Why I worship Jeff Beck

This article was originally published on OpenSalon.

If you’re an electric guitar player, forget reading this. Just go get the DVD and watch it. You’ll probably have to watch it in halves, as I did, because you’re likely to be overwhelmed by  two and a half hours of it. If you’re not sure whether to laugh, cry or put your guitar up for sale, do the first two. Then realize that you have much more to learn about your instrument and just being a musician.

For the rest of you, Jeff Beck performing this week…live at Ronnie Scott’s is a valedictory performance by one of the world’s great ignored guitar players. Although there are others — Ronnie Earl comes to mind — few have held the status for so long.

That wasn’t always the case. If you were a guitar player in the ’60s, you cut your teeth playing covers. Who you could cop was a mark of how good you were. The best guitar player in my high school was a kid named Randy Santoruffo. He was the only person who could play Roger McGuinn’s 8 Miles High solo note for note. Randy was the guy who first told me about Jeff Beck and all of the crazy things he could make a guitar do.

Watch this and you will understand that Jeff Beck had as much to do with shaping rock guitar as anyone alive or dead and seems not to care — he’s still searching for new sounds and grooves, not resting on his laurels.

If you’ve never heard Beck (as he was known before the kid fron LA), the DVD is backwards. You’ll want to listen to the two penultimate cuts where he and Clapton blaze through two Muddy Waters tunes, trading solos (inexplicably, these cuts are missing from the CD version). In particular, “You Need Love” is the kind of tune that tells you their respect and love for the blues, and even more, their knowlege and authenticity. Jimmy Page turned a lot of Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon tunes into histrionic little melodramas, making them safe for white kids in the heartland, but Beck and Clapton dig deep and retain the dangerousness, the rawness, the pain, even the African rhythms of 1950s Chicago blues.

Once you understand that, Beck is an open book. The 19 or so other tunes recorded over the course of a week in December 2007 are a great sampling of his career long ramblings through blues, rock, metal, funk, fusion, electronica and whatever else struck his fancy. In all of them, he makes the Stratocaster sing.  Eddie Van Halen was probably as good as Beck at all the techniques of making an overamped electric guitar do strange things, but Beck does it merely as a means to an end. And the end, for this silent performer, is to sing out his heart, his guts, and all the rest of him.

Nowhere is that better displayed than on his lyrical ballads. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” is a tune Stevie Wonder wrote but didn’t record (he gave it to Beck in exchange for Beck’s solo on “Looking for Another Pure Love” onTalking Book) and it was the anchor of Beck’s most successful album, 1975’sBlow by Blow. This version hues fairly close to the original. The tune is, for me, equalled only by the Allman’s “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” among rock instrumentals for sheer beauty.

As beautiful is “Nadia” from 2001’s You Had It Coming. Apparently it began life as an Indian pop song. Here it is an achingly beautiful classic, like Miles playing My Funny Valentine or Coltrane playing In a Sentimental Mood. As with “Because…”, Beck plays largely single notes, using his mastery of the whammy bar and the volume knob swell. More than the gimmicks, his spare phrasing, his willingness to play soft, his sense of when to play fast and when to play slow, his use of the rich harmonics his massive Marshalls produce — all of it come together in breathtaking beauty.

There are other beautiful tracks, too: a fine take on the Beatles “Day in the Life,” a soulful version of “People Get Ready” with Joss Stone on vocals (make up your own mind — I liked Rod Stewart better on their early ’90s collaboration).

There are a few nods to Beck’s periodic infatuations with major chord rock, notably Big Block. Most of the rest of the cuts draw on his funk and fusion chops and whatever you might call the last 10 years of his catalog. It’s all good, it’s all great.

Chuck Berry took the newly electrified guitar of the early 1950s and laid the foundation for most of rock guitar with tunes like Johnny B. Goode, Maybelline, and Sweet Little Sixteen. It was fast, rhythmic, sly, hip and good to dance to. A decade later, young white kids in England wanted to turn up dial on frustration and rage and they began turning their more powerful amps and more tolerant guitars onto the blues they had been soaking up from America.

At the same time, Hendrix began experimenting with this new found electronic freedom in the context of the funk and soul bands he had been backing. All of this started to explode in the London of the mid-60s, with bands like Cream, The Yardbirds, The Who (pre-Tommy), Fleetwood Mac (the Peter Green edition), The Bluesbreakers, and so on creating the rock equivalent of free jazz. Suddenly, rock guitar players were doing more than fills at the end of the chorus.

Listen to Clapton’s legendary solos on “Crossroads” or “Spoonful” on Wheels of Fire and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Across the musical street, so to speak, Hendrix had created out of feedback a wholly different guitar sound. It was Beck, for me, who succesfully absorbed and bridged these two streams. Later, Santana would do something similar.

Part of the Hendrix legend is that he was supposed to record with Miles Davis the day he died.  Alas, we’ll never know how cool that might have been. But both Beck and Santana did creat real jazz in the 1970s and into the 80s. Sadly, no one was really listening that much. Both found their way back to  popular music, but Beck never really recaptured the audience interest nor certainly the financial success.

I never saw Beck back in the day, but have seen him 3 times over the last 15 years. Every time, he came out in blue jeans and a T-shit, plugged in and played his ass off for 90 minutes. No fog machines, dancing routines or other extraneous crap: just insanely good playing.

Nonetheless, Clapton, Beck and Hendrix remain for me the foundation of modern rock guitar. No Page, no Van Halen, no Satriani — well, the list goes on — without those three. Clapton long ago retired from the rock pioneer business, but Beck, he’s still the got the spirit.

One last note:  The DVD is also a great chance to see and hear Tal Wilkenfeld, the 22-year old Aussie bass phenom. You can get a taste of that in this clip from the Crossroads Festival.