Anytime I’m asked “Who is the best guitar player ever,” I answer the same way: I don’t believe in “best” lists. They’re far too subjective.
What I do instead is list my three favorite guitar players. The list never changes: Jimi Hendrix for inspiration; Adrian Belew for innovation; and Jeff Beck for expression.
I had the wind knocked out of me today when I learned of Jeff Beck’s passing at the age of 78. Like Adrian (who is 74), Jeff was youthful, making music that sounded like it was being made by someone 30 years younger. Jeff could’ve stuck to playing his classics from the 60’s and 70’s. Instead, he continued to innovate by getting in touch with the music of the time, giving guitarists like myself one more layer of complete frustration to deal with. I make that statement with all due respect.
I can’t tell you the first time I heard Jeff. I do know that my friend Brad (a guitarist himself) put the Beck bug in my ear in the spring of 1986. But I’m sure I heard something from him before that. Like pretty much everyone, the first record Brad gave me to study was ‘75’s Blow By Blow. It was obvious Jeff was a great player. But my 19-year-old ears didn’t fully grasp just how expressive (there’s that word again) he was.
Jeff could do things with a guitar no one else seemed able to do. It wasn’t about speed or pyrotechnics or volume. People looking to compliment a guitarist often say, “He can make that guitar talk.” Jeff could, too. But that was only the beginning. Jeff could make the guitar talk, wail, cry, sing, stutter-step, whisper, scream and just about anything else you can think of. And more often than not — to the chagrin of people like me — he did it without using a pick. It’s mind-boggling!
Again I’m not sure, but I think my first two Jeff Beck albums I bought were There and Back and Wired. I was definitely digging what I was hearing. But Jeff didn’t really become my guy until ‘89, when he released Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop. I was in the Air Force, stationed in South Carolina. I found the CD at the local mall and raced home with it. It was almost the only CD I played for days!
One of the things I love about Jeff is he wasn’t afraid to change with the times. Jeff was listening to what was going on around him, and wasn’t afraid to jump all over it. When “drum and bass” became the rage in the late 90’s, Jeff didn’t complain about the state of modern music. He joined in on the fun!
For the longest, a new Jeff Beck album was an event, because they happened so infrequently. Lucky for us, he became a bit more prolific in the 21st century. One of my all-time favorites is a tune called “Earthquake,” from the album You Had It Coming. Not only did it have the modern backbeat of the times, Jeff managed to turn high octane harmonic shrieking into a musical note! And held it for impact!
Oh, yeah … expression. The sounds coming from Jeff’s fingertips through his Fender Stratocaster into and out of that Marshall amplifier defy description. When he took on — and owned — the Beatles “A Day in the Life,” Jeff reduced me to a teary eyed puddle.
And should you think my man Jeff had gone soft, he proceeded to rip our heads off despite being in his seventies, when a lot of musicians might go for a slightly softer sound.
I haven’t even discussed the collaborations he had with the likes of Stanley Clarke and Stevie Wonder. There are dozens more examples I could name, but I think the key to digging Jeff is self-exploration.
I had the privilege (yeah, that’s what it was) of seeing Jeff twice in concert. Each performance elicited the same result — an audience full of guitar geeks leaning forward to stare at Jeff’s hands, trying in vain to figure out just how in hell Jeff did that! It’s a small wonder the building didn’t start tilting in that direction.
Many will say Jeff had a pretty good run, especially having gotten through the 60’s and 70’s. And while that may be true, Jeff was a musical immortal, always pushing forward, always thinking about what’s next. A lot of musicians could stand to learn from that.
Jeff was a player’s player. His standards were the highest. And now it’s time for me to learn to play “Stratus” in Jeff Beck fashion, because that’s what a friend of mine told me to learn a couple of months ago so I can jam with his band. I’ll never get it right, but it’ll be a lot of fun trying.
Rest easy, Jeff. You’ve left a giant hole that will never be properly filled.
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I just love that version of A Day in the Life.
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It’s one of those musical moments you want to leave in suspended animation.