The proverbial chicken-or-egg conundrum has an equivalent in the spirited debate over the Jeff Beck Group versus Led Zeppelin as progenitors of heavy metal. There’s a bit of truth in either.
Heralded by many as the birth cry of metal, Truth was Beck’s first album as bandleader, and the 1968 release pre-dates Zep by several pivotal months.
JBG was formed in January ’67, then performed consistently throughout the year and was in the studio recording on May 14, 1968, while Jimmy Page was touring the U.S. with the Yardbirds. In June, Beck was on the road with his primary JBG lineup (Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, and Mick Waller) while Page was more than two months from assembling what would become Zep.
Truth was released in America on October 4, weeks before The New Yardbirds (Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham) were recording the earliest tracks for Led Zeppelin. The matter is made more convoluted by the fact that both bands included a heavy blues-rock version of “You Shook Me.” However, there’s a wild card in the game – “Beck’s Bolero” and the fateful session in spring of ’66.
Beck’s heavy, melodic rock was epitomized by his reappraisal of “Shapes of Things.” Where the erstwhile Yardbirds hit featured fuzzy raga-inspired solo lines, the JBG version sports a sleek, elegant melodic theme (1:16) inflected with highly personal variations of string bending, rhythmic punctuation, and ornamentation. Note the use of whole-step, half-step, and held bends and the B Mixolydian mode, a measured trill decoration figure, wide interval leaps, and the emblematic descending B arpeggio in measures 4 and 6 – a favorite Beck phrase ending. His contrasting line in 8-9 is purely rhythmic and milks a stuttering pattern of simple but effective articulated half-step bends repeated as only he could.
“Beck’s Bolero” was an instrumental crafted by Beck and Page just days before the session. Built on the interaction of Beck’s lead guitar and Page’s 12-string-electric rhythm, its stately, vocalesque theme and quasi-classical bolero groove prompted the evocative title, offset by a heavy, riff-based bridge. In retrospect, the song introduced several tenets of metal: a vaguely ethnic lead-guitar melody played with a distorted feedback-laced tone, a juxtaposition of textures, terraced dynamics, charging modulatory power riff rendered as an ensemble figure in the bridge, and a strong, distinct musical identity different from the obligatory blues-rock of earlier British fare. Relegated to the B-side of Beck’s first single as a pop vocalist, “Hi Ho Silver Lining” (March ’67), it languished until Truth.
The Led Whobirds is a tongue-in-cheek nickname given retrospectively to five participants of a hurriedly arranged record date at IBC’s London studio on May 17, 1966, consisting of Beck and Page, drummer Keith Moon, session bassist John Paul Jones, and session pianist Nicky Hopkins. “Beck’s Bolero” was the only track issued from the illustrious two-hour session, though other music was recorded. It provided an early template for what would become heavy metal – the band that could have been Zep (Page’s words). From a different perspective, what was laid down that day by members of (future) Zeppelin, the Who, and Yardbirds planted the seeds for a new genre. Beck biographer Annette Carson succinctly put into words what many feel in their gut. If Beck’s ambitions of ’66 had come to fruition, he would’ve preceded Cream and Jimi Hendrix, and precluded Led Zeppelin.
Rock got heavier and more experimental in the wake of “Beck’s Bolero” and Truth; Beck noted the trend in the liner notes of the follow-up, Beck-Ola. Blues-rock rapidly evolved into heavy metal, and metal was a term used regularly by ’70. Zep reigned supreme at decade’s end, bolstered by “Whole Lotta Love” and Led Zeppelin II. Meanwhile, beset by artistic and personal differences, JBG released the considerably heavier Beck-Ola and parted company in August ’69, just a few weeks before the Woodstock festival. The turbulent history of heavy metal has been punctuated by tangents and transitions, few as significant as the trend started by the first Jeff Beck Group – if you can believe Ted Nugent, Joe Walsh, Tom Scholz, Gary Moore, George Lynch, Jamie West-Oram, Steve Morse, John Frusciante, Slash, or Joe Bonamassa.
The London blues-rock community affected Beck considerably. Eric Clapton’s thicker timbre with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and Cream prompted him to acquire a Gibson Les Paul and strive for a heavier blues-rock sound. Another factor was Page, who, as a producer and studio maven, provided recording opportunities for Beck and Clapton on the Immediate label. Hendrix was also an important influence, and inspired Beck to exploit a Strat after Beck-Ola. A lesser, but still consequential, influence was the power-rock (frontman/singer plus trio) bombast of The Who. Though Beck admired the intensity of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle’s facility, he never cited Pete Townshend as a guitar influence and expanded JBG into a quintet to include Hopkins. A key aspect of their approach was the near-telepathic interplay of Beck’s guitar and Stewart’s singing; epitomized by the intuitive trading of parts in “Rock My Plimsoul,” the tight duetting of “Let Me Love You” and the complementary arrangement of “Shapes of Things.” These factor s influenced Plant-Page excursions in early Zep.
Beck invigorated British blues-rock with tracks like “Let Me Love You.” This passage launched his 12-bar blues in F# and utilizes a number of trademark elements. Check out the held bend and slow-release move in the opening, answered by expressive legato at the phrase ending in measure 4. His funky, rhythmic phrasing enlivens bars 5 and 6 and is melodically simple, yet rhythmically involved. He applies a streamlined (but highly syncopated) two-note figure (D# and E) over B7, creating a choppy, animated phrasing with a modal feel. The second half is played in the upper register, in contrast to his lower opening lines. Note his inimitable treatment of legato bends in 8-11, emphatic string scrapes in 12, and nasally stuck-wah/fuzz sound.
Venturing beyond turf established by the Yardbirds, he’d assimilated his primary influences – Les Paul, Cliff Gallup, James Burton, Paul Burlison, Chet Atkins, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush – and reshaped them into a heady amalgam in JBG. His inclusion of Far Eastern modes and Celtic references was more skilled, richer, and subtler. A new facet was his semi-classical reading of “Greensleeves” as a fingerstyle guitar piece – part English folk, part Chet Atkins, the off-the-cuff number established the tradition of including a solo acoustic-guitar vignette amidst the heaviness of a metal album; foreshadowing tracks like Jimmy Page’s “White Summer,” Eddie Van Halen’s “Spanish Fly,” Randy Rhoads’ “Dee,” and Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Black Star.” A finer point was made with the country undertones in the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme worked into live versions of “Jeff’s Boogie.” Moreover, his early fusion found him showcasing bandmates’ strengths in diverse, unexpected settings; consider Hopkins’ gospel piano dominating “Girl from Mill Valley,” Stewart’s atypical rendering of George Gershwin’s standard “Ol’ Man River” (which revealed Rod’s love of the Great American Songbook), Wood’s bass soloing on “Spanish Boots” (3:05) and Waller’s drum solo/coda in “I Ain’t Superstitious.”
Beck’s reinterpretation of blues and rock resulted in several powerful, albeit mutated, outings. On Truth, his blues veered from the conventional influences of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and was taken to its breaking point with twisted soloing in “Let Me Love You,” “You Shook Me,” “Rock My Plimsoul,” “Blues De Luxe,” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” Noteworthy are his free mix of pentatonic blues licks and elastic string bending tinged with odd chromaticism and sophisticated note choices, Far Eastern allusions, and random-if-purposeful sound effects. His slide guitar approach, played in standard tuning reminiscent of Earl Hooker, was repurposed for the slurred lines in “Beck’s Bolero” (0:38-0:55). His rock-and-roll roots were self-evident, epitomized by JBG’s metallic covers of Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock” on Beck-Ola. Similar reinventions distinguished covers of the Yardbirds hit “Shapes of Things” and the Tim Rose composition “Morning Dew,” which developed into a tour de force for Beck’s wah orchestrations.
Beck adopted a tougher, metallic, colorful style in JBG. Power chords and edgy beyond-blues licks were ubiquitous, laced with his puckish humor and unique rhythmic delivery. In the process, he codified traits we take for granted as heavy metal lead-guitar staples, including artful noises like pick slides and string scrapes, exaggerated slurs, free-form feedback screeches and electronic effects as musical events, and various guitar-generated percussive sounds like the slide antics in “All Shook Up” (4:28-4:37). A particularly telling moment occurs at the end of “You Shook Me,” where the listener is treated to what his tortured guitar (laden with feedback and wah) really sounds like after being assaulted for two and a half minutes. Beck’s imaginative, well-conceived overdubbing, similar to Les Paul’s multi-tracked wizardry, dominated arrangements on Truth and Beck-Ola. Prime examples are heard in “Shapes of Things” “Jailhouse Rock” “All Shook Up” and “Rice Pudding.” Particularly intriguing pieces of ear candy include the unpredictable careening parts (three truly independent guitar voices) in “Shapes,” slow-panned solo of “Rock My Plimsoul” (album version), chorused doubling of “Rice Pudding,” weighty stereo imaging of his wah in “I Ain’t Superstitious,” and insertion of a bagpipes track in “Morning Dew.”
“Blues De Luxe” remains a high-water mark of Beck’s career. A slow-blues, it was loosely based on B.B. King’s “Gambler’s Blues” and featured his sinewy, Buddy Guy-inspired string bending and his own command of unusual modal melodies. This excerpt offers his three opening solo phrases. Each is played over a stop-time band break, conveys a separate musical identity, and is accompanied by canned applause from a sound-effects record – more evidence of that famous Jeff Beck humor. The first passage (measure 1) is quirky and bitonal; implying a D major-mode sound superimposed on a C7 chord – a risky proposition that Beck handles with aplomb. The second statement (measure 2) is more-traditional, based on Cm pentatonic with an added 6th (A) and slinky string bending and releasing. The third (measures 3-4) is “notier,” exploits the C blues scale, uses classic blues single-note mannerisms twisted into uncommon patterns, and caps his opening thoughts with authority.
Truth and Beck-Ola are must-haves in any guitar lover’s collection, supplemented by Twilight of the Idols and Live at the Fillmore West (San Francisco ’68). Also recommended is the Beckology box set, which contains the rare B-side version of “Rock My Plimsoul” and “I’ve Been Drinking.” Worth searching for is the 1988 compilation Jeff Beck: The Late 60s with Rod Stewart, a 19-song set that includes “I’ve Been Drinking” and Beck’s first three solo singles.
Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers by Annette Carson (Backbeat Books) is even more essential today.
The first phase of JBG was distinguished by the sound of Beck’s sunburst ’59 Les Paul Standard, acquired in ’66 in the Yardbirds. Recognized by its black replacement pickguard and double-white bobbins, the guitar was heard on Yardbirds tracks but was indispensable to the thicker, heavier tone of the JBG. Stripped of its finish in mid ’68, it was damaged in a fall from an amp stack later that year, so Beck acquired a second ’Burst. In contrast to the earlier plain top, the second flaunted a flamed-maple/tiger-stripe top. Its pickup covers were removed to reveal black bobbins in the bridge position and a zebra (black-white) PAF near the neck. Purchased from Rick Nielsen for $350 in October ’68 and first played live by Beck at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, it’s emblematic, and shown in famed JBG shots from the Shrine Exposition Hall in November ’68. While touring the U.S. in ’68, Beck purchased a ’54 maple-board Stratocaster as a quick replacement for the damaged Les Paul and used it regularly in the studio by the time Beck-O-La was recorded. Identified by its broken pickguard edge on the lower horn, he was first seen playing it at the Tea Party in Boston in late October of ’68, and used it sporadically in the ’70s. The guitar had been stripped of its finish to bare wood and appeared in Beck performances as late as ’77; however, by that time he had replaced the neck with a CBS bullet-truss version with a rosewood fretboard. Also in the early JBG arsenal were Beck’s trademark ’54 Esquire, a Telecaster with super light-gauge strings, and an electric 12-string with a Tele body and Danelectro neck.
Beck was a staunch Marshall advocate by the end of his Yardbirds stint in late ’66, but was seen with 100-watt Vox amp stacks in March ’67, during the rehearsals for the first Jeff Beck Group; he recalls using a Les Paul-Marshall combination for Truth. These were most likely 100-watt stacks, though he also plugged into the new Marshall 200-watt Major heads with four cabinets for JBG live shows. For variety or out of necessity, he occasionally resorted to daisy-chained Fender amps or Sunn heads with Univox cabinets. According to engineer Ken Scott, speaker cabinets were isolated in closets during Truth sessions, resulting in the sharp definition between instruments. “Beck’s Bolero,” culled from his earlier Yardbirds period, was recorded with the Les Paul through Vox AC30 and Tone Bender fuzz over Page’s Fender XII. Beck occasionally relied on an AC30 with a Les Paul as late as studio sessions for the second version of JBG in April ’71.
On Truth, Beck used producer Mickie Most’s Martin D-18 for “Greensleeves.” His experiments with a Sho-Bud steel guitar resulted in the swirling, futuristic overdubs in “Shapes of Things.” His effects of the era included the trademark Colorsound Tone Bender fuzz box and a Vox wah pedal heard prominently on “You Shook Me,” “Morning Dew,” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” Studio echo was applied to “Shapes of Things,” and in concert, Beck used a Maestro Echoplex for delay.
Wolf Marshall is the founder and original editor-in-chief of GuitarOne magazine and a respected author and columnist who has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His latest releases include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar. Wolf’s list of credits can be found at wolfmarshall.com.
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.