Jeff Beck

Groupology

  • Yardbirds
  • The Jeff Beck Group
  • Beck, Bogert, and Appice
  • Jeff Beck
  • countless one-offs, guest appearances, and sessions

Jurassic

Watch Jeff Beck in Action at the bottom of this page!

 

Famous / Infamous for

Famous For: Being a living legend; one of hard rock guitar's true original pioneers, and very best players since the mid 60s. Having the same haircut since 1966. Replacing Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds. Session man to the stars: Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder — when these folks need a guitar solo played, they call Jeff.

Infamous For: Volatility and unpredictability, in both his playing and his personality. With Jeff Beck, you can always expect the unexpected. Being reclusive for years at a time. Building hot rod cars. Jeff seems to like building his rods at least as much, if not more than creating music. Seems like he only comes out of hiding when he gets the itch to play or runs low on "rod money." Jeff's earned tons of critical acclaim, but has routinely dodged mega-success. Though he certainly lives well enough in a manor in the English countryside, compared to his closest peers, Page and Clapton — two of the the world's wealthiest and most famous rock stars, Beck is a cult hero and a relative pauper. Similarly he's frequently been left watching from the outside, as other players have cashed-in on guitar innovations he pioneered. But Jeff has always marched to his own beat. He seldom produces commercial music. He typically only stays in one musical genre long enough to knock it on its ass, before he's on to something new. He now often goes five years or more between new albums. In the music industry, there are financial consequences associated with such career moves.

Influences

Obvious: Jeff's the influencer. Not the influencee. Sure, he was influenced by the guys listed below, but as far as modern rock guitar is concerned, Jeff is a true original. Even Jimi Hendrix claimed to have nicked stuff from Mr. Beck.

Not-so-obvious: Cliff Gallup, Scotty Moore, James Burton, Les Paul, Hank Marvin. To hear a side of Jeff Beck that's seldom heard, check out Jeff's Crazy Legs — his tribute to his all-time hero, Cliff Gallup.

Strengths

Consistency and growth. David Gilmour called Jeff Beck the most consistently brilliant guitarist of the last 25 years. Probably more like 35, but that's a pretty accurate statement. Jeff Beck today, in his late 50s is still constantly changing direction and continually pushing his music and guitar style to new heights. In many ways, he is a better and more complete player now than he was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. No other player in his age group can really claim that. Clapton and Page are shells of what they were in their primes. Beck can piss rings around them. Iommi is still great, and hasn't lost anything since 1970, but he hasn't grown like Beck has either. Blackmore still has great chops, but he peaked as a player and songwriter in the late 70s, and is now off on his medieval minstrel music trip.

Originality. Jeff Beck probably has the most distinctive and unique guitar style on the planet. It's pretty much instantly recognizable among guitarists. (Described in detail in the Guitar Style section below.) Despite being an influence on damn-near everyone, no one actually sounds like Jeff Beck. Jeff's eclectic style, is very difficult to "channel." And even if you're an accomplished player, if you're a flat picker, you're not going to cop Beck's pickless right hand technique (or the resulting tonal variety) without a major commitment to doing so.

Instrumental guitar music. Well, DUH! He wasn't the first, but he was rock's first recognizable "name" guitarist to leave the Blues, R&B, British pop, and hard rock behind to venture into instrumental guitar music. And by doing so, Jeff Beck put this genre on the map. No instrumental guitar album had ever gone gold or platinum before Jeff Beck came along. And while the genre is still not very commercial, countless guitarists like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have record contracts because Mr. Beck paved the way them.

Aside from putting it on the map, he's damn good at it too! As I sit here with my own personal Best of Jeff Beck CD playing in my headphones, I hear fusion from the Wired era, ripping guitar vs. keyboard duels with Jan Hammer like Star Cycle, rave-ups like Get's Us All in the End, eclectic techno like Space for the Papa, then moving on to raucous, ballsy things like Savoy and Big Block then on to the delicate and breathtaking things like Where Were You and Declan. Jeff always manages to finds new places to take himself, and us. Whatever the current musical backdrop is, his guitar playing unquestionably remains the star of the show. Always brilliant and distinctively Jeff Beck.

Melody. Jeff is a master of melody. Without a vocal part, instrumental guitar music ultimately sinks or swims based on melody. Whether he's creating one of his own or interpreting someone else's, Jeff's music soars high on fantastic, memorable melodies. But even as far back as the Yardbirds — a band with vocals, Beck was always covering a wide melodic territory: From the Indian inspired Over Under Sideways Down, to the haunting minor Heart Full Of Soul. And he's only gotten better with time. Jeff gives us more flavors than Baskin Robbins.

Attitude, balls, and the ability to back it up. Through all the many changes in direction, perhaps what's best of all is that he's never lost his "Beckness." After 40 years in the biz, he's still the living, breathing embodiment of a gunslinging guitar hero who wants to rip your head off! Sure, he can create utterly brilliant, atmospheric music, and delicate melodies, but when it's time to kick ass, Jeff is never at a loss. When it's time to play a ripping lead, that's exactly what Jeff does. Unlike Page and Clapton, Beck never dodges it. He doesn't have to.

Conveying intense emotion through the guitar. Seriously, until you've heard Jeff play stuff like Declan, Another Place, and Where Were You, your education is incomplete; and you won't have a full grasp on how incredibly expressive and moving an electric guitar can be.

Weaknesses

Songwriting. This is something Jeff acknowledges. Throughout his career and back catalog of albums, if you check the songwriting credits, you'll notice that Jeff rarely writes songs himself. Instead you'll see mainstay songwriters and writing partners like Max Middleton, Jan Hammer, Tony Hymas and Jennifer Batten. People have often said that the original Jeff Beck band with Rod Stewart on vocals could have been what Led Zeppelin became. There were a lot of similarities to Truth and Led Zeppelin I. However, Beck never had the songwriting ability to achieve, much less sustain the kind of success Zeppelin saw.

Rhythm guitar. Jeff is probably 95% lead guitarist. He plays some rhythm, and when he does, it's effective, but the music he plays on rarely demands rhythm guitar. His own songs are usually written and played by keyboard players, and more recently, Jeff has Jennifer Batten playing rhythm guitar and guitar synth. Jeff puts the melodies and solo on top. When asked to do a session, typically all he's asked to do is cut a solo.

Production of his guitar sound on his albums. The Yardbirds stuff was OK for it's time, but production-wise, Truth and Beck-Ola couldn't really hold a candle to what Pagey was getting on Zep I and II. And despite working with guys like George Martin, legendary producer of the Beatles, and Steve Cropper, no one seemed to truly capture the pure balls of Jeff Beck's guitar sound on tape back in the 70s — or if they did, it's usually buried in the mix. As far as I'm concerned, Jeff's tone didn't really start coming together on tape until There and Back. Since then, it has been much better and much more in-your-face. Still, I saw Jeff live in 1999 on the Who Else tour, and his live tone was shockingly beefier and ballsier than anything I've ever heard on a Jeff Beck album. I was floored! It was a good 40% better than on the albums. And all he was using was a Strat through a Marshall with some echo. My favorite Jeff Beck production for tear-you-a-new-one guitar tone is on Flash.

Tone

Jeff's had different guitar tones through the course of his 40-year career. In the Yardbirds, it was primarily Fender Teles (or variants like the Broadcaster or Esquire) through Vox AC-30s. For the first Jeff Beck Group, Jeff switched to Les Pauls and Marshall 50 watters. By the early to mid 70s, Jeff was onto Strats too, but still predominantly a Les Paul player. For a while he used the Seymour Duncan-built Tele-Gib — a 59 Tele with Gibson frets and an PAFs. This guitar was featured on the Beck classic, Cause We've Ended as Lovers. By the 80s, Jeff had pretty much settled on the Strat as his main axe. There was a brief period around the time of Flash when Jeff experimented with the Jackson Soloist, but he soon returned to the Strat and has largely stuck with it ever since. He still favors the 50 watt Marshall sound, though the model numbers have changed over the years. Jeff's Strats now all have the Wilkinson roller nut, and two-point floating Fender trems set so that they're free moving — Jeff can pull up or push down to raise or lower the pitch of the note. Fender has made several Jeff Beck signature Strats, but I don't see Jeff playing them — certainly not the early production ones with the Lace Sensors. Seymour Duncan has also produced a Jeff Beck model pickup for many years. It has been one the most popular pickups of all time.

Though credited as one of the first people to use fuzz and distortion in the 60s, the Octave Divider and and stuff like the Talk Box in the 70s, Jeff Beck's tone since the 80s has been pretty clean and uneffected. It's best characterized as a stock Strat through stock Marshall Rock tone. It has more midrange beef and gain than Blackmore's Strat tone. It has less midrange and gain than Gary Moore's 80s Strat tone.

From there things get more complicated. At some point during the early 80s Jeff stopped using a pick and began playing with just his fingers. If you've ever seen Jeff's hands, the first thing you notice is that his fingers are not long and thin — like Steve Vai's for example — but rather thick and meaty. The almost look like Italian sausages! And because he plays without a pick, Jeff's hands color every note he plays and are a huge factor in his guitar tone. He gets an amazing tonal and dynamic range from his fingers that is impossible to achieve with just a pick. Jeff also uses the volume knob to constantly shape the guitar sound.

In an April 1999 article in Guitar magazine, Jeff said: I like to pre set the volume (on a Strat) so that it's never quite wide open, which brings in a nasty, sort of solid-state, horrible noise — an unwanted character of the note that you can get rid of by backing off a little. Also, take all the top off the middle and bridge pickups. Then set the distortion on the amps to cut through, and you get the bellowy, almost harmonica sound — muted, but enough distortion to create another kind treble that isn't part of the pickup's original character. I've blown a big secret there.

You got all that?

Guitar Style

Trying to sum up Jeff Beck's guitar style is indeed a daunting task. Jeff is an unschooled player but he has enough basic scallular knowledge to fake his way through any style of music effectively. He favors songs in Mixolydian so he can improvise in the minor and major pentatonic. Sometimes harmonically "wrong" chromatics sneak in. You'll sometimes also hear a Mixo-Dorian hybrid scale that is characteristically Beck.

I think the best way to break it down further is like this:

Fret hand: Jeff has very good fret hand chops, but he is not a shredder. Two of his biggest disciples: Gary Moore and Steve Lukather have far more pure chops and speed than Beck. What makes Jeff's fret hand technique so distinctive is his huge, (often a whole step or more) extremely aggressive bends, reverse and pre-bends, combined with the ability to stab any bent note with perfect accuracy, and without hearing the bend-up as an audio cue. While most of our guitar heroes have this ability (called intonation), few are more aggressive with bends than Jeff. And his intonation and control is incredible. Good examples of Jeff's fret hand techniques can be heard in the leads on Cause We've Ended as Lovers and the wonderful Beck-Stewart remake of People Get Ready. Beck employs two types of unison bends: the familiar type on adjacent strings, and the Beck trademark unison bend on one string. Example: on the G string, place your first finger on the 12th fret, and your third finger on the 14th fret. Play the (14th fret) "target" note with your 3rd finger, then quickly bend the note at the 12th fret (with your first finger) a full step to the target note (the 14th fret tone). If you learn no other Beck licks, learn this one! It's easy and characteristic. Other Beck trademarks include repeated patterns, motifs, and flurries; and unexpected leaps around the fretboard. He also loves harmonics, and wrenching various squawks and squeeks from the guitar.

Jeff frequently alternates between very fluid and very choppy phrasing — often within the same song. Jeff plays some slide on occasion. Beck's Bolero comes to mind. On El Becko, you can hear him rip out the song's melody on slide. And on Angel Footsteps, you can hear his phenomenal intonation again, playing delicate melodies with the slide even past the frets — over the pickups! Jeff will even do some two-handed tapping on things like TXH 138.

Jeff's melody lines hold his songs together and are obviously worked-out, but he tends to go for spontaneity in the guitar solos — both in the studio and live. Steve Lukather said: "I got to sit next to him and hear him do take after take — he never played the same thing, but everything he played was brilliant."

Like B.B. King, you really don't see Jeff Beck playing many chords. He really doesn't have a memorable rhythm style. He's usually busy playing a melody or a solo, but he'll throw in some very simple power chords for an accent. If another instrument is taking a solo, often Jeff just stays out of the way.

Picking hand: If you get a chance to see Jeff Beck live or on video, focus your attention on his right hand. This is were the real action is. OK, here we go!

Jeff employs several different picking techniques. The most common are:

  • Plucking the strings with his thumb and the first two fingers.
  • A variation of this is, quick downpicking with the thumb, and uppicking with first two fingers to create a rolling effect, as on the opening notes of Savoy.
  • Using the fingernail of the index finger to simulate a guitar pick. This is how Jeff typically gets speed and pseudo "pick attack." Though he will alternate pick for speed with his fingernail, Jeff doesn't come from the age of "pure alternate" pickers. He'll also use repeated downstrokes or upstrokes (with thumb and fingers) or anything else that works, and plays with plenty of legato too.
  • Slapping or downpicking with his big, meaty thumb — almost in a slap bass style.
  • Variation: For most of his melodies and on certain leads, Jeff plays the notes with thumb, and holds the tremolo arm between his first two fingers and manipulates it with his index finger. This leaves his pinky free to adjust the volume knob. This arrangement provides a staggering array of tonal and dynamic possibilities.

Which leads us nicely into . . .

Vibrato: In the last 20 years, Jeff has made the whammy bar a integral part of the his style. He uses it in a truly unique and wonderful way. In the aforementioned 4/99 Guitar article, Jeff was asked: "How much of your style depends on the whammy bar at this point?" Jeff replied: "Quite a lot of it. I can simulate voice sounds, Eastern things, Bulgarian tremolos — all in mid-flight which I couldn't do any other way."

Along with all of that, Jeff was one of the first guys to slide into the note by depressing the bar before striking the string. He employs other vigorous whammy techniques such as dives, dips while trilling a note to create a wacky, jittery effect. To hear Jeff's flashier vibrato effects, listen to Freeway Jam or Gets Us All in the End. Then there's Jeff's amazing harmonic bending, best exemplified by the magical Where Were You — a composition based on a melody created from harmonics, and shaped and sculpted with vibrato. Truly breathtaking. Again, intonation and control are vital to his technique.

Jeff Beck in Action


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Jeff Beck

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