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Goodbye, Jeff Beck: The great guitar genius

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Jeff Beck performing in Japan in 2014 (image by Takahiro Hyono via Flickr)

English music legend Jeff Beck, one of the canniest axemen ever to strap on a guitar and play some rock ‘n roll, passed away following a brief and sudden battle with bacterial meningitis. He was 78.

During his long career, Beck won eight Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a member of the Yardbirds in 1992 and again as a solo artist in 2009. Rolling Stone magazine rated Beck as number five out of the '100 greatest guitarists of all time'.

Beck is often mentioned in the same breath as the legendary guitar gods Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. Both his contemporaries and rock music critics have referred to Beck as “the guitar player’s guitar player” due to his incredible virtuosity with the instrument. In his heyday, Beck’s fingers and thumbs were famously insured for seven million pounds.

He was born Geoffrey Arnold Beck on 24 June 1944 in East Sussex, England, and first heard an electric guitar when he was six and caught Les Paul playing 'How High the Moon' on the radio.

“I was interested in the electric guitar even before I knew the difference between electric and acoustic,” said Beck. “The electric guitar seemed to be a totally fascinating plank of wood with knobs and switches on it. I just had to have one.”

As a teenager, Beck made several attempts to build his own guitar using cigar boxes, a fence post for the neck, strings from a model aircraft kit and frets painted on. Later, he relied on borrowed instruments and also tried to con a record store in a hire-purchase scam.

Beck recalled to the New Statesman in 2016:

“There was this guy, he wasn’t old enough to be my dad but he offered to be my guarantor. He said `I’ll tell them I’m your stepfather’. Within a month, they’d sussed out that he was nothing to do with me whatsoever and they snatched the guitar back. My dad went along and explained that we couldn’t afford it, so they waived the rest of the payments and I got the guitar.”

While attending Wimbledon College of Art, Beck performed with Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, which recorded a single called 'Dracula’s Daughter/Come Back Baby' for Oriole Records in 1962. He went on to perform in various R&B bands and also found work as a session guitarist.

In March 1965, fellow session guitarist Jimmy Page recommended Beck to take over from Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds; a heavily blues-influenced supergroup that achieved most of their Top 40 hits during Beck’s brief but significant 20-month tenure.

An absolute stand-out track during this period was 'Heart Full of Soul' in which Beck introduced Indian influences, with his guitar mimicking the sitar, and the "fuzz box" (one of his trademarks that was later copied by scores of other guitarists). The song reached the top ten in the UK, the U.S. and several other countries.

Another notable Yardbirds song released in 1965 was 'The Train Kept A-Rollin’, which Beck, a mad keen rockabilly fan, introduced to the group. An adaptation of the song entitled 'Stroll On' was later used with great aplomb in the soundtrack to Blow Up, one of the grooviest rock ‘n roll movies ever made. It’s worth seeing for the spectacle of Beck facing off with Jimmy Page, one of the very few guitarists who can match him riff for riff.

In 1966, the Yardbirds achieved a top three hit in the UK with 'Shapes of Things', in which Beck made good musical use of feedback by finding the guitar’s resonant points and bending the strings. Beck’s arrangement was considered ground-breaking at the time and was widely imitated.

Beck was eventually sacked from the Yardbirds during a tour of the U.S. for not turning up to gigs and for causing difficulties with his reportedly short temper and perfectionism. Beck alluded to some bad blood within the band and said “every day was a hurricane day in the Yardbirds”.

He went on to record several solo tracks for pop music promoter Mickie Most. These included 'Hi Ho Silver Lining', which became Beck’s signature track.

In 1967, Beck formed The Jeff Beck Group with lead singer Rod Stewart, rhythm guitarist Ronnie Wood and a revolving door of bassists and drummers. The Jeff Beck Group took an innovative approach to heavy-sounding R&B that later influenced both punk and heavy metal. This influence can be heard in tracks such as 'Going Down'.

Stewart said:

“[Beck] took me and Ronnie Wood to the USA in the late 60s in his band the Jeff Beck Group and we haven’t looked back since. He was one of the few guitarists that when playing live would actually listen to me and respond.”

In later years, Beck embraced many different forms of music including pop, jazz fusion and – believe it or not – opera. Unfortunately, his output slowed dramatically in the 1980s when Beck developed tinnitus (a ringing or buzzing noise in one or both ears).

From the 1990s through to the 2010s, Beck settled comfortably into his role as an elder statesman of rock ‘n roll and worked with an extremely diverse range of artists, including Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Ozzy Osbourne, Kelly Clarkson and long-time fan Johnny Depp.

Beck’s death prompted a flood of tributes from a veritable “who’s who” of rock ‘n roll.

Long-time friend and collaborator Jimmy Page posted on social media:

 “The six stringed warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave around our mortal emotions. Jeff could channel music from the ethereal. His technique unique. His imagination apparently limitless. Jeff, I will miss you along with your millions of fans.”

'No one played guitar like Jeff Beck,' said Kiss bassist Gene Simmons. 'Please get a hold of the first two Jeff Beck Group albums and behold greatness.'

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones wrote, 'With the death of Jeff Beck we have lost a wonderful man and one of the greatest guitar players in the world. We will miss him so much.'

When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the second time in 2009, Beck said:

"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? I don’t care about the rules. In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least ten times in every song, then I’m not doing my job properly.”

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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