Jeff Beck, the ‘guitar player’s guitar player’, dies at 78

Jeff Beck, a guitar virtuoso who pushed the boundaries of blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, influencing generations of shredders along the way and becoming known as the guitar player’s guitar player, has died. He was 78.

Jan 12, 2023, updated Jan 12, 2023
Jeff Beck, regarded by many as the greatest guitarist of all time, has passed away at 78 after a short illness (ABC image).

Jeff Beck, regarded by many as the greatest guitarist of all time, has passed away at 78 after a short illness (ABC image).

Beck died on Tuesday after “suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis”, his representatives said. The location was not immediately known.

“Jeff was such a nice person and an outstanding iconic, genius guitar player – there will never be another Jeff Beck,” Tony Iommi, guitarist for Black Sabbath wrote on Twitter.

Beck first came to prominence as a member of the Yardbirds and then went out on his own in a solo career that incorporated hard rock, jazz, funky blues and even opera. He was known for his improvising, love of harmonics and the whammy bar on his preferred guitar, the Fender Stratocaster.

“Jeff Beck is the best guitar player on the planet,” Joe Perry, the lead guitarist of Aerosmith, told The New York Times in 2010. “He is head, hands and feet above all the rest of us, with the kind of talent that appears only once every generation or two.”

Beck was among the rock-guitarist pantheon from the late ’60s that included Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. Beck won eight Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once with the Yardbirds in 1992 and again as a solo artist in 2009. He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.

Beck played guitar with vocalists as varied as Luciano Pavarotti, Macy Gray, Chrissie Hynde, Joss Stone, Imelda May, Cyndi Lauper, Wynonna Judd, Buddy Guy and Johnny Depp. He made two records with Rod Stewart – 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola – and one with a 64-piece orchestra, Emotion & Commotion.

Geoffrey Arnold Beck was born in Surrey, England, and attended Wimbledon Art College. His father was an accountant, and his mother worked in a chocolate factory. As a boy, he built his first instrument, using a cigar box, a picture frame for the neck and string from a radio-controlled toy plane.

He was in a few bands, including Nightshift and The Tridents, before joining the Yardbirds in 1965, replacing Clapton but only a year later giving way to Page. During his tenure, the band created the memorable singles Heart Full of Soul, I’m a Man and Shapes of Things.

Beck’s first hit single was 1967’s instrumental Beck’s Bolero, which featured future Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, and future Who drummer Keith Moon. The Jeff Beck Group, with Stewart singing, was later booked to play the 1969 Woodstock music festival but their appearance was cancelled. Beck later said there was unrest in the band.

“I could see the end of the tunnel,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010.

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Beck was friends with Hendrix and they performed together. Before Hendrix, most rock guitar players concentrated on a similar style and technical vocabulary. Hendrix blew that apart.

Beck teamed up with legendary producer George Martin – aka “the fifth Beatle” – to help him fashion the genre-melding, jazz-fusion classic Blow by Blow (1975) and Wired (1976). He teamed up with Seal on the Hendrix tribute Stone Free, created a jazz-fusion group led by synthesiser player Jan Hammer and honoured rockabilly guitarist Cliff Gallup with the album Crazy Legs. He put out Loud Hailer in 2016.

Beck’s guitar work can be heard on the soundtracks of such films as Stomp the Yard, Shallow Hal, Casino, Honeymoon in Vegas, Twins, Observe and Report and Little Big League.

Beck’s career never hit the commercial highs of Clapton. A perfectionist, he preferred to make critically well-received instrumental records and left the limelight for long stretches, enjoying his time restoring vintage cars. He and Clapton had a tense relationship early on but became friends in later life and toured together.

Why did the two wait some four decades to tour together?

“Because we were all trying to be big bananas,” Beck told Rolling Stone in 2010. “Except I didn’t have the luxury of the hit songs Eric’s got.”

Beck is survived by his wife, Sandra.

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