Remembering Jeff Beck
Published on 10 January 2024
“Jeff Beck is the best guitar player on the planet”
“Such a genius”
“The Best Guitarist alive”
“Unique in the most superlative use of the word”
Jeff Beck was (and is) the guitar hero’s guitar hero. As the above quotes attest, he more than anybody else is who gets namechecked by the biggest names in the guitar world as their favourite. Beck is the one they look up to, for inspiration and influence.
Today, I’ll briefly look at the ways in which Jeff Beck stood out and made his unique mark upon the world. Such a mercurial talent isn’t easy to pin down - certainly not in the short space of an online blog - but I aim to highlight some of the notable ways in which Jeff Beck differed from the other guitar heroes out there.
Jeff had a technique to die for: his control and touch were exemplary, unmatched even, but he never lost sight of the bigger picture. For him, this was melody and songwriting. Jeff favoured expression over showing off, and worked like a sculptor to craft the parts and techniques required to perform the song in the manner that he envisioned. The emotion available to him was heightened through these decisions, which seem natural to the listener, but were no doubt decisions thought about and practised thoroughly.
There are loads of examples of this, but why don’t we take this opportunity to listen to the classic Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers from Jeff’s watershed album Blow By Blow.
Led by Music, Not Ego
This point is perhaps an extension of the last point, but it’s important to reinforce his ego-less attitude, particularly given his association as a largely instrumental guitarist. An extraordinary player and soloist, Jeff often chose not to flex his ‘Olympic skills’ when the time came for a solo, choosing again to go for melody, emotion and expression. Given his command over the guitar, these moments were actually more jaw-dropping for fellow players than light-speed runs of notes: nobody could control musical notes and phrases like Jeff!
Indeed, he used a relatively typical Stratocaster (his mods - locking tuners, noiseless pickups, a modern tremolo - were hardly rewriting history) tuned to standard pitch, with a small selection of regular pedals into a straightforward amp. There were no extra tricks that didn’t come from the man himself, and those innovations arose from his needs as a ‘sculptor’: he identified the need for a certain sound and then set about figuring how to coax such a sound from his guitar.
Jeff’s playing really took shape when he ditched the plectrum and developed his fingerstyle technique. The depth of dynamic range available by using fingers instead of a plectrum was something Jeff explored and mastered, to the point that he never went back to a pick at all!
It wasn’t just the fingers, though. He used the guitar’s volume and tone controls to create violin and flute tones, then used his Strat’s tremolo bar to dip and weave the notes.
A true whammy master, his technique was less about dive-bombing and much more about phrasing and creating vocal-like melodies. That, and faux-slide, as evidenced from his guest spot on Jon Bon Jovi’s song for Young Guns II. No, that is not an excellent slide solo at all: it’s Jeff with his whammy bar!
Beck’s musical skills extended further than the fretboard. One famous - and entirely true - tale involves Jeff’s skills as a drummer!
Yes, you’ll know this already, no doubt, but Jeff Beck unwittingly created the drum beat that Stevie Wonder jammed along to and ended up writing Superstition on! The two were working together with Beck supplying guitar parts to the Talking Book album sessions in return for Stevie writing him a song. Taking a break, Beck decided to sit behind the skins and mess around on a drum beat for fun. Wonder returned, sat behind his keyboards and started playing those notes we all know so well!
Beck’s drum performance isn’t something that made it onto the final recording, but whatever he was up to on the kit became the genesis of one of the most famous songs in the world!
Jeff never stayed in one place for too long. Like a lot of genuinely creative people (Bowie, Picasso etc), he tended to always be looking ahead towards the next thing. As such, his career path was anything but predictable, leaping from genre to genre, style to style, but always remaining his inimitable self.
Without even taking in every style he took on, you’ve got British Invasion blues, proto jazz-fusion, jazz fusion mixed with classical (see below for a famous example!), film soundtrack work, pioneering guitar synth work and a great deal more. It’s a vast canvas, coloured by the same restless spirit and flawless performances.
Played Well With Others
Beck highly favoured collaborations. A large part of his body or work featured other prominent musicians, and he often gave prominent space to these artists. Jennifer Batten recently talked to me about her decade-long collaboration with him (read the guitarguitar Jennifer Batten interview) for one example, but even on the Jeff Beck Group’s debut record Truth, he had Rod Stewart front and centre as frontman (and Ronnie Wood on bass!).
His collaborations since have been many: right up until his passing, he was working with artists on songs. A full list would be pointlessly long, but even a brief one includes names such as Ozzy Osbourne, Morrissey, Jon Bon Jovi, Brian Wilson and Johnny Depp. He even found time to join Kelly Clarkson for a TV appearance on American Idol back in 2007!
Jeff Beck Forever
Jeff Beck was not necessarily a hit maker; nor was he a member of a particularly huge band. Certainly, outside of guitar-playing circles, it can be difficult to understand how he came to be so well known and revered. That is, of course, until you hear one note from him, and then it all makes sense: when Jeff played, you paid attention, and afterwards, you always remembered it. You can’t argue with greatness, and his greatness left its mark on almost everything it touched.
A defiantly individual artist, Jeff marched to the beat of his own spectacular drum. A masterful player who played for the song; a humble man whom legends bowed to; a creator of historical moments, timeless music and an influence to millions, Jeff Beck will be remembered.