Jeff Beck: Beck to the Future
Originally published in Guitar World, June 2009
Since starting out with the Yardbirds more than four decades ago, Jeff
Beck has defined guitar virtuosity. On the eve of his induction in the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he talks about his storied past, his recent
shows with Eric Clapton and his plans for a new album.
"Largely, I disapprove of overblown ceremony,” Jeff Beck pronounces, “but it’s difficult to say no to something like this.”
Beck is referring to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 4 of this year. It’s an honor more than deserved by the man that many regard as the greatest rock guitarist of all time, bar none. He says, “After 40 odd years, it’s nice to be recognized. It’s nice to know there’s someone ringing the bell for me.”
Back in 1992, Beck had been inducted to the hall as a member of the Yardbirds, the groundbreaking Sixties rock band that first brought him to fame and also launched the careers of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. But the Yardbirds were just the first chapter in a legend that is as large and bold as rock itself. Beck has been a towering figure in every rock era, deftly moving with the times, yet never pandering to trends. He embraced Seventies fusion as gamely as he delved into Nineties techno, making each new genre an ideal setting for his dazzling six-string artistry
“If you look at the albums, I think they pretty much show us the high points,” Beck says of his career. “It’s all the waiting around in between albums that’s never so great!”
Jeff Beck is entirely in a class by himself as a guitarist. His phrasing is utterly unique—restless, puckish, unpredictable and always a few leaps ahead of even the most adroit listener. Yet he can also touch your heart with some of the most lyrical, graceful and stunningly beautiful passages ever wrested from an electric guitar and amplifier. Part of Beck’s magic originates in his masterful and mystifying technique. He’s one of the few rock guitarists that doesn’t use a pick. All the fingers of his right hand come into play, not only to pluck the strings but also to manipulate the vibrato arm and volume control of the Fender Stratocaster, his signature ax for many years now.
Beck’s uncanny combination of vibrato-arm technique and left-hand string bends have made him a master of legato phrasing and microtonality, the pitches “between the notes” of a tempered Western scale. This renders him better able to evoke the sounds of Indian, Bulgarian and other world music than most other rock guitarists, and adds a mysteriously unique quality to this straight-up rock playing. Beck’s sense of pitch is more complex and subtle than the average person’s. By not using a pick, the fingers of his right hand are free to roam up the fretboard to execute tapping maneuvers that have all the grace of ballet steps.
It’s a delight to watch how Beck puts all these expressive techniques together, and his new DVD/Blu-ray disc Jeff Beck Performing This Week...Live at Ronnie Scott’s provides an ample opportunity to do just that. Filmed during his week-long residency at London’s legendary jazz club, the disc offers a ringside view of Beck and his current band (drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and keyboardist Jason Rebello) performing a set that spans Beck’s solo career, from the Sixties right up to the present day. The camera lingers long and lovingly on Beck’s hands as he tears through classics like “Beck’s Bolero,” “Led Boots,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and “Blast from the East.” This is guitar porn of the highest order.
“It was nerve wracking, I have to tell you,” Beck says, “because of the low ceilings and smallness of the club. It’s not what we’re used to. We’re used to playing bigger venues. But it was nice to bring some special guests into the performance. We had Imogen Heap, Joss Stone and Eric Clapton, to most people’s delight. It’s nice to have a guest suddenly appear that nobody is expecting to see.”
Live at Ronnie Scott’s might never have happened had Beck and his wife not paused for a coffee at a cafe opposite the club one sunny afternoon. They were approached by the club’s artistic director at the time, Leo Green, who said, “Hey, why don’t you play Ronnie’s?” To which Beck promptly replied, “Hey, why don’t you fuck off?” But he eventually relented, cajoled into performing at the club by his wife and also a BBC film crew that was putting together a documentary on Beck and needed some recent footage. He explains, “So we tried to get both things going at once—a bit of intimacy and a bit of footage.”
Shortly after sharing Ronnie Scott’s small stage with Clapton, Beck took off for Japan, where he and Clapton performed two history-making live shows together at Japan’s massive Saitsama Super Arena on February 21 and 22. Says Beck, “The Ronnie Scott’s thing was just two songs together with Eric, five or six minutes. But this was a fairly polished 40-minute set, and in front of 16,000 to 18,000 people per night. That was an experience—a much bigger place than I’m used to. My usual capacity is 6,000 to 7,000 tops. But those big places, they’re no different to any of the other places once you get stuck into the playing. Except your cash register’s a lot louder.”