The blues guitarists’ guitarist.
If you read my last post about the Thames Delta guitar heroes, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, you’ll know which one of the three isn’t a mainstream mega-star. Of course, it’s Jeff Beck. While Jeff hasn’t sold quite as many records as Page and Clapton, for many musicians, he’s the blues guitarists’ blues guitarist.
But, as Beck says, “My postman will know who Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page are, but he won’t know who I am. And he (the postman) probably plays a Strat.”
I’m reading an insightful book, ‘The Life of Jeff Beck’ by Martin Power for Hot Wired Guitar, which reminds me just how highly-rated Jeff is by other world class guitarists, all players I rate as pretty special.
Said Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, “There isn’t a guitarist around who doesn’t look at Jeff and wonder how he does what he does. I used to idolize him when I was 18, now I’ve come to believe he’s from another planet.”
Queen’s Brian May rates Jeff Beck as, “The greatest living guitarist. Jeff produces so much beauty.”
Said the late, great B. B. King: “I’d say (Jeff Beck) is the number one rock ‘n’ roll guitarist in my opinion and he plays blues better than most of us.”
What many younger people don’t know is Beck’s band, the Jeff Beck Group, was one of the most influential and important ‘British Invasion’ bands of the 1960s. They were up there with the Stones, Kinks, Led Zeppelin and Cream when it came to taking black blues back to white America. Fancy at taste of JBG to catch my drift? Here’s their explosive live cover of Buddy Guy’s ‘Let Me Love You’ which ended up pretty different to Buddy’s original. You might recognize the vocalist as Rod Stewart. Ronnie Wood played bass.
‘Let Me Love You’, from the JBG’s debut album, ‘Truth’, was recorded in 1967 and reached number 15 in America’s top album chart. Beck, just 23 at the time, had previously made a name for himself in the Yardbirds, where he’d recruited his good mate, Jimmy Page, to play alongside him.
‘Truth’ has since been hailed as a seminal prototype of heavy metal, alongside the works of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, although, to me, it’s just pure classic British blues rock, the stuff I cut my teeth on. Here’s another fabulous cover from ‘Truth’: Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘I Ain’t Superstitious’ with Beck’s wah-wah working overtime.
No wonder Jeff Beck was the Rolling Stones’ first choice when they needed to replace Mick Taylor. “Part of me would love to have been a Rolling Stone,” Beck said, “but I was used to conceiving a notion, putting it down on tape and finishing it by the end of the evening. They had trouble just turning up.” It was Beck who suggested Ronnie Wood join the Stones.
Now, I don’t want to namedrop, but I will anyway. When I worked for CBS/Epic Records in London in the early 1970s, we had three of rock’s most highly-rated guitarists on the labels, who would drop in on us – Jeff Beck, Gary Moore and John McLaughlin. We also got to see them in action, which was a privilege. But, I must admit, by 1972, Jeff and John were beginning to lose me musically. John McLaughlin had gone from to playing jazz-fusion electric guitar with Miles Davis to his newly-formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, both of which were too highbrow and clinical for me. Jeff, on the other hand, had set up Beck, Bogart & Appice with Vanilla Fudge’s former bass player and drummer. Like the Faces, BB&A’s records never captured the brilliance of their live shows and Jeff’s guitar played, which he had brought down a few notches, was over-powered by bass and drums.
Why Jeff’s not rated highly enough
Moving on a few years, here’s why I think the guitar talents of Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin are no longer celebrated like they once were, outside of rock and blues circles, that is. Both got too complicated taking rock and jazz beyond the grasp of the average listener. John McLaughlin went beyond jazz and explored Indian music. Jeff Beck went through all sorts of esoteric periods from playing jazz fusion with John McLaughlin to recreating the unique sounds of Bulgarian females choirs on his guitar, from getting involved with techno to exploring Japanese and African music. Spellbinding guitarists as they were, Jeff and John were getting too sophisticated for my ears as I suspect they were with the record buying masses.
Why bring John McLaughlin into the equation? Because, as Jan Hammer said, “Jeff idolized John McLaughlin. He always said there was no one better.” Although John lost me musically years ago, I’ve long believed Jeff is right. I’ve seen John McLaughlin live a few times and nobody has mastered the guitar like.
Other Jeff Beck guitar heroes included Buddy Holly who he saw live in London in the 1950s, Cliff Gallup, Gene Vincent’s guitarist from the 1950s and Gallup’s Blue Caps replacement, Johnny Meeks, not forgetting Elvis’ guitarist, James Burton, who was then Rickie Nelson’s guitarist. Jeff also liked guitarist Les Paul, who returned the compliment saying: “I like Jeff’s playing and not because he’s taken something from me. We all take from somebody. We all have to learn somewhere.”
Here’s another JBG blues cover: B.B. King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’. Rod Stewart was vocalist, Ronnie Wood played bass and Nicky Hopkins piano. Jeff and Rod called it, ‘Rock My Plimsoul’.
And here are a few more comment I picked up from Martin Power’s book.
Toto’s Steve Lukather: “God plays guitar with Jeff Beck’s hands.”
Jazz and jazz fusion bass player, Stanley Clarke. “There was so much musicality in his solos, like little compositions in themselves. It had nothing to do with technique, though he had that, too. Jeff’s just a fierce guitar player with a sense of fun. Jeff’s like an anti-rock hero. If anyone could get away with that rock star thing, you’d think it’d be him. But he doesn’t. Get him on stage though and he can really turn it on.”
Jeff Beck, Chick Corea and Mahavishnu Orchestra collaborator, keyboard player Jan Hammer. “Jeff’s sound is him, it’s in his hands. He gets away with things that are totally illegal on guitar. Beck is so astounding … sometimes you think he’s playing two parts.”
The last word
Jimmy Page (inducting Jeff Beck into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007). “He leaves us mortals wondering (with) sounds and techniques totally unheard of before. An amazing feat and I’m just honoured to be here to induct him.”
David Gilmore: “Jeff’s the best there is.”
It’s hard to believe Jeff Beck is now 76. Like the world, we’re all getting older.