I looked at the CDs piled up on my couch cushion. While it was never a secret, I was surprised just his deep the well went. And I figured I may as well just say it:
Yep. I’m a Jeff Beck fan.
When I’m asked to name my favorite guitarist, I always wind up firing off the same three: Jimi Hendrix, Adrian Belew, and Jeff Beck. Hendrix is arguably the most influential guitarist of the rock era. Without a doubt, Belew is one of the most innovative players you’ll ever hear. But Jeff Beck is unquestionably the most expressive guitarist I’ve ever had he privilege of hearing. What that man can do with two hands and (for the most part) a Fender Stratocaster defies all logic. It is nothing short of magical.
Beck’s style is difficult to pin down, given the scope of his influences and the huge number of styles he’s played over. Since this is about my personal love for the guitarist, I’m gonna focus on my favorite periods.
Beck came to the fore by way of bands like the Yardbirds, who were rooted in the blues. His first solo albums also reflect this influence. They are fine records, but the album that drew me (and countless others) in was Blow by Blow, released in 1975. I didn’t hear it until the 80s, when I was in my teens. But that record fit right in with the jazz fusion I was slowly becoming acquainted with.
Blow by Blow is an amazing record, but it always sounded to me like Beck was holding back just a bit. With Wired, he took the musical handcuffs and let loose!
Music critics have accused Jeff Beck of being a supremely talented musician saddled with a career of uneven records. Based on his output between the late 70s and late 80s, that’s hard to argue with. Not a lot of what he released during that time holds my attention, with the exception of Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, which was released in 1989. That album contains more than a few great moments. This was a really fun record.
In typical Jeff Beck fashion, the guitarist all but disappeared for the next decade. When he resurfaced in 2001, his playing was better than ever. Perhaps he was inspired by the latest electronic musical styles, which are all over Who Else, probably his best record since Blow by Blow. Whatever it was Beck was looking for during that decade, he seemed to have found it!
Like every other fan, I assumed Beck would vanish once again, now that a new album was out there. Imagine our surprise when Beck released a new album just a couple of years later, called You Had it Coming. The album plays like an extension of Who Else, but that’s beside the point. You Had it Coming contains my favorite Jeff Beck moment of all time, in a little ditty called “Earthquake.” The electronic intro gives way to molten, organic metal. The groove is awesome, but it’s Beck’s solo that puts it over the top. Listen as he turns a simple harmonic into a shrieking, highly distorted scream that melts the eardrums in the best way. It makes life worth living.
Beck wasn’t through mining then electronic frontier, as he released yet another studio album, called simply Jeff. On this album, he gets a little help from guitarist and electronic wizard David Torn. While Torn establishes the soundscape, Beck joyously goes about ripping it to pieces. Not a lot of musicians are willing or able to change their sound with the times. Beck does it with panache.
Two live albums were also released during this fertile period. I prefer the show recorded at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. The band features incredible performances by bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. The tiny Australian bassist had jaws scraping the floor as she played with style and soul well beyond her years.
Most recently, Beck released Loud Hailer, the album he’s using to get a few things off his chest, where social issues are concerned. The guitarist said repeatedly in interviews that he didn’t want to make another album for guitar geeks. This struck me funny, because that’s Beck’s primary audience. But I took the remarks in stride and bought the album anyway. Beck’s social commentary was about where I thought it would be (sung by Rosie Bones), and that’s fine. But like the other guitar geeks, I was looking for that signature Jeff Beck Moment. It didn’t take long to find it.
Granted, most of my favorite Jeff Beck guitar moments are raw and aggressive. But the man can also pluck at my heartstrings, as he did with his rendition of “A Day in the Life.” I have a simple musical rule: be VERY careful when you mess with the Beatles. But every time I hear this, I imagine John Lennon is somewhere smiling and saying, “Oh, fancy that! He’s doing it with his guitar!”
Going into my Jeff Beck head always brings me a great deal of musical joy. I can rarely play a single LP. If you truly want to know what it means to PLAY a guitar, there are few better places to start.