On January 11th, 2023, I was scrolling through Instagram and was halted by an announcement from Jeff Beck’s official account that he had passed away the day before. A loud and impulsive “holy shit!” came out of my mouth. Even though he was 78 years old, this was a complete and shocking surprise that hit me hard. It seemed that he would be around for so much longer. What follows is a brief summary of what Jeff Beck meant to me.
I came to appreciate Jeff Beck somewhat late. Of course, as a music fan and guitarist, I’ve heard of Jeff Beck all my life. He was one of the trio of world-shaping guitarists, along with Jimmy Page (my all-time favorite musician) and Eric Clapton, that played in The Yardbirds back in the 1960’s but it wasn’t until a friend turned me on to “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” in 1989 that I became a fan.
When my buddy said “check this out!” and handed me “..Guitar Shop”, I was skeptical. I thought that this was an “old guys” attempt to cash in on the then current trend of guitar virtuosos (e.g., Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, etc) releasing instrumental music that showcased guitar acrobatics that wasn’t really my thing.
Upon 1st listen, I was immediately surprised by Jeff Beck’s economical playing and melodic sensibility. Of course, he had (as I termed it back then) “chops for days” but the melody’s were hummable and memorable. I also loved his tone which was due, in part, to his eschewing of a guitar pick which is rare for electric guitarists. I loved the album!
Then, in 1992, I eagerly purchased Roger Waters “Amused to Death”, being a diehard Pink Floyd fan. Upon first listen, the intro to the 1st actual song “What God Wants” caught my ear. The guitar playing was very distinct. “That sounds like Jeff Beck” I thought….and upon inspection of the liner notes, I found that it WAS Jeff Beck. I was amazed at how immediately distinctive his playing was to my ears, having really only heard one recent album of his. Now I had to go down the Jeff Beck rabbit hole.
I bought “Beckology”, a career retrospective box set that blew my mind. It touched on everything from his pre-Yardbird days through “…Guitar Shop” and provided an inspiring example of his evolution and brilliance. From there, I got his 70’s classics, “Blow by Blow” and “Wired”. With their Jazz/Fusion influence, these albums contributed to the broadening of my listening palette.
What I found most exceptional about Beck was his continued evolution. His later releases (“Who Else” – 1999, “You Had it Coming” – 2000, and “Jeff” – 2003) are my favorites of his work and are wonderful examples of an artist restlessly pushing the creative envelope. Those 3 albums had a wide mix of genre influences but the playing was distinctively his. That is such a rare achievement. There was a timeless element in his art that made him unique amongst his peers. Whereas many of his generation seemed to stop progressing stylistically decades earlier, Jeff Beck continued to explore and discover new ground.
In 2004, I saw him perform in Oakland and was absolutely floored. As stated earlier, he had chops for days. What impressed me the most was the fact he left the stage for a few minutes and turned the spotlight to Jennifer Batten, a brilliant guitarist in her own right. The fact that he felt so comfortable to turn the stage over to a contemporary guitar virtuoso spoke volumes about his confidence in himself and his willingness to surround himself with immensely talented people. If you look back on the people he’s played with over the years, its a who’s who of world class talent. Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Carmine Appice, Jan Hammer, Tal Wilkenfeld, Terry Bozzio…and the list goes on. He played with the best.
His influence on my playing has been subtle but significant. While I’ll never attempt to write and perform music in his style, it is his approach to the instrument that has influenced my own approach (for example, I gave up using a pick long ago). This perhaps makes him the most influential guitarist on my own playing (even more so than my favorite musician and Jeff Beck’s contemporary, Jimmy Page).
If I was asked who my top 5 favorite guitarist were back in 1989, 4/5ths of the list would be same as now. However, Jeff Beck in now on that list and I will miss his presence on this planet greatly.
Thank you, Mr. Jeff Beck, for a wealth of beautiful music and inspiration.