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 Beck: the guitarist on the orchestral twist on his next album Emotion & Commotion and the art of capturing the perfect guitar solo.
The new album is a mix of everything you do — fusion, heavy rock, R&B — but with several tracks that are just you on electric guitar and a full orchestra.
But they’re not swamping the music, like “Hey, we’ve got an orchestra!” The original idea was I was going to make a classical record — a complete and utter departure from all of the things I’d ever done. That was an idea that was put to me by [Blow by Blow and Wired producer] George Martin in 1976.
Just you and strings?
Absolutely, a full orchestra. George brought a bagload of records to the house. We had a lovely luncheon, and he said, “Learn all that, and come and see me.” [Laughs] It was too early for me to get into it. I put it on the back burner. I probably left it a bit too long.
Later, I had a stab at “Nimrod” [from Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar], without an orchestra, all on keyboards, and that sounded nice. Then I heard Mahler’s Fifth [Symphony No. 5], and I just melted. I did a version of that, overlaid on a sample of the New York Philharmonic and a bit of harp. It sounds amazing. It was used as Exhibit A from me to the record company, to see if they liked it. They loved it and said, “Where’s the rest of it?” I just couldn’t rattle off another eight or 10 songs, because that took ages to put together.
So that went on the back burner. Then I heard the “Elegy” [“Elegy for Dunkirk,” the closing track on Emotion & Commotion]. It’s from the movie Atonement. I thought, “That suits my style more.”
What attracted you to the Puccini aria, “Nessun Dorma”?
It was a cheeky thing. Obviously everybody knows the Pavarotti version. If he didn’t sing “Nessun Dorma” at the end of his concerts, there would be riots in the street. And the Italians adopted it as their theme for the World Cup. I was playing a charity concert in Viareggio, and I thought I would play that. I had no idea Puccini was born there [in nearby Lucca]. At soundcheck, I didn’t tell anyone what I was going to do. I started playing it and the jaws dropped. People were going, “What?” I made sure the sound was right after two bars and went, “That’s it.”
Later, when I played it in the show, I was physically shaking. I had only just learned it. And after the crowd heard the first line, there was a gasp: “No, he’s not going to play that.” Then there was a roar after every phrase. It suits me great. It’s a beautiful simple melody. It climbs and climbs to that glorious end.
Your performance on the record also shows how the guitar itself is an operatic vocal instrument.
If I never do anything else, I want to draw people’s attention to that. The Strat has the potential to be a voice. We were going to call the album The Voice. Then I was thinking, “Well, the album has a lot of emotion. But what about the heavy stuff? Well that’s a bit of commotion.” That’s me, Captain Obvious [laughs].
Was there a moment when you first discovered that vocal quality in your playing, compared to the heavy-blues and rock sounds on those first Jeff Beck Group records?
Very early on, I used to play a thing called “Sleepwalk” [the 1959 hit by Santo and Johnny]. It was a great thing to have, after all of the rockabilly stuff we played in these village halls — to have a bunch of girls stare at you while you’re playing it, and then clap. Because they never clapped. They danced. If they did that, you were doing great. If they didn’t dance or clap, you might as well as pack your bag.
But they used to stand and sway when I played “Sleepwalk.” I was only 15 or 16. But I thought, “This is cool.” And I’d get favorable comments from people afterward. They didn’t remember “Be Bop a Lula” or “Hound Dog,” but they remembered that. I lodged that in my memory — you can reach people with the right notes, in the right way.
How fastidious are you about your solos in the studio?
I’m sure I put [Emotion & Commotion producer] Steve Lipson one step nearer the nuthouse. Because I come back with the truth. Every time I get an evening off, to listen to things, I realize I couldn’t possibly live with this or that. You can call me fastidious, but it’s just common sense, a bit of good wisdom to go back and change what you can.
Are there solos from those mid-Seventies records — Blow by Blow and Wired — that you remember as being right on the money when you played them?
Most of the best solos were real, just done live. We cut four or five tracks with the original Blow by Blow lineup — that’s what got George excited. We were just having fun, and George was recording it. “Freeway Jam” was one of those things.
There is an infamous story that sometime after you finished Blow by Blow, you called George and said you wanted to redo some solos. But by then . . .
It was in the shops. [Laughs] Yes. At one point, on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the tape stretched [from all of the retakes], so they couldn’t use that particular section of it. The Beatles are at fault for that. They were the ones who made it so you could have months in the studio instead of hours. I prefer the hours — heart pumping, get it right. That’s the way it was in the old days — to be able to put yourself on record in a few hours, and not analyze it. Because then it was too late, pal.