Remembering Jeff Beck

The Guitar Hero, Defined
Remembering Jeff Beck
Beck onstage in 2022.

Jeff Beck, the guitarist who pushed the ’60s British Invasion band the Yardbirds from its electric-blues roots to a contemporary rock-and-roll sound before becoming one of the most-influential musicians of his generation, died January 10 after being stricken with bacterial meningitis. He was 78.

Born Geoffrey Arnold to Arnold and Ethel Beck on June 24, 1944, as a young boy, his mother forced him to play piano for two hours every day. At age six, he grew keen on the guitar after hearing Les Paul’s “How High the Moon” on the radio; by his teens, he was listening to other American artists including Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly; Cliff Gallup’s guitar backing Vincent proved especially captivating, as did blues guitarist Lonnie Mack, followed by B.B. King and Steve Cropper. Motivated to take a turn, he learned to play on a borrowed guitar then built his own by gluing together cigar boxes and bolting on a fence post for the neck.

While attending art school in London, Beck worked odd jobs while playing in local rock-and-roll bands. In 1963, he formed an R&B unit called The Nightshift, which recorded a version of “Stormy Monday.” In ’63/’64, he was a studio guitarist for the pop-focused Picadilly Records and gigged with The Tridents until joining the Yardbirds following Eric Clapton’s departure from the band in ’65. While Clapton was a blues purist, Beck brought an adventurous guitar style that moved the the band beyond the form and served as the starting block for his unequaled career.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Beck went through long periods of musical inactivity, saying he was sometimes frustrated, even depressed by his lack of inspiration, but not to the point of desperation; at times, he maintained perspective by recognizing the privileges in his life, and fostering his hobbies including building hot-rod cars.

In a 2010 interview with National Public Radio, he recounted being hired to play guitar for Stevie Wonder during the making of the Talking Book album. One day at the Electric Lady studios in New York, Beck was noodling on a drum kit, waiting on Wonder. When he finally walked in, Wonder told Beck, “Don’t stop [playing]…” as he went to his clavinet and, on the spot, created the melody that became “Superstition.” The song was intended for Beck as part of a three-song exchange for guitar services, but producer/label boss Berry Gordy recognized it as a potential hit and put it on the album.

Discussing his then-new Emotion & Commotion album, Beck explained his preference for the Stratocaster, citing a “purity of tone” that recalled the intent of the electric guitar created by Leo Fender and Les Paul. And while he remained a fan of the Les Paul for its richer, thicker sound, inspired by Jimi Hendrix, he adopted the Strat full-time and referred to it as an “Olympic runner” that allowed him to do more “gymnastics.”

Beck (right) onstage with Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton at the December, 1983, A.R.M.S. benefit concert in Madison Square Garden.

Beck’s playing style went beyond unique. With a keen ability to manipulate the instrument and his amplifier, he became an idol to guitarist of all ilks and skill levels for the way he used the fingers of both hands to pluck and bend strings while heavily employing the Volume knob and vibrato arm. For most of his career, his amps were driven hard even when he was rendering gentle notes and melodies, the technique allowing for wide dynamics and the use of feedback as a musical element.

Throughout his life, Beck played guitar nearly every day, keeping one near his bed because he was often awakened by inspiration. His practice routine included figures, phrases, and picking at all speeds. But, too much technique, he argued, could overtake the soul in one’s playing. In his mind, any day he did not come up with a lick or melody was a failure. And, despite coming of age in the first wave of British “guitar gods,” Beck didn’t view the instrument as a source of competition, or even bother with comparisons to his countrymen Clapton or Jimmy Page.

Beck’s playing was profound in its ability to infiltrate the way other guitarists make the brain-to-hands connection; perhaps no guitarist has ever been better at creating a melody or using a simple-sounding phrase to build a tune. Generations have learned his licks – at first by picking up and dropping a turntable needle, later by creating a loop in software.

Beck received six Grammy Awards for Best Rock Instrumental Performance and one for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. In 2014, he was granted the British Academy’s Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music, and he was twice inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, first as a member of the Yardbirds, then as a solo artist. He is survived by his wife, Sandra.

Here, we pay homage to the legend with an overview of his life and career by VG editors Dan Forte (who interviewed Beck for Guitar World in 1993 and for VG in 2011), and Pete Prown, who founded the ’90s guitar-gear periodical Guitar Shop Magazine, its moniker inspired by Beck.

The Early Years

By Dan Forte

When Jimmy Page gave the speech for Jeff Beck’s induction to the Rock And Rock Hall Of Fame in 2009, he said of his former Yardbirds bandmate, “He’d just keep getting better and better, and he still has, all the way through. You know, he leaves us mere mortals – believe me – just wondering and having so much respect for him.”

Thirteen years later, Beck was still improving, charting new territory – remarkable for a 78-year-old. But when he was just 20, his emergence with the Yardbirds broke all kinds of ground and set a new standard for all rock guitarists who followed.

At the time of his arrival in ’65, there was George Harrison adapting Carl Perkins licks to the Beatles and Keith Richards’ Chuck Berry imitations with the Rolling Stones. To be clear, his Yardbirds predecessor, Eric Clapton, displayed stinging blues licks on “I Ain’t Got You” and fat, almost unheard-of tone on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” but Beck threw down a new gauntlet. There was the vocal-like tone of “Evil Hearted You,” the dynamics of “You’re A Better Man Than I,” the Indian-influenced hook in “Heart Full Of Soul,” and his propulsive choruses in “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”

The real head-spinner, though, was “I’m A Man.” With drummer Jim McCarty’s marching beat; the Bo Diddley number was a jumping-off point for a manic jam. Beck’s solo begins in call-and-response mode with Keith Relf’s harmonica before some high-register bends. He then mutes the strings, not pressing to the frets, and climbs beyond the top of the fretboard. It’s been described as a chicken being run over by a steamroller.

Beck was pushing the sonic envelope, reimagining what a guitar could sound like – and, mind you, this was a year before an unknown Jimi Hendrix arrived in England. He could be both melodic and savage, and the term “perfectly constructed spontaneity” isn’t a contradiction in his case. No wonder Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith said in ’84 that the Beck period was the band’s most creative.

When blues purist Clapton left the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page turned down an offer and recommended Beck, who’d been impressing folks with the Tridents. Though he didn’t own a guitar (“They loaned me the red Telecaster that Eric had played”), he wasted no time staking his claim as the new guitar slinger in town. To clear up any confusion, the first Yardbirds album released in America, 1965’s For Your Love, pictured and credited Beck, who played on only “I’m Not Talking,” “My Girl Sloopy,” and “I Ain’t Done Wrong,” the latter featuring his slide playing. Un-named Clapton played on the other eight tracks. Its follow-up, Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds, had a live side culled from the band’s English LP Five Live Yardbirds, again not crediting Clapton, while the studio side was all Beck.

Beck’s exposure to blues didn’t come until he started playing in bands, and surprisingly, he wasn’t enamored of the Yardbirds’ reworking of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” by Johnny Burnette’s Rock ’n Roll Trio. “Blues was a big thing, and in the beginning they really wanted me to play blues,” he said. “They hadn’t heard of Johnny Burnette until I came along. All the Yardbirds were upper-crust blues fanatics. They knew all the blues songs, and I had never heard them. I said, ‘Do you know the Johnny Brunette stuff? It’s real ass-kicking stuff.’ They just heard me play the riff, and they loved it and made up their version of it. We didn’t bother to make any references to the original record.”

When the band entered the studio to finally record its first full-fledged album (as opposed to leftover live material and collections of singles), Beck and the boys were at their eclectic best. The 1966 album was called The Yardbirds, but was nicknamed “Roger The Engineer” after rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja’s cover drawing (a truncated version titled Over Under Sideways Down was released in the States). Beck handled the varied repertoire in grand fashion – from “Over Under Sideways Down” (an Indian-tinged follow-up to “Heart Full Of Soul”) to the country drone of “I Can’t Make Your Way,” and the uncategorizable “Hot House Of Omagarashid.” His instrumental “Jeff’s Boogie” (with nods to Chuck Berry and Les Paul) became a trial by fire for guitarists in high-school garage bands everywhere, and was the first song Doyle Bramhall, Sr. heard an adolescent Stevie Ray Vaughan play. In Beck’s vocal contribution, a shuffle in Elmore James mode called “The Nazz Are Blue,” you can almost feel the volume in the studio as he controls feedback for 15 seconds.

He didn’t particularly like the rosewood fretboard on the “Clapton Tele,” and replaced it for Rave Up and Roger. “I really wanted a maple-neck. In ’65, we were on tour with the Walker Brothers, and John Walker had one, and I asked if I could buy it. He wanted 75 pounds for it.”

It also can be heard on the single “Shapes Of Things,” featuring another classic Beck solo.

Leaving session work, Page replaced Samwell-Smith on bass, eventually switching roles with Dreja. The monumental prospect of dual Beck-Page leads only surfaced on the psychedelic “Happenings Ten Years Time Age,” “Psycho Daisies,” and revamped version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” titled “Stroll On,” for the 1966 film Blow Up.

Accounting for his bad temperament and sometimes being a no-show, Beck was fired during a U.S. tour in November ’66.

Though it seems obvious that Beck was blessed with natural talent, he also must have spent untold hours woodshedding. At six, he first heard Les Paul, who would become a continuing influence; his bright sound and echo also caught Beck’s ears via Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore.

Of being a 13-year-old with no formal training, Beck said, “I used to go to the music shops in Charing Cross Road and look through the window, and sometimes go in and play when they’d let me. And the salesmen at the guitar shops, like Jennings, had to be pretty good to demonstrate different styles while selling guitars. So I’d watch them.”

Around that time, he saw the rock-and-roll movie The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield and including lip-synched appearances by Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, and others, along with Julie London’s sultry “Cry Me A River.” He recounted, “It was like a door opening. That film was a masterpiece – in Technicolor, just everything about it.”

Particularly pivotal were albums and the movie appearance by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, featuring the dazzling guitar of Beck’s idol, Cliff Gallup. “When I was a kid learning those songs, all I did was play along with those licks,” Beck said in ’93. “Cliff did all the work, and I just hit the odd note here and there. I would just play the easy bits, and later I linked them together with my own things. I guess you could say that’s where the original Beck style came from – the ‘making up of the bits in between.’ Then I gradually shed off the Gallup stuff, my motor was running, and I played my own stuff.”

Beck during a Yardbirds appearance on British TV’s “Ready, Steady, Go” in June of ’66, with his ’59 Les Paul Standard. The replaced pickguard foreshadows later mods, including having its finish stripped.

Going Retro
In 1985, speaking of the ’83 Action Research into Muscle Dystrophy (A.R.M.S.) tour that united Yardbirds alumni Beck, Page, and Clapton for the first time, E.C. said, “At that time and for many months after that, I began to think of Jeff as probably being the finest guitar player I’d ever seen. And I’ve been around. I still think that way if I really sit down and mull it over.”

Of Beck’s gunslinger attitude, he added, “There’s something cool and mean about Becky that beats everyone else.”

Having already played heavy rock with Beck, Bogert & Appice and jazz-fusion on Blow By Blow and Wired, Beck again did the unexpected, breaking out his ’50s Gretsch Duo Jet and a small amp to cut 1993’s Crazy Legs, a tribute to Vincent and Gallup, backed by England’s Big Town Playboys.

When asked where the inevitable “Jeff Beck twist” was, he said, “There is none. I see myself like an evangelist; ‘Listen to the gospel of Cliff Gallup.’ I’d have made the album just to have it for my car, you knows. So I could say, ‘Hey, want to hear me play like Cliff?’”

For his part, Gallup seemed oblivious to the fact that English guitar gods like Beck, Page, and Albert Lee were devotees, saying only, “I heard there were some guys over there.” Which suited Beck just fine. “I can imagine he was playing clubs like Bob’s Country Bunker,” he laughed, referring to a scene in The Blues Brothers.

Beck used Gallup’s lines as a road map, rather than copying them verbatim, but you’d have to A/B them to make sure. “On a thing like ‘B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo-Bo-Go,’ I’m half playing my stuff in a Cliff Gallup style. I maybe would’ve liked to have another version with all my own solos,” he said. “But the whole point of it was, ‘Hey, this guy Cliff Gallup was it.’”

He didn’t want to take any credit or accolades for the project; to him, it was all about Cliff. The iconoclast-turned-purist even adopted Gallup’s unorthodox technique of using a pick in combination with fingerpicks on his middle and ring fingers.

He spoke of his tinnitus (“a hiss, like steam, more like a rattlesnake”), saying he couldn’t hear a phone ringing in the next room, the rustling of paper, or shoes shuffling across a floor – perhaps an additional reason for, and benefit of, the low-volume Gallup tribute. “I don’t suppose my amp went over 1 in the whole session.”

Beck first got to play with Les Paul in ’83, and recorded Rock ’n Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul) in 2010, a year after Paul’s death. The setting was the Iridium, in New York City, which had been the guitarist/inventor’s home base, and the show included favorites by Les Paul and Mary Ford like “How High The Moon” and “Vaya Con Dios,” featuring vocalist Imelda May. This time, “Train Kept A-Rollin’” was delivered in spirited rockabilly style, a la the Rock ’n Roll Trio’s version. “Peter Gunn” was a nod to Duane Eddy, while a note-perfect “Apache” was a bow to another early influence, the Shadows’ Hank Marvin. Beck uncannily imitated a steel guitar for “Sleep Walk” thanks to deft manipulation of his Strat’s Volume knob and whammy bar.

For the event, he was even decked out in a tailored outfit identical to the powder-blue pleated pants and three-tone blue shirt-vest (and cap, of course) that Vincent wore in – you guessed it – The Girl Can’t Help It.

As reverential as he was, Beck looked onward far more than he looked back, as he continually morphed stylistically and altered the actual mechanics of his technique.

In his Hall Of Fame speech, Page said, “Jeff’s whole guitar style is totally unorthodox to the way that anybody was taught. He’s really developed a whole style of expanding the electric guitar and making it into something that is just sounds and techniques totally unheard of before.”

In a career spanning almost 60 years, Beck experienced many instances when his playing took flight and he entered the “zone.” Asked in 2011 how that felt, his response is now especially poignant.

“Yep, that happens,” he nodded. “I don’t know how it happens. It’s heaven. You want to stay there forever.”

(Ed. Note: All quotes in this section are from interviews conducted by Dan Forte.)

Wired: The Journey to Fusion, Funk & Beyond

By Pete Prown

Beck with a Gretsch Duo Jet in 2011 at The Fillmore, San Francisco.

If Beck’s career had ended in the November ’69 car crash that fractured his skull, he would still be thought of as a guitar pioneer. Turns out, he was just getting started.

After the demise of the original Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart) three weeks before Woodstock, the 25-year-old planned to form a new act with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge. But, with Beck still recovering, the pair formed Cactus. A year later, Beck assembled the second Jeff Beck Group and released two studio albums that, in hindsight, were largely transitional. Unlike Jimmy Page’s arena-sized explorations with Led Zeppelin, Beck turned down the volume to explore funk, R&B, and soul. On Rough and Ready and The Jeff Beck Group, he grabbed a stripped-down Strat with a broken pickguard, trying to shed his sweaty hard-rock past. Highlights were the bruising blues-rock of “Goin’ Down” (previously covered by Freddie King) and harmonized bottleneck in “Definitely Maybe,” both produced by Steve Cropper. Still, the group broke up after 16 months.

The guitarist then assembled Beck, Bogert & Appice and recorded one studio album that merged rock with cacophonous funk and soul. The trio covered “Superstition,” a song Stevie Wonder had written for Beck then recorded himself (scoring a #1 U.S. hit). Beck also started using a Heil talk box in concert, as well as acquiring a ’54 Les Paul purchased from Strings & Things, in Memphis, for $500. He refinished it in a near-black color that thereafter was called “oxblood” and installed humbuckers; later, it would become a critical part of the Beck guitarsenal.

Fusion Superstar
By the time BBA folded in ’74, the 30-year-old Beck was heavily into the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a breakthrough act of jazz-rock fusion, as well as Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album with guitarist Tommy Bolin. The Cobham LP effectively became a blueprint for Beck’s fusion, revealing a method for rock guitarists to play jazz-tinged instrumentals – without possessing actual jazz training.

Throughout this era, players began integrating the Dorian mode and chord tones into solos, bypassing the need to learn hard bop or that dreaded “playing over changes.” Of his jazzy ambitions, Beck bluntly said in the biography Crazy Fingers, “I want stuff that enables me to roast on the guitar, but… not have to come out with all the old s**t that people expect from me. You can keep up with the times, as well as kick ass.”

The proverbial atomic bomb dropped on March 29, 1975, when Beck released Blow By Blow, produced by The Beatles’ studio wizard, George Martin. The album exploded to #4 on the charts and established a new paradigm for instrumental rock, offering more-sophisticated harmony, yet retaining a high-velocity thump. “Scatterbrain” was a tour-de-force, displaying the axeman’s high-speed picking with Martin’s string arrangements behind him. He gleaned airplay with “Highway Jam,” as well as a bittersweet ballad, “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” written by Stevie Wonder as a gift/apology for stealing back “Superstition.” The track was dedicated to Roy Buchanan – another pivotal influence.

Instead of a Strat or Les Paul, Beck recorded “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” using a solidbody assembled by Seymour Duncan, who documents the guitar on his company website. “The Tele-Gib was a hybrid that started out as a butchered ’59 Telecaster with a slab rosewood fingerboard,” he says. “The body was chiseled out badly. It had no pickguard, bridge, or other parts that could be used. I worked on repairing the fingerboard and pickguard quickly so it could be done before Jeff was done at CBS Studios. I rewound a broken pair of old Gibson ’59 PAF humbuckers that were damaged when the covers were removed. They were from a smashed ’59 Flying V that was painted black and once belonged to Lonnie Mack.”

Blow By Blow had an immediate impact on the guitar universe, even winning Beck readers’ polls as “best jazz guitarist” (much to the ire of traditional jazz pickers). A doubleheader U.S. tour with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra – on which he often used the oxblood Les Paul – made it that much more exciting. Another achievement was the concept of an instrumental guitarist carrying an entire live show, much less in front of noisy, inebriated rock crowds.

In 1976, the British ace doubled down with another masterpiece, Wired, prominently featuring ex-Mahavishnu keyboard maestro Jan Hammer. As Hammer told Beck biographer Annette Carson, “He’s the only person of his type – which is a genuine ’60s rock-and-roll guitar hero – that actually advanced anywhere beyond the ’60s. You take every one of those other guys, from Clapton down to Page and Wood or whatever – they’re still where they started, haven’t moved one inch. But Jeff has progressed incredibly, because he’s open to all kinds of melodic invention.”

Amongst Wired tracks, the electronic boogie “Blue Wind” became an immediate FM staple, as Jeff’s Strat joyously battled Jan’s Minimoog synth and Oberheim SEM module rig. “Sophie” found him wailing with a newfangled pedal called a ring modulator, while a cover of hard-bop bassist Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” bolstered his jazz cred. A joint tour with the Jan Hammer Group followed, summed up on the Live album where Beck also revisited an old Yardbirds favorite, “Train Kept-A Rollin’.”

Seemingly overnight, Beck was the hottest guitarist alive.

Beck at NYC’s Palladium Theater, 1980.

Disappearing Act
After this peak, Beck launched a pattern that would continue for much of his career – he simply disappeared, retreating to his English home to build hot rods, his beloved hobby. Aside from a deafening tour of Japan with Return to Forever bassist Stanley Clarke (which likely contributed to Beck’s profound tinnitus), he didn’t reappear until 1980’s There and Back, a strong album marking the end of his jazz-rock era. It was also one of the final projects where he used a plastic pick before converting to fingerstyle.

Once again, he vanished, though reap pearing for the 1981 benefit gig, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. For the first time, Beck got onstage with Eric Clapton for “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” “Crossroads,” and “Further On Up the Road.” Well-documented on video, Beck effectively mopped the stage with his old friend and rival. He also appeared on the 1983 ARMS charity tour with Clapton and Jimmy Page, and made a studio reappearance the next year on “Private Dancer,” the comeback mega-hit from Tina Turner. The single was written by Mark Knopfler, who was not a fan of Beck’s angular solo – as he told a New Zealand website, the Dire Straits picker decried the hiring of “Jeff Beck to play the world’s second ugliest guitar solo.” This was followed by a hired-gun role on She’s The Boss, Mick Jagger’s disappointing debut.

In ’85, Beck delivered Flash, an all-star affair that found him moving into mainstream rock with the aid of super-producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers. A reboot of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” with old pal Rod Stewart earned a hit, while Beck shredded on other tracks using a pink Jackson superstrat (upon which Tina Turner had carved her name). In Rolling Stone, critic David Fricke astutely analyzed “Ambitious,” noting that, “Jeff Beck’s guitar suddenly shoots up into the mix like a runaway jet, cutting a reckless path through Nile Rodgers’ spit-and-polish production with sawtooth distortion and heat-ray feedback.”

Following another hiatus, Beck returned in ’89 for the Grammy-winning solo album Guitar Shop and a U.S. tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan. In ’90, he played the slide-guitar parts and lead solo for the Jon Bon Jovi soundtrack hit “Blaze of Glory.” Yet with all this activity, was Beck back at last? Nope. Once again, the Houdini of electric guitar disappeared for much of the ’90s, occasionally popping up for an album of rockabilly (Crazy Legs), a ’95 tour with Santana, recording with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (Amused to Death); and a soundtrack (Frankie’s House). Otherwise, he was home.

The Comeback
In the ’90s, the Fender Custom Shop offered the Jeff Beck Signature Stratocaster. As his guitar tech, Steve Prior, told VG’s Dan Forte, “Jeff’s signature Strats are slightly modified from the ones you’d find in a guitar shop. The main white one is a ’95 basswood-body made by J.W. Black, with a neck from ’93 and John Suhr pickups, which there are really only two sets in existence – that main guitar and the Surf Green spare. Obviously, Fender would like to get those back so they could try to replicate those pickups, but that’ll never happen because you’d never get the guitar out of Jeff’s hands long enough.”

In ’99, Beck reinvented himself as a techno player on Who Else?, his band highlighting guitar-synthesist Jennifer Batten. The live cut “Brush With the Blues” revealed something even bigger – Beck had taken his Strat playing to another level with revolutionary fingerpicking, volume swells, and a whammy-bar technique that could mimic slide guitar. By age 55, Beck had, miraculously, gotten better on guitar. His 2001 sequel You Had It Coming proved a late-career masterpiece, displaying virtuosity on the Indian-tinged pop of “Nadia” and “Blackbird” – where he actually jammed with bird songs. At long last, Beck was back.

In the 2000s, the British master not only began touring regularly, but became an online-video sensation for a generation dumbfounded by his command of the six-string. His Stratified versions of “Nessun Dorma” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” remain evidence of that uncanny genius. Gigs at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London proved another sensation, with Beck bringing Clapton onstage for blues jams and making a star out of young bassist Tal Wilkenfeld. More solo albums arrived, including last year’s eyebrow-raising duo project with movie star Johnny Depp.

For the last 24 years of his life, Beck was a man on a mission, thrilling fans in concert and making up for the lapses that marked his career.

Guitar Hero
With his passing, accolades poured in from fellow rock heroes. Gene Simmons of Kiss nailed it by saying, “No one played guitar like Jeff. Please get a hold of the first two Jeff Beck Group albums and behold greatness.” Joe Satriani added, “Jeff Beck was a genius, a stunning original. He was an astounding guitar player with more ways to make you go, ‘WTF was that?’ than anybody else.” Dixie Dregs/Deep Purple virtuoso Steve Morse once told the Long Island Weekly, “I always admired his phrasing and ability to explore the quirky and melodic side of the guitar … even without effects, he could be so amazing.”

British guitar flash Bill Nelson, solo artist and founder of Be Bop Deluxe, recalled, “I became aware of Jeff when he was a member of The Yardbirds and I remember watching him play ‘Shapes Of Things’ on television’s ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ program. He wore a fringed buckskin jacket and when his solo came up he dropped to his knees, placed his Telecaster upright on the floor of the stage and played the song’s wonderful, Indian-inspired solo with the aid of a Tone Bender fuzzbox. It was a magical, transformative moment.”

The immortal Ritchie Blackmore once told journalist H.P. Newquist, “Jeff Beck is my idol. The guy gets notes from nowhere, you know? Sometimes he finds notes that I just do not have on my guitar. When ‘Shapes Of Things’ came out, everybody went, ‘Oh my God, who is that – and why is he playing this Indian stuff? It shouldn’t be allowed.’ It was just too good.”

Beck Reflections

Vintage Guitar staff and friends recall the mystique and impact of a legend.

Jeff Beck and Greg Martin

Beck’s performances at the Shrine auditorium in November ’68, are as fresh in my mind today as the evening I witnessed them. He inspired many as a member of the Yardbirds, but for most, Truth, Beck-Ola, and the U.S. tour were our first taste. Beck’s command of the instrument, imagination, sound, soul, and humor were life-changing. Through the twists and turns of his career, he was an innovator, but in ’68 he not only redefined blues-rock for a generation and anticipated heavy metal, but left enumerable musical bread crumbs the rest of us follow to this day. He will always be remembered as the ultimate guitar hero. – Wolf Marshall

Duane Eddy and Jeff Beck were my first guitar heroes, and For Your Love was the first album I bought with my my own money. My first Beck interview was in ’93, behind his Crazy Legs tribute to Gene Vincent and Cliff Gallup. When he began quoting Guitar Player’s Gallup feature from 1983, I said, “That was my interview.” He was blown away; “You have Cliff’s voice on tape?” After that, whenever I’d cross paths with Jeff, I’d remind him that “I’m the guy who interviewed Cliff Gallup,” and he’d immediately brighten up. That was my “in.” – Dan Forte

While John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer popularized what we might call the “Mahavishnu Scale,” it was Jeff Beck who made the sound world-famous. Before jazz-rock began, guitarists typically soloed in straight major- or minor-blues scales, but Mahavishnu’s minor pattern replaced the minor 3rd with a major 3rd, combined with heavy pitch and string bending; in A minor, this would be A-C#-D-E-G, with the optional Eb “blue” note. Beck later embedded this motif into his fusion-era solos. Try this Beck-ism for yourself: pop a major 3rd into your minor blues and start bending. Like El Becko, you’ll be instantly wired.
Pete Prown

Jeff Beck was one of those guitarists who held your feet to the fire. Whenever you think your playing is inspired – you’re hitting all the right notes with the right tone, the right dynamics, the right balance of fire and air – it only takes a few bars of Beck to let you know you can do it better. – Walter Carter

When I think of Jeff Beck, I picture the cover of Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds; Beck stands to one side, smirking knowingly, both part of and apart from the rest. Whatever he played – blues, hard rock, fusion, retro rockabilly, pop, and beyond, that attitude remained, along with drive to embrace surprise. Whatever he played sounded like a spontaneous creation, regardless of context. He was truly inimitable – practically a genre unto himself – and it’s reassuring that he did not succumb to the traps of the ’60s, but remained a vital artist for six decades, doing what he wanted, bending notes with that offset smirk. – Peter Stuart Kohman

Beck was the greatest living guitarist of his generation – a role model for the creative, forward-thinking player. Never tied to the past, he was always reaching, exploring, and curious about new music. Exhibit A for the adage, “Tone is in the hands.” He was never precious about gear, and everything he playeds was a distinctive fingerprint of humanity. All this from a guy who took rockabilly-guitar tropes and morphed them to his will through decades of music trends. His passing is a massive loss to the world. – Oscar Jordan

When I first heard the Yardbirds single “Over Under Sideways Down,” I knew it was fuzztone, but only learned later who created that nimble, fluent riff. I was a Jeff Beck fan from that moment on. I marveled at over a half-century of virtuosity and depth, at the daring fearlessness that set standards for the future. He traveled light years, musically, yet never forgot his roots. Whether blazing new trails on Blow by Blow and Wired, jamming on old blues with Tom Jones or celebrating Cliff Gallup and Les Paul, he summarized – unforgettably – the entire history of electric guitar. – Rich Kienzle

Almost every aspiring teen guitarist in the ’60s was familiar with Beck’s innovative, often-distorted riffing in the Yardbirds, and many were surprised when the first song on the Jeff Beck Group’s first album, Truth, was a reworked Yardbirds hit, “Shapes of Things.” Beck abruptly and adroitly yanked the song into his own guitar-centric fiefdom, purveying his sonic sleight-of-hand in a manner that mandated listening to the entire album. His shape-shifter approach on subsequent albums was legendary, but that audacious and auspicious cover of “Shapes…” was the first footfall of a brilliant and innovative career.
Willie G. Moseley

It’s hard to express how much Jeff meant to me. When he was young, the electric guitar was taking its first breaths. He took hold of the instrument and never let go, creating his own genre, crafting sounds and technique that nobody had heard before. Then somehow, impossibly, he did it again and again and again. Every new record broke the mold. How did he do it? Personally, I think he just got bored and had to create something fresh – for himself. And thank God he did. A few notes bring me to tears; rough and ready, he will always be my hero. – Rick Gould

The loss of Jeff Beck is monumental, tragic, and unbelievable. His revolutionary and exploratory work with The Yardbirds was mind-shattering when I discovered them in the ’60s. The Jeff Beck Group laid the groundwork for ’70s hard rock. His forays won Grammys, acclaim, and a two appointments to the Rock Hall of Fame. His later work, embracing rockabilly, Les Paul-style jazz/pop wizardry, and gorgeous neo-classic melodicism, secured his place as a shaman of electric guitar – Master of the Stratocaster, a musician’s musician, and a talent the likes of which we may never see again. Beck is simply irreplaceable.
Bob Cianci

J.W. Black, Jeff Beck, and John Page in 1990.

Jeff Beck was a genre unto himself, knowledgeable about every form of music and fearless enough to tackle whatever he wanted to delve into – rockabilly, psychedelic rock, jazz, electronica, blues, he was adept at it all. And, he was ever evolving. When I saw him in 1989, he was playing just new stuff. A fan yelled “Yardbirds,” and he played eight bars of “Over, Under, Sideways, Down”, stopped, laughed, and broke into a new song. Always moving forward. – John Heidt

There’s so much to be learned by working out Beck’s lines and melodies, but his real lesson for musicians is about independence. Listen for your own voice and then pursue it, without compromise. Follow it if it changes, and toss the things that don’t work. When I watch Live at Ronnie Scott’s from 2007, when he was 63, it sounds like a player who’d been refining his thing for a lifetime. And he sounded as if he was still searching, still chasing the possibilities. – Rich Maloof

In 1980, I was 14 and just starting to play guitar. I bought Wired and Blow by Blow on cassette and never looked back. The sounds, the playing, the interaction between Beck and Jan Hammer, the instrumental format – it was all sonically mesmerizing. Over the decades, I devoured all of Beck’s new albums, and he just got better and better year after year, culminating in what I consider the best live performance album of all time, Live at Ronnie Scott’s – a true masterpiece by a true master of the guitar. – Phil Feser

In the ’70s golden age of the guitar hero, there was none bigger than Jeff Beck. From The Yardbirds to his last tour in 2022, the only thing predictable about his playing was that it was constantly changing, growing, and improving. He paid no attention to trends, but created new ones, then moved on. With their voice-like phrasing and tone, his solos were unique and recognizable, his touch incredibly sensitive, and his impact massive. Our age of tribute acts proves that many guitarists can be copied and mimicked, but nobody will ever sound like Jeff Beck. His art is eternal. – Tom Guerra

Growing up in the ’60s as a fan and young guitarist, I knew Jeff Beck to be a player’s player. His stellar playing on Live at Ronnie Scott’s is exemplary of his unfolding melodic solos and unbelievable technique that pierces your soul and takes you places. Jeff Beck was one of a kind – a great master indeed! From the jump, he had a profound effect on my appreciation for genius talent. – Mac Wilson

I remember playing “Jeff’s Boogie” in the summer of ’66. Hearing it for the first time was mind-blowing to a 13-year-old kid, and from The Yardbirds through The Jeff Beck Group and Beck, Bogert & Appice, I followed Jeff’s many sonic adventures; his music has always been a beacon of light, a part of our DNA. He showed us the sonic possibilities of the guitar and inspired us to push our own boundaries and find our God-given voices. I’m thankful to have met him. His passing hurts, like part of my youth has been yanked away. God bless you, Jeff, you’re forever in our hearts. – Greg Martin, The Kentucky HeadHunters

Jeff brought a huge element of what people know as the “Yardbirds sound” – an adventurous, devil-may-care approach breaking through the old barriers. Some called it psychedelic. Great loss, and shock. – Jim McCarty, The Yardbirds

I had the pleasure of working with Jeff while in Fender R&D and the Custom Shop. He was an amazingly cool guy. During the Bon Jovi “Blaze of Glory” sessions at A&M, J.W. Black and I were delivering guitars built for him, and Jeff had us hang out while he was recording the solo. It was amazing, watching him create this wild, seemingly out-of-place solo, yet in the end it blended perfectly. His playing was so instinctual and effortless. The musical world has lost a great one. – John Page

I was 17 in 1985, when Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart released their astonishing cover of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” Its soulfulness leaped out in the shiny ’80s, his tone and vibrato were earthshaking. I knew his history, but that song and his fun solo on Stewart’s 1984 hit “Infatuation” led me to discover Blow by Blow, etc. Beck’s ’80s work deserves respect as a primer for many in my generation. – Bret Adams

Jeff Beck was the man. I adore Truth. Live, he was otherworldly, channeling something no one else had access to – so in the present, as if everything was 100 percent improvisational, but delivered with an urgency and mastery of technique that always astounded. A mastery beyond description, without peer. – Webb Wilder

This article originally appeared in VG’s March 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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