Jeff Beck Remembered

by Greg Prato

Joe Satriani, Jennifer Batten, and others in the guitar community talk about working with Jeff Beck and what made him so special.

There have been few rock guitarists who were as universally respected as Jeff Beck, who passed away on January 10, 2023, at the age of 78. Starting out as Eric Clapton's replacement in The Yardbirds, Beck touched upon countless styles throughout his long and winding career, including psychedelia (with The Yardbirds), heavy metal (the original Jeff Beck Group, with both Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood in the lineup), soul/funk (guesting with Stevie Wonder), blues rock (Beck Bogert Appice), and fusion (his all-instrumental mid-'70s classics Blow by Blow and Wired).

Beck was one of the few guitarists who first hit in the '60s that managed to keep pace and remain relevant alongside the shredders of the '80s and beyond. As a tribute to this truly legendary guitarist - who has been named as an influence by the varied likes of Billy Gibbons, Ace Frehley, Johnny Ramone, Joe Satriani, and Kim Thayil – below are excerpts from my 2017 book, Shredders!: The Oral History Of Speed Guitar (And More), in which several renowned guitarists and journalists explain what made Beck so special.
Joe Satriani [Chickenfoot guitarist, solo artist]: I grew up learning how to play with Jeff Beck records. We weren't doing anything new - there had been tons of classical and jazz instrumental guitar records. I grew up listening to Wes Montgomery jazz records. There were The Ventures and The Shadows. We weren't doing anything new conceptually - at all, as a matter of fact.

We grew up listening to those Jeff Beck instrumental records and every time we listened to a record - whether it was instrumental guitar from the '50s, like George Van Eps, or from the '60s, like Wes Montgomery and The Ventures and Shadows, and then Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola - those were the things that I think gave us confidence to try our fingers at it, you know what I mean? So yeah, they paved the way. They were the architects of it. We were just newcomers, I think. But for people who are half my age, they don't know who Jeff Beck is, really. They know the name, but they don't know the catalog. But yeah, we built our success on their foundations, as they did with the guitarists that came before them.

Jas Obrecht [Guitar Player magazine editor from 1978 to 1999)]: There are not too many guys who have the technical facility to play like Beck. The closest one I heard back then was Eric Johnson, on that Seven Worlds tape that he did in the mid 1970s. There's some beautifully played Beck-ian stuff on there. But Beck, especially during the jazz-rock fusion period that gave us Blow By Blow and Wired, was really a breed apart from everyone else. He was using Sir George Martin as his producer, and he was exploring jazz veins. And Beck often played without a pick, which was rare during that time. Everybody idolized Beck for his articulate approach to playing notes, his fire, his passion, and the sheer force of his personality. Jeff Beck is a class by himself, and I personally think of him as the best electric guitarist to come out of Great Britain.

Alex Skolnick [Testament, Alex Skolnick Trio guitarist]: There was an album of his, There And Back, which doesn't get enough credit. All the instrumental music that got popular in the '80s was certainly inspired by Jeff Beck. I never had a desire to do that type of instrumental music — the '80s stuff — because I think it didn't have what I liked about Jeff Beck's music. Which was it wasn't just about the guitar. Some of the later instrumental stuff, it seemed like the other instruments were more "backing instruments" - just to create platforms for the guitar playing. Whereas with Jeff Beck, the other instruments were really important — without Narada Michael Walden on drums, for example, Wired would be a completely different record. Without Jan Hammer playing the keyboards, it would be a completely different record.

To me, those records are timeless — not just because of the other musicians, but Jeff Beck, he was one of those "natural tone" guys. He gets so many different sounds, but there's not a lot of bells and whistles. It's just purely from the guitar and maybe a minimum amount of processing. I'd rather hear that type of expression than these sorts of displays of virtuosity, where you can take the other musicians, insert somebody else, and you wouldn't know the difference. He not only opened the door for the later stuff, I think he also really set the bar so high. A bar that I don't think has ever been reached since — except by him.

Jennifer Batten [Michael Jackson, Jeff Beck guitarist; solo artist]: It was kind of like gigging with God [Jennifer played in Jeff's band from 1999-2002]. It was the Blow By Blow record on the radio that opened up my mind to just so many possibilities and genres. He hit everything from jazz to funk rock. I mean, he got in DownBeat magazine with that. It was basically a rock record, but it did touch into jazz and funk, and even reggae. So that just blew my mind. At first, I'd listen to it a lot, and then I started to carve into it and learn some of the stuff.

Wolf Marshall [Guitar World, Guitar For The Practicing Musician, Vintage Guitar magazine columnist; Wolf Marshall's GuitarOne magazine editor-in-chief; tablature transcriber]: I had gotten a whole new appreciation of Jeff with each new period. I loved him in the period when he was doing all the stuff like Rough And Ready, Blow By Blow, and Wired. In the '80s he adapted very well — he did that thing with Mick Jagger [Beck played on Jagger's first two solo records, She's The Boss (1985) and Primitive Cool (1987)], and there was the song with Rod Stewart, "People Get Ready."

He kept evolving. He played some things that were very challenging. If you've ever heard his album, Jeff, man, that thing is so out there - it's like Steve Vai. He came from The Yardbirds, playing real basic things, and he just kept evolving. Jazz-rock, he fit right in with Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin, and was holding his own with Jan Hammer. And when the pop rock thing came out, he was there with Rod Stewart, with "People Get Ready," and worked with Tina Turner.

Jennifer Batten: He's a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde on a show day. I mean, everybody does [it] to a certain degree; where you're working on your 'show head,' you're typically very quiet. If he doesn't want to talk, it's 100 percent impossible to engage him in conversation. But once that pressure's off and the show is over, he's just a party.

All his best friends are comedians, and I think only people that know him and have had a chance to hang out with him know what an incredible sense of humor he has. I was with him for three years, and there was a lot of different legs of different tours. One of the things we would do during one leg, after a show, we'd get on the bus and watch the intro to Austin Powers. [Laughs] Like, every single night — for a month. And another thing would be the Monty Python "rabbit scene" [From the film Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)]. He was just a gas.

And, from the Songfacts interview with Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty: Jeff was very good to work with in that he was a very spontaneous, very wild player; very creative, and he would never play anything twice. So I enjoyed it playing from that point of view. But of course he was very - well, how can I say - you never really quite knew what was going to happen with him. So he could go into a mood at a gig and lose his temper. So although he was spontaneous, you never really knew. But Jimmy Page in those days was much more grounded. And much more business-like. I know people laugh when I say that. And he was good to work with, because you more or less knew how a gig was going to be. But maybe he wasn't quite as creative and spontaneous as Jeff.

January 13, 2023
Shredders!: The Oral History of Speed Guitar (and More) is available as paperback, Kindle, and audio versions.

Further reading:
Jeff Beck Songfacts entries
Interview with Joe Satriani
Eddie Van Halen: His Life And Music
Excerpt from the Book Iconic Guitar Gear
Ace Frehley Names His Top Guitar Solos
Fact or Fiction: Shredders

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