Jeff Beck (1944-2023) My Guitar Hero
I’m not ashamed to say it – as a guitarist, I always wanted to be somebody else. And there was only one somebody else I wanted to be – Jeff Beck.
From my rosewood-necked Fender Stratocaster with the tremolo arm (that I got painted white to be like his), to the whammy bar vibrato technique, the octave pedal and the shag haircut – the things I did were an attempt to get a little bit closer to that JB magic. (My one mistake was the Jackson Soloist that I foolishly bought in the 80s after seeing him on the cover of a guitar mag with one.)
As a kid, I never knew which Yardbirds songs he was playing on but the first time I can recall hearing Jeff’s playing and knowing it was him was in 1976 when I was riding in my girlfriend’s yellow Camaro and this ad came on WNEW FM on the radio for – “Wired – the new album by Jeff Beck”. They played snippets of the tunes and I hearing distinctly remember “Play With Me” – so that may have been the first moment I connected the name and the amazing playing. I ran out and bought the album and played it to death. “Blue Wind” and “Led Boots” would become my text books for merging rock guitar with the more complex rhythms of jazz-rock/fusion/funk. And there’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” which in my opinion remains to this day, the greatest example of note choice, taste and tone in a solo by a rock guitarist.
After Wired, I would go backwards and get Blow By Blow, off of which I would devour and regurgitate “Freeway Jam” in every prog band I had over the next decade. And his solo on “She’s A Woman” – when I learned it, I thought I was playing jazz – so years later when I threw in one of the riffs during a solo on a jazz/funk/soul gig, the piano player, Bette Sussman leans over to me and says, “Jeff Beck!”. Busted, but what better to be busted for?
I’m not going to name every album and track of his that is absolute genius but I have to mention one off of Stanley Clarke’s 1975 album Journey To Love…the song “Hello Jeff”. Again, the tone, note choices and techniques he employed on this were nourishment for my teenage musical soul. I wore out the vinyl…but I still have it.
Jeff’s ability to constantly surprise the ear with his playing was one of his amazing gifts. One day in the early 1990s I was riding in a NYC taxi when I heard this incredible guitar playing coming from the cab’s radio and when I focused in on the song, realized it was a cover of Hendrix’s, “Manic Depression”. I had no idea who was singing it, I thought it was some new singer/guitar slinger. The guitar playing was unreal and as I listened in amazement, I was both inspired and depressed by it because it seemed that someone had come along to steal Jeff’s crown. I thought, “Oh no – it can’t be possible that someone else has figured out how to do something like this…nobody these days could have this touch, tone and phrasing!” So I patiently waited for DJ to identify the artist and when he said it was Seal with Jeff Beck I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief. Of course it was Jeff, how stupid of me to think anyone else could do that.
Then, in April of 2009 I met Jeff, when I saw him play Irving Plaza in NYC and he was astounding. Here’s the setlist:
I had just played the venue a few years in a row with New York Dolls so I was friendly with the bouncers managed to get upstairs in the VIP area where I met & chatted with Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford who was also waiting to say hello to JB. When got backstage and met the man, my hero, it was surreal. I think Nitebob (legendary soundman for Aerosmith, the Dolls & many others) introduced me to Jeff as the guitarist for New York Dolls, which I’m sure didn’t impress him musically but he was quite impressed with my red scarf which was given to me by singer/songwriter Willie Nile. He actually asked me if he could have it but I had to turn him down, telling him it was a Christmas gift from an artist I work with. We did manage to get a photo though…
And now he’s gone.
I would only see him play live a few times over the years – nowhere near as often as I wanted to – but the shows that I saw left an indelible imprint on my brain; Madison Square Garden with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Roseland Ballroom, the Irving Plaza gig I mentioned earlier and at the Paramount in Huntington, Long Island. Every time, my jaw was on the floor. How was it humanly possible to do what he did? And constantly growing, improving with new techniques and employing modern technology right up until the end at the age of 78!! Who else does that?? WHO ELSE???
One of my favorite musical situations was a band I started with drummer Rich Pagano called called Blues Deluxe in which we did many of the tunes Jeff recorded with Rod; “Ain’t Superstitious”, “Shapes Of Things”, People Get Ready” and “Bolero” (during which I’d sometimes quote melodies from “Freeway Jam” & “Blue Wind” in my guitar solo.)
And if I listen to the 1990 debut album of my band Company Of Wolves I can hear in many of the solos that I was channeling the JB aesthetic (with the vibrato bar, the fancier note choices, etc.) especially in the songs, “Call Of The Wild”, “The Distance”, “Hangin’ By A Thread”, “Can’t Love Ya, Can’t Leave Ya”, “I Don’t Wanna BeLoved” and the final solo in the reprise of “Girl”. Because of that album, GUITAR magazine named me a “Guitar God In Waiting” in their year-end issue – but I was just copping Jeff.
I can’t overstate his influence on me and if you’re reading all the internet posts from the top guitarists in the world surely you’re hearing many of the same sentiments.
Hello Jeff. Goodbye Porkpie Hat.