The Guitarist’s Guitarist
Jeff Beck’s Groundbreaking Virtuosity Changed the Course of Rock Guitar
The world lost one of its truly great guitarists this week, when Jeff Beck succumbed to bacterial meningitis. During his time, he gave us a nearly six-decade body of work as eclectic, innovative and inspiring as anyone in rock. Often described as a “guitarist’s guitarist,” Beck boldly blazed down musical paths where others feared to tread. His killer tone, harmonic flurries, manipulation of his guitar’s volume knob and divebombing whammy bar swoops gave him a singular style that was instantly identifiable, and his restlessness in pursuing different sounds insured that he would continue to innovate at an age where most everyone else was content to rest on their laurels.
Alan Williams, a music professor at University of Massachusetts/Lowell, summed up Beck as follows: “Jeff Beck was one of rock’s first stardom renunciants, stepping off the glory/gravy train every time it pulled into the success station. He was an iconoclast, a determined individualist not to be contained or defined by genre. He was too weird for blues purism, too angular for pop, bored with the template he created with both the Yardbirds and the Jeff Beck Group that Jimmy Page would soon build into Led Zeppelin. He courted jazz fusion but eschewed the mathematical mysticism of the Mahavishnu Orchestra for idiosyncratic takes on the Beatles and Stevie Wonder.”
Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray described his playing as combining “puckish, playful humor, absolute rage and absolutely swooning lyricism…often in the same line.”
The story of Jeff Beck the guitarist began in the early ’50s, when the six-year-old Beck first heard Les Paul and Mary Ford’s recording of “How High the Moon.” Mesmerized, he asked his mother what was making those sounds. She replied, “It’s an electric guitar. It’s all tricks.” At that moment, young Jeff knew he wanted to get an electric guitar to do “tricks” with…something he was to become more successful at than anyone before or since.