INTERVIEW: Jeff Beck on Les Paul and new Rock 'N' Roll Party DVD
More than half a century after he first heard the iconic sound of Les Paul's guitar coming out of his mum's radio, Jeff Beck has staged a tribute to his first musical hero.
Rock 'N' Roll Party, out now on CD, DVD and Blu-ray, finds Beck replicating choice cuts from the Les Paul canon, with modern rockabilly queen Imelda May deputising on vocals for Paul's wife Mary Ford.
Paul was still active up until a few months before his death in 2009, playing weekly shows at a New York jazz club - the perfect venue for a heartfelt celebration, as Beck explained to MusicRadar.
The CD and DVD/Blu-ray were recorded at the Iridium in New York, the same club Les was still playing every week well into his 90s.
"Yeah, I just really regret he wasn't there to join in, that would have made it very special indeed. It's really a jazz club, so it's not exactly the best venue for any sort of loud rock music; it's very much like Ronnie Scott's in London in that sense."
You must have seen him there yourself a few times over the years.
"Yeah, he made a monkey out of me one time. I was in the audience and he bullied me into getting up on stage with him, which I didn't really want to do. But I reluctantly made my way forward - and then he left!
"He said he needed to go to talk to some friends at the back of the room, so he just fucked off! But that was Les, all over, he had a sly sense of humour."
How old were you when you first heard Les Paul?
"It was around 1950, so I would have been about six. Mum's radio was on all the time, but there was this sound coming out of it that wasn't like anything I'd ever heard, certainly not like anything else that was being broadcast.
"It was Les and his wife Mary Ford doing How High The Moon, and there had never been a guitar played so fast and with such precision. Those opening bars are quite astonishing; the sharpness of tone, the urgent rhythm, the way he uses the guitar as a percussive instrument. Drums take up a lot of space, but Les didn't need them.
"Even when you play the record today it still sounds jumping, but without a heavy-handed backbeat. You just knew there was more to the guy than just slick guitar playing; he thought long and hard about every aspect of the song and its recording.
"And then there's Mary's multi-tracked voice, probably the first time anyone had heard a singer harmonising with themselves. It became quite normal a few years later on things like Brian Hyland's Sealed With A Kiss, or The Shangri-Las' records, and Buddy Holly, of course.
"If you take away the double-tracking on a lot of those songs they sound really weedy. It's all in the mix; if it's not balanced right it can sound like two voices fighting each other, rather than a cohesive track.
"But Les was a professor of sound; the way his mind worked was incredible. He gave rise to the echo, the slight delay in playback, that really added another dimension to guitar playing.
"He pioneered that 'slap' way of playing that opened up a whole world of possiblities. Whenever he finished a track he'd transmit it through a car radio, because he recognised that was how most people would initially hear it, and he wanted to make sure it sounded good over the airwaves."
How long was it, after hearing Les when you were six, before you picked up a guitar yourself?
"It would have been two or three years later, but the first instrument I tried to learn was a violin. That was pretty much the only toy I had at that time, because we never had much money and post-war rationing was still going on - I remember my mum used to hide the butter so that no one in the family could sneak more than their share!
"It was pretty grim. My first 'guitar', if you can call it that, was something I made myself. My uncle smoked pipe tobacco and he'd give me the empty tins, which I'd then stretch rubber bands over. Then I moved on, attaching a neck to a bigger cigar box and stretching wires along it. You couldn't really play it, but it gave you something to pose with!"
Do you remember when you first met Les? Were you nervous coming face-to-face with one of your own heroes?
"I imagine any guitarist would have been nervous. He was, after all, the guy who pretty much invented the guitars we all love.
"We were both on the bill for a show Billy Squier was putting on at Perkins Palace in Pasadena in the early 80s. There were a few guitarists taking part, but we were all overshadowed by Les, really.
"He called me in my hotel room - I hadn't realised he was in the room directly above - and he invited me up for tea and cakes! He'd laid on this fancy afternoon spread for the Englishman!"
How did you go about replicating the Les Paul sound for Rock 'n' Roll Party?
"Well, the prerequisite is to have a small amp, whether it's a Fender or a Marshall, and scale down the wattage so that it's proportional to the building you're playing in, especially if it's got a low ceiling like the Iridium.
"You don't want to blow people away with a monster sound, and I think that's where some guitarists make a mistake. Quiet can be good, it gives you more chance to explore the nuances of what you're playing.
"I played a 1959 Gibson, which was loaned to me by the manufacturers because I don't own one myself, and the character of the tone of it, without distortion, is something you can't get out of any other guitar.
"I don't understand players who get their hands on such a great instrument and then crank it up and distort it through a massive amp. If you're gonna do that, you might as well chuck the Gibson away and play any old thing.
"Some day I'd like to make a whole album with a ten dollar guitar just to prove what you can achieve with a cheap axe and a box of tricks, but if you've got a precision instrument you should treat it with respect and allow its own strengths to come to the fore.
"That's something Les understood when he was helping to design guitars. He did a lot of the hard work for us, and we should be eternally grateful."