Jeff Beck, guitarist with a chapter in rock history, dies at 78
Jeff Beck performs at Madison Square Garden in New York on April 13, 2013.
By JIM FARBER
Jeff Beck, one of the most skilled, admired and influential guitarists in rock history, died Tuesday in a hospital near his home at Riverhall, a rural estate in southern England. He was 78.
The cause was bacterial meningitis, Melissa Dragich, his publicist, said.
During the 1960s and ’70s, as either a member of the Yardbirds or as leader of his own bands, Beck brought a sense of adventure to his playing that helped make the recordings by those groups groundbreaking.
In 1965, when he joined the Yardbirds, to replace another guitar hero, Eric Clapton, the group was already one of the defining acts in Britain’s growing electric blues movement. But his stinging licks and darting leads on songs like “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down” added an expansive element to the music that helped signal the emerging psychedelic rock revolution.
Three years later, when Beck formed his own band, later known as the Jeff Beck Group — along with Rod Stewart, a little-known singer at the time, and the equally obscure Ron Wood on bass — the weight of the music created an early template for heavy metal. Specifically, the band’s 1968 debut, “Truth,” provided a blueprint that another former guitar colleague from the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page, drew on to found Led Zeppelin several months later.
In 1975, when Beck began his solo career with the “Blow by Blow” album, he reconfigured the essential formula of that era’s fusion movement, tipping the balance of its influences from jazz to rock and funk and in the process creating a sound that was both startlingly new and highly successful. “Blow by Blow” became a Billboard Top 5 and, selling 1 million or more copies, a platinum hit.
Along the way, Beck helped either pioneer, or amplify, important technical innovations on his instrument. He elaborated the use of distortion and feedback effects, earlier explored by Pete Townshend; intensified the effect of bending notes on the guitar; and widened the range of expression that could be coaxed from devices attached to the guitar like the whammy bar.
Drawing on such techniques, Beck could weaponize his strings to hit like a stun gun or caress them to express what felt like a kiss. His work had humor too, with licks that could cackle and leads that could tease.
“Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic, but in your face — bright, urgent and edgy,” wrote Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for an article in Rolling Stone magazine to accompany a poll that named Beck the fifth-greatest guitar player of all time. “It’s like he’s saying: ‘I’m Jeff Beck. I’m right here. You can’t ignore me.’ ”
“Everybody respects Jeff,” Page said in a 2018 documentary titled “Still on the Run: The Jeff Beck Story.” “He’s an extraordinary musician. He’s having a conversation with you when he’s playing.”
Despite the accolades, Beck never achieved the sales or popularity of the guitarists considered to be his peers, including Page, Clapton and one of the players he admired most, Jimi Hendrix. Only two of his albums achieved platinum status in the United States, including “Wired,” his 1976 follow-up to “Blow by Blow.”
“Part of the reason is never having attempted to get into mainstream pop, rock or heavy metal or anything like that,” he told the arts website Elsewhere in 2009. “Shutting those doors means you’ve only got a limited space to squeeze through.”
It hurt, too, that the mercurial Beck often worked without a lead singer, and that his groups seldom lasted long. His first band, with Stewart and Wood, stood on the cusp of superstardom, with an invitation to play Woodstock. But Beck turned down the offer, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.
Another band he led that held commercial promise, Beck, Bogert & Appice (featuring the rhythm section of Tom Bogert and Carmine Appice, formerly of Vanilla Fudge) earned a gold album in 1973, but Beck scotched the project after less than two years. Not that he minded his status in the industry.
“I’ve never made the big time, mercifully,” Beck told Rolling Stone in 2018. “When you look around and see who has made it huge, it’s a really rotten place to be.” Grammys and gold
Even so, he earned eight gold albums over more than six decades. He also amassed seven Grammys, six in the category of best rock instrumental performance and one for best pop collaboration with vocals. He was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice, as part of the Yardbirds in 1992 and as a solo star in 2009.
“Jeff Beck was on another planet,” Stewart said in a statement Wednesday. “He took me and Ronnie Wood to the USA in the late ’60s in his band the Jeff Beck Group, and we haven’t looked back since. He was one of the few guitarists that when playing live would actually listen to me sing and respond. Jeff, you were the greatest, my man.”
Geoffrey Arnold Beck was born June 24, 1944, in South London to Arnold and Ethel Beck. His mother was a candy maker, his father an accountant. Beck told Guitar Player Magazine in 1968 that his mother had “forced” him to play piano two hours a day when he was a boy. “That was good,” he said, “because it made me realize that I was musically sound. My other training consisted of stretching rubber bands over tobacco cans and making horrible noises.”
He became attracted to electric guitar after hearing Les Paul’s work and was later drawn to the work of Cliff Gallup, lead guitarist for Gene Vincent’s band, and American player Lonnie Mack. He became entranced not only by the sound of the guitar but also by its mechanics.
“At the age of 13, I built two or three of my own guitars,” Beck wrote in an essay for a book about his career published in 2016 titled “Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll.” “It was fun just to look at it and hold it. I knew where I was headed.”
He enrolled in Wimbledon College of Art but spent more time playing in bands. Dropping out of school, he began to do studio session work and in 1965 was invited to join the Yardbirds through Page, whom Beck had befriended as a teenager and who had just turned that job down.
Starting in the 1990s, Beck began to do prodigious session work, providing solos on albums by Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Kate Bush, Tina Turner and others. He showed the continued breadth of his style with his “Emotion & Commotion” album in 2010, which included the standard “Over the Rainbow” and Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” The latter track won a Grammy, and the album reached No. 11 in Billboard.
Over the next few decades, Beck continued to tour and to record, most recently yielding a collaboration album with actor and guitarist Johnny Depp, titled “18,” in 2022.
Beck married Sandra Cash in 2005, and she survives him.
To his fans, and to himself, Beck was so deeply identified with his guitar — particularly the Fender Stratocaster — that he seemed inseparable from it.
“My Strat is another arm,” he told Music Radar. “I’ve welded myself to that. Or it’s welded itself to me, one or the other.”
He added: “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.”