He’s not the best known of the former Yardbirds guitarists. He never skyrocketed to stardom like Eric Clapton or created a behemoth as Jimmy Page did with Led Zeppelin. But Clapton, by his own admission, was too pompous about the blues for the Yardbirds. Page spent his time in the Yardbirds turning them into Led Zeppelin.
But in the middle, there was Jeff Beck. And it’s Beck who is responsible for the Yardbirds’ most memorable sounds. He brought the fuzz tone sound to the band’s guitar work, and indulged in flights of fancy that nudged rock into those nooks and crannies from which heavy metal and jazz fusion would burst forth. More than one biographer of the Yardbirds and their famous trio of lead guitarists has suggested that, had Beck stayed with the band, they might have become rock’s first progressive rock band.
I had one of Beck’s two albums with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, who played bass for the Jeff Beck Group. On them, he got back to his blues roots, amping up the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” a notch and creating the arrangement most other bands have covered since. He also did a slow, smokey version of “You Shook Me” six months before Robert Plant roared it on Led Zeppelin’s first album.
But that was a frustrating period for Beck, one in which he might have joined Pink Floyd as Syd Barrett’s replacement, only no one worked up the nerve to ask him. He also was on the short list to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones, but nothing came of it. For Beck, he found the electronics of the era not up to what he wanted to do with the guitar, likely disappointed by Jimi Hendrix’s almost supernatural ability to squeeze out sounds Beck himself could not.
Where I remember Beck the most is the work he did from the early 1970’s to the late 1980’s. Beck became the prototype of the lone guitarist who paved the way for Tommy Bolin, Joe Satriani (both later with Deep Purple), Eric Johnson, and Steve Vai. Like Beck, all (except Bolin) would de-emphasize lead vocals in favor of making their guitar the star of the show. A second version of the Jeff Beck Group, a collaboration with Jan Hammer (who did the music for Miami Vice), and his solo albums in the 70’s all were jazz fusion. And even that was a stretch. Beck often wrote and played whatever he wanted. However, I consider Blow By Blow to be the finest porno soundtrack ever recorded without a movie.
This period ends with Beck entering a period of semi-retirement where he preferred to work on old cars to playing guitar, but it was capped off by one of his strongest efforts, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop. The title track features drummer Terry Bozio in a seventies DJ voice rattling off slogans found in various ads in Guitar and Musician magazines over Beck freestyling up and down the fret board.
As a guitarist, I think he’s more technically adept than Clapton, who even solo is really a member of various editions of the Eric Clapton Band, and much more versatile than the thunderous Jimmy Page, though Page and Clapton are better songwriters. More than Clapton, Beck is also very much in demand as a sideman, lending his style to Roger Waters, David Bowie, and Kate Bush among others. A temperamental perfectionist, he served as a model for This Is Spinal Tap‘s Nigel Tufnel, who, like Beck, is a certified guitar geek taking himself too seriously.
But it’s always a pleasure to hear Jeff Beck just being Jeff Beck. The beauty of it is he’s not really a rock star. And for many musicians of Beck’s caliber, that’s pretty liberating.