The guitarist’s guitarist, a virtuoso legend, is an interviewer’s dream. I had expected the erstwhile Yardbird to be spiky or at the least sulky. At 64, with increasing critical kudos, Beck is happy to look at his career in depth, laughing off the failures and revelling in the fan-favourites, like mid-70s fusion masterpiece, Blow By Blow (“yeah, it’s still a good album, I still like it, still play it and we still play many of the songs from it in our shows. Why wouldn’t we? They’re great songs”).
Born Geoffrey Arnold Beck, he is part of the pantheon of English blues-rock guitarists and in particular the holy trinity that includes Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton; all players in the British blues group,
The Yardbirds. Beck’s first group in the early 1960s was The Tridents. He rose through the ranks with a guitar he built himself, first experimenting with the guitar in his pre-teen, post-piano lesson years. From there he replaced his friend Clapton in The Yardbirds, Eric became unhappy with the move towards commercial success and wished to stay true to his blues roots at that point. Beck saw the chance to create oily riffs (‘Over Under Sideways Down’) and fuzz-filled solos (‘Heart Full Of Soul’) before moving off to work with the then-unknown Rod Stewart, forming The Jeff Beck Group.
Beck was considered as a replacement for Syd Barrett when the psychedelic songwriter was manoeuvred away from the helm of the band Pink Floyd. Roger Waters stepped up as the principle songwriter, David Gilmour, already a friend of the band, became the lead guitarist, Beck missed his first window. When he recorded his first album with the Jeff Beck Group it featured a one-off ensemble of Beck, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page (from what would be Led Zeppelin) and Keith Moon, drummer for The Who. Beck turned down working with Led Zeppelin to plough on with his own endeavours. And then came the big one: in the mid-70s the Rolling Stones needed a replacement guitarist for the disillusioned Mick Taylor. Beck was called in to work on some of the sessions for the album that would become Black and Blue and was in line to be a permanent group member. The truth of the situation is that Beck was left hanging, waiting in a hotel room for a call that never came, he had to move on. The eventual replacement guitarist was of course Ron Woods, from the early Jeff Beck Group. Speaking about it now Beck explains, somewhat philosophically, “it’s one of those things where if I could have split myself in two it would be perfect. Half of me would go off and be a Rolling Stone and half of me would head off to explore some other musical ideas. But”, and there’s another dose of laughs as he delivers a line everyone can believe, “I don’t think I would have been able to keep up with Keith [Richards] you know? Or control Keith for that matter. I mean, can anyone?”
Also, while waiting for the call from the Stones, Beck was “given an opportunity to record an album with Sir George Martin. And that was something I did not want to turn down; something I knew I had to do”. That album, 1975’s Blow By Blow, is, to this day, his best-selling release. “I had given up trying to sound like Jimi Hendrix by this point and was going for my version of what John McLaughlin can do”, he modestly undersells. “Call it a simplified Mahavishnu Orchestra”, he adds, referencing the form of fusion that was making waves in the early 1970s, pushing jazz and rock tides in a swirl toward one another.
“We did Wired shortly after that album, and as we lost George Martin the sound became slightly more avant-garde, less accessible but it was still a sound I was very pleased with”.
Led Zeppelin were megastars by this point, Robert Plant the Golden God that is now parodied by mockumentary send-ups and earnestly re-attempted by a clutch of recent retro-influenced groups whose members were born in the 1980s. Eric Clapton had transitioned to being a lead singer and guitarist, no longer the sideman in a band. His commercial success with his J.J. Cale covers (‘Cocaine’ and ‘After Midnight’) and his white-man’s cod-reggae rehashes (‘I Shot The Sheriff’, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’) meant that a Clapton album no longer even required a guitar solo on each song.
It’s difficult to ask a guitar hero if the lack of mainstream success has actually been a positive. It could sound, well, a tad insulting. But as soon as I start, Beck picks up the thread. “That’s exactly it. I mean I am not saying I didn’t want to have a hit, I am sure I did, but there is no external pressure on me to deliver – whether it be more hits, or a song that sounds like the last one. It has allowed me to keep creating and to keep exploring”.
Beck is sure that if he lost that focus he would not play at all. “There’s never been any interest in just doing an old set of songs I am associated with. I wouldn’t get up there and do instrumental Yardbirds songs or just play the old material. That would not be satisfying to me and my audience has moved with me – some of them anyway – following the twists and turns”.
Similarly, while there was a touch of acoustic guitar on very early Jeff Beck material and again on Wired, he has no interest in an ‘unplugged’ album. “Too many good acoustic players have done that already and I don’t think I could say enough by being that limited. I am interested in developing the sound I have been working on for the last three decades; and that has never been about following trends”.
That sound is essentially the guitar as lead voice in the band. Beck’s current group features journeyman keyboardist David Sancious, veteran drummer-to-the-stars, Vinnie Colaiuta and 22-year-old bassist Tal Wilkenfeld. “She’s really amazing isn’t she?” Beck asks/states with regard to Wilkenfeld, an Australian guitarist who left school at 16 to move to America as a professional musician. She switched to bass guitar just three years ago and has been playing with jazz legend Chick Corea.
“Vinnie, my drummer, gave me an Mp3 file of Tal playing and said ‘you just have to hear it’. And it was really incredible. She really is amazing”. Great players are important to Beck, particularly drummers, he says it goes back to the first sounds you hear, “if you don’t have rhythm then you don’t have anything. You have to have a groove and I think back to Elvis Presley’s drummer, DJ Fontana, to Keith Moon and John Bonham and then on to the incredible jazz-fusion players like Billy Cobham”. Beck’s band always features a strong musical personality driving the sound and with Colaiuta the trend continues. “Vinnie’s done a few tours of Japan with me, sometimes he has to go off and do other stuff, but this band we have now is really great, really something special. You guys are in for a treat”.
Jeff Beck has, as he puts it “always kept me eyes open” for other projects, for work. He refers back to the fact that he has not had a huge hit single or album to propel him. “The downside of that is that you are always looking for work. The positive within that is that working is good; I love to play the guitar. Most days anyway and I don’t believe in having a safety-zone, that would limit me, I wouldn’t feel comfortable”.
This search for work has seen Beck return to some familiar faces, recording an entire album as sideman for the man he could have been playing beside full time (Mick Jagger’s Primitive Cool). And then, a few years on from that, working on Roger Waters’ Amused To Death (“that one was really simple, Roger called, I was fishing at the time, I did four days of recording and then it was buttoned up”). And perhaps most famously there was the reconnection with Rod Stewart for one song in the mid-80s, Stewart’s rendition of Cutis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’. “That one really was random. We had not seen each other for years and were in the same restaurant at different tables. Someone told Rod that I was there and so he came over for some drinks – in those days I suppose it was quite a few [laughs] and he tells me we should do the song together. I didn’t know if he was joking or whether he’d remember asking me but a week later I walked in and we cut that song”. There was also Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ with a distinctive Beck solo. And most recently there was work with American Idol-winner Kelly Clarkson (“a thing like that comes up, you don’t turn it down, people can tell me I’m selling out but there are not that many chances for me to reach a TV audience these days”).
There were flirtations with what Beck describes as techno-music (2001’s You Had It Coming), including his interpretation of Nitin Sawhney’s ‘Nadia’, the guitar replacing Indian instruments and voice. “I would love to continue with that sort of sound, and write for that genre, drum’n’bass, electro material, but there are people like The Chemical Brothers who are better at it. So I’ll keep wandering…”
When he’s not playing the guitar Beck is obsessed with cars, collecting them, tinkering with them and those same hands that built his first guitar are now put to work rebuilding engines. It’s the sort of work that would scare a lot of guitarists. Beck tells me he doesn’t really think about it. And then adds, “well, I did nearly blow my hand off once with a sandblaster, after that you start to realise you need safety equipment. A visit to the eye surgeon teaches you the importance of protective eye-wear”.
But the cars are up on blocks for now with Beck most interested in his main vehicle, pushing new shapes in to the air from his hip. “I practice every day. That’s the secret. There’s nothing more to it than that. Play every day and keep trying to find a new something new”.