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Jeff Beck is one of the world's greatest guitar legends—his peers Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page both are certainly better known and more commercially successful—but he's undeniably one of the most fascinating, dedicated, enigmatic and influential artisans that ever played guitar.
During his Sixties stint in the Yardbirds Beck helped define the new sounds of hard rock and heavy metal. Then when bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath rose in popularity during the Seventies, he radically shifted directions, blazing a new path as a jazz-rock fusion pioneer. In the late Eighties and early Nineties when the instrumental shred-rock guitar phenomenon was at its peak, he released the eclectic Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop, a note-for-note tribute to rockabilly guitarist Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps (Crazy Legs), and an Asian-inspired original score to a television drama about the Vietnam War (Frankie's House). At the dawn of the new millennium he released three albums that went in a decidedly more electronic direction, although these efforts also dug deep into modern blues and Celtic airs while Beck expanded his unique lyrical, vocal playing style.
Jeff's latest album, Emotion & Commotion, casts aside much of the electronic/club-inspired rhythm tracks of his most recent efforts in favor of lush orchestral arrangements and naked synth pad beds, but his extraordinary guitar voice continues to break new ground. "What's behind it is a love of different styles of music and my natural absorption of them," says Beck. "It's amazing that the guitar can interpret so many genres of music. I've dabbled in Irish, Indian, techno—basically anything that I can lay a sound onto. I never really was the sort of player that only wants to show one side."
With the exceptions of the raucous Hendrix-inspired wah workout during the intro to "Hammerhead" and a blasting rave up in the middle of "There's No Other Me," the new album leans more towards deep emotion than actual commotion. At times Beck's guitar resembles plaintive horn instruments or sounds uncannily like human voices, particularly on introspective works like "Nessun Dorma," "Elegy For Dunkirk," and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." A cover of Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell On You" featuring vocals by Joss Stone is appropriately eerie, while the aforementioned "Hammerhead" is reminiscent of Guitar Shop's futuristic "big band" raveup "Big Block."
"I've been fortunate not to have had any huge hit records, which would have led me to automatically do what sells," Beck explains further, without any hint of irony. "I've been very free from that standpoint. It's difficult to turn your back if you sell 30 million copies of an album. You would be really foolish not to try to do more of that, but I haven't ever had that problem. All of my albums have been fun to make. I have the freedom to do what I want."
Although Beck is somewhat modest when discussing his level of success, he hasn't exactly been a commercial failure and he has earned considerable respect and accolades. His Seventies fusion albums Blow By Blow and Wired have both enjoyed multi-Platinum sales worldwide and are considered essential listening by dedicated guitar fanatics. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice—first in 1992 along with his bandmates in the Yardbirds and again in 2009 for his solo work. He's also received five Grammy awards for "Best Rock Instrumental Performance," including the award he won this year for his cover of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." That recording also received worldwide exposure at the 2010 Winter Olympics when US figure skater Jeremy Abbott chose the song for his first-place performance in the Men's Short Program.
"Before my mother passed away, she said, 'Don't you dare get delusions of grandeur!' and I said, Why not?" Jeff laughs. "She kept me well planted on the ground. But winning five Grammys is not too bad, so that certainly means a lot to me. And being recognized twice by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not a bad deal, either."
Beck's good friend and former Yardbirds bandmate Jimmy Page inducted Jeff into the Hall of Fame. "I learned a lot from Jim when we were young," Beck reminisces. "My sister went to the same college as he did, and she couldn't resist telling me that there was another nerd at school with similar weird guitar to the one I had. That led to a long, ongoing friendship with Jim. I had to travel quite a long way to see him—about a ten-mile bus ride—but it was worth it to be around someone who was also insane and had the same interests. He had all of this recording equipment and a magnificent record collection, which I didn't have. We used to have the best time."
Speaking of time, Jeff is sometimes notorious for letting several years pass between the release of his solo studio efforts. For example, 10 years transpired between Guitar Shop and Who Else! But the reason it took him seven years between his 2003 album Jeff and Emotion and Commotion was primarily due to his participation in a variety of different tours, highlights of which were captured on three live albums released during his studio hiatus. While Beck often writes material on the road, he had only a handful of songs and ideas when he entered the studio in the Fall of 2009 to record Emotion and Commotion.
"I had a really good demo of a classical piece that I recorded over a performance by the New York Philharmonic," he explains. "I laid my guitar part on top just to see if the melody would work, and it did. The people at my record label, Atco, flipped out when they heard it, and then they went, 'Where's the rest of the album? Let's go!' Unfortunately it took me quite a while to do that one song, and to get a real orchestra to play on the entire album would have cost a fortune. And what would I do with an album with 12 classical pieces on it? I couldn't afford to tour with a 60-piece orchestra. I decided to get a smaller orchestra just for a few pieces. Then we started to see the shape of the album building."
Once in the studio, Jeff quickly and easily found inspiration in an unusual manner and completed the album in six weeks. Beck explains, "When I went to the studio in London to record the album, I made the decision to walk there from my flat each day instead of taking a cab. That gave me time to think about what I was going to do. If I couldn't think of something to do by the time I got there we were in trouble. [laughs] Just the act of walking is amazing, because you're in a different frame of mind than you are when you're being thrown around in a cab. Each day I thought, Yeah, this'll be a good thing to do. I also let my moods each day come into play. I could never write my ideas down in a notebook and say that we are going to do this and we are going to do that."
Jeff invited several female vocalists—Imelda May, Olivia Safe, and Joss Stone—to sing lead vocals on several tracks. "I don't ever want to make an album that's full of one shred guitar song after another," he says. "I want to be part of something instead of having an album be 12 tracks of just me. I like to have talent around me, and you can't get better talent than the people on this record. When Olivia sings, get the Kleenex out. Imelda is divine. She can scream rockabilly one minute and then sing as pure as an Irish stream the next. Joss has that Tina Turner thing going on along with a little bit of Janis Joplin. I feel very proud that she chose to participate on this album."
As always, a familiar friend joined Jeff in the studio—his Fender Jeff Beck Signature Model Stratocaster. The Fender Strat has remained Jeff's favorite guitar since 1972, although he also played a Fender Esquire, Telecaster and Jazzmaster with the Yardbirds before switching to a Gibson Les Paul during his latter days with that band. The Les Paul was Beck's main guitar on his early efforts with the Jeff Beck Group, and he used it occasionally on his Blow By Blow and Wired albums.
Jeff's very first guitar was an acoustic that he borrowed from a friend: "On Friday nights I used to go to the home of a friend of mine who had a TV set. There always was a guitar with only three strings on his sofa, and I used to mess around with it. He loaned it to me. Somehow I got the rest of the strings and he never asked for it back. If it hadn't been for him, I may not have ever bothered to take up the guitar."
When Jeff was only 13, he attempted to build his first electric guitar: "It was bright yellow with all these wires and knobs. I used to carry it around without a case so everyone could see it. People just freaked out. Then I bought my first real electric for 25 pounds. It was a piece of rubbish, but it was good enough for me, and it felt great compared to the homemade one I had. The Esquire was the cheapest really great guitar you could get back then, and it was still way beyond what I had."
Beck first played a Stratocaster when he was a member of the Deltones in 1961. "I discovered the Strat when I saw Buddy Holly's first album, The 'Chirping' Crickets," he recalls. "Buddy was proudly holding a Strat, and I thought, 'I've got to have one of those.' The Strat was the icon. Then when I saw Jimi Hendrix play, I thought, 'that's it. He's making the right noises with that.' Then I went back to the Strat and stayed with it."
Fender still offers the Jeff Beck Signature Model Stratocaster, but a few changes have been made to the model since it was first introduced in 1990. The most significant difference is the replacement of the previous version's active Lace Sensor Gold pickups with Dual-Coil Ceramic Noiseless pickups. The new version also features a slim C-shaped neck instead of the chunky U-shaped neck found on the previous model and a straightforward five-way pickup selector and standard tone controls instead of the prior guitar's TBX tone circuit and coil-splitting functions. The latest version retains the LSR roller nut and locking tuning machines that help Jeff keep the guitar in tune when he gives the whammy bar extensive workouts, which is a pivotal element of his playing style.
Although Jeff bought a pair of 1956 Gretsch Duo Jets in the early Nineties to duplicate the tone of his hero, Cliff Gallup, he does not collect vintage guitars. "I love old guitars, but I don't really collect them," he admits. "I've only bought a handful of guitars. The others just sort of came down the chimney somehow." His attitude is a little different however when it comes to amplifiers, and he owns several classic Fender amps as well as a variety of Marshalls, some of which date back to his early days with the Jeff Beck Group.
With the exception of Crazy Legs, Beck has always maintained a fresh, exploratory attitude when working in the studio. This is particularly evident on his "new millennium" albums—Who Else!, You Had It Coming, and Jeff—which featured a lot of programming tricks and extensive Pro Tools editing. "I was aiming for a rave or house music sound on those three albums," says Beck. "I just wanted one of those tracks to take off in a club. I love the wildness and outrageous volume that you can get in dance clubs, but I never really heard any guitar playing on any of the tracks. I tried to dabble in it, and I had fun making those records."
Although Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson, the producers of Emotion and Commotion, relied on Pro Tools for this album as well, it was used in a more conservative and traditional manner to capture and enhance Jeff's performance. However, Beck admits that a preset in the SoundToys TimeBlender plug-in (part of the SoundBlender multi-effects TDM plug-in) provided the initial inspiration for the song "Serene": "The song started with me messing about with a reverb effect in Time Blender. I was playing through that effect to a drum loop and [keyboardist/programmer] Jason Rebello joined in. Before I knew it, we had a song."
Over the years Beck has gone on co-headlining tours with other legendary guitarists like B.B. King and Carlos Santana. This year he continued that tradition when he performed at a handful of very special concerts with his long-time friend, Eric Clapton. Audiences in London, Manhattan, Montreal, and Toronto were treated to special sets where the two guitarists traded licks on a variety of blues standards like "You Need Love" and "Shake Your Moneymaker." This summer Jeff will be one of many guitar legends performing at Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago.
Joining Beck onstage for his current tour are keyboardist Jason Rebello, bassist Rhonda Smith, and drummer Narada Michael Walden, who has reunited with Jeff for the first time since he played drums and piano on Jeff's Wired album way back in 1976. Jeff's touring schedule extends through the end of the year, which means it may be a while before fans hear his next studio effort. While Beck has written a few songs on the road (most notably "Never Alone" on Emotion and Commotion, which he wrote with Rebello while on tour in 2009), he admits that he usually finds his best inspiration in the quiet environment of his country home in Surrey, England.
"I'm sort of an airhead," he jokes. "The luxury of living where I do is that it enables my thoughts to go wherever they will. I might just play four notes that day, and they mean a lot. I'll just put that idea away, and then I'll remember the order they came in and expand upon that."
However, the daydream atmosphere of his household does have a few perils. Last fall he accidentally chopped off the tip of his left index finger while slicing carrots in his kitchen. Fortunately surgeons were successfully able to reunite the severed tip with the finger, but now Beck has insured his fingers for just over one million dollars each.
While hopefully it won't take Jeff another seven years to complete his next studio album, that project is currently the least of his concerns: "I haven't had time to think about that. Let's just see how this album goes. If this album does well, then I'll get a clue as to where I should go or could go. And then I'll go the other way!"