“I don’t understand why some people will only accept a guitar if it has an instantly recognizable guitar sound,” says Beck. “Finding ways to use the same guitar people have been using for 50 years to make sounds that no one has heard before is truly what gets me off. I love it when people hear my music but can’t figure out what instrument I’m playing. What a cool compliment.”
Beck burst onto the music scene in 1966 after joining the Yardbirds. Although his stint with the band lasted only 18 months, Beck played on almost all of the group’s hits. More importantly, Beck’s innovative style heard on classics like “Heart Full of Soul” and “Shapes of Things” helped influence the psychedelic sound of the ‘60s.
At the height of the Yardbirds’ popularity in 1967, Beck left the group and embarked upon unpredictable journey of musical discovery that has lasted nearly four-decades as an Epic recording artist. During that time, Beck has left his distinctive mark on hard rock, jazz-fusion and modern music history.
While many of his contemporaries are satisfied with musical inertia, Beck continues to add to his legacy as an innovator with the release of his 14th album, simply titled “Jeff .” Produced by Andy Wright (Simply Red, Eurythmics) and mixed by Mike Barbiero (Blues Traveler, Metallica), the 13 songs on “Jeff” reflect how Beck’s fascination with electronic music continues to evolve.
“On my last album, ‘You Had It Coming,’ I spent a lot of time in the studio with Andy Wright just toying around with different sounds. We had a great time, but I bogged down in the possibilities,” says Beck, who earned a Grammy for instrumental performance for the song “Dirty Mind” from that album. “When I went back to the studio for ‘Jeff ,’ I didn’t want to get bogged down again so I brought in a few people to help push us along.”
Although they only met when the album was almost finished, Beck says David Torn of the New York trip-hop group Splattercell became an important collaborator. Much to Beck’s delight, Torn gutted an early version of the song, “Plan B.” “Dave ripped the vocals out straight away and made my guitar line the song’s main hook. That’s what I should have done in the first place, but it takes a remix guy to come along and put a different spin on what you’re doing,” he says. “The instant I heard Dave’s album with Splattercell, I wanted him to dismember one of my songs, and he came through beautifully.”
While working on the album at Metropolis Studio, Beck met Liverpudlian electronic trio Apollo 440—programmers Howard Gray, his brother Trevor and guitarist Noko Fisher-Jones. Before long, Beck had recorded three songs using the group’s rhythms.
“When we first met, they wrote me one of those amazing ‘nail your head to the wall’ kinds of grooves that they’re famous for and I ate it up,” says Beck. “I played off that track for two hours and wound up writing ‘Grease Monkey’ around their groove.”
Finding inspiration in a unique rhythm track is how songs like “Dirty Mind” from “You Had It Coming” and “Psycho Sam” from “Who Else!” were written, says Beck. “I play guitar, but that’s rarely my starting point,” he explains. “The drums have to kick me in the ass and make me want to play or I’ll just sit there all day. Sure, I can write a song on guitar and then try to add drums in later, but it never sounds quite right. For me, a good song has to begin with an inspiring rhythm.”
Another Apollo 440 rhythm track provided the spark for “Hot Rod Honeymoon,” which juxtaposes a raging club beat against 60s surf-pop harmonies and blues slide guitar. The unexpected contrast gives the song a fresh edge. “If I used a shuffle on this song, which is the kind of beat you would expect to hear, it would have killed the song instantly,” explains Beck. “Instead, the Apollo guys and I came up with a tongue-in-cheek Beach Boys song complete with techno-drums and screaming guitar, which I think sounds more interesting.”
With its haunting melody anchored by Beck’s violin-like tone and a 40-piece orchestra, “Bulgarian”—a traditional folk song arranged by Beck and Wright—is one of the guitarist’s most majestic songs. At the other end of the spectrum is the album’s wildest ride, “Trouble Man.” Beck starts out by coaxing numb-tongue mumbles from his Fender Stratocaster before launching into a mercurial solo that soars, spirals out of control and crashes into a pulsating heap of noise that sounds like an overdriven modem. The song, like much of Beck’s work, creates an atmosphere of violent elegance by pitting the raw emotions of the heart against the calculated technique of the mind.
A rare breed of guitarist like Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix, Beck is not only compelling for what he plays, but for how he plays it. While some guitar players use racks of gear to create sound, Beck prefers a simple, natural approach that emphasizes manual dexterity over gadgets. As Eric Clapton once said, “With Jeff, it’s all in his hands.”
Like few guitarists before him, Beck plays the entire guitar. Using his fingers instead of a guitar pick for greater speed and control over the fretboard, Beck adds deft twists of the volume and tone knobs to shape the notes as he’s playing them and further bends sounds into a rubbery tangle with his controlled cruelty on the whammy bar. “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?” says Beck with a wicked grin. “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.”
Produced by Sir George Martin, famed producer of The Beatles, the two albums shattered people’s preconceptions of what a rock guitarist was supposed to sound like. By fusing the complexity of progressive rock and improvisatory freedom of jazz with intergalactic guitar tones and a sense of humor, Beck opened up the horizon for future guitar instrumentalists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.
In the wake of those two albums, Beck became increasingly interested in the possibilities of electronic music thanks to his collaborations with former Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist, Jan Hammer. On stage, Hammer’s legendary mastery of the Mini-Moog synthesizer imbued Beck classics like “Freeway Jam” and “Blue Wind” with a funky, otherworldly aura that was ahead of its time. Looking back on the tour for “Wired”—documented on “Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live” (1978)—Beck says the shows left some in the audience scratching their heads.
“I don’t suppose many people knew what the hell was happening on stage,” says Beck. “I can tell you it was an exciting—electric—time for us as musicians because we were pushing the music in new directions. At the time, I think we were a little out there for most people, but when you look back now…it sounds like we were on to something.”
Although their partnership only lasted a few years, Beck says Hammer continues to inspire him to search out and use new sounds in his music. “The way Jan used technology really turned my head around and opened up a new world for me,” says Beck. “He made me realize that things are always changing and you can’t sit still. You have to keep your ears wide open to hear what’s going on or the music will pass you by.”
Born on 24th June 1944, just before the end of World War II, Beck grew up in Wallington, England. His mother’s piano playing and the family’s radio tuned to everything from dance to classical made sure Beck was surrounded by music from a young age.
“For my parents, who lived through the war, music was a source of comfort to them. Life was tense and music helped them forget about their troubles. I’m sure that made an impression on me,” recalls Beck. “I was really small when jazz broke through in England and I can still remember sneaking off to the living room to listen to it on the radio—much to my parent’s disapproval.”
Inspired by the music he heard, it wasn’t long before Beck picked up a guitar and began playing around London. He briefly attended Wimbledon’s Art College before leaving to devote all of his time to music. Beck worked as a session player, with Screaming Lord Sutch—the British equivalent to Screaming Jay Hawkins—and the Tridents before he replaced Eric Clapton as the Yardbirds’ lead guitarist in 1965.
Beck left the band in 1967 and formed The Jeff Beck Group, which featured Rod Stewart on vocals and Ron Wood on bass. The band released two albums—“Truth” (1968) and “Beck-Ola ” (1969)—that became musical touchstones for hard rockers in the years to come.
Stewart and Wood left to join the Faces and Beck disbanded the group until 1971 when he formed a new version of the band and recorded two albums—“Rough and Ready” (1971) and “The Jeff Beck Group” (1972). Beck again dissolved the group and formed a power trio with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, which released “Beck, Bogert and Appice” (1973).
Veering away from hard rock, Beck created two landmark two jazz-fusion albums—“Blow By Blow” (1975) and “Wired” (1976). The all-instrumental albums were a critical and popular success and remain two of the top-selling guitar instrumental albums of all time. The live album, “Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live” followed in 1977.
Music may have been one of Beck’s earliest passions but it has always shared space with a love of hot rods that began as soon as he could see over the dashboard. After the success “Blow By Blow” and “Wired ,” Beck began devoting more time to his fleet of hot rods. “I like the studio because it’s delicate; you’re working for sound. I like the garage because chopping up lumps of steel is the exact opposite of delicate,” explains Beck. “The garage is a more dangerous place though. I’ve never almost been crushed by a guitar, but I can’t say the same about one of my Corvettes.”
Beck returned in 1980 with “There and Back,” but he wouldn’t be heard from again until 1985’s “Flash,” which earned him the Best Rock Instrumental Grammy—his first—for the song “Escape.” Beck re-emerged from semi-retirement in 1989 with “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop with Terry Bozzio and Tony Hymas .” The album earned him his second Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental. After a co-headlining tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Beck gave retirement another try, but it didn’t last.
Beck returned to the studio in 1993 backed by the Big Town Playboys to record “Crazy Legs,” a tribute to seminal rockabilly artist Gene Vincent and his guitarist Cliff Gallup. Six years passed before the release of “Who Else!” (1999) but the album opened a relative floodgate of music by Beck standards. It only took two years before “You Had It Coming ,” (2001), which earned Beck his third Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental for the song “Dirty Mind.”
To support his album “Jeff ”, Beck returned to the road in the summer of 2003 on a coast-to-coast tour with blues legend B.B. King on the 12th Annual B.B. King Music Festival. The landmark event, presented by VH1 Classic, also featured New Orleans-based progressive funk outfit Galactic and up-and-coming Florida-bred murky blues band Mofro. An official bootleg “Live at B.B. King Blues Club” was recorded in the New York club in September 2003, and released for online retail only at www.jeffbeckmusic.com.
In the summer of 2004 Jeff Beck toured the UK, the first time since 1990, using momentum gained from a fourth Grammy for the track “Plan B” on the album “Jeff”. He put together a new band for comprising Vinnie Coliauta, Pino Palladino and Jason Rebello for Japan in July 2005 and kept them for a 6 date US West Coast tour in the spring of 2006. It was from those dates that the ‘must have’ Jeff Beck live CD, the “Official Bootleg” was created. Although Pino wasn’t available, Jeff kept Vinnie and Jason, adding Randy Hope-Taylor for UK and European dates, plus two Japanese festivals in the summer of that year, followed by a long tour of the US in September.
2007 began in public with a duet with Kelly Clarkson on TV’s American Idol Gives Back to a reputed audience of 30 million! During the summer Jeff undertook 7 dates in Europe and finished playing to a crowd of over 30,000 at the Crossroads Guitar festival in Chicago.
Beck announced a world tour in early 2009 and remained faithful to the same lineup of musicians as in his tour two years before, playing and recording at Ronnie Scott’s in London to a sold out audience. Beck played on the song “Black Cloud” on the 2009 Morrissey album Years of Refusal.
Beck was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on 4 April 2009, as a solo artist.
Beck’s recent album, Emotion & Commotion, was released in April 2010 and features a mixture of original songs and covers such as “Over the Rainbow” and “Nessun Dorma”. Joss Stone and Imelda May provided some of the guest vocals, two of the tracks from the album won Grammy Awards in 2011. Beck went onto collaborate on “Imagine” for the 2010 Herbie Hancock album, The Imagine Project along with Seal, Pink, India.Arie, Konono N°1, Oumou Sangare and others and he was delighted to recieve a third Grammy in 2011 for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for the track.
Beck’s 2010 World Tour band featured Grammy-winning musician Narada Michael Walden on drums, Rhonda Smith on bass and Jason Rebello on keyboards. He has also released a live album titled Live and Exclusive from the Grammy Museum on 25 October 2010 .
In 2011, Beck received two honorary degrees from British universities. On 18 July 2011, he was honoured with a fellowship from University of the Arts London in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to the field of Music”. He was also presented with an honorary doctorate from University of Sussex by Sanjeev Bhaskar, the university’s chancellor for “an outstanding musical career and celebrated the relationship between the university and the Brighton Institute of Modern Music (BIMM)” on 21 July 2011.
In 2013, Beck performed at the Crossroads festival, Madison Square Gardens, NY. Featuring vocalist Beth Hart, presenting a band line up that introduced two of his newest band members, Jonathan Joseph Drums and Lizzie Ball Violin, Tal Wilkenfeld played Bass.
Beck performed on Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson’s new solo album (With Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks). Soon after their collaboration it was announced that Beck would accompany Wilson (along with Jardine and Marks) on a twenty two date North American fall 2013 tour. starting in late September and ending in late October. Beck put together is New band for the Tour. UK born Lizzie Ball – Violin, Former band member Rhonda Smith – Bass, Miami born Jonathan Joseph – Drums and Swiss born Nicholas Meier – Guitar.