeur with a 21st-century precision that proved Beck was still finding new notes 45 years into his career. 9. “People Get Ready”
Perhaps Jeff Beck’s greatest commercial success was this hit cover of The Impressions’ iconic gospel track that reunited Beck with Rod Stewart, then arguably at the peak of his own superstardom. 10. “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” from Blow by Blow (1975)
Originally composed by Stevie Wonder for his then-wife Syreeta Wright and appearing on her sophomore album, this song was recorded by Beck in an instrumental rendition that conveys the song’s heartache and longing without the need to utter a single word.
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