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The master is dead…
There are many guitar players that have influenced me over the years. The quartet of Beck, Page, Clapton and Green always spring to mind first. These are all legends of the British blues explosion and ones who spearheaded the British Blues Invasion in the 60s.
Tony Iommi, Richie Blackmore, David Gilmour, Alvin Lee, Bill Nelson, Andy Powell, Carlos Santana, Rory Gallagher, Jan Akkerman and later Robert Fripp, Larry Carlton and Robben Ford are of course up there in my go-to list.
But today is not the day to talk about these fine guitarists but to focus on one - Jeff Beck, who passed away on January 10th, 2023.
I am sure by the time you read this there will be a plethora of tributes and articles but wanted to share my personal relationship with the man and his music.
He has always been around in my musical life, contributing to the search for a great tone, melodies and notes that serve the song. I was devastated by the news.
I was interested in the electric guitar even before I knew the difference between electric and acoustic. The electric guitar seemed to be a totally fascinating plank of wood with knobs and switches on it. I just had to have one. - Jeff Beck
I have seen Beck four times, all were astounding, but will detail two of them.
Live in Birmingham
When I was still at University around 1979, my ex-brother-in-law, Dave Casson and I drove down to Birmingham to stay with our friend Craig Walton, who I met when teaching him the guitar and was then an undergraduate student at the University of Birmingham.
The weekend was a ‘music fest’ par excellence.
We arrived on Friday and didn’t have anything to do so we went to the University’s ‘Halls of Residence’ refectory and there was a band we had never heard of, the Q-Tips. They were a marvellous soul band, perfect for a night drinking warm, flat, Banks’s ale. We all thought the singer was great - it was Paul Young - who of course later rose to prominence in the 80s with his massively successful solo career.
Sunday’s gig was ‘The Who’ supported by ‘Nine Below Zero’ at the NEC, but the main attraction for me was Jeff Beck, supported by ‘The Climax Blues Band’ at a theatre in Birmingham city centre (can someone help me out with the name of the venue here?).
It featured music from Beck’s fourth studio album, ‘There and Back’, and remember them kicking off with ‘Star Cycle’, which of course later became the theme tune for the legendary music show ‘The Tube’.
It was a ferocious spectacle of guitar acrobatics, keyboard wizardry by Jan Hammer, bass by John Mole, and remarkable drumming by Simon Phillips.
I just couldn’t understand how he was achieving all these sounds. His bottleneck kept appearing and disappearing almost like magic - I later discovered he kept it in his ubiquitous waistcoat pocket - swells, feedback and strange ‘plinking sounds’. I was on the balcony, straining to see how he was creating such sonic beauty - to no avail.
The gig was astounding but it was the encore that really got me, I think it was just a straight-up blues, and can’t even remember the title, but it left me wanting to cut my hands off, being not worthy of even picking up a guitar again. Not one B.B. King lick in sight. Just all original Beck.
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 - Jeff Beck
Live in Manchester
I think it was 1989 and couldn’t wait for ‘Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop’ to be released. A group of us booked tickets to see him live at the Manchester Apollo where I had over the years seen everyone from Queen (when they were cool), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Weather Report, ZZ Top, New Order, Rainbow, the Steve Miller Band, Malcolm McDonald, Wishbone Ash, and Black Sabbath to name a few.
The band was a three-piece consisting of the mighty Terry Bozzio on drums and the fabulous Tony Hymas on keyboards: they totally nailed it.
The ‘stand out ‘track for me was ’Where Were You’. Here the use of his tremolo arm, tone and volume controls was groundbreaking. Nobody did that shit. You can hear the track and our thoughts featured in episode #106 of The Supertone Show podcast.
I also love the simplicity of his gear over the years, focussing - as do I - on classic Marshall JTM45s and 4x12” cabinets, with a dash of echo and a few select FX Pedals.
It was around 10 years on from the gig in Birmingham, but again the feeling of ‘not being worthy’ welled up in my soul, but this quote made me feel considerably better.
Sometimes when I do an overdub solo, they'll keep four or five of my attempts and then mix the bits that they like to make a solo up out of them. It's not against the rules, really - I can learn my own solos, then. But that's the whole beauty of multi-track recording, isn't it? - Jeff Beck
Live at Ronnie Scotts
I know everyone talks about this series of gigs in November 2007, but to me, it is the finest and most accessible example of his work and would have loved to have been there. However, the DVD is available - highly recommended - and much of the concert can be found on YouTube.
It’s great to see him in a small, intimate club with a killer band consisting of Vinnie Colaiuta (my favourite drummer of all time), Jason Rebello, and then 21-year-old bassist Tal Wilkenfeld.
The sold-out audience was peppered with his contemporaries: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, and Jon Bon Jovi. The performances featured Joss Stone, Imogen Heap and his old mucker, Eric Clapton.
Jeff Beck pulls sounds out of his Fender Stratocaster that just shouldn’t be possible, as though it was an extension of his own body. Irreverent, bold, sensitive, magical, dramatic and surprising.
Although Suzy and I talk about all this in our podcast, I couldn’t resist sharing this with you.
If you are interested in listening to our brand new podcast on the music of Jeff Beck you can find it in show #106 of The Supertone Show podcast - which can be played from Spotify, or direct from our website if you are not a fan of Big Tech.
The hot rod
Another aspect of Beck’s life revolved around the building of custom cars and hot rods and the story moves forward a number of years to a meeting with legendary recording engineer, good friend and a massive supporter of our career, Phill Brown.
He lives very close to Riverhall, Beck’s Grade II listed house, and used to see him regularly driving his hot rods down the lane right past his house.
As a side note, if you are a musician or a music lover, we certainly suggest reading Phill’s superb book, Are We Still Rolling? He has worked with everyone from Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin to David Bowie and Talk Talk - it’s funny, brimming with fascinating stories and insights.
I could wax lyrical about this master, this maestro and his influence not just on me, but the whole of the guitar-playing and music-loving community for days, but will keep this piece concise.
The great thing about being an artist is that you never really die as your work lives on in perpetuity. Thank you Jeff for all the joy you have given me and your millions of fans across the world.
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