Jeff Beck was the guitarist's guitarist. And all he wanted to do was play

Renowned rock guitarist Jeff Beck has died at 78 - Redferns
Renowned rock guitarist Jeff Beck has died at 78 - Redferns

Jeff Beck has died, aged 78, and the world has lost a rare musician, an absolute master of his instrument, and just about the most self-effacing rock supremo to ever grace a stage.

If he never quite achieved the Godlike status granted to some of his fellow axe heroes, that’s because he didn’t want it. He shirked fame, never chased hits (and loathed the only one he ever had), faded from the limelight for long periods if he did not feel creative, and turned down the chance to join the Rolling Stones at the height of their 70’s superstardom because he considered what they were playing to be too undemanding.

“Quaint” is how he described the Stones to me. His former bassist Ronnie Wood was recruited on guitar instead. Beck was more interested in exploring “violent riffs” (his phrase), explosive bebop rhythms, eloquent expressions of elegantly sustained harmonics and the kind of impossible chords that it seems you would need more than ten fingers to concoct.

Watching Jeff Beck in action, there was simply no doubting you were in the presence of genius. His fingers would fly around the fretboard, playing ridiculously high on the neck where room for manoeuvre is minimal while he constantly manipulated the whammy bar, conjuring up startling flourishes almost as cast offs in the midst of technically dazzling solos.

He always worked with virtuoso players but effortlessly held the red hot centre. He could play hard and fast, gentle and melodious, with heavy rock attack, bluesy bite, jazzy invention and sensitive tremolo soundcraft, making notes bend and vibrate with a fluidity that has never been equalled.

Jeff Beck performs at the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009 - Theo Wargo
Jeff Beck performs at the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009 - Theo Wargo

If the electric guitar became the most revered instrument of the rock era, an almost supernatural signifier of potency and magic, then Jeff Beck was a huge part of the reason why. He was a guitarist’s guitarist … and all he really wanted to do was play.

“I’ve no regrets,” he insisted about turning down the Stones. “Let’s face it, I’m centre stage, the ticket's got my name on it, I go out and play and there’s no singing. Who wants to swap that for being part of someone’s band?”

With Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck was one of a legendary triumvirate who emerged from the British blues boom of the Sixties, all serving time as lead guitarist with The Yardbirds before going on to blow open the potential of their chosen instrument.

But while his contemporaries became household names by essentially continuing to explore variations on the blues, Beck’s path was more elusive and mercurial, following a wayward, experimental trip through heavy soul, hard rock, jazz fusion and electronica.

His only moment of pop stardom came with Hi Ho Silver Lining in 1967, which he claimed he was forced to record by his manager Mickey Most. He recalled the short two hour session as “humiliating” because he hated his own singing voice (he wanted to give it to Rod Stewart, his singer in The Jeff Beck Band, but his manager persuaded him otherwise, for financial reasons).

“As I came out, the receptionist was singing it,” he once told me. “I knew I was in trouble then.”

Jeff Beck Group, 1967: Aynsley Dunbar, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Ron Wood - Chris Walter
Jeff Beck Group, 1967: Aynsley Dunbar, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Ron Wood - Chris Walter

He never had another hit, but he made 17 solo or collaborative albums, received seven Grammy awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice (with the Yardbirds and solo).

And even if you don’t know his own sometimes strange and often quite challenging instrumental records, you have certainly heard his solos, playing sessions for an extraordinarily diverse array of stellar talent, including Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart, Kate Bush, Roger Waters, Morrissey, Mick Jagger, Jon Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Seal and Nitin Sawney.

That is Beck burning away on Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, his notes expressing every bit as much as Turner’s soulful voice. He loved great female singers, and often brought vocalists of the quality of Joss Stone and Imelda May out to sing with his live band. And they loved working with him.

Over years doing interviews with musicians, Jeff Beck’s name comes up a lot, as a guitarist other players admire, and as a man who was fun to work with. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry told me he once flew a round trip of 30,000 miles to Japan just to see Beck accept an award.

“He was the best guitarist of his generation,” said Perry. “Jimmy Page would have had to run to catch up.”

Beck’s own finest work includes his fantastic 1968 debut solo album, Truth (featuring Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, who went on to form the Faces), and the extraordinary million selling jazz fusion instrumental classic Blow By Blow from 1975, with George Martin producing and Stevie Wonder on keyboards.

Jeff Beck performs at the 'World Rock Festival' at Korakuen Stadium, 1975 - Hulton Archive
Jeff Beck performs at the 'World Rock Festival' at Korakuen Stadium, 1975 - Hulton Archive

There’s a case to be made that Beck’s solo on Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers may be the greatest of all time. And while some critics were sniffy about his most recent album, 18, made with Johnny Depp, Beck’s playing is exemplary.

The wracked, overloaded solo on their version of John Lennon’s Imagine is spectacular, the kind of emotional playing that seems to be shooting through the roof and heading for the stars.

Beck often had long periods of retreat from the live stages and recordings studios, hiatuses when he preferred to remain at his palatial home in Wadhurst, East Sussex, and muck about with his collection of classic cars, before eventually emerging with something new.

I met him a couple of times, and interviewed him once, in 2010, and he was genial and down to earth. He would really come alive when the conversation focused in on music. Even in his later years, he looked remarkably fit and trim, too, with outfits of tight t-shirts displaying his muscles, beneath a porcupine barnet of dyed hair.

“I can’t say what my contribution to the electric guitar has been,” he once told me, with an endearingly bashful grin.

“Probably to be more experimental - just taking more risks, using fuzz, using the G drone, doubling up with an octave effect, that was pretty radical for the time. I had a license to do whatever I wanted, pulling a song through to where it wouldn’t go otherwise. Maybe that’s what I can lay claim for. I like to keep things moving, still do. If it doesn’t feel special, I don’t do it.”

The funniest moment during our 2010 encounter in promoter Harvey Goldsmith’s office was when his mobile rang mid-interview. “F--- off!” he snarled at it comically, then glanced at the display.

“Oops, sorry, it’s Eric, I better take this.” It was, indeed, Beck’s fellow guitar God, calling to discuss a planned performance together.

“It’s in D, Eric. Nah, don't worry about that, I'll do all the riffs,” chattered Beck, calling the shots with his more celebrated peer. “You just play fills and solos. I’ll do everything else. We’ll give it a shot anyway, if it doesn’t work, heave ho.”

Jeff Beck was a charming man, which is nice to know. But he was an utterly phenomenal musician who left an indelible mark on the rock era, and it is not absurd to suggest we may never hear the like again.