Jeff Beck, Rock’s Quiet Guitar Virtuoso, Dead at 78
Jeff Beck, the blues-rock innovator and two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who revolutionized how the guitar is played, died Tuesday at the age of 78.
Beck’s family confirmed the former Yardbirds guitarist’s death Wednesday. “On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck’s passing,” Beck’s family said in a statement. “After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday. His family asks for privacy while they process this tremendous loss.”
Beck, an eight-time Grammy winner, was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — both as a member of the Yardbirds as well as for his work with his own Jeff Beck Group.
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Beck’s Yardbirds bandmate who inducted the guitarist into the Rock Hall in 2009, wrote on social media Wednesday, “The six stringed Warrior is no longer here for us to admire the spell he could weave around our mortal emotions. Jeff could channel music from the ethereal. His technique unique. His imaginations apparently limitless. Jeff I will miss you along with your millions of fans. Jeff Beck Rest in Peace.”
“Jeff Beck has the combination of brilliant technique with personality,” the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell wrote when Beck placed Number Five on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘I’m Jeff Beck. I’m right here. And you can’t ignore me.’ Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic but in-your-face — bright, urgent, and edgy, but sweet at the same time. You could tell he was a serious player, and he was going for it. He was not holding back.”
Before Beck discovered guitar, his mother had wanted him to play the piano. But once his parents saw how Beck, who was born in Surrey, England on June 24, 1944, took to the guitar, they allowed it. “[My parents] complained [about the guitar], but they didn’t stop me,” he told Rolling Stone in 2018. “I suppose they thought, ‘If he’s got the guitar, he’s not going out stealing.’ The only friends I had were pretty low-life; most of them were one step away from jail.” Eventually, Beck bonded with another boy who was a budding guitarist in his neighborhood, Jimmy Page. The two musicians shared a passion for rockabilly music (Beck credited his older sister with buying the records that shaped his taste) and would try to impress each other with their skills.
He attended London’s Wimbledon Art College, where he played with British musician Lord Sutch. He’d later audition for the Yardbirds at the encouragement of Page, who had become a successful session guitarist, in 1965 after Eric Clapton quit the group for becoming too poppy. Nevertheless, Beck remembered frontman Keith Relf as being something of a blues purist. “I thought, ‘You can be a purist and you can be poor; I’m gonna do what I think is best,'” he said. Beck had a natural penchant for psychedelia, experimentalism, and jazz (two of his favorite musicians in the Sixties were Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk) and his avant-garde side fit perfectly with the pop scene in the Sixties. The Yardbirds soon recorded the hits “Heart Full of Soul” and “Evil Hearted You,” both of which charted in the U.K., which they followed up with “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down,” their first U.S. chart hits.
Page joined the band in 1966, first on bass and then eventually as a co-lead guitarist. The Yardbirds performed “Stroll On” (a version of Jimmy Burnette’s “Train Kept a-Rollin‘”) for a sequence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up, in which Beck smashed a guitar a la Pete Townshend. “Well, clearly the Who was asked to do it and they said no,” Beck recalled. “I wasn’t in the position to argue when they paid us a lot of money. … [Antonioni] just said, ‘You’ll smash your guitar.’ And I said, ‘No, I won’t.’ It was a sunburst Les Paul. He said, ‘We’ll buy you another one.’ He didn’t grasp that you don’t do that to most guitars. So they rented six beginner guitars, and they were so cheap they came in a clear plastic bag.”
But Beck would no longer be in the band by the time the film came out. He quit in November 1966 after an illness and suffering a breakdown. In 1967, he recorded the pop single “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” a track on which he sang lead vocals, that became a hit, while its B-side, “Beck’s Bolero,” foreshadowed Led Zeppelin as it featured Page and bassist John Paul Jones accompanying Beck alongside the Who’s Keith Moon and pianist Nicky Hopkins. That same year, he founded the heavy-blues focused Jeff Beck Group, which featured singer Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood on bass. The group issued two albums — 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola — and turned down an appearance at Woodstock before Beck disbanded the ensemble, leading Stewart and Wood to join Faces.
“Jeff Beck was on another planet. 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,” Stewart tweeted Wednesday. “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. RIP.”
Beck next hoped to form a group with Vanilla Fudge’s Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice but a car crash, in which he fractured his skull, delayed the group coming together for a year and a half. In that time, Beck decided to explore his interest in Motown and sat in on some of Stevie Wonder’s sessions for Talking Book. At one point, Beck started playing the drums and when Wonder walked in, he liked the groove and wrote “Superstition” around it. With Bogert and Appice in another group at the time, Beck formed the Jeff Beck Group, which put out two more albums with a funkier sound to them, before finally assembling the power trio Beck, Bogert, and Appice in 1972. They lasted only about two years, though Beck remembered BBA’s version of “Superstition” as “a great heavy metal song.”
When Beck reemerged, he had moved on from blues rock to instrumental jazz-fusion. His 1975 album, Blow by Blow, was a surprise hit, reaching Number Four in the U.S. and going platinum. Beatles producer George Martin helmed the album, and Beck later credited him with salvaging his career. “I thought, ‘This sounds like we’re playing in the room — it’s clear and fabulous,'” Beck later said of the sound of Blow by Blow. “That first album was a joy.” He supported the record by touring with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1975 and releasing Wired, a collaboration with Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer, the following year. He took a few years off and came back with another Hammer collaboration, There and Back, in 1980.
Perhaps worried he’d become doomed to guitar-nerd oblivion, he teamed with Stewart again on 1985’s Flash album for a cover of “People Get Ready,” which became a hit. That album’s “Escape,” an instrumental, won him the Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy the following year. He’d earn another Grammy four years later with Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop With Terry Bozzio and Tony Hymas.
“I was glad on the one hand that guitar was still king,” Beck once said of the Eighties. “[Guitarists] were flying a great flag for the guitar. … I had every respect for Vai and Eddie Van Halen. Great. Let them have that. As long as it doesn’t encroach on my style — and it didn’t — I was happy.”
He spent the rest of the Eighties working as a guest musician, adding solos to albums by Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, and Jon Bon Jovi. But he had trouble replicating his success as a solo artist for decades. The Nineties found him bouncing from rockabilly on 1993’s Crazy Legs to techno, on 1999’s Who Else!
As Slash told Rolling Stone in a feature where guitarists discussed their favorite guitarists, “It’s a lot easier to appreciate Beck’s guitar playing if you’re a guitar player. He just has such a natural control over the instrument. It’s the ability to make it do something that you’ve never heard anybody else do. Blow by Blow is the album I had when I was a kid. He would go from love songs to a really blistering, hard-rock, heavy-sounding guitar without ever going over the top.”
Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil added, “Jeff Beck always comes to mind. He’s an incredibly proficient guitarist, but he isn’t Mr. Pedant. The late Seventies to late Eighties were full of guitarists who were preoccupied with technique, like the guitar wasn’t a voice but a tool to be mastered. Jeff Beck wasn’t that way — he used it as a microphone. He was confident.” (In that same feature, Beck credited Django Reinhardt as his chief inspiration.)
In 2009, 17 years after Beck was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Yardbirds, he delivered one of the greatest induction speeches of all time when he reentered the Rock Hall for his solo work. “Someone told me I should be proud tonight. But I’m not, because they kicked me out. They did. Fuck them,” he quipped at the 1992 ceremony. “I couldn’t believe I was even nominated,” Beck told Rolling Stone at the time. “I thought the Yardbirds was as close as I’d get to getting in. I’ve gone on long after that and gone through different musical changes. It’s very nice to hear that people have been listening.”
Although Beck made his initial mark in the British Invasion and pioneering blues-rock, the virtuosic guitarist continued to push his musicianship into other genres, from jazz fusion to trance (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” with Imogen Heap) to orchestral rock (2010’s Emotion and Commotion) to heavy metal; in 2022, he appeared on the title track of Ozzy Osbourne’s Patient Number 9. “Having someone like Jeff Beck play on my album is just incredible, a total honor. There’s no other guitar player that plays like him and his solo on ‘Patient Number 9’ is just jaw-dropping,” Osbourne said at the time.
Over the past 30 years, Beck also served as an all-star collaborator for artists ranging from Seal and Kate Bush to Roger Waters, Morrissey, and ZZ Top. (“Who’s gonna say no when I got the call? I’d be proud that someone remembered I was even alive,” Beck joked to Rolling Stone about his guest appearances.) In what was his final album during his lifetime, Beck and actor Johnny Depp — a longtime friend — released the album 18, a largely covers LP featuring the duo’s interpretations of songs by the Beach Boys, the Velvet Underground, Marvin Gaye, and John Lennon.
Steven Van Zandt, who recently performed with Beck and Depp, paid tribute to Beck on Wednesday, and wrote, “Not only was he a major influence, and his genius an infinite source of joy my entire lifetime, he was in great spirits when we spoke a few weeks ago having done a flawless show with Johnny the night before at the Capitol. Unreal.”
As a solo artist, Beck also remained prolific and vital: He won seven of his eight career Grammy Awards from 1989 onward, including a dominating streak of wins and nominations in the Best Rock Instrumental Performance over the first decade of the 2000s.
Musicians continued to pay tribute to Beck on Wednesday evening. “Always and ever,” Clapton wrote on social media with a photo of Beck performing. Rush members Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson also paid homage, with Lee posting that “he was my personal favourite guitarist, someone who truly blew my mind from then ‘til now. Lifeson shared later that evening that “Jeff Beck’s playing made me smile and made me cry and made me try to be a better player and most of all, made me and countless others seek the ultimate expression of who we are as players.”
“Jeff Beck was a lovely man with a wicked sense of humour who played some of the best guitar music ever to come out of Great Britain. He was a superb technician and could strip down his guitar and put it back together again in time for the show,” Paul McCartney wrote on social media.
“His unique style of playing was something that no one could match, and I will always remember the great times we had together. He would come over to dinner at our place or he and his wife, Sandra, would host an evening at their house. Jeff had immaculate taste in most things and was an expert at rebuilding his collection of cars. His no nonsense attitude to the music business was always so refreshing and I will cherish forever the moments we spent together. Jeff Beck has left the building and it is a lonelier place without him.”
“You didn’t miss the singer, because the guitar was so lyrical,” Mike Campbell wrote of Beck’s playing. “There is a spirituality and confidence in him, a commitment to being great. After I saw [his] show, I went home and started practicing. Maybe that’s what I took from him: If you want to be Jeff Beck, do your homework.”
“I’ve never made the big time, mercifully probably,” Beck told Rolling Stone in 2018. “When you look around and see who has made it huge, it’s a really rotten place to be when you think about it. Maybe I’m blessed with not having had that. And I have to look at it that way.”