Jeff Beck: Influential guitarist dies aged 78

Beck was a guitar virtuoso who pushed the boundaries of blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll

British guitarist Jeff Beck performs at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, California, in October 2013. AFP
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Jeff Beck, who influenced generations of musicians and become known as the guitar player’s guitar player, has died aged 78.

Beck died on Tuesday after “suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis", his representatives said on Wednesday.

Beck was a guitar virtuoso who pushed the boundaries of blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.

Beck first came to prominence as a member of the Yardbirds and then embarked on a solo career that incorporated hard rock, jazz, funky blues and even opera.

He was known for his improvising, love of harmonics and the whammy bar on his preferred guitar, the Fender Stratocaster.

“Jeff Beck is the best guitar player on the planet,” Joe Perry, the lead guitarist of Aerosmith, told The New York Times in 2010.

“He is head, hands and feet above all the rest of us, with the kind of talent that appears only once every generation or two.”

Beck was among the rock-guitarist pantheon from the late '60s that included Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix.

Beck won eight Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice — once with the Yardbirds in 1992 and again as a solo artist in 2009.

He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

Beck played guitar with vocalists as varied as Luciano Pavarotti, Macy Gray, Chrissie Hynde, Joss Stone, Imelda May, Cyndi Lauper, Wynonna Judd, Buddy Guy and Johnny Depp.

He made two records with Rod Stewart — 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola — and one with a 64-piece orchestra, Emotion & Commotion.

“I like an element of chaos in music,” he told Guitar World in 2014. "That feeling is the best thing ever, as long as you don’t have too much of it.

"It’s got to be in balance. I just saw Cirque du Soleil, and it struck me as complete organised chaos.

“If I could turn that into music, it’s not far away from what my ultimate goal would be, which is to delight people with chaos and beauty at the same time.”

Beck's career highlights include joining bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice to create the power trio that released Beck, Bogert and Appice in 1973, tours with Brian Wilson and Buddy Guy, and a tribute album to the late guitarist Les Paul, Rock ‘n’ Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul).

Geoffrey Arnold Beck was born in Surrey, England, and attended Wimbledon Art College.

His father was an accountant and his mother worked in a chocolate factory.

As a boy, he built his first instrument using a cigar box, a picture frame for the neck and string from a radio-controlled toy airplane.

He was in a few bands including Nightshift and The Tridents before joining the Yardbirds in 1965, replacing Clapton but only a year later giving way to Page.

During his tenure, the band created the memorable singles Heart Full of Soul, I’m a Man and Shapes of Things.

Beck’s first hit single was 1967’s instrumental Beck’s Bolero, which featured future Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, and future Who drummer Keith Moon.

The Jeff Beck Group — with Stewart singing — was later booked to play the 1969 Woodstock music festival but their appearance was cancelled. Beck later said there was unrest in the band.

“I could see the end of the tunnel,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010.

Beck was friends with Hendrix and they performed together. Before Hendrix, most rock guitar players concentrated on a similar style and technical vocabulary. Hendrix blew that apart.

“He came along and reset all of the rules in one evening,” Beck told Guitar World.

Beck teamed up with legendary producer George Martin — aka “the fifth Beatle” — to help him fashion the genre-melding, jazz-fusion classic Blow by Blow (1975) and Wired (1976).

He teamed up with Seal on the Hendrix tribute Stone Free, created a jazz-fusion group led by synthesiser player Jan Hammer, and honoured rockabilly guitarist Cliff Gallup with the album Crazy Legs.

He put out 'Loud Hailer' in 2016.

Beck’s guitar work can be heard on the soundtracks of such films as Stomp the Yard, Shallow Hal, Casino, Honeymoon in Vegas, Twins, Observe and Report and Little Big League.

His career never hit the commercial highs of Clapton.

A perfectionist, he preferred to make critically well-received instrumental records and left the limelight for long stretches, enjoying his time restoring vintage cars.

He and Clapton had a tense relationship early on but became friends in later life and toured together.

Why did the two wait about four decades to tour together?

“Because we were all trying to be big bananas,” Beck told Rolling Stone in 2010. “Except I didn’t have the luxury of the hit songs Eric’s got.”

Beck is survived by his wife, Sandra.

Tributes pour in for ‘guitar master’

Some of rock’s biggest names have paid tribute to Beck, describing him as one of the “all-time guitar masters”.

In his own online tribute, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger tweeted: “With the death of Jeff Beck we have lost a wonderful man and one of the greatest guitar players in the world.

Jagger also shared a video of the pair playing together.

“We will all miss him so much.”

Stewart also went online to sing Beck's praises. The singer joined the Jeff Beck Group, which marked a breakout moment in his career.

Posting on Instagram a picture of the pair together, he wrote: “Jeff Beck was on another planet.

“He took me and Ronnie Wood to the US 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.”

Rolling Stones guitarist Wood recalled the “groundbreaking” music they had played together during their time spent “conquering America”.

Sharing pictures of them, along with other famous faces including Johnny Depp and Slash, Wood said he would “dearly miss” the musician.

“Now Jeff has gone, I feel like one of my band of brothers has left this world, and I’m going to dearly miss him,” he wrote.

“I’m sending much sympathy to Sandra, his family, and all who loved him. I want to thank him for all our early days together in Jeff Beck Group, conquering America.

“Musically, we were breaking all the rules. It was fantastic, groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll! Listen to the incredible track Plynth in his honour.

“Jeff, I will always love you. God bless.”

Queen guitarist Brian May wrote on Instagram: “Gutted, so sad, to hear of Jeff’s passing. He was the Guv’nor.

"He was inimitable, irreplaceable — the absolute pinnacle of guitar playing.

“And a damn fine human being. I’m sure I will have a lot to say, but right now …. just lost for words."

Updated: January 12, 2023, 5:06 AM