The guitarist’s guitarist. It’s a phrase that perfectly embodied Jeff Beck, and is a sentiment that the great and the good of the music world is repeating over and over again after hearing the news of Beck’s death, at the age of 78.
One person who would never have dreamed of using those words, however, was Beck himself. He wasn’t a brash showman, and on those occasions when he did give interviews, he heaped praise on other musicians with whom he was working at the time. I’m writing this piece as a huge fan of Beck and his work – in particular a concert which, thankfully, was captured for posterity.
It took place at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho back in 2007, when Beck fulfilled a lifelong dream by playing a five-night residency. Even saying the name of the club evokes a lineage which stretches back through the greatest musicians of the 20th Century: Buddy Rich, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Billy Cobham and John Mayall amongst many, many others. Beck admitted in an interview for the DVD that he felt more nervous playing there than anywhere else.
Other tributes will, quite rightly, focus on Beck’s game-changing work with The Yardbirds, on songs like ‘Over Under Sideways Down’, and imitating a sitar on ‘Heart Full of Soul’ (some months before The Beatles used one on ‘Norwegian Wood’). Thousands of words will be devoted to his albums, which included Beck-Ola and Wired. Aspiring guitarists the world over listened to songs like ‘Spanish Boots’ and ‘Scatterbrain’ obsessively, trying to work out how to copy that magical tone that only Beck could achieve.
The reason I’m focusing on the Ronnie Scott’s DVD is because I truly believe it’s one of the greatest examples of musicianship ever captured on film. Beck, using little more than his wizened fingers and the tremolo bar, makes the guitar sing one minute, then wail and weep the next.
The other thing to note about Beck is that he surrounded himself with the very best musicians. On drums, ex-Frank Zappa player Vinnie Colaiuta sets the place alight, attacking the drumkit with astonishing speed and dexterity. The real standout, though, is bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, who was just twenty one at the time. There is a particularly beautiful song, ‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers’, written by the great Stevie Wonder and gifted to Beck for his seminal Blow By Blow album.
Beck makes the guitar howl with emotion, and in the middle Wilkenfeld takes a bass solo. This magical moment sums up why Beck was not only revered as a musician, but as a human being. As can be seen clearly on the film, nobody loved Wilkenfeld’s virtuosic playing more than Beck himself, who grins and throws his arms wide in appreciation.
It was Beck’s fervour to give opportunities to young artists that gave his work a fresh sound right up to the end. In the aforementioned interview, he compares Wilkenfield to Jaco Pastorious. His last solo album Loud Hailer, released in 2016, meanwhile, was written with young guitarist Carmen Vandenberg and singer-songwriter Rosie Bones, producing some of the most impressive songs of his career, like ‘Scared for the Children’.
I think Beck’s musical prowess can be best summarised, though, with the final song played during the show. ‘Where Were You’ is a haunting tune from 1989’s Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop album, and it sees Beck use every trick in his arsenal. Accompanied only by Jason Rebello’s tender keyboards, we witness the control Beck has over the fretboard, his nimble fingers masterfully controlling the tone and, most impressively, his use of the tremolo bar not only for effect, but as an intrinsic part of the song, enabling him to get notes that even baffle fellow guitarists.
Just last year, Beck was still touring and recording, releasing an album with Johnny Depp during a particularly tumultuous time for the latter. But it is testament to Beck’s never-ending quest to discover new tonal and sonic possibilities with the guitar, never once resting on his laurels or legacy for an easy buck. Throughout his career, he refused to be pigeonholed, collaborating with the likes of Kate Bush, Roger Waters, Billy Gibbons, Hans Zimmer and Nile Rodgers, always pushing himself in new and innovative directions.
It can sound like hyperbole when this many words are devoted to a musician. Death has the side-effect of rose tinting a legacy. But when it comes to Jeff Beck, every single testimonial to his genius is absolutely true. It’s not for nothing that everybody from Brian Wilson and May, David Gilmour, Steven Van Zandt, Ronnie Wood, Tony Iommi and many more have paid tribute not just to Beck’s skill, but to a kind, caring soul.
In many ways, writing about a guitarist like Beck is a fool’s errand. How can you capture such a unique sound, astonishing technique, those notes that it seems only he can produce? You can’t, really.
But my hope is that these words inspire people to go and listen to Beck’s music, whether you want to go for his rock-influenced work with Rod Stewart, the jazz fusion of supergroup Beck, Bogert and Appice or even, in a particularly fan-pleasing video, watch Beck share the stage with his Yardbirds’ successor Jimmy Page during Beck’s 2009 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. They play seminal song ‘Beck’s Bolero’ (which Beck first recorded in May 1966 with Page, bassist John Paul Jones and The Who’s Keith Moon).
Beck’s albums will forever be studied by guitarists and listened to in wonder by the rest of us, the kind of legacy reserved only for musicians who reached the apex of the art form, which Jeff Beck did – and then some.