It was around 3pm on January the 11th, 2023, that I heard that Jeff Beck had passed away. It hadn’t been officially announced at this point and it was a comment by a friend that led to some frantic googling for both of us. It looked like it was a rumor. The original poster retracted it. Me and my friend shared a collective “D’oh, they nearly got us” moment. I nearly reached out to another friend who was connected to the same circles as Jeff Beck but thought better of it. I’m no fool. But I was wrong. Fast forward 9 hours later and I’m bashing my way through ‘The Jean Genie’ through my new Friedman Little Sister amp when a newsflash pops up. Jeff Beck has passed away aged 78. It wasn’t a rumor. Ah balls. I sat with my Strat round my neck thinking about the clip of Jeff Beck and Bowie playing the aforementioned song at the last Ziggy concert. My heart sank a little. I knew I had lived to an age where I was going to see a lot of the artists I’ve grown up listening to pass away with greater frequency. Father time waits for no one. In fact, as I write this, news has just broken that David Crosby has also passed away – I’ll return to him later.
Jeff Beck was probably one of the greatest, most versatile, and soulful guitar players of his generation – and I suspect of many to follow. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page all graduated through the British guitar hero apprenticeship scheme (also known as the Yardbirds) and went on to form a number of supergroups through his career. He managed to keep his art fresh by effortlessly playing across multiple genres, by constantly getting better at the guitar, and by surrounding himself with some of the finest musicians on the planet. Oh, and Johnny Depp. He’s played with everyone you have ever loved – believe me – and then some. He’s guested on some of the greatest albums of all time. He was universally loved by pretty much every musician who knows his work.
Brian was lucky enough to bag a ticket to see him in 2022 and was absolutely floored by how good a show it was, less so by the addition of the aforementioned Mr. Depp I suspect. I was not so lucky, but I was definitely going to his next UK gig. Definitely, I thought. But that never happened and never will. Gutted. Now I would be lying if I said I was a 40+ year Jeff Beck superfan – I am not. But even a Gen X-er like myself felt the presence of Jeff Beck in so much music that was the fabric of British rock. The first of his songs that really registered with me is the one he probably hated the most if stories are to be believed. It was the song that crowned off many a beery night at my local biker pub, the much missed Iron Horse in Amersham, as the entire pub belted out “…Aaaaand it’s……Hi-Ho, Silver Lining…”. Believe me – that song is one of the few that is actually improved by an eclectic selection of boozed up English rockers chanting the chorus through the smoke filled acoustics of a run down old pub. Fast forward to my twenties and thirties and Jeff pops up again, this time playing on the sometimes underappreciated Roger Waters solo album “Amused to Death”. Simply brilliant and unmistakably Jeff Beck – I mean – listen to that solo (starts about 1:48) and tell me it doesn’t move you? That is a guitar singing. Nick Mason wanted to get Jeff Beck to join Pink Floyd after Syd left, according to various sources, and that’s an alternative timeline that I’d like to have witnessed.
But for me the magic bullet moment – the one that made my hair stand on end and then slapped me squarely back into Jeff’s back catalogue – was his cover of the Nitin Sawhney song “Nadia”. I chanced on this song sometime around 2018-2019 when I saw a live version on a tv show. Jaw dropping. All of my tastes rolled into one. Indian / Punjabi classical meets acid rock via the medium of drum and bass. Absolute stunner of a piece. Naturally it helps when the rhythm section has the ridiculously smooth grooves of Tal Wilkinfeld and Vinnie Colaiuta at its disposal. World class stars. The tones that Jeff was able to get from his guitar were just divine. Not just Sitar sounds, but also the sounds of the Thambura and the Sarangi all combined into something new – without relying on heavy effects pedal usage. Just ludicrous.
What about playing in the style of Jeff? It’s really not so easy. Just consider the following – how many good Jeff Beck tribute acts are there? I’ll wait. I’m not saying his style cannot be copied. But it’s a lot of work that can only be achieved with strict dedication. Like Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen, Jeff was at one with the instrument. He didn’t have to think about pressing down his trem just before sliding up and releasing it – that came naturally from years of dedicated muscle memory. The natural feel, the tension and release, and the sheer musicality that comes from playing professionally for your entire adult life cannot be beaten for learning the guitar. Jeff Beck also never stopped evolving and learning. He was a great example for those who share the view that the guitar is a lifelong journey there is no final level boss to defeat here. I recently started learning “People Get Ready” and whilst the tab itself seems straightforward on the surface, it’s really not. Pre-dive here, slide and re-dive there – it is relentless. But it’s instantly beautiful and compelling to play. I definitely recommend going away and studying some Jeff Beck.
But the key is also how he picked. Jeff gave up the plectrums relatively early in his career. He played with his thumb and fingers to strike and pick the notes, again giving unparalleled natural feel and control. I don’t want to bring up the old “tone is in the fingers debate” but I just did, it definitely is, and Jeff Beck proved it. Next time someone has that argument with you, show them the Nadia video above. He was also a super interesting guy by all accounts – he kept a well documented collection of hot rods, was apparently the “go to guy” if you had a problem with a vintage corvette, and was active in raising funds for a local wildlife rescue charity. The Music community online has been awash with full and moving tributes, it seemed like Jeff Beck really had that universal appeal that touched everyone that loves the guitar and then some.
Back to the beginning of this article, and I now reflect briefly on the death of David Crosby. He was a titan of music, a massive influence, and a divisive figure in later life. But before I do I want to cover another point I mentioned up top. It strikes me that the law of maths, of probability, of some form of number wrangling hitherto unnamed, that we are going to witness a speeding up of this sort of thing. Simply put, we are going to lose a lot of beloved heroes of the music of the 1960s and ‘70s as they exit stage left in the coming years. It was a golden period for rock music but it was the golden era of every excess too. David Crosby lived through that and then some, gaining industrial drug habits along the way that should have killed him a million times over.
His tales are almost as well known as his music. Crosby was hugely influential. Ask anyone what their favorite Bob Dylan cover is and they will tell you either “All Along the Watchtower” as performed by Hendrix or “Mr Tambourine Man” as performed by the Byrds – or they are just wrong. Through “Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young” to playing with David Gilmour on the “On an Island” album and subsequent tours, “Croz” as he was known by his friends, was a formidable talent and a big influence on the early rock scene. Again, there will never be another.
So Yeah, January has been a bad one for our musical heroes. Nobody lives forever but treasure those that are still with us. If you learn nothing else from my blog today i would ask that you promise me that the next time you see your favorite artist is on tour and you think “i’ll just wait this one out” you don’t. Go to the gig. And enjoy every minute. If there was a second lesson, it would be “go learn some Jeff Beck on the guitar” and I promise you will be rewarded. This is a great place to start. But definitely go see that gig. Especially if guitars are involved. As the saying goes, the past is history, the future is a mystery, but the present is a gift.