Jeff Beck, the legendary British guitarist whose unique approach to the instrument helped define rock guitar playing from the ’60s onward, has died at the age of 78, his representatives confirmed Wednesday afternoon (January 11).
“On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck’s passing,” read a statement from his representatives, which was also posted to the guitarist’s social media pages. “After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday. His family ask for privacy while they process this tremendous loss.”
Geoffrey Arnold Beck (24 June 1944 – 10 January 2023) was an English rock guitarist who rose to prominence with the Yardbirds and afterwards 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 spanned genres ranging from blues rock, hard rock, jazz fusion, and a blend of guitar-rock and electronica.
Regarded as possibly one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of all time. He rose to fame as part of the Yardbirds, where he replaced Eric Clapton, before forming the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart.
The guitarist stayed with the Yardbirds for nearly two years, before declaring he was quitting music altogether and releasing his first solo single Hi Ho Silver Lining.
However, he quickly returned with the Jeff Beck Group, whose first two albums Truth (1968) and Beck-Ola (1969), took a ferocious approach to the blues that laid the groundwork for heavy metal.
But the band were unhappy – with a US tour regularly descending into arguments and physical fights.
Singer Rod Stewart and bassist Ronnie Wood quit in 1970 to join the Small Faces (later The Faces), and when Beck was injured in a car accident, he had to put his career on hold.
When he recovered, Beck assembled a second line-up of his band but their albums were commercially unsuccessful and Beck went solo in 1975.
Blow By Blow
That year, he recorded an album, Blow By Blow, with Beatles producer George Martin. Entirely instrumental, Beck’s lyrical, mellifluous guitar playing essentially replaced the parts of a lead vocalist, an approach he would take for most of the rest of his career.
Blow By Blow made the US top 10 and was awarded a platinum disc, and Beck quickly followed it up with 1976’s Wired (also produced by George Martin) and the 1977 concert album Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live.
After the tour documented on the album, the musician retired to his estate outside of London and remained quiet for three years.
“The pitch I play at is so intense that I just can’t do it every night,” he later explained.
The 1980s saw him collaborate with Nile Rodgers on an album called Flash, which contained his first hit single – a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready with Rod Stewart on lead vocals – and earned him a Grammy Award.
In 1987, he played on Mick Jagger’s solo album Primitive Cool and continued to work with artists like Roger Waters and Jon Bon Jovi in the 1990s, as well as contributing to Hans Zimmer’s score for the Tom Cruise movie Days Of Thunder.
But his solo output slowed down, until the release of 1999’s You Had It Coming, featuring Imogen Heap on vocals, followed in 2003 by an album he simply called Jeff.
Around this time, he started incorporating more electronic and hip-hop elements into his music; culminating in his fourth Grammy victory for the tempestuous, shape-shifting instrumental Plan B.
He toured extensively in the 2010s, including a joint-headline venture with Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
The duo had hoped to record together but those plans fell apart. Instead, Beck ended up befriending actor Johnny Depp, with whom he released a full-length album, 18, in 2022.
But the musician’s legacy lies in the balance between the fluidity and aggression of his playing, his technical brilliance equalled only by his love of ear-crunching dissonance.
“It’s like he’s saying, ‘I’m Jeff Beck. I’m right here. And you can’t ignore me’,” wrote Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers in an essay for Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitar Players of All Time, where Beck placed seventh.
“Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic but in-your-face – bright, urgent and edgy, but sweet at the same time. You could tell he was a serious player, and he was going for it. He was not holding back.”
“He’d just keep getting better and better,” Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page once recalled. “And he leaves us, mere mortals”.
Jeff Beck incorporated elements of blues and jazz into a distinctive, hard-edged sound that left an indelible mark on rock guitar playing.