The Jeff Beck story: a full biography of the guitarist
When he picks up his electric guitar, it's exciting rock time, because it's fucking Jeff Beck! He's the ultimate lead guitar virtuoso (well... not counting Jimi Hendrix, of course). He attacks the senses with strange tones, previously unknown techniques and a constant stream of bizarre ideas. Jeff Beck is a rock master of his craft, surpassing most super-guitarists.
In fact, he was the first person who managed to direct the overdubbing in the right direction. He played longer, louder, faster and stranger than any of his contemporaries, taking liberties that would have been unforgivable for anyone else.
What sets him apart from the nameless hordes that have tried to emulate him over the past few decades? Consistency of imagination, a stunning quality of technique and, of course, his no-holds-barred attitude towards rock 'n' roll.
Unlike Jimmy Page, he lacks a more cohesive vision for his music. Page is a composer, producer, arranger and a top-notch guitarist, but Beck is unable to handle all of these responsibilities. He's a man in complete control of his own electric guitar, and that's pretty much where the control ends.
Jeff Beck was the first guitarist of his generation to be imbued with the pure sound of exploratory technique. Around the same time Pete Townsend was also dabbling in guitar playing, trying to create something new, but his experiments were less about technique than anything else.
Beck worked in the blues pop style with The Yardbirds, and it's worth noting that he outplayed many bluegrass players during this period of his career. Some country motifs were prominent in his style long before the emergence of a new and fresh throat in music, what later became known as "country rock"! But the advanced use of devices was only a detail compared to the importance of the playing itself. Beck was always brilliantly gifted, and his improvisational instincts proved unerring.
He hardly ever stayed within the confines of cliché, and his virtually limitless knowledge of the electric guitar's capabilities allowed him to extract sounds from his Telecaster, Stratocaster or Les Paul that no one even knew existed.
Consider his work on the old single "Over Under Sideways Down." On the intro, he transforms into a Hungarian gypsy fiddler and later becomes an Arabian temple drone. Then he also masterfully plays with the blues in "The Nazz are Blue", attacking it with a manic gleam in his wild eyes, and it absolutely sets his work apart from any other improvisation on a similar theme.
His first solo album Truth, on which he was assisted by Rod Stewart, Nicky Hopkins, Ronnie Wood, Mickey Waller, John Paul Jones, Keith Moon and Jimmy Page, features a classic slow blues called "Blues Deluxe" (although it's an exact copy of the deceased B.B. King's playing). After Rod and Nicky have done a few of the same choruses, Beck goes into his solo, stopping the whole band to play a completely extraneous riff, accompanied by loud shouts and squeals. It finishes with a cascade of feel-good, immersive heat, followed by a transition to the next verse. This guitar solo by Beck is one of the coolest.
Jeff Beck's secret to success.
Beck's secret is that he is utterly tasteless, if you stick to Jerry Garcia's definition of "tasteful guitar", of course. You might quite logically assume that he's too shouty, too loud, too florid or too extroverted, that his playing defies all the accepted rules of "good" playing. The only thing you're ignoring is that his extraordinary combination of limitless technical ability and outrageous imagination invalidates the rules by which most guitarists are judged.
The only question that can be asked regarding Jeff Beck's game is: does it work? And the answer is yes, it does. He just doesn't look like anyone else, despite the fact that many people try to emulate him.
When Beck improvises, an incredible tension builds, taking you so far away that you think the musician is never coming back. But just when it seems like he's finally sawed the branch he's been sitting on, the guitarist suddenly brings it all back, and you realise that he's been safe and sound with the band all along.
Of course, on a bad night, he can be terribly disappointing. But if you don't dive that deep, you can't reach the heights. So, hello, Mr Beck. If it matters, right now, you're the master!