In Rolling Stone‘s new issue, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton sit down for the first time to discuss old rivalries, blues heroes and the secrets of their craft. Here’s more from David Fricke’s conversation with Clapton: the guitarist on Jeff Beck’s vocals and learning to love his own “old man voice.”
How do you account for the fact that Jeff Beck isn’t as big a rock star as you are?
He deliberately carved that image. I don’t think he would deny that. He likes to be left alone. He wants to be underneath the car, working on the engines. He made that one record where he sang [the 1967 British hit “Hi Ho Silver Lining”], and rarely did it again. That’s always a bone of contention. I had a chat with his manager Harvey [Goldsmith] after he signed Jeff. I said, “Are you going to get him to sing?” He said, “I’ll try.” Good luck! But if he isn’t motivated [to do it], I think he’s missing something. It’s an enjoyable thing to do.
Most of the guitarists in that elite group that you mention [in the story] — Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, B.B. King — are singers. Jeff is not.
He sings when he plays. He has that melodic inventiveness that we were talking about yesterday [at Beck’s house], that he puts into everything he plays. Derek [Trucks] is another one. I think Derek should sing. Because he has the same thing. He has a Voice.
A vocal mentality.
Exactly. But I would worry about the amount of sacrifice they would have to make in terms of their technique, in order to start focusing on being a vocalist.
Did you feel when you started singing regularly in the late Sixties that you had to dial back as a player?
Yeah. I don’t think I did it consciously. But automatically, once you start applying your discipline to one part of your vocabulary, another part has to suffer to a certain extent.
Why does it have to suffer?
If you’re just talking about the amount of practice that you take to sing. I’m talking from my experience. My concentration will become focused on whether I’m pitching properly, whether my diction is okay, if the evenness of breathing is getting to all of the [melody] line, that I’m not losing the last part of the line because I’m running out of breath. And then I’ve got a guitar solo: “Oh God, I have to do that as well.”
Some kind of prioritizing has to go on. The thing with Derek and Jeff and guys like that is they have spent their entire lives, so far, focused on that one element that they created. They probably know, subconsciously, that they will lose a little bit of ground.
Did you like your voice when you started singing?
No. I do now. It’s taken me to be an older guy, an old man, to have an old man’s voice. Because I only liked old men’s voices. As a kid, I didn’t like pip-squeaked singers. It was always someone with authority. And for a singer to have authority, they have to have some kind of social standing. Otherwise, it’s fake.
So when you sang “After Midnight” and “Let It Rain” on your first solo album, you didn’t feel you were convincing in those roles.
No. I also suffered from a delusion that a lot of people share, from what I can see. Which is, if you sing at the top of your range, it’s more expressive. So I figured out how high I could sing. Then I sang in that key. It’s a cop-out, because it’s easier to pitch — you just stretch. To sing in a lower key is harder work. You have to use your diaphragm more. All of these things come into play. And it’s like, “God, I don’t want to be bothered.” But that’s when it becomes authority. I didn’t learn all of that — it’s just maturity.
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