Very few people in any profession can truly be considered a master. Michelangelo, Ted Williams, Lenny Bruce, Laurence Olivier – it is a stratosphere that few can ever hope to reach, because true mastery requires an almost impossible innate ability coupled with a relentless drive to succeed. Many people have one of those qualities, but few have both – and certainly, very few have them to the degree of Jeff Beck. His virtuosity on the guitar has placed him in a class all alone, whether propelling The Yardbirds to dizzying new heights after Eric Clapton’s departure or launching into terra incognita with instrumental performances simultaneously imbued with blues, jazz-fusion, rockabilly and metal. Beck is the guitar player’s guitar player. In anticipation of his upcoming Les Paul tribute shows at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club, he sat down with Gibson.com.
When did you first become aware of Les Paul?
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So far back I have to think about it. I think I was six. We’re talking about 1950. And there was a signature tune to a weekly (program), “How High to the Moon.” And I remember sitting up and listening to it at night and my mom said, “Don’t get too excited, it’s all done with tricks.” (laughs) So that was first introduction to it. And from the minute she told me not to take it serious, I took it seriously.
Solely in terms of music and guitar, what has he meant to you over the years?
Well, he was a messenger. Aside from the revolutionary tone that he had and slap echo that wasn’t there before – I don’t believe anyone was using a tape, repeat echo, which is still a most astonishing effect – he was carrying with him big chunks of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, but it was wrapped up in a different package. He applied some of their triplet runs and what they call “pull-offs,” where you flick your fingers over the first three strings and it sounds very impressive and is quite difficult; but once you have mastered it, Django was doing it all over the board. But to have songs of the day like “How High the Moon,” have a solo with all those influences, was what Les did. He kind of got the package and tied it up with a ribbon, you know?
When did you finally meet him?
The first time I met him was at Perkins Palace in Pasadena, where I was invited to do a show there and he was the other guest. It was me and Les, and I had a phone call in my room the day I arrived in Pasadena. And he said, “What the hell are you doing down there? The tea is up here.” (laughs)
What year was this?
Golly, it was about ’83, right off the top my head. I would have to check, but I do have a VHS cassette of it. (Editor’s note: It was indeed 1983 — and we’ve even found a clip. Enjoy!)
Once you got to know him as a person, what was he like as a friend?
He was larger than life. He was telling stories about back in ’46, and the bus freezing up and him and Mary touring and it was just gold dust listening to him speak. On top of that, it was like the musical version of Jackie Mason. (laughs) He could put you down in one line. He certainly did that to some of the technicians that worked the show. I won’t repeat what he said to them (laughs), but it was very amusing. If it had come from anybody else, they probably would have made a scene of it, but it was Les and he could get away with murder because of the humor and the warmth. The wit was there and it showed in his playing. He’s one of the cheekiest players around. Fantastic technique.
The Grammys tribute to “How High the Moon” was such a joyous performance—
— to watch. What do you remember about that day? The hours leading up to it, the performance itself…
Quite frequent visits to the toilet. (laughs) No, it was a nightmare, because I hadn’t quite mastered the solo. It was only for my drummer, Narada, that helped me out by playing along and giving me like massive cues to where things happened. And so I managed to pull it off. But it’s not that I can’t play it, I was playing that solo when I was 15, but it was playing in front of Lady Gaga (laughs) and Britney Spears that made it a little bit dodgy. But once you get on your way — I had great players around me and Imelda (May) was supreme. I realized that the audience gasped when she walked on and she was perfect for the part.
I was going to say that she was a perfect collaborator for that performance. When did you first meet up with Imelda and her band?
It was all down to rockabilly. I love authentic bands that play rockabilly because it’s a constant reminder, an ever-present necessary reminder of where my love lies for the music that got me going in the ’50s. And to think there are people like her and her husband Darrel (Higham), who do it so well, it’s as though nothing ever changed. Those people live and breathe it. I mean, to have a twenty-something year-old Irish girl, who knows who Cliff Gallup is, is amazing. (laughs)
We’re now just a few weeks away from the Celebration of Les Paul shows at the Iridium. How did these shows come about?
Well, I just thought that I would love to do something, especially knowing how great Imelda was. When I heard how she multi-tracked the “How High the Moon” parts, I thought, “This is too good to leave there.” You know, maybe we could do an evening. And then it went from there, and then I suddenly thought, “Where are we going to do this?” Don’t really want a big gig. We wanted somewhere… what about the place he played? And I just said to Harvey (Goldsmith, Beck’s manager), “What about the Iridium?” “It’s a bit small.” And I said, “Yeah, but that’s where he played. Let’s keep it small, film it and see how it (goes).” You’ll be amazed, because we’re not trying to do big stuff and crowd many people in; we’re going to keep the audience down to about 150, so they’ve got room to move in here. I’m going to put some dancers in there and just have a ring-ding party. And a section devoted to Les.
Did you ever sit in at one of his shows during his residency there?
No, I wouldn’t. (laughs) He got me up once by default. He said, “Jeff please come up and help me out here. I’m struggling with the 12-Bar Blues. And I said, “Oh, lord.” And I was with a girl and I was so embarrassed. I did not want to play. I’d had a few drinks. They plied me with a few Jack Daniels and I was not ready to play. He said “please” and everyone was cheering. I thought, “How can I say ‘no’?” So I got up there and, as soon as I sat down, he got up and walked off. (laughs) He left me alone and said, “I’ve just got some people I need to attend to, so carry on.” (laughs) Oh, that’s the kind of guy he was. He left me and I just, I dunno, I played some crap. I don’t know what it was. (laughs)
He was a character.
The Iridium, as you were discussing, is definitely a different setting than we think about for a Jeff Beck gig. Do you enjoy intimate performances like that or are you more comfortable with a big sold-out arena?
I love big arenas, and I love the festivals because the P.A. sounds better, you know. You don’t have the acoustics problem. But I played in a little tiny venue the other day. We had a blast, because we’ve learned to adjust our levels but still play with intensity. And then Ronnie Scotts, you know, we worked at that for five days. We had five days at Ronnie’s and that was a good run-in training ground to playing smaller places; so yeah, as long as it’s not any smaller than Ronnie’s (laughs), it would be fine.
How much of these shows will be Les’s music and how much will be your own music?
We’re trying to get a decent amount, like half-an-hour for Les. Any more and we’re in trouble, because we’ll need to do the sped-up guitar parts, which would take me forever. So I may have to invent and improvise the guitar parts, and also it would be a month of Sundays doing multi-track vocals. So we’re going to do as much as we can in the short time that we’ve got. I would imagine eight or nine Les Paul songs and bookended with music that I think would be appropriate. Even though it wouldn’t be Les Paul per se, there will be rockabilly tracks that unquestionably had Les Paul’s stamp on it.
Are there songs where even you listen to it and go, “How am I going to play that?”
Oh, plenty of those. (laughs) One of them is… oh, not “How High the Moon,” I know that one… “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” I can play that. “Tiger Rag,” any one that has a ridiculously high speed guitar. The thing is it’s not the speed; it’s how far off the fretboard it is, you know? When you speed up to a point where it’s off the scale, then you really need to duplicate that type of pre-record; but then, I would be in all kinds of trouble syncing up. So thanks very much, Les, for giving us all that. It’s all right for you in your studio, but we’ve got to do it live, you know?
Will you be playing anything from Emotion & Commotion?
Um, probably not. No, this is different side. I was going to try to avoid that, because we will be currently on tour doing that (material). This is two nights off and it’s having fun just salvaging Les Paul’s stuff and doing some rockabilly. Like a dream jukebox party, you know?
Well, it just seems like a perfect setting for “Lilac Wine,” if you’re there with Imelda.
Well, I might do that, but I don’t want to get to a point where we’re plugging an album, because it’s about Les, really. It’s about the good-time music of his genre and era.
Let’s talk about the album. How gratifying has it been to see this response? This is your highest debut ever on Billboard.
I don’t know what it was. I mean, I’m over the moon. It’s worth all the walks to the studio. For a month-and-a-half, I was traipsing through rain and putting myself through hell not knowing whether it was worth it. But it’s amazing the way, across the board, it’s been not anything but favorable comments. I went to France and they were full of it, and then Japan and all over the place and it seems that I’ve stuck a chord with some folks.
Well, it’s a broad-shooting album. There are a lot of different things on there, so it seems like an album for anybody. Everybody. Do any of those songs stand out as connecting especially well with your live audiences? I mean, any that you feel like, “Man, I could keep this in the stage show for a long time”?
Surprisingly, it’s quite well known that any huge rock band — and I not saying I’m huge, but large bands like The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, you name it — they have trouble airing new material because people want to go along and hear the old stuff. But all the stuff we’ve played is fairly impressive enough to get a fair response, and hopefully they will become the classics. So you have to break the ice somewhere. It’s a question of “How many new numbers from the album do you play?” I just say, “As many as sound great.” If the way the delivery is going and you get a response, then you play the whole damn thing. And then it makes it even more impressive when you hear an oldie, if you’re having fun with the new stuff. “Lilac Wine” gets them going, and so does “Nessun Dorma.”
There was a story that came out around the time the album was released about you having a kitchen accident and it greatly affecting how you approached soloing. You went with a lot more three-fingered fretting. First of all, have you fully recovered? Is your finger all the way back to normal?
It’s completely healed. It’s still numb on the very tip. I mean I lost it; it was gone, it was just hanging off. It was just hanging off by a thread. I stuck a big chunk — a diagonal slice was taken off the top of it, and I stuck it back and freaked out and then went to the hospital. But I avoided stitches because the surgeon said I’d such a great job sticking it back. (laughs) And it had just started to take when he had a look at it, so he said “Don’t mess with it.” He actually strapped it up a bit tighter than I had it. So I had to finish up — I had to play two or three tracks without that finger. Over the Rainbow was done with the three fingers.
Well, now that you’re back at 100% or pretty close, are you approaching those solos any differently now or are you—
Well, it definitely gets your little finger going. (laughs) Where a lot of players, their little finger is a bit redundant. Oh, yeah. In actual fact, there was a point where I copied Django and I taped the little finger and the one next to it with sticky tape, so that it could be used. And I just used the rest of the fingers. It’s amazing what you can do. It really is.
And have you given up cutting carrots?
Yep. I’m not allowed near the carrots now. (laughs) I go to mushrooms. They’re a lot softer. (laughs)
Well, I was looking at the tour log. You’ve got a busy summer ahead of you. I know it was a long time between the previous album and this one. Any thoughts, though — because this has been such a well-received album — of maybe getting back a little sooner to the studio?
Well, I’m seeing the producer tonight, dear Steve Lipson, who — long suffering — put up with me for eight weeks. And I think maybe we’ll probably do some blueprinting on what we can do next.
That’s good news. The last couple of years — a hit record, another Grammy, lots of touring — when you pause to do something like a tribute show for a dear friend, is there ever a moment where you stop to think about someday — a long, long time from now — how you would like to be remembered?
I don’t care. (laughs) I don’t really care. Just have a party. Jump up and down. Do something, I don’t know. (laughs) Keep at it. You know, the advice — I keep getting asked advice — I give is, don’t expect a miracle in a weekend. It’s going to take time.