Jeff Beck: British guitar legend dies aged 78

Jeff Beck, one of the most influential rock guitarists of all time, has died at the age of 78.

The British musician rose to fame as part of the Yardbirds, where he replaced Eric Clapton, before forming the Jeff Beck group with Rod Stewart.

His tone, presence and, above all, volume redefined guitar music in the 1960s, and influenced movements like heavy metal, jazz-rock and even punk.

Beck’s death was confirmed on his official Twitter page.

“On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck’s passing,” the statement said.

“After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday. His family ask for privacy while they process this tremendous loss.”

Speaking when he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the second time in 2009, Beck – said: “I play the way I do because it allows me to come up with the sickest sounds possible.”

“That’s the point now, isn’t it? I don’t care about the rules.

“In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least 10 times in every song, then I’m not doing my job properly.”

‘On another planet’

Responding to news of his death, singer Sir Rod Stewart called Beck “the greatest”.

Posting a picture of the pair together on Instagram, he wrote: “Jeff Beck was on another planet. He took me and Ronnie Wood to the USA in the late 60s in his band the Jeff Beck Group and we haven’t looked back since.

“He was one of the few guitarists that when playing live would actually listen to me sing and respond.

“Jeff, you were the greatest, my man. Thank you for everything. RIP.”

In his own online tribute, Rolling Stones frontman Sir Mick Jagger said music had lost a wonderful man and “one of the greatest guitar players in the world”.

Sharing a video of the pair playing together, he tweeted: “We will all miss him so much.”

And Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne said it had been “such an honour” to know and play with Beck, adding: “I can’t express how saddened I am…”

In other tributes to the musician, Queen guitarist Sir Brian May said he was lost for words, but called Beck “the absolute pinnacle of guitar playing” and a “damn fine human being”.

Members of Kiss, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, also expressed their shock.

Simmons called the news “heartbreaking”, adding “no one played guitar like Jeff”.

Stanley also called Beck “one of the all time guitar masters” and said he had “blazed a trail impossible to follow. Play on now and forever”.

Singer Paul Young added in a Twitter post: “He was loved by everyone in the know; the guitarists’ guitarist!”

The Yardbirds, backstage at Top Of The Pops, in 1965
Image caption,

The Yardbirds, backstage at Top Of The Pops, in 1965

Born Geoffrey Arnold Beck in Wallington, Surrey, the musician fell in love with Rock and Roll as a child, and built his first guitar as a teenager.

“The guy next door said, ‘I’ll build you a solid body guitar for five pounds’,” he later told Rock Cellar Magazine. “Five pounds, which to me was 500 back then [so] I went ahead and did it [myself].

“The first one I built was in 1956, because Elvis was out, and everything that you heard about pop music was guitar. And then I got fascinated. I’m sure the same goes for lots of people.”

After a short stint at Wimbledon Art College, he left to play with shock-rocker Screaming Lord Sutch and the Tridents.

When Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds in 1965, Jimmy Page suggested hiring Beck – and he went on to play on hits like I’m A Man and Shapes Of Things, where his pioneering use of feedback influenced musicians like Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix.

“That [technique] came as an accident,” he later told BBC Radio 2’s Johnnie Walker.

“We played larger venues, around about ’64-’65, and the PA was inadequate. So we cranked up the level and then found out that feedback would happen.

“I started using it because it was controllable – you could play tunes with it. I did this once at Staines Town Hall with the Yardbirds and afterwards, this guy says, ‘You know that funny noise that wasn’t supposed to be there? I’d keep that in if I were you.’

“So I said, ‘It was deliberate mate. Go away’.”

Going instrumental

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 Band, 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.

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 1997 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 to 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”.

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