Jeff Beck Discusses Gear, Technique and Hendrix in 1985 Guitar World Interview
Here's part one of our interview with Jeff Beck from the January 1985 issue of Guitar World. The original story by Gene Santoro ran with the headline "Jeff Beck, The Interview: Twenty Years of Rock and Roll Power," and the story started on page 34.
It’s been a long time since anybody’s heard from Jeff Beck. With the exception of the ten-date ARMS tour of 1984, his last time on the road was in 1981, in support of his album There and Back; and it was on that album and tour that the preeminent guitar-explorer bade farewell to his latest incarnation as a fusionmaster.
Nearly three years of silence followed, and as his old Yardbirds mate and longtime friend Jim McCarty put it, “We thought he needed a bit of shaking up.” The immediate result was Beck’s stunning reappearance as a badass rocker on four tracks of Box of Frogs, the album McCarty and the other surviving Yardbirds put out earlier this year.
Longer term, McCarty’s phone call to Beck was only the opening shot from a fusillade of guest-spot offers that had Beck appearing on cuts with the Vanilla Fudge, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and, of course, Rod Stewart.
As you probably recall, Beck even toured with briefly with Stewart but bowed out after only a few dates. Then there’s Get Workin’, Beck’s own upcoming LP that, at the time of this writing, stands about seventy percent completed. It’s currently scheduled for an early 1985 release date.
Given all this activity by one of the acknowledged guitar heroes of an entire generation -- Beck's been recording, after all, for twenty years now, and managed to invent psychedelia, heavy metal and shriekback guitar along the way -- it seemed to us at GW that the fitting and obvious thing to do was to have a shot at putting Beck's career, achievements and musicianship into some kind of perspective.
Hence this two-part article. Part I is an exclusive interview with Beck speaking candidly and humorously -- so much for his reputation as the press' bad boy -- about a wide variety of topics: his re-entry into the music scene, the background for his various guest appearances, the new musical direction he's taking with Get Workin', his current equipment and new techniques, his own guitar heroes, his reactions to the crop of new electronic toys for guitarists and his thoughts on the current music scene.
Part II continues the discussion with Beck as he talks about his career as a superstar guitarist and its problems, how he thinks about his own playing, his perfectionism and his possible future musical directions. In addition, GW has talked with a number of musicians that have worked closely with Beck over the course of his career, people like Jim McCarty and Chris Dreja, Max Middleton, Jan Hammer, Stanley Clarke, Seymour Duncan. Their reminiscences and comments about Beck the musician and Beck the man -- how he works, what it's like working with him, the unique elements of his sound as a musician -- will make next issue's Jeff Beck Scrapbook an appropriate marker for this twentieth year of Beck's career.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, Jeff Beck.
GUITAR WORLD: You've resurfaced with a vengeance this last year or so.
That wasn't intentional, it just happened that way. The first thing was the Box of Frogs; they asked me last Christmas if I'd go down there and have a drink with them. So I went down there and had a drink with them and wound up playing on the record. Of course, they'd kinda said, "If you feel like it you can put a solo on here or there." I'd heard the demo beforehand and I quite liked it, and I couldn't see the harm of getting involved with old friends again.
What was it like getting back together with those guys after fifteen years?
Well, I was a bit afraid of what they'd sound like at first, because I don't think they had been near the music business, apart from the bass player, Samwell-Smith. But he kept his ear right to the ground the whole time: he's been producing a lot. So when I heard those tracks, I thought, "Wow, they're not bad at all; I've heard a lot worse." So I just went ahead and did my best for an afternoon. I say an afternoon, but I set up at three [p.m.] and we were working until about eleven at night. And [laughs] half an hour off for a drink!
How did you and Stewart hook up again?
I bumped into Rod the summer of '82, a: and I kept bumping into him in different places in Los Angeles. He was always friendly and saying, Well, when are we going to do something together? So I said, "Put your money where your mouth is." So then he organized the studio and we went in and did a thing called "People Get Ready." That turned out really well, and Warner Bros. and everybody just went crazy -- they loved it and all that.
Then they said, "All right, never mind your album, get something with Beck." So there was some talk about reforming [a group] with him, but that only happened on the three tracks with him on Camouflage. And it went from there: Rod rang up and said he loved what I had done on it, would I think about touring with him? What was spoken about was a very attractive offer financially, and also I wouldn't have to bear the brunt of headlining a tour, which after not touring for three years -- well, it's quite dicey out there, isn't it?
So I thought, "People are going to love this; if it turns out anything like what we're discussing it's going to be great." But, needless to say, it didn't, and I just got out of it as soon as possible, which was a shame, really. But he wasn't very forthcoming with any ideas which involved me, and I was just slotted in to about fifteen minutes. I just couldn't see the sense of touring the US, widespread, y'know, in that context. When my fans turned up they'd be thinking I'd gone mad or [pauses emphatically] moody.
Your own music has been evolving pretty constantly over the last twenty years. What kind of feel does have?
Well, what I've had to do is back off from the Blow by Blow and Wired kind of thing, get completely away from a "guitar hero" kind of record, which I was a bit shaky about doing at first. I don't mind, though, because that's not what's going on any more, and so it would be rather like challenging the world: trying to put out another all-guitar instrumental album is the kiss of death, in my opinion. Even though it might be a great album, I think it would miss by a mile what's going on in the world today.
I used Nile [Rodgers, producer of Get Workin') to get him to frame me in another way. He wrote four songs to start me off, and we just carried on from there. So far we've got seven tracks, with three outstanding-those will take care of the guitar-freak side of it. They'll be completely original instrumentals, and plus the solos I've played on Nile's songs, they should keep everybody happy.
Are you using drum machines or a drummer?
We used this guy called Jimmy Braylower, who's one of the top session drummers in New York, and he finds he's mostly in demand as a programmer rather than as a drummer. So he has the knack of actually playing more like a drummer on a machine than most people. Young kids would tend to just let the machine do all the work; they'd set up a simple figure and let it play over and over again. But it's a whole lot of work programming drum fills, so it would take unlimited time in the studio, which we didn't want to do.
We wanted to think of a drum fill or a drum lick and put it down in memory in seconds, instead of going over the track again, trying to get the bass and drums all together at the same time. So he used a very modern approach, and it worked pretty well. What we've turned up with is a challenge to a drummer; my next drummer will be hard-pressed to play what's on there. [Laughs) They're very feasible drum licks if your name is Simon Phillips, for example, so I guess I'll have to use him.
Who are some of the other players you used?
Jamaaladeen Tacuma is on there -- we did two tracks with him. And [keyboardist] Rob Sabino played some bass lines. See, it's a little like custom-built music, really, a bit of this and a bit of that. It helped me get off that thing I was on before, which is that high-speed jazz-rock.
Do you do any vocals?
I sang a couple of things: they're kind of tongue-in-cheek, to start me off a bit. But they taught me how it works. Nile's incredible about encouraging non-vocalists to become vocalists. He's very sympathetic, and without that I wouldn't have even attempted it. They're not bad, y'know; they'll get panned in the papers, but it's a start. If the song makes it and people like it, then I guess that's all that matters, really. [Ed. Note: Aside from a couple of early Yardbirds tunes, the only other Beck vocals on record can be found on the recent Media Home Entertainment video cassette of the ARMS Concerts, 2 vols.] [Ed. Note from 2011: He also sings on his first solo single, "Hi-Ho Silver Lining."]
Yeah. Do you enjoy one more than the other, for instance?
It's equal. When you get guys coming up to you in clubs or restaurants or somewhere, and they say how much they've enjoyed your playing on records, then that pays off dividends every day; every time they say it, you think, I'm glad I did that. But the parallel for that is that the live stuff is the best in the world, once you've really satisfied an audience in person. There really can't be any comparison. There's the event, the human event, the rising to the occasion every night -- there's no way you can beat that. It's like a sport, almost, where it's no good talking about football, you've got to play it.
What was it like playing in the ARMS tour with Clapton and Page?
The whole thing was so un-starlike, nobody played the big star, and we just loved being on the road because A) it was a good cause and B) it was a short tour, a one-time special thing, so we just got in and enjoyed the hell out of it. I think it should have gone on for another month, but see, initially we didn't know how well it would be received. Because it was Jimmy, Eric and myself for Ronnie Lane, the whole thing seemed to really mean something. It was an amazing experience all over.
What do you think of the whole Van Halen school of guitar?
I love it, I think it's the greatest. I've been there, y'know, but he lives and dies for that whereas I don't -- I'm not really a heavy metal boy, through and through. I'd love to go and see him but I probably wouldn't stay for the whole concert: I'd just get a flash of brilliance and then I'd go, saying to myself, "That guy is really great." I wouldn't want to get bored with it, which I could easily do with that style of music. I like rock concerts, concerts in general, to go through different moods, but there aren't too many concerts like that now. I mean, those guys like Van Halen are so great, but they seem to be stuck in that kind of stuff. Still, he's got the most amazing technique, you've got to take your hat off to him for that -- the speed and the frantic element. I could do well to learn from him some of those tricks he pulls.
Speaking of incredible technique, when did you first become aware of Hendrix?
I was in a guitar shop in London. It was probably the last time I've been in a guitar shop, actually [laughs). I'd just dropped in to see one of the guys who worked there, and he said, "Have you seen Jimi Hendrix?" And I said "No." So he said, "I just happened to be at a club last night where he was, and you have to see this guy." Well, coming from him, who liked nobody except these dusty old jazz guys, I figured I'd better go down and see this guy. So I went, and he'd understated it a lot -- Hendrix was a lot better than he made out. I was embarrassed because I thought, "God, that should be me up there" [Iaughs] -- I just hadn't had the guts to come out and do it so flamboyantly, really. He just looked like an animal, played like an animal, and everybody went crazy.
I'm just too withdrawn a character to do that. I mean, his upbringing was totally different from mine: He had so much impetus to get out there and do it, coming from where he did. I remember reading once about him eating a candy bar with little cockroach bites out of it. Still, I bitterly regret not having exploited my style a bit more, because there was a lot of stuff he did actually get from me, which he admitted -- the Yardbirds stuff, with the freaking out and feedback and all. Then there was that sensual element, the power of the sound he got from those heavy, heavy strings he used: I think his first string was like a normal third. You had to have his hands to play them.
Did you ever have the chance to jam with him?
Oh yeah. Talk to anybody who was around New York in '68. He was hot then, one of the biggest things ever, like Prince is now. We used to play in this place called the Scene. We jammed several nights, and it was the best time I can ever remember, for that kind of impromptu jamming.
What kind of stuff were you doing?
It was really a jam, we wouldn't have anything at all worked out. He'd start playing "Beck's Bolero," so I'd play rhythm guitar for that, and then I'd play "Purple Haze" and he'd play rhythm. We'd just mess around and give people a good laugh, and of course the mandatory twelve-bar blues would come into it somewhere.
Was there anything that he did that made you say, "God, I wish I'd thought of that?"
Oh, sure. I don't mean to be blowing my own trumpet, it's just that some of the little licks he did came from the Yardbirds records. That was a compliment; I could never thank him enough for doing that. But what really amazed me about him was that he lived for playing, and I didn't: he was a playaholic [laughs). I have to have a daily shot of it, but I wouldn't do it all day like he did.
Were there any tunes of his that stick in your mind?
His version of "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Stone Free." "Stone Free" is the main thing -- it's amazing, simply amazing. But there was also some bad stuff that he did. That "Star-Spangled Banner" on the Isle of Wight album, that business where I think his mind was gone a bit because of the intense pressure on him. That shook me. I said to myself, Jimi, c'mon, go back into the studio and start some new stuff, because playing live to people expecting miracles every night was just too much for him, really. I could see him going down as a result of it, his playing suffering, and then unfortunately the worst happened.
It's a bloody shame there was nobody around to make sure it didn't. He just never went to sleep -- like the early Rolling Stones, I don't think they ever went to sleep either. But he was just riding on a high, constantly, and that can't go on forever. You have to back off and take it easy. Bloody hell, it's one of the saddest losses in rock and roll guitar history, really, because who knows what he'd be doing now?
Who were some of the people you listened to that when they played you'd say, God, that guy just took the top of my head off?
Well, for that you'd have to go back to when I first started, when I started getting interested in blues. The same people that Eric, Eric Clapton, got inspired by, basically Otis Rush and people that just took your face off, like Buddy Guy and all the Chicago blues guys. I wouldn't say I got off on the bottleneck-scratching kind of stuff -- I don't really have any ear for that Jimmy Reed-kind of stuff, because it wasn't really [pauses] useful enough. It was kind of old downtrodden blues, which I don't really care for. I like the wildness of Buddy Guy.
Cliff Gallup is one of my heroes; I'd dearly love to meet him. And of course Les Paul I've met, and that's just a triumph in every sense of the word, just to see him playing again. But I like listening to anybody who's saying something, that's alI. I haven't been listening to that much new stuff: most of the time my radio is off, anyway, because I can't stand that barrage of Top Forty all the time. In fact, I’ve been listening to the classical station. But sometimes I’ll play the radio and if I’m in an extra good mood or there’s good company, a record that I would normally think stinks will come over as pretty good. Y’know what I mean?
If they’re enjoying it you might see something in it you wouldn’t otherwise. But I look at the records going around now and think, Would I be able to play on it? How would I treat this if I were playing it? And lots of times there’ll be a great drum sound with a terrific groove going, and no guitar. And I think, "God, why the hell can’t I put something out like that with my style on it?" But that brings us back to Nile, because I hope that he’s enabled me to do just that: put my guitar all over something with a little bit of savagery to it.
Talking about scratchy slide, how did you pick up on slide? You use it in some of the oddest places.
Yes, well, I turn to the slide when I'm flummoxed. Sometimes I'll just use it in short bursts, and kids don't really know if I'm playing slide or with my fingers, because it keeps coming in and out. Most slide players I've heard start out with a set tuning and that song will have that all the way through it, so if you're a guitarist you know exactly what he's doing. But I don't like that; I like to playa rapid finger-style solo and then zoom off with some slide.
So you just leave the guitar in standard tuning.
Oh yeah. I've tried horsing around with different major and minor tunings, but I'm not used to that, because I never started that way. In the Yardbirds I used to just grab a piece of steel, stick it on my finger, and make a load of noise with it. And then I began to pick out triads and so on, and it went from there.
Do you practice at all?
About two hours a day. I just sit there and mess with it. Sometimes I'll set up my Linn drum and work with that. I use the Linn more as a metronome, and do some scales and such; and then if something comes out good that day I'll remember it and use it somewhere. That is, I'll put it on tape, put the tape in a box, and put the box somewhere and lose it [laughs]. But that happens all the time. But the thing about working with the Linn drum is that it makes you play, and you tend to overshoot the paint. You might write something that is so self-indulgent that you're back to. the jazz-rock thing again. But I prefer not to get too hooked on my own stuff; I intend to form a band, and just be the lead guitarist in the band, but without actually hogging center stage all the time. So I'll use a vocalist this time.
Do you have a tentative lineup for the tour band?
I've got half a dozen names I'm playing about with.
What guitars are you favoring these days?
I've got a nice guitar that somebody found for me in Memphis, a '55 [Gretsch] Duo-Jet, which I've been falling in lave with. It's the same guitar that Cliff Gallup used to use; that stuff still sends me up the wall every time I hear it. I'm still using Strats, and I've also got a Grover Jackson which is pretty nice -- it's a bit heavy metal looking but it's bloody good. It goes up to high C, which you can scream and it sounds almost like a whistle. That's on Tina's record, the thing called "Steel Claw" -- it's almost beyond human hearing.
Have you chucked the Les Pauls?
They're thick with dust at the moment, and I think that's the way they're going to stay. They're too heavy, and I don’t seem to play that well on them any more -- just been around the Strats too long, I suppose. The Strat is part of me, really, when I put it on. It doesn’t feel like an instrument, it feels like another arm.
And it's got that wang bar that you take such advantage of.
Well, that's it, that's what it's there for [laughs].
Do you have it customized?
No, it's standard.
Do you find it going in and out of tune?
Yeah, you’ll hear that going out of tune, all right [laughs]. It's a constant source of annoyance, actually, but I love the Strat and what more can you do? I've lived with it for long enough, it can stay.
Where did you develop your fingerpicking technique from? I hear you almost never use a pick any more.
I used to listen to Chet Atkins and copy him, but it was a dead-end street, really, because after all that labor and heartbreak trying to learn what he did, everybody would go, "Yeah, great, great copy of Chet Atkins." I just definitely put the foot on that straightaway. I can play country-style within reason, Merle Travis kind of stuff, but that isn't really the way I play now without the pick. It's more like bluegrass style with rock and roll in mind. If I break a fingernail, then I have to use a pick, but otherwise I never touch one.
What are the advantages to using your fingers? Speed?
If you use a pick, you’ve got several fingers which are just redundant, they're not doing anything. But with five fingers you can do all kinds of stuff you can't properly get at with a pick. You can do railing figures like bluegrass, you can pick out notes of a chord and twang them, push them, bend them, anything you want. I think the more people drop out the pick the better because [pauses) you’ve got all these fingers hanging out in the breeze. You want to use them. But people don’t; they pick up the guitar when they're kids and they've got thumb and first finger and a pick and that's it, and they stay with that… I mean, if you start playing guitar when you’re ten years old with all your fingers, you’re going to be incredible by the time you’re forty. Obviously, there are some very fast guitarists like McLaughlin who use a pick, and I can't even get anywhere near the speed he gets. But that's not what I'm looking far: I'm looking to use as many notes, chordal things, bends, whatever, that you can't really do that easily, with the same articulation, that you get with all separate fingers.
How about effects?
I'm trying to stay away from them as much as possible. You can't keep up with them-you can spend all your money on effects that you wind up chucking in the dustbin. And especially for live playing, you have to play as loud and as clear as you can, without being too loud; and if you put an effect on that sounds amazing to the player but not to the people out front you’re wasting your time. The effects are best left to the guy on the deck [mixing board). Obviously you can use distortion and sustain, but these things have been around for years. I don't use anything much more than that, really.
Like a Colorsound Tonebender?
Yeah, that kind of thing. And I've got a couple of Roland Choruses in stereo, which sound great. But there again, when you walk twenty paces into the audience you wouldn’t know it's in stereo. You'd have to talk to the sound guy out front to know what it sounds like, because I never know: I'm up there playing [laughs]. Y'know, if the tune is fairly soft, you can use your boxes with more effect; but if you’re playing wild flat-out stuff you’re better off dry, really. Just turn up the wick and go.
How about your amps?
I've got a Seymour Duncan which is amazing. That will probably be the one that we mike up, a pair of these, each with one twelve [-inch speaker]. Then the rest will be my standard two Marshalls, that's all. They never go wrong, really. If you use the monitor system properly you shouldn’t have to overdrive them to the paint where they're going to blow up.
You've lived and toured through several generations of electronic advances. Do you find that today’s more sophisticated PAs make life easier than when everybody just plugged in and bashed away?
Well, there was same fun in that. I still prefer to do all I can do on one guitar, for instance. I hate to see those bands with rows and rows of guitars on stands that never seem to get played [laughs]. I like kids to see you get different sounds out of one guitar -- it gives them something to get excited about. If they've got a Strat and you've just made same sounds come out of it that they can't get, then that's one of the best parts, isn't it - the beauty of going home and learning what some guy's just shown you.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, which ran in the following issue (March 1985) of Guitar World.