The world will never be quite the same without Jeff Beck. The man who got his big break replacing Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds after being recommended by Jimmy Page would go on to become one of the most prolific guitarists of all time, with 1975’s Blow by Blow widely considered to be one of the most influential instrumental guitar albums ever put to tape.
Perhaps what made him truly unique was the ability to sing through his guitar and exist entirely in the present – a lot of guitar players claim to never play the same thing twice, but in Beck’s case the sentiment was unequivocally true.
Just listen to any live rendition of early fan favorite Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers or late ’90s treasure Brush With the Blues, and you’ll see how he really was making it all up as he went along. There was no barrier in between his mind and his instrument, even more so when you factor in his fingerstyle approach, embracing the touch dynamics of skin on string to, in Jimmy Page’s own words, “channel music from the ethereal”.
Another reason why Beck was often referred to as “the guitarist’s guitarist” was that he was able to so seamlessly delve into just about any genre. From his reggae take on She’s a Woman by The Beatles or the 1976 version of Mingus jazz standard Goodbye Pork Pie Hat to the turbo-charged electronic experimentation on albums like Who Else! and You Had It Coming, on which he paired his incomparable fretwork with beats more akin to The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers – and, most impressively of all, with stunning results. Having collaborated with everyone from Mick Jagger and Tina Turner to Kate Bush and Seal, he proved he could exist, and more importantly thrive, in just about any kind of musical environment.
Of course, no tribute to Jeff Beck would be accurate without a mention of his daredevil whammy bar techniques – scooping and diving his way through various phrases to give them their own sense of identity. With the bridge of his Strats set up to float, he was able to pull both up and down and even snap the vibrato arm to create a gargling flutter sound. On songs like Where Were You and Two Rivers he would incorporate natural harmonics alongside the tremolo arm, maximizing the range of his instrument and leaving jaws locked firmly on the floor in the process.
These are among the many tools he used for limitless expression, coaxing noises out of his guitar that no-one had thought to before him, though many would go on to carve out successful careers for themselves following his lead – with the likes of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani remarking on their own sense of debt in their heartwarming tributes following the sad news of Beck’s passing.
Here, we’ve selected 10 of Beck’s greatest solos, but it’s worth noting this list could have easily been five times longer. Like we said right at the beginning, the world will never be quite the same without Jeff Beck…
1. Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers
An obvious place to start would be this Stevie Wonder-penned showpiece from Beck’s second solo record Blow by Blow. Though the album cover depicts Beck holding a 1954 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop that had been refinished in oxblood, with its P-90 pickups swapped out for hotter PAFs, the record’s most famous track was actually played on a 1959 Telecaster loaded with Seymour Duncan humbuckers, often referred to as his “Tele-Gib”.
The original version had actually been released one year prior by American soul singer Syreeta, and Beck took great care in preserving its sense of lyricism while adding his own unique touches.
From the opening violining, where a note is played with the volume down and slowly swelled in, and its smorgasbord of C minor blues licks to the hair-raising overbends that lead into a frenetic descending chromatic run four minutes and 15 seconds in, it’s an unimpeachable masterclass in blues rock guitar.
2. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
This re-imagination of the 1959 Charles Mingus jazz standard might not document Jeff Beck at his most technically ambitious; it’s more about his note choices and the often vast spaces between them, which is precisely what makes it so magical. When us guitar players talk about feel, this is very much it: knowing exactly what to play at the right time and in the most succinct way possible, while also being able to catch the listener off-guard.
By this point, Beck had made the jump from Les Pauls and Teles to the Strat, and you can definitely hear it in the tone – it’s brighter, thinner and slinkier that his recordings prior, in a way that feels more dynamically articulate and exquisite. This Wired track is also notable for its brief usage of octave fuzz and ring modulator effects to help give certain licks their own distinctive voice.
In his 2016 autobiography Beck 01 and 2018 documentary On the Run, the guitarist revealed he received a letter from Mingus thanking and praising him for his cover. “Dear Jeff, it knocked me out to hear what you did,” wrote the jazz pioneer, as well as recommending two more of his own tracks that would “fit your style”.
3. Where Were You
When it comes to control, few tracks demonstrate Beck’s command over the instrument as exquisitely as this piece from his sixth solo album, released in 1989. The main motif may sound simple enough, but it’s the whammy bar work that makes it one of his most enduring instrumentals, echoing the fluidity of the human voice with mesmerizing panache.
The first time Beck strikes the D note on the 19th fret of his G string, it’s fretted as per the other notes in the sequence. But every other D note is performed using the natural harmonic found in the exact same position, ultimately providing the seemingly endless sustain for his extreme pitch-shifting on that final note – which sees him pulling up a whole step, then diving down a step and a half, returning to pitch, diving down one and a half, pulling up a whole step from there, then descending two whole steps and pulling to a step up from there. All served up in a glorious wash of reverb and delay, it’s easy to see why this quickly became a live favorite.
“He just sings through his guitar,” Jeff Beck bassist Tal Wilkenfeld once told this writer. “Just listen to him playing Where Were You… that was always my favorite song in the set. I would just stand there on the side of the stage with my jaw on the floor every time.”
4. Brush With the Blues
Another song that encapsulates Beck’s mastery of the whammy bar is the third track from 1999’s Who Else! album, a release that saw the guitarist striving to find new ways to express himself creatively. Unlike the rest of the album’s electronic experimentation and modern production, however, Brush With the Blues felt like a throwback to his pentatonic roots.
The main motif involves a lot of scooping – depressing the vibrato arm before striking a string and allowing it to return to pitch. Later in the track, Beck also chooses to snap the whammy bar to create a flutter much like a ruler flicked on the edge of a desk.
The song builds and builds in tension, mainly using the Bb minor pentatonic scale with the occasional major sixth and major third thrown in to touch on the Dorian and Mixolydian modes respectively, before returning to the harmonious serenity of its intro. It’s songs like this that prove Beck’s sense of phrasing was truly out of this world.
5. Over the Rainbow
Originally written for 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, famously sung by Judy Garland in her starring role as Dorothy Gale, Over the Rainbow isn’t really the kind of track guitar players tend to gravitate towards. Unless, of course, it’s being reimagined by Jeff Beck – a man who could take influence from just about anywhere and turn it into something meaningful and magical.
The studio recording appeared on 2010’s Emotion & Commotion album, though it had been appearing on his setlists as far back as 2005. Much like original composition Where Were You, it’s his application of pitch-shifting using the whammy bar and natural harmonics – his thrillingly unique sense of taste and touch – that makes it such a wonderfully thrilling piece of music. Much like his take on Puccini opera Nessun Dorma, recorded for the same 2010 album, it has the genuine capacity to reduce listeners to tears.
6. Beck’s Bolero
“It was decided that it would be a good idea for me to record some of my own stuff... partly to stop me moaning about the Yardbirds,” Beck once half-jokingly admitted. This instrumental from 1966 was the B-side to his debut single, Hi Ho Silver Lining, bringing together a group of musicians that included Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins – effectively laying down the roots for what became Led Zeppelin. And despite its title, the piece is credited solely to Page, though Beck later claimed to have made significant contributions of his own.
Perhaps what catches the listener’s ear most about this track in A minor is the major seventh interval played on the 13th fret of the G string, which resolves a semi-fret down on a more bluesy minor seven. The song also features some of Beck’s most highly regarded slide work – exploring soaring melodies, atmospheric glides and everything in between – as well as some heavy metallic riffing a good few years before Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath had released their debut albums.
7. Come Dancing
1976 was a busy time for drummer and multi-instrumentalist Narada Michael Walden, having performed on Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Worlds, Chick Corea’s My Spanish Heart, Allan Holdsworth’s Velvet Darkness, Jaco Pastorius’s Come On, Come Over and Weather Report’s Black Market. He also played on Beck’s third solo album, Wired, singlehandedly writing half of the music including second track Come Dancing.
The song showcases more of a funk approach from the English guitar legend, with leads predominantly built out of the D blues scale and very occasionally the Bb Lydian Dominant scale for the Bb7 chord in the main vamp. There’s also a lower octave effect that gets kicked in for the first solo, most likely coming from a Mu-Tron Octave Divider.
8. Angel (Footsteps)
One of the more down-tempo experimentations on 1999’s Who Else! album, this six-and-a-half minute atmospheric masterpiece heralded a different side of Beck, with a noticeably muted tone dialed in for his stunning slide work. The piece would end up becoming another one of his latter-day setlist staples, appearing on the critically acclaimed Live At Ronnie Scott’s release of 2008, with Tal Wilkenfeld, Vinnie Colaiuta and Jason Rebello as his backing band.
As with the aforementioned Charles Mingus cover, it’s not particularly indicative of Beck’s technical prowess, with the guitarist consciously choosing to say more with less. More importantly though, the notes he ended up with were always the ones you’d want to hear, even if you didn’t quite see them coming.
9. Air Blower
Compared to other Blow by Blow big hitters like You Know What I Mean, She’s a Woman and Freeway Jam, Air Blower admittedly might not feel like an obvious choice for this list. But it’s the interplay between Beck’s guitars and Max Middleton’s keyboards that make it one of the most dazzling additions to the album, especially after the break three and a half minutes in, when the band go into a slow jam that yields some unexpected twists and turns.
There are two clues to it being a Fender Strat used on this track – the first being the vibrato arm being used to warble the last note of the main opening motif, and the second being Beck’s out-of-phase tone for the leads four minutes and 15 seconds in. It’s as godly as guitar playing gets.
10. The Pump
It would be fair to say 1980’s fourth solo album, titled There & Back, is largely overlooked compared to the 1976 and 1975 predecessors that established Jeff Beck as a driving force for instrumental guitar music. But it definitely had its moments, from uptempo fusion-inspired opener Star Cycle to what many fans would regard as its finest track, The Pump.
The song starts with a low open E bass note against a mid-tempo beat before Beck introduces himself with some E Dorian and blues ideas, switching over to Bb Aeolian for the key change before returning back.
Though it builds and builds over the course of its five minutes and 50 seconds, it’s a great example of how Jeff refused to overplay and was able to retain an air of suspense and mystery in moments where others would have been drawn out into the open.
As we noted at the start of this piece, there are many songs that deserved a mention in this list – from early classics like Going Down and Shapes of Things through to mid-’70s favorites Led Boots, Scatterbrain and Sophie, as well as more recent works like Nadia and Hammerhead – such was Beck’s magnificence as a guitar player. We are all well and truly in his debt. Rest in peace, Jeff, and thank you for the music.