Q&A with Legendary Guitarist Jeff Beck
By Steve Hochman
|Photo by Ross Halfin|
Thousands of guitar maniacs swarmed around the Anaheim Convention Center on a pleasant January afternoon, checking out the latest wares at the annual National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) confab and exhibition. If only they knew what was going on in a tiny room off one of the many corridors that maze through the massive building. There, on a sofa, sat one of the giants of the electric guitar, English icon Jeff Beck, with a Fender Stratocaster — just playing, for 45 minutes nonstop.
Technically he was doing a job, providing samples of his signature sounds generated by his distinctive pick-less playing and masterful, wide-ranging control of dynamics that would be used to create a series of Jeff Beck presets for the new Fender G-DEC® 3 line of programmable amplifiers. (You can download his presets for free HERE)
But for a dozen or so souls privileged to be allowed within earshot (if out in the corridor, as not to intrude on the working musician), it was a once-in-a-lifetime treat. Beck may have been on the clock, so to speak, but there was nothing workman-like about what was coming out of that room. For that three-quarters of an hour he conducted nothing less than a tour through the half-century of his professional life, a legacy that’s led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, both as a member of the essential ‘60s British Invasion band the Yardbirds and as a genre-busting solo artist.
There was the rockabilly that fueled his teen years, the blues and beyond with which he rocketed to international fame in the Yardbirds, the stomping proto-metal and soaring jazz flights he pioneered in the ‘70s and expanded throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. And there were moments of almost classical grandeur previewing the lush inventions of his new tour de force album Emotion & Commotion, which mixes a texturally rich range of new original compositions along with distinctive arrangements of such perhaps unexpected turns as Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol,” the classic “Over the Rainbow” and the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” — plus two guest appearances by Joss Stone, including a growling “I Put a Spell on You.”
Following this phenomenal display, Beck – who this year had his fifth Grammy Award nomination for a jaw-dropping instrumental version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” that appeared on his Performing This Week … Live at Ronnie Scott’s CD/DVD – stayed on for a genial, insightful chat with Fender News about the lifelong love affair with music, and the Strat that fueled the private concert.
FN: Do you have any set program of what you’ll play for just practice, for your own amusement?
JB: Well, you know, it depends if there’s something coming up, you know. I always get a little bit of a buzz in the stomach when I’ve got a tour or something exciting happening, so I play a lot more. But over the past decade there’s been a lot of downtime, where it can be a bit soul-destroying—practicing for no apparent reason, y’know what I mean?
But you’ve got to do it. You have to learn to love what you do; otherwise you go downhill pretty fast. So it’s like a discipline exercise, really. So I have a guitar in every room—on every sofa; every chair—just to remind me to get on with it. Not one in the car, though (laughs).
FN: Do you have things that you go back to when you play—exercises or favorites?
JB: Yeah. I must be the most irritating person to live with, because of the apparent lack of any sort of design in what I do. I’m a natural spirit. I like to let whatever happens in my head happen, unless there’s a specific part to learn. If I’m free to just practice, then that’s the way I like to do it. I might stumble on something that’s fresh, and then I’ll stay with that for a half hour. I’ve got a short attention span as well.
It’s a little bit of medicine, as well, when things are wrong outside of music. Just to pick it up and play—it’s a great thing to have.
FN: How long have you been playing a Strat?
JB: Uh, since ’59. Yeah.
I couldn’t afford a Strat. My rhythm guitarist had a Strat, which I swiped off him (laughs).
FN: What was it that made you want to play that rather than the Tele?
JB: Um, well, it was all a bit of a mystery back then, because there was so little known about rock ‘n’ roll backing bands, you know. The stars were up in your face, but the guitarists in the background were little known. Nobody knew Scotty Moore’s name; they didn’t know James Burton; they didn’t know Cliff Gallup.
It took me about ten years to find out who played what on what record. Very little info on the back of the album sleeves. It was only through going to certain guitar shops and outlets and clubs, where the buzzword would be, “Oh, I found out who this guitarist is and that guitarist is.” And for ages, it was Barney Kessel that played with Ricky Nelson, and then I found out it was James Burton, so it’s all a bit funny. You know, it’s sort of an endless quest to find out who did what, but now everybody knows pretty much everything, I think.
FN: Do you think it was the same when you started to emerge onto the charts, when you were in the Yardbirds? Do you think people were aware of who was playing what? If that was you?
JB: Oh, well, because of the Beatles, everybody knew each name. It wasn’t just like “Cliff Richard and the Shadows,” although Hank [Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin] was a character in himself, you know. He got known, not least because of “Apache”—that amazing single they put out.
|Photo by Ross Halfin|
But the bands like the Beatles—everybody knew Ringo, the drummer. And for rock ‘n’ roll, I mean, who knew the drummer in Elvis Presley’s band, D.J. Fontana? And also we got publicity. We were out and we were all identified, and it wasn’t just [Yardbirds singer] Keith Relf and the Yardbirds. We were five people that got our own bios. People became more obsessive about each individual. Each of us had their own fans, almost, and fan magazines would print all the details that you didn’t want, and stuff.
FN: There’s a consistent element through all this time, which is your playing, that has attracted people. Is there any way you can articulate why it has connected for so long for with many people?
JB: Don’t know. I have no idea. I suppose it’s a morbid sort of quest to find out the insanity (laughs). I’m sure that’s it.
I use my inability to play really, I suppose, traditionally great jazz. I’ve found a way of weaving a career in the cracks. I mean, I never wanted to be all the people that I loved back then, because they already covered that and there’s no point. I had a little spell of having people come up to me and saying, “That really sounded like Cliff [Gallup]. That really sounded like, you know, Johnny Burnette or Paul Burlison.” But then I thought, “I’m just a copier. I’m a mimic.”
I guess playing with all those different bands— I don’t remember how many local bands and things—just the whole craziness of it mirrored itself in my head. You know, no sleep and playing with a rubbish amp; playing a rubbish gig—you naturally tend to dig a lot deeper and try to find out what is in the guitar, out of boredom if nothing else. So maybe some of the nuttiness came from that.
FN: With your love for cars, we guess “tinkering” is too small a word …
JB: Oh, don’t use “tinkering,” please. We don’t tinker.
FN: You build cars.
FN: Is your relationship with the guitar like your relationship with cars?
JB: I suppose it must be. Er, it’s unlike the guitar, which can be a bit tiresome, just sitting there. I get out there and I get in my garage, and I can saw up things. I can cut plate. I can modify something. I can get a project going. I mean, I’ve built 14 cars and driven them and sold some. And now I’ve got a cross section of cars that is enough for me, so I don’t think I’ll be doing any more (chuckles) probably; I don’t know.
I’m into early Corvettes at the moment. I’ve got enough early Fords. The ’63 Corvette is what I’m into at the moment, with the late-model suspension. So I can have the look of the ’63, which is a great-looking car, and have all the ride characteristics of a later car, and economy as well. So it’ll be a super car, I hope (chuckles).
FN: But you don’t do that with guitars?
JB: Ah no, they come out of the box good enough, you know? In the old days you’d have to rebuild them, almost. Re-fret them.
But the Fender has always been … you know, when a Japanese firm asked me to design a guitar that I thought would be the ultimate, I said, “Well, I can do, but I’ve already got one—here it is.” And it was (laughs) a ’54 Strat, and I said if I never had another guitar, this would do. This would be fine. And it didn’t hurt Buddy Holly or any of those guys; all the rockabilly people. They had to put up with tuning problems, didn’t they? Not that they were that bad, you understand (laughs).
FN: You’ve been known to play whole shows with one guitar and do whole albums with one guitar, right?
JB: Um, yeah, ninety-nine percent. Maybe there’s a Tele rhythm guitar or, I don’t know, but I’ve done probably about five albums without changing guitars. It always comes back to that in some way or other.
FN: You got a Grammy nomination for “A Day in the Life.” Can you talk about how that arrangement for it developed? Was that a spontaneous kind of thing for you?
JB: Yeah, well, the original was on a [Beatles producer] George Martin album, which he designated as his last works. I think it was called In My Life. And I was so thrilled that he chose me to be one of the guests. And then, when I found out that Goldie Hawn was on it with Jim Carrey, I went, “Wait a minute …”
However, I chose that song. I pulled that song choice out of the air in the studio on the day of the interview. And I’d just wondered what the hell I’d done, and it couldn’t have been a better choice, really. And George said that he would do the strings.
But since then, when [guitarist] Jennifer Batten was in my band, she said, “Why don’t we just put a heavy metal riff in it?” Or a heavier riff to enable me to play a solo a bit longer. So she had a lot to do with that arrangement.
|Photo by Robert Essel NYC
FN: You must get fans wanting to know “How did you play this? Can you show me that? Do you have any tips for me?” What do you tell them?
JB: I tell them to fuck off (laughs). No, I don’t. If they can be specific about what they want, I’m only too happy to show them.
But you’d be surprised how many kids work stuff out for themselves. I mean, when we were in Canada, there was this 19-year-old girl who looked more like she should be, I don’t know, clubbing it. She had a Stratocaster, and she knew all the Blow By Blow stuff, which was amazing. There we were in the middle of Quebec, or something. Ottawa. And she goes, “Oh, I play a white Strat.” That makes me feel good. But I said, “Why do you want me to tell you anything? Because you’ve proved that you can listen.”
I mean, I’m not gonna tell anybody, if I’ve got something special to me, I don’t want to … there’s a certain boundary that you’ve got to stop at, you know? “It’s private—get off outta here (laughs)!”
FN: You say you found your own place in between the cracks. I’d think you’d want to encourage people to do that.
JB: Absolutely. Yeah. Sit there and listen to the guitar and what it’s doing, and above all not try to copy too many solos or figure out other … let people wonder what you do. That’s one of the best things to do.
FN: Do you go back to some of the old records that inspired you and listen to them again and get new things out of them?
JB: Absolutely, yeah. Like, I’ll go back to the Internet radio—each of the U.S. stations has got a genre. So you’ve got your rockabilly, rock, ambient, or you can go to oldies, and I always go to the oldies. And it’s amazing—it’s just like living back in the ’50s. Some of them actually play later than that, like the Monkees and Herman’s Hermits, which goes straight out the window. I turn off that.
But I’m fascinated to hear the sound of the records that were made in the ’50s through a modern radio—they sound amazing. And when you listen to those records, it’s easy to understand how rock ‘n’ roll was forged and how it became so popular. The bandwidth—you know, the sort of frequency they used to broadcast those records—was so straight ahead and so powerful. And I’m just fascinated listening to the recording techniques, if nothing else. The amount of ’verb on them and the drum sounds, and who was playing the drums. Really good stuff out there. And then you flick back to modern times and you go, “Whoops,” and switch it off and go to bed (laughs).
FN: What’s something you’ve heard lately of some of the old stuff that really sort of, you went “Wow” when hearing that again?
JB: Oh, Johnny Otis. I bought every Johnny Otis album they had in the shop. Man, I wish I’d been around when he was doing his show band thing. Oh, great songs, great playing, great guitar playing. He had the Bo Diddley beat going, you know what I mean? He’s got a strange kind of appeal; a sort of a Tex-Mex look about him. Marie Adams. I mean, all there in the one package—a rock ‘n’ roll stage show. I highly recommend that. Good songs. And then all of a sudden the Shangri-Las come on (laughs). I was there then, but now I can enjoy it more. Life’s a lot easier for me.
FN: You’ve played with a lot of people over the years. There were some Sting things recently, you’ve played with Stevie Wonder not too long ago, and obviously over the years a lot with him. How do you go about these kinds of things? Do they come out of jams? Or are they the kinds of things you guys do together?
JB: They’re usually arranged things. Like the Stevie Wonder session was arranged by Motown, who got together with Epic. Epic contacted them and said, “Jeff is a huge fan of Stevie.” “Oh, bring him over, blah blah blah.” And we made the arrangements to have me on his record, and he would write me some songs. And that’s how that came about. It was all very formal. But music is a weird thing, isn’t it?
|In celebration of today’s release, the new album is available at Amazon for just $4.99 as an MP3. Purchase now!|
I just played on a Sharon Corr track for her album. How did that happen? Simply because she came to the show when we played Ireland. And, as you do, you get talking about different things, and I love Davy Spillane — pipe player, the uilleann pipe player. And she said, “Well that’s amazing—he’s on my record, and I’d love you to play a track on it.” So what was not there in the morning is now a handshake promise in the evening, do you know what I mean? And that’s how it’s been—very checkered, but still very interesting, how things change.
FN: You seem to enjoy sharing the spotlight, given the people you’ve had in your bands; brought onstage with you, and all that. Not everybody seems to like that. What’s the appeal to you?
JB: I couldn’t care less. I mean, if somebody is good, they should be heard. It all adds to the spice of the show, if somebody has got something to say. Prince does that—he gives solos to sax players and bass players, and people seem to love it.
It’s not all about the artist full on all the time, you know. Can’t think of anything worse. And I’ve done it—I’ve performed one after the other track, one after the other. It’s exhausting and not much fun, but when you get another player onstage, or a tune where everybody is involved and solos are going on, surely that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? It’s a conversational thing.
FN: So when you have somebody like Jan Hammer in the past or Jennifer Batten more recently or the people you’re playing with now …
JB: Yeah, well, it’s an exchange of ideas. Also, it gives you a break. I mean, otherwise I’d probably seize up.
It’s pretty full on, having said that. There’s not much time during our show where I’m not hard at it. But I don’t go off for, like, ten minutes while a drum solo is going on (laughs). They used to do that. Horrible, horrible, horrible. Ban the drum solo, I say. At least, I would say, except for Jools Holland’s drummer, who I saw at the Albert Hall. That was a proper drum solo—absolutely amazing. He kept the rhythm going, and goosing the audience, you know. Beautiful solo.
Gene Krupa was one of my favorite drummers, who kept the bass drum pulsing. Just extraordinary excitement going on there. That was in the ’40s.
FN: You’ve got a world tour coming up with a U.S. leg that begins April 16 in San Francisco and includes the Bonnaroo Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Are you looking forward to hitting the road?
JB: Yeah. I just want to get back playing again, you know. Three weeks is a lifetime for a guitarist, I think. You’ve got to be at it, and practicing at home doesn’t do it—you’ve got to be onstage. Sound check, two hours; two-hour show—that’s four hours of hard playing. You cannot simulate that anywhere else, I don’t think. You can exercise, but it’s not the same thing at all. The pressure of being in front of people brings something else out of you that you can’t get in your house or in a hotel room.