There was a time when only one man in the world generated guitar sounds that millions of musicians now take for granted. Though John Lennon plucked the first note of feedback ever produced on vinyl ( intro to "I Feel Fine" in 1964), Jeff Beck was the first to harness and control it, a year or two later. He virtually introduced the artful use of distortion, wah-wah pedal, metal slide, echoplex, The Bag and other tricks into the vocabulary of rock guitar. In music, this was akin to inventing the light bulb.
Beck possessed an innate genius for handling electrical current through his Les Paul that was like a gift from the gods. Though a few guitar figures may have more cultural significance (Hendrix had the hits, the Woodstock movie, an early death), Jeff Beck is arguably the most important guitarist in rock history. Wanna rumble? It's an old perennial locker room argument - like who was greater, Mantle or Mays, Ruth or Cobb?
Beck set many precedents: After 20 months with the Yardbirds, the first Jeff Beck Group (with Ron Wood and Rod Stewart) recorded Truth in 1968, and some consider this the first blast of what's now called heavy metal (then acid rock, very underground). But this band of enfant terribles broke up on the eve of Woodstock (it was only one gig, Beck miscalculated at the time), and Beck never had a 1960s American Top 10 single under his own name, which surely prevented him from joining his peers as a household name.
In 1975, Blow By Blow ordained the hybrid between hard rock and funk guitar, spawning hundreds of similar albums; and Wired, the subsequent collaborative masterpiece with Jan Hammer, redefined the power-chord jazz trend known as fusion. By the time the vicious licks off every Jeff Beck record got copied and watered down 'round the world, Beck was in another innovative phase. Unlike Eric Clapton, he never settled in as a commodity - at least not until the '80s, when Beck's output in fusion stagnated with diminishing returns.
By that point, his guitar and keyboard pyrotechnics had become an almost indistinguishable "fuzak," and for the first time in 20 years his dominance as an innovator was overshadowed by a generation of Steve Vais. Yet few rock musicians have remained so vital over four decades. A 51-year-old English country squire, with 70 acres outside London, Sir Jeff might prefer polishing his 1932 Fords to thinking too hard about music. But in this man's grasp is a gift greater than that of other rock guitar heroes - mostly because he was the first.
Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana perform September 28 at Starplex Amphitheatre.
--Josh Alan Friedman