Dear Guitar Hero: Jeff Beck
Can you describe the feeling of sparring with Eric Clapton on a nightly basis? —Sherwood Meara
Playing these shows with Eric was like going back into the school playground, but this time I was the hero instead of being beaten up every night! It was a great feeling, like going back to visit a bunch of old friends, with the license to play as you wish as opposed to a “traditional” way, along with the guy that is the boss. Eric is definitely the boss.
There were so many incredible guitar players in England in the mid Sixties—you, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mick Taylor, Peter Green. Were each of you very aware of one another’s careers, and did you play together often? —Hugh Finsecker
Mentally, there was some subliminal connection between all of us, wondering what one another were doing, but physically, no, we were not around each other very often at all. Eric lived not very far away from me at the time, and Jimmy lived not very far away, either, but I hardly ever saw Jimmy until I got him into the Yardbirds as the bass player. England being so small, many people think we all lived in Buckingham Palace together [laughs], but in fact we saw each other very rarely.
I joined the Yardbirds in February of ’65, and I’d never saw sight or sound of Eric with them before that. My only connection to him was hearing the rest of the band talking about him, that he used to do this, that and the other. I got pretty pissed off with it, like, “Shut up, I’m here now!” For the first couple of weeks, all I heard was, “Oh, Eric, the girls love him in this place,” and I’d say, “All right, enough of that!”
I didn’t see him until about a year later, because we were off to America. Right when I joined the Yardbirds, they had a massive hit with “For Your Love,” which Eric detested and was the reason he left the band. So we were off pummeling around the States on the three-week promo tour. When we went back [to England], by pure chance I bumped into him in a club and I thought we were actually going to get into a fight! But when he saw me, he went, “Hello, man!” and he gave me a big hug, and that was the end of that.
Back in 1983, when you and Eric appeared together for the ARMS [Action into Research for Multiple Sclerosis] Benefit for Ronnie Lane, Eric was quoted as saying, “Jeff is probably the finest guitar player I’ve ever seen.” Was that actually the first time the two of you ever played together? —Paul Montgomery
Wow, good Lord—did he really say that? I’m deeply honored. Before ARMS, we had only done the concerts with John Cleese and Monty Python [The Secret Policeman’s Ball, 1979, and The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, 1981] so the ARMS concert was one of the first times Eric and I ever played together in front of an audience. We did a few things right after that, too, such as Amnesty International [in 1985].
In the mid Sixties, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers was a band that served as a training ground for some of Britain’s best blues guitarists, such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor. Did Mayall ever ask you to join the Bluesbreakers? —Alex Durant
He did. John called my mum several times. He found my mum’s number, and she said to me, “Oh, that John Mayall sounds very nice!” [laughs] But I didn’t want that—I didn’t want to be playing blues all of the time. I’d seen Eric with them, and he was fantastic, really. He did the job better than I could have, and I just didn’t want to have that challenge. My musical taste was changing radically from 12-bar blues. I might have done better in that band than in the Yardbirds, but I certainly would not have been given the same kind of free reign to do the experimenting that I did in the Yardbirds.
John Mayall came to see me with the Yardbirds at some gig. He was very straightforward. He never embellished or gave us any flowery comments about the gig. He said, “The audience loved it, but there was not much blues, was there?” And I thought, Excuse me, but this isn’t a blues band. It sort of was, but he’s a purist and he was listening for Little Walter–style harmonica solos. I didn’t want to be mimicking Chicago blues musicians forever. My thinking was, We’re not them, we’re not black, we’re British middle-class kids and let’s get on and do our own music. We had a bit of disharmony about that, but not to take away from John’s dedication to it.