Artist Spotlight: Jeff Beck
It isn’t often a publication like The Rolling Stone can call an individual the fifth best guitarist ever, only to receive reactions (from non-guitar enthusiasts) such as, “Who?” but that is exactly what I hear over and over again when I mention the name Jeff Beck. “Wait, do you mean Beck? I love Loser,” tends to be the follow-up. This is not to say he is unknown, far from it. Jeff Beck continues to perform at sold out shows all over the world, but those crowds tend to be full of guitarist’s who have a love for the art and skill that Jeff Beck brings to our little world of Rock ’n’ Roll. Jeff Beck is an english guitarist, former member of The Yardbirds in the 60’s, as well as his own bands such as The Jeff Beck Group, Beck, Bogert & Appice, and a long and successful career as a solo artist, putting out fantastic solo albums one after another.
Jeff Beck is the guitarist’s guitarist. Some of the greatest guitar players have tried to imitate him, defered to him, and watched him in complete awe. When it comes to the deabte over the greatest guitar player, I will not argue with you, nor am I trying to convince you one way or another, however for me, he holds the mantle and it’s not even close. To be honest, their are few guitarists I would even mention in the same breathe. It still is a matter of opinion though. Where Eric Clapton is smooth as butter (or Cream…), and Jimi Henrix is thunderous like a storm, Jeff Beck has the edginess of a hot rod. He has won eight Grammy’s, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, only to be outdone by Eric Clapton, and is one of the few people to consistently have instrumental albums reach the charts.
The problem with Jeff Beck’s notoriety, or lack there of, is that Jeff Beck has never been an orchestrator of popular music. His bands have never been huge on lyrics, and when lyrics are utilized, like with The Jeff Beck Group, introducing Rod Stewart on vocals, they tend to stray away from the catchy one-liners that people loved back then and continue to love today. One of the great things about Beck is knowing when to lay back and let others shine, as well as when to step up and blow the crowd away.
He plays only what he wants to play, when he wants to play it and tries to experiment much more than many of his contemporaries. Take a look at the genres his albums have been labeled as: Rock, Blues, Jazz, Jazz Fusion, Heavy Metal, and even Country. When doing a tour to honor the late Les Paul, he played to the country style Paul was more known for. Although after a song or two he tended to give up on the pick.
There are plenty of stories out there about guitarist’s penchant for Jeff Beck. Billy Gibbons once told a story about Jimi Hendrix locking himself in a room trying to figure out a Jeff Beck guitar part. There is also the story about Jeff Beck trying to workout a Motown guitar part only to learn it was two separate guitar parts after already having it down. Not to mention the fact that the Stevie Wonder song Superstition was the result of a collaboration between Beck and Wonder and was originally supposed to be released by Beck’s band.
One-time rival, and current friend of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton couldn’t have more respect for Beck. At the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, hosted by Clapton, the legend B.B. King closed out the show, but in between King and Clapton was Jeff Beck, showing the respect Clapton has for him. When Beck finally did start to play, every guitarist who played before him came out from backstage and gazed at him in awe as he played Somewhere Over the Rainbow. From the likes of Buddy Guy and Ronnie Wood to Joe Bonamassa and John Mayer, they all stood there, watching.
The Yardbirds might represent the greatest collective of guitarists ever. First, the band was led by Eric Clapton on guitar. After Clapton left the band he was followed by Jeff Beck on guitar. Then Beck was later joined by Jimmy Page on bass, who subsequently took over lead guitar when Jeff Beck got the boot. Now I never said Beck was the perfect human, he was a perfectionist with a temper, who, as a young musician was unreliable.
Eventually Clapton formed Cream, Beck formed The Jeff Beck Group, and Page formed Led Zeppelin. Out of the three bands, The Jeff Beck Group was probably the least successful but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great showcase for the skill Jeff Beck brought to the craft. I once spoke to a former Editor of Guitar Player Magazine, who referred to Jeff Beck as “The Picasso of guitar,” doing the unexpected and strange but creating something entirely beautiful.
Where Jeff Beck truly shines is with his solo work. No words are needed because he can truly make the guitar sing. Seeing it live is another beast altogether. I urge everyone to give one of his solo albums a listen. Start out with his Grammy winning live rendition of The Beatles A Day in the Life, which may be my favorite single piece of music ever. After that, move on to the classic Blow by Blow from 1975, and the more recent release of Emmotion and Commotion from 2010. Hopefully you enjoy the sweet tunes of Jeff Beck as much as I do, and if not, go bother someone else.