Crazy Fingers

Mark Paytress chats to the amp-trashing guitar legend about his 50 year dedication to the rock ‘n’ roll cause.

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 11 Jul 2014
  • min read
Mark Paytress chats to the amp-trashing guitar legend about his 50 year dedication to the rock ‘n’ roll cause.

‘I think people can see I’m still trying,’ says Jeff Beck, playing down the achievements of a remarkable 50-year-plus career. He’s the guitarist’s guitarist whose innovative style helped pioneer blues rock, heavy metal and jazz fusion, whose extraordinary adaptability has seen him collaborate with artists as diverse as Kate Bush, Mick Jagger, Morrissey and Malcolm Mclaren, whose biggest hit is standard fare at parties, and who created the Superstition drumbeat for Stevie Wonder. Now he’s just picked up this year’s PRS for Music’s Outstanding Contribution to British Music Award at The Ivors.

‘Somebody up there’s looking after me!’ he says, shrugging off any notion that he might be a legend. It’s all merely the happy outcome of an obsession, he insists, in a conversational style that’s as enthusiastically boyish as his appearance is youthful. ‘I think all musicians have OCD,’ he elaborates, ‘We’re obsessed with sound of some sort or another. Once I got drawn to it, I couldn’t care less about anything else. All I dreamed about was holding a guitar and making sounds.’

That obsession - let’s call it dedication to his craft - shows little sign of waning. Seventy this June, Jeff’s currently on yet another world tour. Between trips, he’s still meddling with the follow-up to his successful 2010 album, Emotion & Commotion.

‘I’m letting it mature on the backburner,’ he says. Perfectionism? ‘There’s an element of that, yeah. But I’m fanatical about the drum sound more than anything. I like it to be crisp and exciting. After all, that’s what drives the songs.’

Jeff Beck, who famously builds hot rods in his spare time, is nothing if not driven.

‘Listening at the door to my sister’s room and hearing Elvis and Gene Vincent as a kid was spellbinding,’ he says, explaining how he was first ‘carried away. Rather than play soldiers, I got a guitar and tried to emulate what I was hearing,’ he adds.

A self-starter from the Surrey Delta, Jeff worked out the chords to Buddy Holly’s That’ll Be the Day, and copied lead lines from Eddie Cochran and Ricky Nelson’s guitarist James Burton. But he didn’t stop at rock ’n’ roll, venturing into country via Chet Atkins (‘I was amazed how he could play the bassline, harmony and melody all at the same time’) and jazz through Barney Kessel (‘those unusual chords and his high-speed chops’).

Blowing up

The first fruits of his early eclecticism exploded onto the pop mainstream in the mid-sixties after Jeff replaced Eric Clapton as lead guitarist with The Yardbirds. ‘There was a huge nuclear explosion of music,’ he says, and until his acrimonious departure from the band in November 1966, he was immersed in beat-era madness. The experience shaped his career.

‘Pop music’s a very dangerous arena for me,’ he says. So too was being the virtuoso in a group over which he had little control. ‘Proud?’ he snapped during The Yardbirds’ induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. ‘I’m not, because they kicked me out.’

That 20-month stint nevertheless established Jeff as pop’s most inventive, artful guitarist on a run of 45s that included the era-defining Shapes of Things, the raga rock of Happenings Ten Years Time Ago and Jeff’s amp-trashing appearance in the 1966 film, Blow-Up, as the group blasted out an electrifying Train Kept A-Rollin’.

Everyone - from The Yardbirds bassist/second guitarist and future Led Zeppelin man Jimmy Page to a generation of US garage band hopefuls - tuned in. But Jeff has long since zoned out. ‘I’ve done other music after The Yardbirds,’ he harrumphed to the Hall of Fame audience. After his departure, it was months before he picked up a guitar again.
‘‘What’s better than playing well and having people go nuts?’

Beck’s Bolero

A surprise solo hit followed in spring 1967 with a throwaway cover of a US bubblegum song, Hi Ho Silver Lining. It’s the one song of Jeff’s that the whole world knows. He’s now ‘friendly with it these days,’ he says, after decades of denial. Typically, for a man who does things his way, it was the flipside, the powerful, emotionally charged instrumental Beck’s Bolero, that signposted his true direction.

Jimmy Page, future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and The Who’s Keith Moon sat in on that one, the first of numerous big name musicians who’ve worked with Jeff in the studio or on stage. It’s possible that the song lit the torch for heavy metal. Certainly his next project, The Jeff Beck Group, fronted by the then little known Rod Stewart and featuring future Faces and Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, released two late sixties albums that heralded the new rock era.

After successful tours of the States, where The Jeff Beck Group were feted and both albums charted, the fractious five-piece imploded on the eve of Woodstock. Led Zeppelin stepped in to finish off the job, leaving Jeff – now seemingly as unpredictable as his playing – to rethink his career.

His saviour, as so often, was music itself - on this occasion Miles Davis’ 1971 LP, Jack Johnson, featuring the English guitarist John McLaughlin. ‘I thought, if this guy has got the nerve to play one side of an album as a shuffle [Right Off], then there’s hope for me!

‘John’s been my guide, really,’ he acknowledges. ‘Such a rich explosion of music came from [his] Mahavishnu Orchestra.’


A second album hastened Jeff’s journey towards the place where jazz, rock and funk would meet. ‘I was there for [1973’s] Talking Book,’ he says. After lunch one day, Stevie Wonder walked in to find Jeff playing drums.

‘He said, “Keep playing”, went into the control room and minutes later had [Superstition] worked out. I had a big hand in that song.’ Though Superstition was initially offered to him, he says his version was blocked until Stevie had the hit with it.

‘Business can be cruel,’ he says, ‘but to be associated with Stevie and playing on Talking Book was payment enough, really.’

Everything came good for Jeff in 1975 with Blow By Blow, an elegant virtuoso set produced by George Martin, which transformed his career both commercially and creatively.

‘Heavy metal was big at the time,’ he says. ‘All the Zepps rocking the big stadiums, but nobody was doing anything more subtle. Blow By Blow brought a lot to aspiring guitarists.’ It also unleashed a slick, driving, instrumental sound that was still providing the template for composers of games soundtracks years later.

Punk pariah

Though the follow-up, the jazzier, tricksier Wired, confirmed Jeff’s stature, his ability to soak up changes in music took a battering with the arrival of punk. ‘Here’s me trying to make this exquisite jazz fusion with orchestras and a high degree of musicianship,’ he says, ‘and down the road there’s a bunch of guys trashing guitars and spitting at each other. Comical!’

A bigger threat came at the start of the eighties with what he calls ‘the one-finger synthesizer guys. It did look a bit grim then…’ Lost for a response, he made what he calls ‘a mercy album [1985’s Flash] for the record company.

‘I said, “Let’s make an album that’s gonna sell, so they put me with [producer] Nile Rodgers, which wasn’t a great idea, and tried to make me something I wasn’t. That was a clueless album – and a dangerous time.’

Later that decade, Jeff’s career was further destabilised after he was diagnosed with tinnitus. ‘And I’d fallen out of love with the guitar,’ he adds. ‘I was having some cranial osteopathy, and as I walked out the door, the woman who was treating me said, “Go back and make friends with the guitar. You’ll be glad you did.”’
‘Pop music is a very dangerous arena for me’

Still listening

He’s not looked back. ‘It was like we were hanging on the coat tails of a bygone era,’ Jeff says, but then came grunge and Britpop to revive the fortunes of the rock guitar - and the masters who played them. Since then, his eternally ‘itchy feet’ have found him paying tribute to old masters (Gene Vincent, Les Paul), exploring techno and electronica (on 1999’s Who Else! and subsequent titles), working with fellow rock legends (Roger Waters, Kate Bush and Brian Wilson for starters) and teaming up with 21st century talents (Joss Stone, Imogen Heap).

‘Creative people like Kate Bush keep me on my toes,’ he says. ‘They want more from you than a 10-minute overdub.’

In 2007, the man famous for turning his back on pop performed in front of 30 million television viewers, joining Kelly Clarkson for the Idol Gives Back episode of American Idol. ‘A sweet moment,’ he says, ‘walking on with all those girls screaming. Just like the old days!’

But there’s nothing backward looking about Jeff Beck. He’s still driven, still listening. ‘I hear people that play far better than me and it frightens me,’ he says. ‘I think, “Okay, I’ll not do what they’re doing. I’ll go between the cracks.”’ And that, he says, is how his style - and career - has evolved.

He might make guitar-playing look deceptively easy, but he warns that the industry can be hard. ‘Read a book on protecting yourself,’ he says to those starting out, ‘because somebody will rip you off within a heartbeat. After that, don’t try to make a quick buck, write from your heart. Then you’re on your way.’

For all the difficulties he’s faced, it’s still the best job in the world, he says. ‘What’s better than playing well, having people go nuts, then buzzing on the tour bus for hours saying, “Oh man, that’s why we do this!” I’ve been very blessed.’