Renowned as a pioneering guitarist who pushed the boundaries of the instrument to places unknown to most of his contemporaries, Jeff Beck, who has died from bacterial meningitis aged 78, could more than hold his own with fellow luminaries such as Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton (all three of them played in the Yardbirds). Yet unlike them, Beck was something of a reluctant celebrity, unwilling to pursue the superstardom that his musical gifts could have brought him.
“When Led Zeppelin made it so big, I was jealous, absolutely jealous as hell,” Beck said in 1986. “But I’m glad I carried on as I was. I personally couldn’t have put up with that mass adulation.”
When Clapton and Page appeared at Live Aid in 1985, Beck preferred to stay at home and tinker with his beloved collection of classic hot rod cars. “I didn’t want to go, because I hate large crowds,” he claimed. The Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch wrote that “he can appear sullen, lazy and difficult. He has an expressive face that appears to give away his every mood and thought.”
Nonetheless, Beck was a central figure in several key developments in rock music’s history. As a member of the Yardbirds in 1965-66, he featured on some of their best-known hits, including Heart Full of Soul and Shapes of Things, while expanding the band’s musical palette hugely. His solo recording Beck’s Bolero was a firework display of contrasting guitar techniques and textures, and pointed to Beck’s future, in which he would move away from mere rock to embrace jazz fusion and even classical crossover. His 2010 album Emotion & Commotion included versions of Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol and Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, interpreted through Beck’s uniquely sensitive touch. He would frequently pick strings with his thumb while modifying tone and pitch with the tremolo bar.
Beck’s gifts burned most intensely after he left the Yardbirds in November 1966 and formed the first incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group in early 1967, featuring Ronnie Wood on bass and the telltale rasping vocals of Rod Stewart. Beck’s previously recorded solo hit Hi Ho Silver Lining, which reached 14 on the UK chart in the spring of 67, gave the group a handy launch platform, although their debut album, Truth, was not released until the following year. When it was, it reached 15 on the US chart.
This was largely down to the group’s tour manager Peter Grant (later Led Zeppelin’s manager), who had taken the band to the US for some ecstatically received live performances and then persuaded Epic Records to sign them. Truth’s soulful mix of blues and hard rock was a trailblazer for a new wave of bands, not least Led Zeppelin themselves, whose own debut album appeared six months later.
Although Truth failed to chart in Britain, the Beck band’s second album, Beck-Ola, gave them another No 15 hit in the US and this time reached the UK Top 40, and they followed up with successful touring in the US, but internal friction was beginning to pull the unit apart. With impeccably poor timing, they broke up just before they were due to play at the Woodstock festival. Stewart launched his solo career, and formed the Faces with Wood. A rebuilt Jeff Beck Group released the albums Rough and Ready (1971) and Jeff Beck Group (1972), but the magic moment had passed.
Beck was born at his family’s home in Wallington (then in Surrey, but now in south London). His father, Arnold, was an accountant and his mother, Ethel, worked in a chocolate factory. Jeff attended Sutton Manor primary school and Sutton East county secondary modern.
He credited his mother with pushing him to study music, because she “used to force me to play piano about two hours a day. But that was good, because it made me realise I was musically sound.” He became fascinated by the electric guitar when he heard Les Paul’s version of How High the Moon. After experimenting with “stretching rubber bands over tobacco cans and making horrible noises”, he graduated to an old and battered acoustic guitar, and then built his own instrument using a cigar box and a picture frame.
Beck attended Wimbledon Art College, where he was mostly preoccupied with guitar-playing, inspired by albums by American bluesmen such as Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. He bought himself an electric guitar and played briefly with Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, and in 1963 formed the Nightshift, who recorded the single Stormy Monday. Later that year he joined an R&B band, the Tridents. He took a great leap forward in 1965 when he joined the Yardbirds, replacing Clapton. This was on the recommendation of Page, whom Beck had known since being introduced to him by his sister Annetta in his teens.
He was with the Yardbirds for less than two years, but during this period they recorded some of their best-known material, including the hit singles Heart Full of Soul (featuring Beck’s raga-like guitar), a UK No 2 and a Top 10 hit in the US, Evil Hearted You (UK No 3), Shapes of Things (UK No 3) and Over Under Sideways Down (UK No 10). Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (1966) only made it to 43 on the UK chart (and 30 in the US), but its complex mix of guitar parts by both Beck and Page have led to it being considered a milestone along the road to full-blown psychedelia. Page would go on to bend the boundaries of rock music with Led Zeppelin, while Beck was experimenting with different tunings and feedback effects.
In May 1966, Beck made his first solo recording, Beck’s Bolero. It featured Page, the Who’s drummer Keith Moon and the future Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (indeed, the musicians on the track almost became Led Zeppelin), but was not released until it became the B side of Beck’s single Hi Ho Silver Lining the following year. Based on the rhythm of Ravel’s Bolero, it was a spectacular display of guitar tonalities, from ethereal slide guitar to hard-rock riffing, and suggested the extent of Beck’s ambitions.
After the Jeff Beck Group ended, he formed the “power trio” Beck, Bogert and Appice in 1972 (his bandmates being ex-members of Vanilla Fudge), but the project failed to match expectations and they split in 1974. In 1975 Beck re-emerged in a jazz-inflected guise with the all-instrumental album Blow by Blow, produced by George Martin. It became Beck’s most successful album, reaching No 4 on the US chart and selling a million copies. For Wired (1976), he teamed up with Narada Michael Walden and Jan Hammer, veterans of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Subsequent live shows were preserved on Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group: Live (1977).
Beck released intermittent solo albums, including Flash (1985), Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989) and Jeff (2003). Flash delivered a hit single, with a cover version of Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready, and the track Escape won Beck the first of his eight Grammy awards. He made guest appearances on Mick Jagger’s album Primitive Cool (1987) and Roger Waters’s Amused to Death (1992). In 2020, he released the single Isolation, a John Lennon song on which he collaborated with the actor Johnny Depp. In July last year, the pair released an album, 18, after Depp had joined Beck onstage for some UK and European concerts.
Beck was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 for his work with the Yardbirds, and in 2009 for his solo career.
He is survived by his second wife, Sandra Cash, whom he married in 2005.
• Geoffrey Arnold (Jeff) Beck, composer and musician, born 24 June 1944; died 10 January 2023