Jeff Beck – The Jackson Pollock of Guitar (Part 1)

There’s a certain amount of fuck you-ness to everything Jeff does – Joe Perry.

Slash – I said he was the Pablo Picasso of the guitar. Beck said he was more like the Jackson Pollock.

If you ask me who the best guitarist is (or was) in rock, there are a number of contenders for that title. If you ask me who is the most versatile, innovative, and creative, Beck stands alone. Look at it from just one perspective – his shift from psychedelia to blues/rock to jazz fusion

His contemporaries in the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton are great players who have influenced countless rockers. (Yours truly included.) But can anybody reading this piece imagine Clapton or Page doing a jazz/rock album like Blow by Blow? I can’t even conceive of it.

Wikipedia: “Geoffrey Arnold Beck (born 24 June 1944) is a British rock guitarist. He rose to prominence with the Yardbirds and later fronted the Jeff Beck Group and Beck, Bogert & Appice.

In 1975, he switched to a mainly instrumental style, with a focus on innovative sound, and his releases have spanned genres ranging from blues rock, hard rock, jazz fusion, and a blend of guitar-rock and electronica.

Beck is considered among the greatest players in history, with Rolling Stone, upon whose cover he has appeared three times, describing him as ‘one of the most influential lead guitarists in rock’. He is often called a guitarists’ guitarist.”

Beck’s first exposure to guitar was when he heard Les Paul and Mary Ford doing “How High the Moon” which was massively popular way back in 1951. He also dug Gene Vincent’s guitarist Cliff Gallup along with B.B. King, Lonnie Mack (a big influence on SRV), and Steve Cropper. 

In 1957, a movie called The Girl Can’t Help It was released in the UK and had a significant influence on Beck and his peers. Ostensibly a movie for Marilyn Monroe wannabe (and Mariska Hargitay’s mother) Jayne Mansfield, the rock ‘n roll subplot featured Fats Domino, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent.

Reportedly, this movie was IT for a sixteen-year-old John Lennon. Note that he first met Paul McCartney in this same year. Paul came to the “audition” playing the song “Twenty Flight Rock” as he’d seen Eddie Cochran do in the movie. (If you’re so inclined, you can see the movie here. You have the advantage over the youth of Liverpool and London in that you can fast forward past the lame-o plot to the good stuff.)

I love this – “As a teenager, he made several attempts to build his own guitar, first by gluing and bolting together cigar boxes for the body and an unsanded fence-post for the neck with model aircraft control lines and frets painted on.” (Shades of Van Halen’s Frankenstrat. – ME) 

Like just about every British rocker of that generation, Beck went to art school. He also worked as a car paint sprayer, perhaps leading to his life-long passion for working on and driving cool cars.

In my readings about the burgeoning early rock and roll/rockabilly/skiffle scene in England at this time, it wasn’t easy to find blokes who owned guitars and who were equally passionate about rock ‘n roll. So Page was thrilled when his sister introduced him to fellow guitar builder and record collector, Jimmy Page. (Both guys were born in 1944.)

In 1962, Beck played in a succession of groups, including Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages. He got turned on to R&B by Ian Stewart of the Stones and did, among other things, a cover of “Stormy Monday.” (I’ve found the term “R&B” when used in England at that time to largely mean blues. Except when The Who referred to themselves as “Maximum R&B.” So I guess the term was kinda fluid. Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler invented the term to get rid of the disgraceful “race records” term.)

Later in 1963, Jeff joined the Tridents, a band from the Chiswick area. “They were really my scene because they were playing flat-out R&B, like Jimmy Reed stuff, and we supercharged it all up and made it really rocky. I got off on that, even though it was only twelve-bar blues.”

Clapton first saw Beck at this time and came away impressed. It was probably around this time with the Tridents that he started making a name for himself. Like Page, he also did some session work but unlike Page, never made a career out of it.

Meanwhile, the Yardbirds with Clapton were making a name for themselves locally. Famously, Clapton – a blues purist – quit the band in early 1965 to join the Bluesbreakers. He recommended Jimmy Page as his replacement but Page was enjoying his well-paying session work.

So Page recommended Beck who played his first gig with the Yardbirds a couple days after Clapton split. Whereas Clapton mostly stuck to straight blues playing, Beck was into more experimentation – fuzz tone, reverb, feedback, distortion. Clapton liked the sound of the pure blues; Beck did too but wanted to explore the sonic range of the electrified instrument.

The first Yardbirds album to feature Beck (and the last to feature Clapton), was the July 1965 LP For Your Love. The title song features Clapton but there are three tunes featuring Beck.

Beck’s soloing on the Mose Allison tune “I’m Not Talking” is solid here if only occasionally showing flashes of his later brilliance. Nevertheless, he was voted the number 1 lead guitarist of 1966 in the British music magazine Beat Instrumental. (This must have pissed Clapton off mightily.) 

Spotify link

The Yardbirds’ first single after “For Your Love” was a tune called “Heart Full of Soul.” Originally they wanted a sitar player to play a riff but he just could not get it right. Beck said it just didn’t have a groove. He borrowed a fuzz box from Page and used a device called a Tone Bender to get a distinct sound.

Released in June of 1965, the song was somewhat of a milestone in rock. Not only did it include fuzz but it may have been one of the first to try to achieve a sitar-like sound. (It should be noted here that the Kinks had earlier used heavy distortion on “You Really Got Me” and got a sitar-like sound on “See My Friends.” Dave Davies doesn’t get enough credit.)

But the song was definitely a contributor to the nascent “psychedelic rock” sound of the Sixties. While there was no actual sitar in the song, George Harrison played one in “Norwegian Wood” shortly thereafter. Jimmy Page attended the Yardbirds session and he bought the guy’s sitar right out from under him. (I can’t recall any sitar on a Zep song but Page used tabla on “Black Mountain Side.”)

Spotify link

For more Yardbirds/Beck weirdness, check out “Over Under Sideways Down.” Beck pulled the riff out of thin air and it made the song:

Spotify link

Bassist Paul Samwell-Smith quit the band and the ubiquitous Jimmy Page agreed to play bass for a while. The band toured with Page on bass, and Beck and Chris Dreja on guitars. (Page used to go to their shows and it just feels like he was hanging around, waiting for his moment.)

Beck wasn’t the biggest fan of touring. It’s often been reported that he fell ill and he may well have. But in the documentary Still On The Run, he admits he got tired of playing on package tours with other bands. “After two gigs I felt like I’d killed myself for two songs, 15 minutes. Didn’t belong on this tour and quit.”

Well, he quit the tour anyway. He later reunited with the band and so you had two future giants together in one band. I’m unaware of any Yardbirds album that featured both guitarists apart from a later reissue of Roger the Engineer.

But given that this was the Sixties and it was “Swinging London,” the dual attack version of the band wound up in an Antonioni movie called Blowup. The director originally wanted the Velvet Underground but felt it would be too expensive to fly them over. So he went with The Yardbirds. Lucky for us. Features perhaps the least enthusiastic audience in the history of audiences:

In the midst of all this, Beck recorded the great instrumental “Beck’s Bolero”. He was backed by Page on 12-string rhythm guitar, Keith Moon on drums, John Paul Jones on bass, and Nicky Hopkins on piano. Pete Townshend found out that Beck was maybe trying to steal “his drummer” and so that particular supergroup never happened.

Spotify link

Beck was fired during a US tour for being a no-show as well as a temperamental pain in the ass.*  In 1967, he recorded two solo singles, “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and “Tallyman”, which also included his vocals. “Tallyman” wasn’t close to being a hit here in the States. In fact, I only heard it for the first time when my 21-year-old self backpacked around Europe and regularly got drunk with a bunch of Brits who would sing this tune at the top of their lungs. I liked it. Still do.

Spotify link

Coming up – Jeff tells the Truth with Rod Stewart. has some Vanilla Fudge, hangs with Stevie Wonder. And makes a completely unexpected musical shift.

*At the Yardbirds’ induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Beck said this: “I have done other music… after the Yardbirds. Anyway, somebody told me I should be proud tonight. But I’m not. Because they kicked me out. They did. Fuck them!” (Page, behind him, breaks up laughing.)

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18 thoughts on “Jeff Beck – The Jackson Pollock of Guitar (Part 1)

  1. Jeff Beck is just an amazing guitarist. His tone is super cool, especially on his rendition of “A Day in the Life.” I’ve seen him twice, once in July 2016 and the second time in August 2018. Both gigs were amazing.

    I also think Beck looks like a rock star. I know it a bit infantile, since it’s really not about looks. He’s scheduled to tour next year in May and June. Unfortunately, all current dates are in Britain. I’d love to see him again at least one more time. He turned 77 in June…

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    1. I saw him a couple times as well, both in or near Boston. One of them was his 1989 tour with SRV which to this day is the loudest show I’ve ever been to.

      I wonder if he’s touring the UK due to COVID restrictions. Or maybe at his age he’s just saying ‘screw it’ to touring. Hell, I would.

      BTW, he’s getting nailed pretty hard review-wise on this particular tour. People are pissed that he’s not talking to the audience. And I guess he’s got Johnny Depp on tour with him, singing and/or playing guitar in his own set. Maybe we’re better off on this one and holding out for a US tour.

      And yes, Beck has always had that rock star look. If I got up on stage now my whole look would scream ‘Clueless suburban Dad wanders into show.’

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        1. Yeah, it was pretty awesome. The 80s were a real desert for blues, at least on a mainstream scale. And funny now that I say that, another mind-blower for ya. There used to be a big cavernous mob-owned joint in Boston called The Channel. Everybody played there. My bandmates and i went to see B. B King.

          After the show, the harmonica player in my band said, “Do you want to meet BB?” He didn’t know him or anything but he knew where the backstage hangout was. As I recall we just strolled in and there was The Man just sitting there. We introduced ourselves, I shook his hand (hoping some of the magic would rub off) and he signed one of my band’s promo pieces. This would have been around 1984. So two ends of the decade, two blues greats.

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  2. Beck should be at the top of the page along with Les Paul, he is that inventive. When he paired with Imelda May, the Irish singer and performed ‘How High The Moon’ on the Grammy’s, wow, that was some show stopping stuff. It was better that he left the Yardbirds, he didn’t seem to fit that groove. Good read, keep them coming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I recall him pairing with May but I don’t think I realized they did “How High the Moon.” Just found it on YouTube. Nice. Full circle. Thanks for the tip.

      Yeah, clearly Jeff had to leave and go do his own thing. Someone with that kind of creativity is ultimately gonna be stifled unless it’s his band.

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        1. True, somewhat. Beck isn’t a household name but he’s been around so long he’s just part of the culture. Played the White House back when we had a cool President (Obama) instead of a dope. (You know who.)

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  3. Just to much to cover man. Seems like Ive been listening to Beck all my life (I guess I have). It’s hard to keep up with some of these guys. Jeff being one. Thing is he is always doing interesting stuff so I keep tabs. Jeff is a go to guy on my takes. I still venture back in time and listen to that Yardbird stuff. I love it.

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    1. Tell me about it. He had so much going on in the Sixties and Seventies that it was a bitch to unravel it all. Even though he is still going he kinda fades from the mainstream after a while so at least from a “what to say about him” perspective, it gets a little more straightforward after a while.

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        1. I’m pretty sure I did see him recently – my office is in the large town just a few miles from his village. Next time I’ll be sure to find out by humming Silver Lining

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