Jeff Beck is famed now for his wild whammy pyrotechnics, volume swells and an avant-garde sense of melody, but once upon a time he was a hard-hitting player who expanded on his early love of blues. From the late ’60s to mid-’70s, Beck tended to favor Gibson Les Pauls. The lack of a vibrato-arm didn’t mean his playing was any less explosive – indeed, to some JB aficionados, these years saw Beck at his best.
Beck played his first Gibson Les Paul, a ’59 (fitted with black pickguard), in The Yardbirds. Les Paul, the man, had made a big impression on the young Beck.
“I think I was six,” he told Gibson.com. “We’re talking about 1950. And there was a signature tune to a weekly [radio program], ‘How High 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.”
Les Paul’s recording techniques turned Beck’s head. “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 pull-offs… 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?”
Beck’s early rock ’n’ roll influences remain strong. Here he is playing “Matchbox” on a Gibson ES-175 with The Big Town Playboys.
Beck Goes Solo
Beck’s tenure in The Yardbirds was brief – spring ‘65 to October ’66 – before he began to forge his unique solo career. He recorded a one-off single, “Hi-Ho Silver Lining” / “Beck’s Bolero.” It was the latter that was the standout, with Jimmy Page (Yardbirds colleague, and then also a prolific session musician) also on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Keith Moon on drums.
Beck told The Guitar Magazine in 1993: “You could feel the excitement in the studio even though we didn’t know what we were going to play. I thought, ‘This is it! What a lineup!’ But afterwards nothing really happened ’cause Moony couldn’t leave The Who – he arrived at the studio in disguise so no one would know he was playing with another band. That band was the original Led Zeppelin – not called Led Zeppelin but that was still the earliest embryo of the band.
“I was using a Les Paul for the lead guitar and for the backwards slide guitar through a Vox AC30 – it was the only amp I had and it was covered with beer. Actually, I think it was the beer that gave it its sound! You can hear Moon screaming in the middle of the record over the drum break. If you listen after the drum break you can only hear the cymbal afterwards ’cause he knocked the mic over! Wonderful.”
Although Page was the main writer of “…Bolero”, it was Beck was then largely influencing Page’s sound. Beck soon settled – for a while – with The Jeff Beck Group, another stellar lineup boasting Ronnie Wood on bass, Rod Stewart on vocals and Micky Waller on drums. Released five months before Page’s own Led Zeppelin debut, Truth’s proto-metal riffing proved highly influential. For any fan interested in the roots of Beck’s sound, Truth and Beck-Ola (1969) are must-hear recordings. Fact? Boston’s Tom Scholz says Truth is his favorite ever album.
Beck’s “Yardbirds” ’burst with the black pickguard was still a main guitar. He’s pictured around the same years with a white-pickguard ’burst, a no-pickguard ’burst and a stripped to raw-wood LP (no pickguard) all with pickup covers removed. By most accounts, it is actually the same guitar – it was just modded along the way. Yes, Jeff Beck modded a ’59 Gibson Les Paul.
You can stream a soundboard recording of The Jeff Beck Group at Fillmore West (July 1968) at Wolfgang’s Vault, that showcases Beck and his Les Paul in his wailing blues-rock prime. A mind-boggling version of “Jeff’s Boogie” shows the clear influence of Les Paul himself, and undoubtedly eclipses anything friend and ex-colleague Jimmy Page was doing at the time.
Beck Bogart Appice
After a Version 2 of The Jeff Beck Group faltered, Beck’s next supergroup was with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice. Beck told the NME in 1972: “We’ve never played what the people wanted to hear in America. They expect vicious, violent rock ’n’ roll. That’s what I’m known for, but I was avoiding all that in the previous band [he meant the second incarnation of the more R&B-influenced JBG.] I was trying to play subtle rock and roll. That stuff was more suitable for clubs not big stages. This new group will play much heavier music.”
And BBA were heavy. They out-swaggered Led Zeppelin on their version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” – Beck had guested on Wonder’s classic 1972 Talking Book album, but not on “Superstition” itself.
By 1973, Beck was also using a talk box through his “Oxblood” Les Paul, with BBA and solo. We’re guessing Peter Frampton was taking notes…?
Blow by Blow and the ‘Oxblood’ Gibson Les Paul
After BBA disbanded, Beck went in a more fusion-ist direction. The famous cover of Blow by Blow featured a painting of Beck with his then-favorite “Oxblood” Les Paul. The legend is that Beck was in Memphis, in the early ’70s, and visited music store Strings and Things to check out the stock. The guitar that caught his attention was a ’54 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop that a customer had dropped in for some odd modifications – one request was that its original finish be stripped off in favor of a deep chocolate-brown finish, a color that turned out to exhibit some oxblood tints in certain light. Other modifications included the installation of full-size humbuckers in place of the P-90s, altering the full and rounded early ’50s neck shape to a slightly thinner profile and changing the original tuners for modern replacements. Legend has it that the customer didn’t like the results... but Jeff Beck did.
And that original, disappointed customer? It was apparently John Mayall. Even years on, Beck hadn’t quite escaped his attachment to British blues.
Hear Beck’s Oxblood LP on his 1972 to 1977 studio and live recordings – recommended are the Jeff Beck Group’s scorching version of Don Nix’s “Going Down,” BBA’s versions of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” and “Superstition,” the historic Blow by Blow album and 1977’s live album Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live.
Beck still plays various Les Paul ’Bursts live, and used Gibson archtops and Les Pauls on his 2010 Rock n Roll Party tribute album to Les.
Jeff Beck’s Style
Trying to explain, in simple terms, how to play like Jeff Beck is nearly impossible. He remains a unique guitar stylist, whether it’s his melodic sense, his fingers-only style (only adopted “because I kept dropping picks!”) to his often-unique tone. If anything, just take these words on his never-ending quest to find the best sound and be unique.
“I don’t care about the rules,” Beck says. “In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least 10 times in every song then I’m not doing my job properly.”
“I don’t understand why some people will only accept a guitar if it has an instantly recognizable guitar sound. Finding ways to use the same guitar people have been using for 50 years to make sounds that no one has heard before is truly what gets me off.”
“Some people can’t do without lots of volume to get their tone, but I think if you can’t get it without four million watts, something’s wrong. Because a mic doesn’t read volume, it reads tone.”
“By using the P.A. to act in the way it was designed – which is play at low level and use all the distortion and whatever else you need, but make sure you don’t come out louder than the side-fill monitors or the front wedges – you can blow the house down, and I’ve done it.”
“I can write a song on guitar and then try to add drums in later, but it never sounds quite right. For me, a good song has to begin with an inspiring rhythm.”
More Jeff Beck:
‘Surrey Delta’: 5 Great British Blues Albums
Jeff Beck 1954 Les Paul Oxblood