One of the most influential lead guitarists in rock, Jeff Beck helped shape blues rock, psychedelia, and heavy metal. Beck's groups have been short-lived, and he has probably been handicapped by the fact that he doesn't sing, but his aggressive style — encompassing screaming, bent, sustained notes, distortion, feedback, and fast, crisply articulated passages — has been more far important than his material.
Born Geoffrey Arnold Beck on June 24, 1944, in Wallington, England, he attended Wimbledon Art College in London and backed early shock rocker Screaming Lord Sutch before replacing Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds in 1965. Beck established his reputation with that band, but he left the following year.
After a short sabbatical he released a version of "Love Is Blue," played deliberately out of tune because he loathed the song. In 1967 he founded the Jeff Beck Group with Ron Wood and Rod Stewart. The band's reworkings of blues-based material helped lay the groundwork for Seventies heavy metal.
Clashing temperaments broke up the group after two acclaimed albums and several U.S. tours. Stewart and Wood went on to join the Faces. Beck was planning to form a band with Vanilla Fudge members Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice when he was sidelined for 18 months with a fractured skull he sustained in a car crash. (A car aficionado, Beck has been in three crashes and was once sidelined for months after getting his thumb trapped under a car.) When he recovered, Bogert and Appice were busy in Cactus, so Beck assembled a second Jeff Beck Group and put out two albums of Memphis funk laced with heavy metal. When Cactus broke up in late 1972, Beck, Bogert, and Appice returned Beck to a power trio format, but weak vocals hampered the band, and it dissolved in early 1974.
Beck then went into the first of many periods of hibernation. In 1975 he reemerged in an all-instrumental format, playing fusion-style jazz tunes. He toured as coheadliner with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and started an on-again, off-again collaboration with former Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer in 1976 with Wired (Number 16).
During the late Seventies Beck reportedly spent most of his time on his 70-acre estate outside London. He and Hammer worked together on the 1980 album There and Back, but Hammer did not join Beck for his 1980 tour, the guitarist's first in more than four years.
In 1981 Beck appeared at Amnesty International's Secret Policeman's Ball, and in 1985 he toured Japan. Flash, which includes Beck's sole charting single, "People Get Ready" (Number 48, 1985), with Rod Stewart on vocals, and the Grammy-winning "Escape," written by Hammer, peaked at Number 39. Four years later Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop With Terry Bozzio and Tony Hymas (Number 49, 1989) garnered the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Crazy Legs, an homage to Gene Vincent's Blue Caps and rockabilly guitar legend Cliff Gallup, met with mixed reviews.
During the Eighties and Nineties Beck turned up on recordings by artists including Mick Jagger, Malcolm McLaren, Roger Waters, and Jon Bon Jovi. He finally recorded an album of new material (all instrumental) in 1999. On Who Else!, the guitarist got support from longtime collaborators Hammer (on one song) and Hymas and explored a more electronic environment; a tour followed.
The same year Beck was nominated for two Grammys: "A Day in the Life," his contribution to George Martin's album In My Life, was nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, while the guitarist's own "What Mama Said" was nominated for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Beck spent much of 1999 touring.
By the 2000s, Beck seemed content with his new electronic direction and continued putting out albums in that vein: You Had It Coming (2001), on which he reinterpreted Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and the Beatles' "Blackbird" as electronica, and Jeff (2003), on which he cranked up the hip-hop breakbeats, industrial rhythms and synthetic lyricism to a Chemical Brothers-like frenzy. Tracks on both albums won him Grammys for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. He returned with predominantly Wired-era pyrotechnics on his 2008 live album, Performing This Week...Live At Ronnie Scott's.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.