Jeff Beck the Pioneer
A brief word on the passing of British guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck (aged 78), a soulful player every musician can find inspiration from.
Jeff Beck (1944-2023) will remain one of the most respected guitarists for many years to come because his music was accessible. Beck’s lyrical, soulful style of playing appealed to all listeners, often unknowingly because Jeff Beck was never as wildly famous as Keith Richards or Jimmy Page. Beck operated outside the guitar geek club, wasn’t a show-boater and from what I have read in Ken Scott’s memoir could be shy in the studio. This outsider approach adds even more depth to his music. Throughout his career, Jeff Beck was always contemporary, never stood still musically. It’s harder for nostalgists to keep Beck rooted in a 1960s way-back machine, he just kept moving ahead with the times and technology. A truly creative musician, who embraced new techniques and sounds to keep the music fresh and exciting.
As a younger fan of psychedelic blues, I got into Jeff Beck’s guitar playing via The Yardbirds and their 1966 psyche infused album Roger The Engineer, which is a game-changing document in the development of hard rock. Jimmy Page was soon to join the band that ultimately evolved into Led Zeppelin. Though it’s clear from listening to Jeff Beck’s 1968 solo album Truth (featuring a youthful Rod Stewart), that Beck was already well ahead of the 1970s rock game. But as Zeppelin filled the Royal Albert Hall in London and took the USA by storm, Beck had taken a left turn, making Jazz/Soul fusion records, working with other virtuosos like Jan Hammer and Stevie Wonder. Two of my favourite Beck solo albums are Blow by Blow (1975) and There and Back (1980), featuring musicians at the top of their game. Great listening too!
I’m very happy that I did get to see Jeff Beck perform live as a solo artist in the 2000s, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, my first ever seated gig. His support act were The White Stripes, an edgy, stripped-down, blues-based duo featuring Jack White. Jeff also performed with the band, playing a couple of 1960s Yardbirds tunes. It’s worth browsing the search results for Jeff Beck at Ronnie Scotts which illustrates why his music was probably best enjoyed close-up, within a smaller club setting. Beck changed his sound over the years, beginning with the deeper, heavier sound of a Les Paul, then in later years adopting the cleaner tones of a Fender Stratocaster. Beck became a master of the whammy bar. As a mild guitar geek, I noted how he ditched the guitar pick (or plectrum) and developed a unique way of playing using his thumb. A technique I’ve explored myself, which gives lead playing more feel and freedom.
Returning to the universal appeal of Jeff Beck’s guitar playing, he knew how to turn the guitar into a vocal instrument, that is listenable for anyone, musician or fan, who simply enjoys music for pleasure. Rock guitarists can find it hard to resist showing off, filling up a song with solos that, while impressive, will likely shrink their listening audience. Jeff Beck was in the business of music as a collective endeavour too, for the sake of both the performance and the song. Playing an instrument is also fun and if you are able to fuse that excitement with musicality then you’ll get listeners.
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