Jeff Beck was born in Surrey, England, on June 24th 1944 and his training as a classical pianist began at a very early age and continued until the age of 8, when he ripped one of the black keys off of the family piano. Violin and cello lessons from an uncle followed, but at 13 Jeff built his first electric guitar, plugged it into the back of an old radio to amplify the signal and the classical strings were tossed aside. At 15 the Deltones were Jeff’s first band, and after quickly growing tired of their lack of musical proficiency, Beck joined the Tridents in 1963. This was around the same time that he first met Jimmy Page, who had been attending a local art school with Beck’s older sister. When Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds in 1964, Page was approached to fill the spot but declined in favor of the money and security of being a session player, but recommended his friend Jeff Beck. The Yardbirds were happy with Beck’s playing, and enjoyed his wide range of influences; he was interested in Les Paul’s style of playing, stompboxes, delays and echoes, whereas Clapton had been more of a straight-up R&B player.
In 1965, a full two years before Jimi Hendrix’s revolutionary Are you Experienced? the Yardbirds recorded their self-titled debut, an album awash with feedback and power chords. For a brief while in 1966, Beck and Page shared guitar duties in the Yardbirds, but the tour was too much for Jeff and he broke down in a hotel room in Kansas and quit the band that night. Shortly thereafter, he began recording with Page, John Paul Jones and the Who’s Keith Moon. The now classic “Beck’s Bolero” came from those sessions and was the b-side to his first solo single, “Hi Ho Silver Lining” (which was also Beck’s first effort as a singer/guitarist). Jeff was altogether unimpressed with Silver Lining but a contract with a manager that left Jeff in a bad business position meant that he had little choice about the matter, and the song became quite a hit in England.
Near the end of the 60’s, playing in the underground scene was starting to become a viable way to make a living, and the best part about that was that you didn’t have to have a song on the radio to have a hit. Beck approached Rod Stewart, who was in Steampacket at the time, and he agreed to leave his band and make a record with Beck. This first incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group saw Rolling Stone Ron Wood on bass and Aynsley Dunbar was quickly replaced by Mick Waller on drums. Ignored in England, they went to New York and to their genuine surprise, received rave reviews. In fact, the day after their first show, the headline in The New York Times was “Beck Upstages Greatful Dead.” After a year, the tour was cut off in favor of returning to the studio to record Beck–Ola. This lineup was predictably too good to last and on the eve of Woodstock, where the Jeff Beck Group was scheduled to perform, Beck ended the band. He couldn’t stand failure and there were to be too many factors that weren’t in his control. He returned to England and tried to start another band, but Stewart opted out in favor of pursuing a folkier sound.
In 1969, Jeff’s other love, hotrods, sidelined him for six months. When a tire blew out on his ’23 model T Ford he crashed and suffered a broken nose and split the back of his head open. Lucky to be alive, he suffered from severe headaches for months after, but in mid 1970 decided to go to Motown and do some more recording. He recorded eight vocal-less tracks with drummer Cozy Powell and bassist James Jamerson. Although deeply unsatisfied with the results, these sessions still led Beck to form the second incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group, and the song “Definitely Maybe,” which was the only instrumental song in the live set, was an absolute show-stopper. They realized that with the absence of Stewart, people wanted to hear Jeff play guitar.
In late 1972, Beck hooked up with Bogert and Appice and it was during that time that Beck constructed the first real talkbox. He called his creation “The Bag” and it was made of a “Mexican drinking-bottle bag” and some plastic tubing, all encased in foam. Beck, Bogert and Appice’s (BBA) breakthrough hit came from Stevie Wonder, who was recording at Electric Lady Studios soon after Hendrix’s death. His contract with Motown was running out and he wanted to renegotiate for more money and artistic control. Beck was to help out as a session player on Wonder’s Talking Book and in exchange, Wonder would write a song for BBA. He ended up penning the riff for “Superstition” based on a drum beat that Beck had been playing, but decided that it was a perfect trump card for his battle with Motown, and Stevie ended up taking the demo to their offices and securing his new contract that very day, leaving BBA with a great stage number but keeping the hit for himself.
Two years later, after passing on an offer by the Rolling Stones to replace Mick Taylor, Beck offered us Blow by Blow, an album that really showcased his overdubs, extensive chordal vocabulary and technique. It was built from modal and fusiony material and also featured two more Stevie Wonder tunes. Produced by George Martin, Blow by Blow rocketed to the top of the charts, a rarity for an instrumental album. One Wonder composition, “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” is dedicated to the late Roy Buchanan, an inspiration for Beck’s partial-harmonic picking and severe note-stretching. A year later Beck released Wired which included a cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” featuring Jan Hammer on keyboards. Beck’s vision was lost on George Martin, so he took over production duties himself. The tour that ensued was a commercial success but Beck felt that the music really wasn’t at home in large venues.
After touring Japan in 1978 with Stanley Clark, Tony Hymas and Simon Phillips, Beck recorded There and Back, the last album where he used a guitar pick, at Abbey Road Studios. Five years after that, Flash was recorded with a techno-feel and garnered Beck his first Grammy for the Jan Hammer track “Escape” and he was also reunited with Rod Stewart for “People Get Ready”. After Flash, Beck started doing a lot more session work, appearing on Stewart’s Camoflage, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer and Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss.
In 1987 an accident in his garage almost cost Beck his thumb, when it was pinched between between the chassis of a car and a heavy oak plank, breaking it. It took about a year for the feeling to return to the tip, but he practiced with the remaining fingers and eventually started using the thumb even though it was wrapped up, often coving the strings with sticky plaster. Two years later, Guitar Shop was released and it continued to explore technology with synthesized keyboards and wild jungle grooves.
In 1989, The Fire And The Fury tour with Stevie Ray Vaughn was a screaming success. This was also the beginning of his collaboration with Fender to build Jeff Beck signature model guitars. Still in production today, his signature model features altered saddles in the bridge, a double roller nut and a massive neck. Recently, the necks were scaled down to a more commercially acceptable size, but any models before 2001 feel like you’re playing a baseball bat.
1992 saw Beck’s first attempt at scoring television for the Australian miniseries Frankie’s House. In 1993, he teamed up with London rockabilly revivalists the Big Town Playboys to record Crazy Legs, a tribute to Gene Vincent and his band, the Blue Caps.
35 years into his career, Beck released 1999’s Who Else!, a fusion of 21st century drum and bass with a live band consisting of Michael Jackson tour veteran Jennifer Batten on MIDI guitar, Tony Hymas on keyboards, Randy Hope-Taylor on bass and Steve Alexander on drums. The stunning lead work on the album is all recorded in real-time with the exception of “THX 138” where Beck decided to sample and loop his own riffs. Earning him another Grammy nomination, Who Else! was a stepping stone to what would become a masterpiece of digital futurism, 2001’s You Had It Coming.
Featuring drums loops by Aiden Love, an appearance by vocalist Imogen Heap on the blues classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin” and some Jennifer Batten compositions, You Had It Coming is a much clearer statement than Who Else!. 40 years strong, Jeff Beck’s career is still in full swing.
sources: Jeff Beck - Beckology (boxed set), Guitar Player - December 2000, Frontline - fall 1999