Jeff Beck: Playing Further

“Jeff Beck is my all time favorite guitarist. Now what can I say?” -John McLaughlin-

by Marshall Bowden

Jeff Beck was a guitarist’s guitarist, a guy who could fit into any musical environment he chose to engage with while never losing his sense of who he was as a musician. When you hear Jeff Beck on a track, you know it. Blessed with superior technical skills and a deep understanding of the guitar and the electronics that help produce the sound of electric guitar, he also possessed a natural appreciation for the instrument’s soaring melodic potential. 

On the other hand, Beck was less appreciated or remembered over time by the general public because he has not been in a band in a long time. He’s frequently identified as a Yardbird, having replaced Eric Clapton, and he managed to leave a lasting impression on the group even though he was with them for less than two years. Soon he had put together his own band, featuring vocalist Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood. 

Rock writer Lilian Roxon called the Jeff Beck Group “the strongest new-blues group to follow Cream over from England.” She also notes that “In live performance, Beck doesn’t exactly play faster  than other rock musicians, just further.” That sums up Jeff Beck nicely. It’s not merely his technical proficiency that places him in the pantheon of greatest guitarists, though it is formidable. But there’s always someone who can play more ideas faster, and that becomes a trap, a creative dead end. 

The real question is: when you can play whatever you want, what do you truly want to play? Jeff Beck spent his career answering that question. 

The original Jeff Beck group ran its course after a second album, Beck-Ola (though Truth, the first record, was credited to Beck as a solo artist, it featured the same musicians). Wood left the band to join the Rolling Stones, and Rod Stewart went on with a solo career. The record mined the same sound as soon-to-be superstars Led Zeppelin, but without a prolific writer they relied on a couple of Elvis Presley covers to carry some of the weight, making the record seem a bit under the mark in the content department. Jeff carried on with a couple of complimentary musicians who helped move the sound of the band towards a more standard blues rock with R&B and jazz overtones. The two records they made are pedestrian and rather dull, a rare occurrence in the guitar wizard’s discography.

Two albums, one live, one studio, with the clunky Beck, Bogert & Appice, a dystopian super-group of sorts, put Beck onto the idea of playing with musicians who fit whatever project he envisioned instead of a steady band. When many of the sixties bands broke up it proved to be the germination of a mature phase of rock music as they spread like seeds across the musical landscape. 

Jeff decided to record an instrumental record next. He was no singer, and the best singer he’d worked with, Rod Stewart, was unlikely to be replicated anytime soon. By 1975, jazz fusion had come to sound a lot like funky rock music with horns. Musicians who started out as jazz players like Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke, and George Duke were making names for themselves playing instrumental jazz funk rock fusion. The resulting record, Blow by Blow, set a new standard for instrumental rock albums and for guitarists everywhere. 

On Blow by Blow as well as its follow-up, Wired, Beck worked with studio genius George Martin. Martin provided some studio tricks for Beck’s guitar as well as beautiful orchestrations–both records end with lengthy pieces featuring Beck’s guitar and a full orchestra. 

It completely blows me away when I listen to tracks like “Diamond Dust,” and recall that it was part of the pop music scene. From the rock side you had tracks like Edgar Winter’s ‘Frankenstein’ while from the jazz side you had popular bands like Weather Report and Return to Forever. I knew a bunch of guys who listened to this music. Hell, I knew a bunch of guys, myself included, who played this kind of music. 

Thing is, on these records, as well as throughout his career, Jeff Beck has surrounded himself with some of the best musicians in terms of technique, mastery of their instrument, ability to play a variety of idioms, and the ability to write material and collaborate successfully in the studio. Taken together, they provide an ever-varying array of settings in which his guitar playing can shine. 

It’s not that he plays the same on every record with merely a change of scenery behind him. Jeff never made a record like Santana’s Supernatural (which is a fine record), but he was always collaborating with musicians who could help him immerse himself in the sound of the day. And because he is a highly skilled musician (meaning he listens at least as well as he plays) JB inhabits the musical worlds he and his cohorts create rather than just being a cardboard cutout in it. 

You can really hear where Beck fits into a variety of sounds and styles without losing sight of who he is in his guest and duet work with other artists. One prime example is the recording of  “Django” he and John McLaughlin play on McLaughlin’s album The Promise. This is a musical performance for the musicians, really, and we get to come along for the ride. For both of these artists, playing with a musician who is equally talented provides an opportunity for collaboration, and for the construction of an ascending listening experience, rather than competition. 

Blow by Blow and Wired were so predominant that Jeff Beck’s guitar sound embedded itself into the rock and jazz fusion landscape to such an extent that his collaborations with other artists play in our memory as Jeff Beck joints when they are collaborations or, in some cases, other artists’ songs. When I hear the song “Hello Jeff” from Stanley Clarke’s Journey to Love album I always think “there’s a Jeff Beck track” not “there’s Stanley Clarke.” That’s probably a tribute of sorts to Clarke, since he wrote the piece, and if you play it back to back with Blow by Blow’s “Freeway Jam” you can’t help but hear the shared DNA. 

Another fusion artist that Beck collaborated with many times was keyboardist Jan Hammer. Hammer played on the Wired track “Blue Wind”, which he also composed, and the connection between the two artists seemed inevitable as Beck, with the use of effects, makes his guitar sound more like a keyboard while Hammer uses synthesizers to sound more like a guitar than one might have imagined possible. The two toured together, resulting in the best selling album Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group.

Jeff didn’t record many projects under his own name in the eighties, but he stayed busy playing on other people’s records, like Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.” He released There & Back in 1980. It featured Jan Hammer on half the record and Tony Hymas, a new keyboard player with whom Beck continued to collaborate throughout the decade. In 1985 he released Flash, an all out pop music record produced by Nile Rogers (who also wrote several songs) and Arthur Baker. It yielded the hit single “People Get Ready” featuring Rod Stewart, but otherwise it is a very stereotypical eighties pop record, and today it sounds (is) overblown and tinny and loud.

Beck came back in 1989 as part of a power trio that still sounds pretty good. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop featured ex-Zappa drummer Terry Bozio and Hymas on keyboards. Though a few tracks suffer from a lingering eighties Linn drum/Yamaha hangover, Hyman’s work is very nice, good at setting the table for Beck, but also interesting in its own right. Bozio holds down the drum chair with a loose but precise playing that drives the group.  The group also created some gorgeous soundscapes like the track “Where Were You,” reminders that Jeff was so much more than a shredder, that the sounds he wrung from his guitars expressed the gamut of human emotion, from love to frustration to grief.

Guitar Shop seemed to point the way into the next decade for Beck, but he didn’t reappear until 1993 with an unusual project. Crazy Legs paid tribute to Cliff Gallup, who played guitar for rockabilly singer Gene Vincent. Backed by the Big Town Playboys (who also provide vocals), Beck whips through eighteen Vincent numbers, faithfully recreating Gallup’s guitar work. And he does recreate it–the record is perfectly period, and Beck does nothing to alter or update it. Though something of a novelty, it is a breezy listen that provides some insight into Beck’s guitar influences and his playing. 

With Epic-Legacy’s release of the three CD compilation Beckology in 1990, the guitarist seemed to enter a bit of a legacy phase. The collection covers the Yardbirds through to Flash, and provides a pretty good survey of his work to that point.

Beck wasn’t done, though. In 1999 he released the first of a trio of albums that incorporated electronics, drum programming, and other aspects of twenty-first century music that were beginning to assert themselves in pop music. Who Else! saw him incorporating some dance club electronica into several tracks, like “Psycho Sam” as well as playing with Middle Eastern modes on “Blast From the East,” a track where Beck’s playing reminds me of some of John Scofield’s records of that time. His next two records, You Had It Coming (2001) and Jeff (2003) demonstrated his commitment to making current, relevant music as he moved deeper into digital beats, tape manipulation and effects, and hip hop sound collages. His level of inspiration can be gauged by the fact that he recorded these three records in four years, outpacing his output for both the eighties and nineties.

These were the most recent Jeff Beck studio records when I saw him live at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2007 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL. His group consisted of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, keyboardist Jason Rebello, and Australian bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, who was something of a sensation herself. She’s also a songwriter, singer, and bandleader, who became part of Beck’s touring band at the age of 23. With Colaiuta and Rebello behind their instruments, Wilkenfeld became Beck’s onstage foil, driving him and reacting to the band’s grooves with a high level of energy and focus. 

Beck’s set was astounding, at least in part because I hadn’t listened to him in a while, and I found that it made not a bit of difference. He played an array of tunes from recordings both recent and distant, with several coming from his 1999-2003 electronica offerings, though live they became merely another groove that the quartet dug into with relish. It was amazing, on ‘Nadia,’ a number pulled from You Had It Coming, to hear Colaiuta’s drumming and Wilkenfeld’s spidery bass line providing a wave of energy over which Beck’s guitar soared, and I was reminded of Roxon’s assertion that Beck played ‘farther’ than most other rock guitarists. He also did a couple of tracks from Guitar Garage that demonstrated not only how good a record that was, but also how good his current touring band was. 

He played a lot of covers of other people’s music, usually people who were old friends. He opened with a pair of Mahavishnu covers (I also got to see John McLaughlin at Crossroads earlier that day), played Billy Cobham’s “Stratus,” and gave a nod to Jan Hammer with “You Never Know.” He played a pair of tracks from the Blow by Blow/Wired days: “Cause We’ve Ended Up Lovers” and the incendiary “Led Boots.” And he ended with his rendition of “A Day In The Life” that underscored the song’s beauty and the variety of ways there are of expressing one’s musicianship on electric guitar besides playing the maximum number of notes. 

I sincerely doubt that anyone who was there as a serious music fan that day was disappointed in the set that Jeff Beck and his band played. Some forty years into a career (at the time), that’s pretty damn amazing. He will be deeply missed. 

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