Witnessing Jimi Hendrix perform live was a religious experience for anyone fortunate enough to catch the maestro at work. Even Jeff Beck, an artist steeped in his own rock and roll legacy, was blown away the first time he watched the American.
Beck was already a crucial part of the London scene when Hendrix made his arrival in 1966, and he quickly became a word of mouth sensation. Every musician worth their salt was curious to see what the fuss was about regarding the capital’s latest import. Beck, who was one of those whispering about the man wielding his axe, couldn’t believe his eyes or ears following his first taste of Jimi, which was unlike anything he’d seen before.
Around this same time, Beck had established himself as one of Britain’s most technical guitarists thanks to his magnificent work with The Yardbirds, and suddenly, a new kid on the block had arrived to steal his crown.
Although they were part of the same crowd and would frequent the same clubs in Soho, Beck and Hendrix never formed a particularly strong friendship, but the mutual respect between the two remained. However, Hendrix didn’t exactly have an encyclopedic knowledge of his peer’s back catalogue.
Hendrix once said: “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.”
The distance Hendrix kept from artists such as Beck also stopped him from becoming starstruck when he was aware that his contemporaries were watching his performances. More importantly, however, it stopped him from subconsciously being influenced by their work.
One of the first times Hendrix played in the UK, Beck was in the crowd, and the memory of that show has lasted a lifetime. Speaking to Rolling Stone about the event in the 1980s, the guitarist recalled: “It was probably one of the first shows he did (in London). It was in a tiny downstairs club in Queensgate. It was a fashion club – mostly girls, 18 to 25, all dolled up, hats and all. Jimi wasn’t known then”.
He added: “He came on, and I went, ‘Oh, my God.’ He had the military outfit on and hair that stuck out all over the place. They kicked off with (Bob Dylan’s) ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and I thought, ‘Well, I used to be a guitarist.'”
Beck then discussed some of his favourite memories of Jimi, and added: “As well as you could in the fleeting moments. When the Jeff Beck Group played the Scene (in New York in 1968), he was there most nights. What an education, having him come in with his guitar. One night he played mine. He didn’t have his guitar. I ended up playing bass. There’s a photo. Jimi’s in the shot, Ron Wood is in the background. You don’t even see me in the picture.”
Despite everything Beck had achieved in his craft, after seeing Hendrix, the guitarist was overwhelmed with inadequacy and knew that he’d never match what he’d just witnessed. Beck’s story is no anomaly, and Hendrix affected everyone he crossed his path similarly.