Jeff Beck on Going Note-for-Note With ZZ Top and a 'Naughty' Brian Wilson Track

Guitarist explains the health setback that forced him to cancel a European tour and his plans for a new album

Jeff Beck
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Jeff Beck performs as part of the "Beards N' Beck Tour 2014", Saratoga, CA, August 12, 2014.
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"I hate recording, because it's just a snapshot," Jeff Beck says. "It's not the real thing."

Currently, the guitarist is showing off the real thing on the road, touring the U.S. with ZZ Top through mid-September. Although the former Yardbird hasn't put out a studio album since 2010's Emotion & Commotion – "Playing guitar is a sideline, the cars are the main thing," Beck jokes about his hotrod obsession – the guitar virtuoso has been playing a mix of instrumental songs and bluesy tunes that feature vocalist Jimmy Hall, who sang on Beck's 1985 album Flash. Each night, Beck has been coming out to jam with the Texas blues trio to play some of their hits, like "Rough Boy" – which Beck and ZZ Top vocalist-guitarist Billy Gibbons played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert in 2009 – and songs both artists have played, like "Jailhouse Rock," which Beck covered on 1969's Beck-Ola. (Update: The tour has been canceled, due to an injury sustained by ZZ Top's Dusty Hill.)

Related Brian Wilson, Jeff Beck, Behind the Scenes, Beacon Theater, New York, Tuesday 15th, 2013
Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck Behind the Scenes

Rolling Stone caught up with Beck a few days into the tour to find out what he has in common with ZZ Top and what his plans are for when he eventually does make it back into a recording studio.

When did you first meet ZZ Top?
Back before Billy even knew what a Marshall stack was [laughs]. I recently learned that in '68, the first time the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart, had a gig in Dallas, the Moving Sidewalks, which was Billy's band at the time, were in the audience. He's said they'd never seen anything like it: the blues-based, heavy, heavy riffs and the big Marshalls. We had a problem with transport after we played, and they offered to take our equipment to the next gig.

Do you remember them?
No [laughs]. I sort of vaguely remember the kindness act, but the whole touring experience at the time was dreamlike.

When did you first take notice of ZZ Top?
When Eliminator came out, with MTV and the girls with the hot pants, they had it all in the one package on MTV. They love the blues and they love the raucous, screaming harmonicas. They took what was already there and just customized it; that's pretty much what I was doing, trying to modify blues into another form of music. I thought well if MTV is going to power-rotate a song, at least let it be "Rough Boy" or "Legs" or one of those really great songs. I was a bit miffed, though, because they used the hotrod theme. But then I thought, "They've got much more right. That's apple-pie American." A little English boy with spots doesn't count [laughs].

You played "Rough Boy" with Billy Gibbons during your set at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concerts in 2009. What is it you like about that song?
I was going through a very blue period when it came out, and it wasn't what I expected from ZZ Top. There was such a beautiful melody and mysterious words. And the solo leaps out in a different key. Also, the surreal imagery that went on the video, the intergalactic carwash – the car goes up into space [laughs]. I thought, this is almost surreal art. I loved it.

On the first few dates of the tour, you were joining ZZ Top on "Tush," "La Grange" and "Jailhouse Rock." How did you pick those songs?
Billy wanted me to do the jam, the simple stuff that you could just jam around. And they're the big ones. 

Is there any one-upmanship in the solos?
There's no one-upmanship with Billy [laughs]. He's Billy and he's like a concrete statue. You don't mess with it [laughs]. I just do little flights of fancy around him. His sound is as big as a house.

He might feel that way about you.
[Laughs] It is different. It's interesting to feel how they play onstage. It's so different from anything I've done. The simplicity and the focus on groove. Billy is a groovemeister by himself. He doesn't really need a drummer [laughs].

Frank [Beard, ZZ Top's drummer] plays slightly behind the beat, and that's the key. It's the same way that the Rolling Stones have this side of sloppiness that somehow when it reaches the air and the audience, it becomes one. When precision is there, it somehow loses some of its groove in the air. I don't know what it is. I've actually sought that out in the past few months. They play fairly sloppy. But when it all gets in the air, it somehow tightens itself up somehow.

Have you asked your band to play sloppier?
I have [laughs]. They're all insulted. They don't do sloppy.

How did you pick your set for this tour?
I was determined to steer away from the muso stuff, because I know that the bulk of the audience would be ZZ Top fans anyway, and I didn't want too big a gap between the musical styles. So I chose a tribute or a throwback to the Jeff Beck Group by adding [singer] Jimmy Hall, who's amazing. So there's a little tribute to the Beck band there and one or two other surprises. My set is one hour, split into half: six instrumentals, six vocals.

You cover Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" in your set. You once said you played bass with Hendrix at a show. What do you remember about that night?
We had six contracted nights at the Scene club in New York in 1968. And I remember distinctly not wanting to do these gigs because the success of the two nights with the Grateful Dead [at the Fillmore East] was so overwhelming. We got really rave reviews and blew everybody away. But the next day we're back in the hole, in a tiny little club again.

Having raised our profile on a big stage, we all didn't want to be scrutinized for six nights, in case people came and said, "It wasn't that good after all" [laughs]. And lo and behold, Jimi heard that we were in there, and he used to come in just about toward the end of the show. I don't know how many numbers we played, probably played half an hour. We probably played something along the lines of "Red House" or any blues song. It was pretty much standards or just instrumental jams. I knew he liked "Rice Pudding," that jam that's on Beck-Ola

And sometimes I'd play bass, just to take over for Woody [Ron Wood], because Woody wasn't really a bass player. He was a bass player, but he was by trade a guitarist. So I thought I'd take over on bass. And plus, if Jimi hadn't got a guitar, then there was only my guitar anyway. So it was a no brainer.

You had to cancel a European tour in June a for an emergency medical procedure on your back. What happened?
It was two things. About a year before, I'd had a back problem and I had to have an MRI scan and I couldn't walk. It was just a lower-back injury from lifting things while working on my hotrods. And then that turned into something where I just couldn't stand up for more than 10 minutes during the last European tour. And I said, "Look, I've got to get this fixed." So I had to get some surgery. They drilled about four holes in the front. After that, the problem kicked in again. I couldn't even get out of bed for about a week after the operation. It just slowed me down generally.

How are you now?
All right. I was on massive painkillers for about three or four days, and then they eased off a little bit. Instead of eight a day, I was taking four and then down to two. Not too bad now.

Brian Wilson's album coming will feature a version of "Danny Boy" on it that you recorded with him. What was it like recording that song with him?
Well, that's a bit naughty. I had just noodled "Danny Boy" at the end of a session, tuning. It was one of the few times when Brian actually looked at me, during the four-day session [laughs]. He said, "That's the most beautiful song ever." And he spoke to me quite normally. He said that was the first song his mother played him. He never forgot it. And they left that version, which is a bit ragged. I didn't pay much attention to perfection in it.

So it's not one of the songs you were working on with him?
No. But there's a Beach Boys–type harmony intro, which I believe was lifted from the original Beach Boys. Or maybe not. Maybe they re-recorded it, but it sounds familiar to me. The whole album is a bit of a mishmash. It was just weird the way they truncated the sessions in order to get me on the road with him. After I'd done the four days, instead of mixing and completing the album, they booked the tour. So there wasn't any real fresh product to put into the show. The whole thing was a bit of a disaster really.

So he didn't talk to you much in the sessions?
Brian never said a word. It was the most bizarre thing. I don't know what's going on with Brian, but perhaps it's best left alone. Not mention too much about that. Perhaps he's so cool, he never speaks to anybody [laughs].

But I did go up to check out this deli in Benedict Canyon or Coldwater Canyon that he frequents. He goes to it regularly three times a day. And I heard about this, and when we were rehearsing recently, I went up there and sure enough within five minutes he walked in. And on the way out, I said, "Hello, Brian," he said, "Hi!" And he walked straight past me [laughs]. It was like I never existed, like we had never toured for five weeks. There's something not quite right.

You put out an EP titled Yosōgai earlier this year in Japan. Will you be putting it out worldwide?
No, it was one of those pressurized things. The album wasn't ready and they said, what about a clip from the album or some token that people can have after the gig. So it was put together for that. It wasn't very good times for me. I was trying to get some picture of where I wanted to go. Everyone was writing 19 to the dozen, trying to get their songs put forward. And in the end, I was not happy with any of it. So we whittled it down some of the less awful stuff and put it on an EP for Japan [laughs].

Are you working on an album then?
Yeah. I'm going to wait 'til the end of this tour to see if we can't make a compilation of some of the best moments and make maybe a bizarre collection of live concerts, interspersed with some of the studio stuff. Maybe a double, I don't know. I've got think about that.

Earlier this year, you told us you were going in a new direction musically that wasn't "Western-based," but you were vague at the time. What do you mean?
Middle Eastern music. That seemed to be an inviting avenue to take, because of the mysterious scales that they sing. They're unduplicatable some of the ways the Indian ladies sing. Those Arabic quartertones, there's some mystery in there that wants a bit of looking into.

Do you think you'll do a whole album of Middle Eastern music?
I'm not sure if that's a good idea. I don't want to steal anybody's music and do a deliberate rip. It's got to be something that's subtly involved in some natural way rather than to make a deliberate attempt at any particular Middle Eastern–style album. There's plenty of the original stuff that should be listened to. But there's no reason why the guitar can't adopt some of those runs and plant those on some western rock.