Among the many tributes paid to Jeff Beck by his peers and collaborators, after his death on 10 January, Rod Stewart’s stood out. Perhaps it was because this was a singer looking at Beck from a singer’s point of view, a different perspective.
Where we guitar players watch Beck and wonder in awe at how he manipulated his guitar in the way he did – did anyone ever make more use of the Fender Stratocaster’s design? – Stewart had the benefit of sharing the stage and bouncing off Beck, of being in the conversation with him.
“Jeff Beck was on another planet,” Stewart wrote. “He took me and Ronnie Wood to the USA in the late ‘60s in his band the Jeff Beck Group and we haven’t looked back since. He was one of the few guitarists that when playing live would actually listen to me sing and respond. Jeff, you were the greatest, my man. Thank you for everything.”
We rightly think of Jeff Beck as this singular presence on electric guitar, the instrument an extension of himself, but when he performed, he was similarly attuned to what was going on elsewhere on the stage, in the mix. He was as good a listener as he was a performer.
Watching clips of Beck playing is always mind-blowing, no matter the context. Most recently, Beck shot a promo clip for Fender’s American Vintage II Series, and turned Link Wray’s Rumble into this thing of rare anarchy, revising the original bad boy rock ’n’ roll instrumental a new sense of danger for the 21st century.
Here we’re watching a different side to Beck; this is Beck the collaborator. Go on YouTube and you’ll find dozens or more of these, occasions in which Beck joins a one of his peers and the magic just happens.
But it doesn’t just happen. It’s a gift. As Stewart says, that was a big part of what made Beck special, for many people’s money the best there ever was. And here he is with some of the best.
With the White Stripes
It was the 14 September 2002, and the night opened with the Jeff Beck Group performing Beck’s Bolero. A slow dance with the audience at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank, you could not find a more appropriate introduction to a career retrospective of Beck’s work.
All of the hits – and the deep cuts – kept coming. Still I’m Sad served notice that those in attendance were entering the Yardbirds era, and there were some special guests in attendance, with the White Stripes joining Beck for seven tracks that draw the aesthetic parallel between the two bands for anyone who had failed to notice it before. Yardbirds standards such as Heart Full of Soul – written by Graham Gouldman, later of 10cc – and Evil Hearted You were mother’s milk to Jack White.
Beck also played with John McLaughlin that night, the pair joining forces for What Mama Said and a cover of Django, the song written in 1954 by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet in tribute to Django Reinhardt who died in ’53.
But with the White Stripes? That was an inspired collaboration. What Beck and White could have done on record would have been something worth hearing.
With BB King
“Go ahead, Jeff. Go ahead,” says BB King, his tone even and encouraging, and Jeff does just that, he goes ahead with a guitar solo that’s been teased throughout the first verse and does not disappoint.
This performance of Key To The Highway is truly a two-hander, with the King of the Blues radiating warmth and charisma, and it is further evidence of what Rod Stewart said about Beck, about him being a guitar player who listened to the singer and reacted accordingly. This here is a conversation here. The best collaborations almost always are.
Perhaps it was a function of Beck recording so many instrumentals that his phrasing and style would evolve to become so talkative. We can look at how he brings the volume controls in play, in concert with the whammy bar, and talk about it in very player-centric terms, such as dynamics and so forth, but you don’t need to play the instrument to glom onto what Beck is doing here, he’s talking with the thing. At any rate, this Charlie Segar and Big Bill Broonzy, standard has scarcely sounded better.
With the Rolling Stones – Going Down
This was the cold winter night in London on the 50 And Counting Tour when Jeff Beck had his Marshall head wheeled out onstage to turn up the heat on the Stones, a three-guitar jam on the Don Nixon / Alabama State Troupers track, featuring Beck on his Strat, Ronnie Wood on a Les Paul Standard and Keith Richards with his 1959 ES-355.
Mick Jagger is brilliant here, the way he stretches out contemporaries into eight syllables. Pure Jagger. Beck adds weight and a quasi-metal power to the Stones. These are the occasions during a set when it’s time to turn it up, time for the late, great Charlie Watts to hit them just a little bit harder.
Beck’s solo is brilliant here. If you have tuned in for fireworks and a little showing off, you’ve got it – some two-handed tapped trills, harmonics that just fly off the guitar, as though on command – but while he brings the heat to the jam he never overcooks it.
There will be many watching this and will be of an opinion they are watching the greatest guitarist ever jamming with the greatest drummer ever. They might not be wrong.
With Eric Clapton and Doyle Bramhall II
This is a great clip from Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival, particularly thanks to bonus intro from Slowhand talking about his old pal and fellow Yardbird, and what makes him the guitar player he is.
Clapton is right; they are two sides of the same coin, radically different styles and yet somehow co-existing on the same plane. And yes, who could ever get close to Beck’s mastery of the Stratocaster’s complement of controls, that whammy bar an extension of his arm.
Clapton suggests close observation might yield reward some insight into how all this is performed, but if anything seeing it puts it further out of reach. These are the sorts of techniques that are developed over the years, each building upon the last.
Clapton’s solo confirms what he was talking about earlier, complementing Beck perfectly, and so too Doyle Bramhall II, the southpaw on the Strat, whose solo heightens the drama for the denouement of the jam.
With Buddy Guy and Billy Gibbons
Here we have two different players, two different styles, on the same night, right after one another, and with each Beck is totally at home. It is as though they have all played together for years.
In a sense, they already have. It was the likes of Buddy Guy that Beck and Clapton drew inspiration from; those were the cats who gave them their vocabulary.
To see them on the stage together was not altogether unusual. Beck and Guy jammed together on a number of occasions. But it is always instructional, like a two-way conversation between teacher and student.
As a peer, Billy Gibbons approaches things from a different POV, and how apt that they should join forces on a Jimi Hendrix track that Gibbons had the great chutzpah – and by goodness the talent – to play while actually touring with Hendrix back in the day with the Moving Sidewalks. Gibbons, Guy and Beck, these are birds of a feather, players happy to play in any company. Credit also to the awesome Tal Wilkenfeld for holding it down on bass guitar and anchoring the jam.