Jeff Beck is surely the super-guitarist to end all super-guitarists. As one of the three legendary musicians who made their name with The Yardbirds, Beck is up there with Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton as one of the UK’s finest virtuosos.
Throughout his career – which has encompassed work with the Jeff Beck Group and Beck, Bogert & Appice – the guitarist pioneered a style that put his instrument’s mellifluous legato front and centre. He was somehow able to make his guitar sing unlike anyone had before and, with his largely instrumental recordings, managed to achieve a sound bordering on the sublime. It’s fascinating to discover, then, that Beck himself once named his favourite guitarist of all time, an individual who seemed to bound to his instrument that many imagined he had started practising in utero.
The guitar hero Beck named is more myth than man. His legendary status is well deserved, having completely altered the trajectory of rock ‘n’ roll and invented a unique approach to electric guitar in one fell swoop. Over half a century later, he is an artist still unmatched in the world of guitar playing and, to many, stands as a symbol of musical excellence. He is, of course, the great Jimi Hendrix.
Beck was introduced to Hendrix just before he released the album that would make his name: Are You Experienced? Beck once recalled those halcyon days when London was in the midst of the swinging ’60s, explaining: “Just before this came out, I saw Jimi live at an underground club. Dollybirds in Biba clothing were probably expecting a folk singer but he came on and blew the house down,” he reminisced, adding: “It shook all of us – me, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page. He was so good, we all wondered what we were going to do for our living.”
That’s quite the feat, to knock the socks off three of the county’s most revered guitarists. Certainly, Hendrix seemed to be performing at a unique level. Whereas guitarists like Beck, Page and Clapton took in influences from their contemporaries, Hendrix seemed to be entirely self-generating, taking influences from some higher, invisible realm. For example, when Hendrix was asked if he revered Beck as much as Beck admired him, Hendrix said: “I wasn’t really influenced by Beck. I only heard one record by him, ‘Shapes of Things,’ and I really dug it. I just listened to it, and I liked it. You’ve got to dig everything and then get your own ideas. Too much digging and not enough doing will set you spinning.”
That was the genius of Hendrix. His style had been honed by decades of performing in backing bands, during which time he meticulously cultivated his musicianship, developing an individualistic approach completely untethered from any obvious influences. Whereas Clapton played his electric guitar in the same way he would an acoustic, Hendrix played the electric guitar in the way it was designed to be played, exploiting its unique sonic properties in a way that greatly influenced Jeff Beck’s own work.
In ‘Shape Of Things’, for example, Beck makes great use of feedback to create lush sonic textures that take on the spiritual potency of the drones used in classical Indian ragas. Yes, without Hendrix, the expansive and exploratory sound Beck pursued throughout his career may have sounded very different indeed.