Geoffrey Arnold “Jeff” Beck was born on 24 June 1944 in Wallington, South London to Arnold and Ethel Beck. Before Beck discovered guitar, his mother had wanted him to play the piano. But once his parents saw how Beck took to the guitar, they allowed it. They probably thought, ‘If he’s got the guitar, he’s not going out stealing.’ The only friends he had were pretty low-life; most of them were one step away from jail.
Beck said that he first heard an electric guitar when he was six-years-old and heard Les Paul playing “How High the Moon” on the radio. He asked his mother what it was. After she replied it was an electric guitar and was all tricks, he said, “That’s for me”. As a ten-year-old, Beck sang in a church choir and his original musical direction was essential formed by the music his older sister, Annetta, brought home. As a pre-teenager he learned to play on a borrowed guitar and made several attempts to build his own instrument, first by gluing and bolting together cigar boxes for the body and an un-sanded fence post for the neck with model aircraft control lines as strings and frets simply painted on it.
“The guy next door said, ‘I’ll build you a solid body guitar for five pounds’,” he later told Rock Cellar Magazine. “Five pounds, which to me was 500 back then so I went ahead and did it myself.
“The first one I built was in 1956, because Elvis was out, and everything that you heard about pop music was guitar. And then I got fascinated. I’m sure the same goes for lots of people.”
Beck’s sister Annetta introduced him to Jimmy Page when both were teenagers. Eventually, Beck bonded with another boy who was a budding guitarist in his neighborhood, Jimmy Page. The two musicians shared a passion for rockabilly music (Beck credited his older sister with buying the records that shaped his taste) and would try to impress each other with their skills. After leaving school, he attended Wimbledon College of Art. Then he was briefly employed as a painter and decorator, a groundsman on a golf course, and a car paint sprayer. In his early years he spent time in bands such as The Nightshift, the Tridents and then the Yardbirds, which he joined in 1965 to replace Eric Clapton.
The legacy of The Yardbirds three iconic guitar heroes Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page is a little bit convoluted, but Page did his best in later years to explain it in a video for Fender taped in connection to his signature Fender Telecaster, which is based on the guitar Jeff had gifted him and he used in the Yardbirds and in the early days of Led Zeppelin.
Page says he and Jeff initially connected due to their mutual interest in the guitar. Electric guitarists were a rare breed in rock and roll’s early days, he noted. “There weren’t many guitarists in the area at that point,” Page recalled. “You’d hear of other guitarists, you’d meet other guitarists, but nobody was in really close proximity to me. There was an art college at Epsom that Jeff Beck’s sister Annetta was attending.”
Somehow Annetta heard about Page and got the idea that she should introduce her brother to the other local guitarist Page. One day, Jeff and Annetta just showed up at Page’s house. “There was a knock on the door, and there was Jeff’s sister, and there was Jeff holding his homemade guitar,” Page recalled. “We just bonded immediately.” Jeff eventually upgraded from his homemade guitar to a 1959 Fender Telecaster. Page came to possess the Tele after scoring Jeff a big break playing for the Yardbirds.
Page says he was a studio musician, working his way up to being a record producer, when he was approached about joining the Yardbirds. But he wasn’t ready to give up working in the studio, and he suspected Clapton was unaware of the conversation, so he recommended Jeff for the job. Jeff got the gig and soon bought himself a new guitar. But rather than keep his Tele as a backup, he gifted it to Page as a thank you. The Yardbirds were one of the U.K.’s biggest blues bands at that point.
Jeff Beck rose to fame as part of the Yardbirds, where he replaced Eric Clapton, before forming the Jeff Beck group with Rod Stewart.
His tone, presence and, above all, volume redefined guitar music in the 1960s, and influenced movements like heavy metal, jazz-rock and even punk. Beck earned two spots in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1992 with the Yardbirds and as a solo artist in 2009. During the first induction he vented: “I have done other music after the Yardbirds, and somebody told me I should be proud tonight, but I’m not—because they kicked me out. They did. Fuck them.” Next to him, Jimmy Page, who’d eventually shared lead guitar duties with Beck during his final months with the band, burst out laughing.
Page was tapped to induct Beck into the Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 2009. “He’d just keep getting better and better and better,” Page said, recalling the records his friend began cutting after striking out on his own. “And he still had, all the way through. And he leaves us mere mortals, believe me, just wondering.” During that event Beck – said: “I play the way I do because it allows me to come up with the sickest sounds possible.”
“That’s the point now, isn’t it? I don’t care about the rules.
“In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least 10 times in every song, then I’m not doing my job properly.”
The formidable pair of guitar slingers then reunited on stage at the ceremony, dueling through “Beck’s Bolero,” an epic rock instrumental Page had composed 43 years earlier, to be Beck’s first solo recording.
It is somehow impossible to describe the talent and musician ship of Jeff Beck. Outerwordly maybe, but then I curse myself for not having the vocabulary to do him true justice. I guess it was 1966 or 67 when I first ran into his guitar playing, when my amateur band took on Yardbirds’ songs like Heartful of Soul, For Your Love and especially “Shape of Things”. The last one in particular posed a challenge in the lead as bottlenecks were not yet on sale in our neck of the woods. I decided to use a beer bottle for the slide part, as I had seen Jeff do on TV. By the time he hooked up with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood a couple of years later, for the blues rock album “Truth”, Jeff was already in a different stratosphere.
After the Yardbirds, Beck wielded his firepower to form the Jeff Beck Group, and was improbably joined by two more giants of rock history—singer Rod Stewart and rhythm guitarist Ronnie Wood. Even more volatile than his previous band, the Group lasted all of two albums before imploding on the eve of Woodstock.
Later came Beck, Bogert & Appice, a supergroup he created alongside former Vanilla Fudge bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice. The power trio produced one stripped-down record termed “docile” by Rolling Stone before Beck decamped. He cut an all-instrumental solo album, 1975’s Blow by Blow, which quickly went platinum.
Over the course of Beck’s solo career, seven of his 10 albums went gold. He was nominated for 16 Grammy awards, winning eight. In 2014, he was honored with the British Academy’s Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. A year later, Rolling Stone gave him the No. 5 spot on its list of 100 greatest guitarists. They had no clue.
He also collaborated with the likes of David Bowie, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Jon Bon Jovi.
His solo output slowed down, until the release of 1999’s You Had It Coming, featuring Imogen Heap on vocals, followed in 2003 by an album he simply called Jeff. Around this time, he started incorporating more electronic and hip-hop elements into his music; culminating in his fourth Grammy victory for the tempestuous, shape-shifting instrumental Plan B. He toured extensively in the 2010s, including a joint-headline venture with Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
The duo had hoped to record together but those plans fell apart. Instead, Beck ended up befriending actor Johnny Depp, with whom he released a full-length album, 18, in 2022.
But the musician’s legacy lies in the balance between the fluidity and aggression of his playing, his technical brilliance equalled only by his love of ear-crunching dissonance.
“It’s like he’s saying, ‘I’m Jeff Beck. I’m right here. And you can’t ignore me’,” wrote Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers in an essay for Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitar Players of All Time, where Beck placed seventh. Of course Rolling Stone played to the popular ear, because really, no one could do what Jeff did on a guitar. Jeff transcended music, much in a way as Michael Jordan and Pelé did theirs.
“Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic but in-your-face – bright, urgent and edgy, but sweet at the same time. You could tell he was a serious player, and he was going for it. He was not holding back.”
“He’d just keep getting better and better,” Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page once recalled. “And he leaves us, mere mortals”.
Marking Beck’s death, Page tweeted, “The six stringed Warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave around our mortal emotions. Jeff could channel music from the ethereal.”.
Jeff Beck had been sick over the Christmas Holidays and died on Tuesday, January 10, 2023 at a hospital near his home in Surrey, England. The cause of death was bacterial meningitis.
• Responding to news of his death, singer Rod Stewart called Beck “the greatest”.
Posting a picture of the pair together on Instagram, he wrote: “Jeff Beck was on another planet. He took me and Ronnie Wood to the USA in the late 60s in his band the Jeff Beck Group and we haven’t looked back since.
“He was one of the few guitarists that when playing live would actually listen to me sing and respond. Jeff, you were the greatest, my man. Thank you for everything. RIP.”
• US rock band Hollywood Vampires, comprising Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper, Joe Perry and Tommy Henriksen, also saluted “the passing of our dear friend and guitar legend”.
“Jeff’s incredible musicianship and passion for guitar has been an inspiration to us all,” the band wrote. “He was a true innovator and his legacy will live on through his music. Rest in peace, Jeff.”
Eric Clapton simply tweeted: “‘Always and ever’…….. ec”.
• Elsewhere, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page paid tribute to Beck as “the six-stringed warrior” and praised his “apparently limitless” musical imagination which could “channel music from the ethereal”.
• In another rock tribute, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger shared a video of the pair playing together, saying music had lost “one of the greatest guitar players in the world” and “we will all miss him so much”.
• Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne said it had been “such an honor” to know and play with Beck, adding: “I can’t express how saddened I am…”
• And Queen guitarist Brian May said he was lost for words, but called Beck “the absolute pinnacle of guitar playing” and a “damn fine human being”. Then he took the opportunity to record a video praising Beck for making “possibly the most beautiful bit of guitar music ever recorded” with his track “Where Were You.” “If you want to hear his depth of emotion and sound and phrasing and the way he could touch your soul, listen to ‘Where Were You’ off the Guitar Shop album,” The Queen guitarist said in the clip. “Just Google ‘Where Were You Jeff Beck’ and sit down and listen to it for four minutes. It’s unbelievable.” “It’s possibly the most beautiful bit of guitar music ever recorded, probably alongside Jimi Hendrix‘s ‘Little Wing,’” he continued. “So sensitive, so beautiful, so incredibly creative and unlike anything you’ve ever heard anywhere else. Yes, of course he had his influences too, but he brought an amazing voice to rock music which will never, ever be emulated, or equaled.” May ended his video tribute with more praise for his fellow guitarist. “Jeff was completely and utterly unique, and the kind of musician who’s impossible to define,” he said. “And I was absolutely in awe of him.”
• Members of Kiss, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, also expressed their shock.
Simmons called the news “heartbreaking”, while Stanley said he had “blazed a trail impossible to follow. Play on now and forever”.
Singer Paul Young added in a Twitter post: “He was loved by everyone in the know; the guitarists’ guitarist!”
• “Jeff Beck has the combination of brilliant technique with personality,” the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell wrote when Beck placed Number Five on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘I’m Jeff Beck. I’m right here. And you can’t ignore me.’ Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic but in-your-face — bright, urgent, and edgy, but sweet at the same time. You could tell he was a serious player, and he was going for it. He was not holding back.”
On a Personal Note:
Jeff Beck didn’t have a lot of songs that resonated with the masses in the way that other guitar heroes’ songs have. HIs music was too quirky, too outside, and just plain not catchy enough for him to have become as well known among the masses as a guy like Eric Clapton, Eddie van Halen or Jimmy Page.
Jeff Beck didn’t have a song like Cocaine where you just play the first few notes and everybody instantly recognizes it.
Instead he has classics like Freeway Jam. Not as many people will recognize this song as they will Layla or Voodoo Chile, but this is less rock and roll and more jazz fusion.
Yes, that’s Jimmy Page with Jeff Beck. And others! Listen to the part where they play some of The Immigrant Song. Hearing Jeff Beck play part of the vocal melody with all the whammy bar inflections he adds is pretty cool.
Jeff Beck isn’t known like Page and Beck doesn’t have a song like Stairway To Heaven and he doesn’t have a song with the popularity of The Immigrant Song either – at least not a song where Jeff Beck gets top billing. He had People Get Ready with Rod Stewart but wasn’t exactly the most cutting edge guitar playing Beck had to offer.
I saw Jeff Beck open for Stevie Ray Vaughan on SRV’s last tour, just a few months before the helicopter crash that took his life. I loved Stevie Ray Vaughan’s set but Jeff Beck, even for us as guitarists was a little outside for our tastes. That was extreme though. He was really doing some real unusual stuff that night with the vibrato bar, intentionally bending notes out of tune just by micro-tones, and I guess Jeff Beck loved doing that, but while I have a ton of respect for him as a musician, I can understand why there were so many more kids trying to be like Eddie Van Halen than trying to be like Jeff Beck. Of course, if a kid wanted to try to be play like Jeff Beck, the big problem is: Where do you start? What would “playing like Jeff Beck” even call for? The concept is so nebulous! Play outside notes, sure, but which outside notes?
While I obviously didn’t always fully appreciate what he was artistically going for all the time, I’m glad that I got to see Jeff Beck play. He was and is a legend and will always be considered as one the best at what he did. Rest in Peace Jeff.