I was truly devastated earlier this week when I heard the news that guitar genius Jeff Beck passed away at the age of 78. I expected that the mainstream news stations would mention it as a footnote, but I was pleased to see the outpouring of tributes on YouTube and other internet outlets. While the general music fandom may have only hear of Beck in passing, the true rock and guitar fans knew what a great player he was.
His first and biggest claim to fame was his two-year stint in the Yardbirds. Rock afficionados know that this band was famous for having three of the greatest guitarists in history – Beck, Eric Clapton (whom Jeff replaced), and Jimmy Page. While the band had moderate success when it was living, it was afterwards, when Page later formed Led Zeppelin and Clapton had his successful career, that the Yardbirds gained notoriety. It was Beck’s lead work on songs such as “Heart Full of Soul, “Train Kept A Rollin’,” and “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” that are the most memorable from the band’s catalogue. For a few brief months, both Beck and Page were in the band together, and there’s a great scene in the movie Blow Up where Beck smashes his guitar due to uncontrollable feedback.
It was Beck’s style that was most distinctive among his peers. During his early playing career, he would often drop his guitar picks, so from that point on, he picked the strings with his fingers. However, it was not in the style of a folk finger picker or a classical guitarist. No, he attacked each string with a combination of pulling, hammering, and rolling a la Scruggs-style banjo playing. It was uniquely his own style, so that when you heard a Beck lead, you knew it was a Beck lead.
As for his band history, he always seemed to be reaching for something that no one else was looking at yet, but would take interest once Beck brought it out. He formed the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, performing heavily influenced R&B rock, which Stewart and Wood would later take to the Faces. Throughout the 1970s, Beck experimented with bringing in jazz fusion into mainstream rock, which brought out some amazing compositions such as “Freeway Jam,” Beck’s Bolero,” and “Blue Wind.” In the 1980s and ‘90s, he delved into rockabilly and straight-ahead blues, always pushing his own boundaries. In his last few years, he was performing and recording with Johnny Depp.
He was a bit of a recluse, shying away from celebrity status. He often said in interviews that he did not want that life and the stress that it would put on a famous person. He instead enjoyed studying English history and Formula One racing.
Beck was never popular with the mainstream music crowd, but when you mentioned his name, you knew there was greatness there. Amazing tone, amazing style, amazing approach. I saw him probably 25-30 years ago, I can’t even remember what album he was supporting. He was totally into the music, even though he didn’t play too long. Watching it, you knew that there was guitar royalty on stage. Something special was being shown to you.
Jeff Beck will be missed by so many of us that have rock-n-roll in our hearts. I am glad to see that other true music lovers have felt the same way over the past few days.
Chew on it and comment.