One of Jeff Beck’s early band mates Ronnie Wood, once told a story about he and Jeff having a guitar talk. Beck, forever coming up with new ideas for the electric guitar, showed Woody a couple new finger-flinging lick combinations. “Hey, I just figured this out. Do you ever do this?” Wood, laughing out loud stated the obvious, “No, I don’t do that, YOU do that!”
In a nut shell, that is the story of Jeff Beck. Besides Jimi Hendrix, Beck is the one electric guitar player to constantly push the instrument to its limits, continually finding innovative sounds raising the bar on what’s possible. He even influenced Jimmy Page, who after hearing Beck’s iconic album Truth, drew ideas from its heavy sound and created Led Zeppelin several months later.
Amongst Beck’s many achievements, the genre of heavy metal draws an unmistakable line to his early works. Before foot pedal effects boxes were created, the only way to achieve crunch or gain was to turn your amplifier up to max volume. The end chord to Beck’s solo on the Yardbirds “Shapes of Things,” rocked the guitar world. It was probably the first power chord ever played and rattled us to our core. Indeed, his solos and guitar sounds in general, were what made the Yardbirds groundbreaking.
Check out the sounds and solos on these early gems. And remember, this is the 60’s. None of this had been invented yet. Jeff invented them.
The Yardbirds – “Shapes Of Things”
The Yardbirds – “Over, Under, Sideways, Down”
Now, fast forward to Beck’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance. This will knock your socks off. First, it’s Jeff doing “Beck’s Bolero” written for him by Jimmy Page, then Jimmy comes on as a guest guitarist for “Immigrant Song,” then Beck launches into some jazz fusion from outer space, and finally we see a host of superstar guitar players on “Train Kept A Rollin.” This video shows off Jeff’s repertoire of guitar sounds and innovative licks.
Watch close, he’s not even using a guitar pick!! Huh?
Jeff Beck & Jimmy Page – Beck’s Bolero, Immigrant Song, Train Kept a Rollin (Live 2009)
Make no mistake, long before there was Led Zeppelin and before Eric Clapton rose to prominence in Cream, all of us kids learning how to play the electric guitar were chasing Jeff Beck trying to figure out what he was doing.
I was fortunate to meet Jeff a few different times in my life and even worked with him on one of our Live By Request television specials. The video below is the entire B.B. King Live By Request Special. It’s fun to watch the whole thing (It’s B.B. King for God’s sake), but if you want to see Jeff’s guest spot you can fast forward to 44.45.
Both B.B. and I found Jeff to be very kind and ultra-respectful. At sound check he was very subdued in his playing. He didn’t want to outshine B.B. on guitar knowing that B.B.’s style was very laid back and sparing when it comes to the amount of notes played. B.B. looked at him and said, “Jeff, I thank you for your caring in not wanting to upstage me. But I’m fine. I’m B.B. and everyone knows me and how I play. We asked you here to be Jeff Beck, so please don’t lay back on my account, light it up son!”
And, he does.
B.B King Live by Request featuring Jeff Beck
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Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top is a huge Beck fan. In fact, on his cover of Merle Travis’ “16 Tons” (made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford), he uses one of Beck’s signature guitar riffs from the Truth album. All of us players are quite familiar with it.
Here is “I Ain’t Superstitious” from Truth, with that opening renowned riff. Also notice Beck’s early use of the Wah-Wah pedal. Another name for the pedal is the Cry-Baby. Well, Beck uses the pedal in his own way of course, and makes the guitar cry like no one else.
Jeff Beck – “I Ain’t Superstitious”
Here is a fan video of ZZ Top’s “16 Tons” live — same opening riff. On tour, Billy often invited Jeff to guest perform on the song. I’m sure Jeff got a kick out of hearing that his famous riff lives on.
ZZ Top – “16 Tons” featuring Jeff Beck guitar riff
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In 2015, my wife Sharon and I were invited to Bob Geldof’s wedding held in the south of France. It was at a club located in a gorgeous setting on the beach. A bunch of Bob’s friends attended including Jeff Beck. At the time I believe we at CDJ were promoting Jeff’s latest offering Live +. It’s a terrific album and for me, the standout track is Beck’s cover of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “You Know You Know.” On it, Beck takes the electric guitar to a completely other planet. If you didn’t know it was a guitar you were hearing you might think the sounds were coming from a clarinet or another instrument.
Anxious to talk with him, I re-introduced myself as the executive producer on the B.B. King show and now promoting his new record. I was so moved by his guitar playing I started to gush when he stopped me cold.
“You think I’m good on that? Did you check out the drummer?! The guy is on fire!!” Once again Beck proved to be a class act. A musician’s musician, he wanted to talk about the outstanding job the drummer did!
Here is one of the finest Jeff Beck tracks ever recorded.
Jeff Beck – “You Know You Know” from Live + album
Beck’s phrasing is often described as a conversation, the guitar talking to you or with you. Below is another version of the same song. You will also see the bass guitar talk with you. Outstanding musicians all around.
Jeff Beck – “You Know You Know” Live from Japan
Despite his talents and many recorded offerings, Jeff Beck never enjoyed the superstar status of his peers Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. I think he was more interested in constantly pushing the envelope and searching for ever new musical muses. Consequently, he never stayed in a band, even of his own creation, for too long a time.
When speaking about his Fender Stratocaster, the guitar he is so identified with, he said, “My Strat is another arm. I’ve welded itself to me, one or the other.” He went on to say, “It’s a tool of great inspiration and torture at the same time. It’s forever sitting there, challenging you to find something else in it. But it is there if you really search.”
It was Jeff Beck’s continual search to find that “something else” that made him one of the most influential guitarists in history, and one of the greatest players of all-time.
He’s been such a personal inspiration and such a force, as I write this, I still can’t believe he’s gone.
But rather than cry about it, I think I’ll go put on Blow by Blow and Wired, crank them to the max, and smile. That’s what he’d want.
© Paul Rappaport 2023
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