Rarely do technical ability, natural talent and creative inspiration dovetail in one guitarist as they do in Jeff Beck. The magic in his playing truly stems from himself and not his gear, since Beck manages to sound recognizable regardless of what amps or guitars he’s favoring at the moment.
But many of Beck’s fans feel the British dynamo, who turns 67 today, June 24, has never sounded better than when he’s had a Gibson Les Paul in his hands. Beck’s cut some of his most career-defining recordings with Les Pauls: Truth, Beck-Ola, Blow by Blow and Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group Live among them. And last year he appeared in a Grammy ceremony tribute to Les Paul with one of the late genius’ namesake guitars slung low and dangerous around his shoulders and shredding every tick of the way.
Beck’s on-and-off love affair with the Gibson Les Paul goes back to his early career and his fascination with the musician Les Paul. Paul’s jazz-inflected playing, multi-tracking, shimmering tone and seemingly effortless melodic improvisations captured the young string demon’s attention.
Beck bought his initial Gibson Les Paul when he was in his first major band: The Yardbirds. The guitar was a 1959 Les Paul Standard with humbuckers he bought during the group’s short-lived but most formidable lineup, when guitarists Jimmy Page and Chris Dreja were also in the band. Beck told a music journalist that he loved the model for its sonic properties: “It has a deep, powerful sound and you can use it to imitate just about anything – violin, sax, cello, even a sitar.” For a taste of the latter, check out Beck’s famous faux sitar lines on “Over Under Sideways Down” from 1966’s Roger the Engineer. He went on to use the guitar on his first Jeff Beck Group albums, 1968’s Truth and ’69’s Beck-Ola.
But the Gibson Les Paul most closely associated with Beck’s career is a 1954 model he bought in a Memphis guitar shop in the early 1970s. Although the instrument had been built as a Gold Top with a trapeze tailpiece, it had been modded with replacement tuners, bigger frets and refinished in an oxblood shade. Also, the original P-90 pickups were replaced with humbuckers.
The guitar was immortalized by the Gibson Custom Shop in 2009 as the Jeff Beck 1954 Les Paul Oxblood. But Beck guaranteed it a place in history long before, during 1972 to 1977 when he used it on stage and in his historic recordings Jeff Beck Group, with its ferocious version of Don Nix’s “Going Down,” a Freddie King staple; the gorgeous and often overlook eponymous Beck, Bogert & Appice debut album, with stunning versions of Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”; the historic Blow by Blow and 1977’s Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group Live, an exploratory concert recording that’s among Beck’s most sonically adventurous work.
Those albums form a spine in Beck’s body of work – a group of recordings that marked a creative and conceptual peak for the Brit fret burner, and define both his past and future career within their heady range.
Jeff Beck Group gave Beck a superb rhythmic foil in drummer Cozy Powell and a melodic sounding board in pianist Max Middleton, who also would contribute substantially to Blow by Blow. Beck’s tone throughout this album is bristly and biting, especially on “Going Down,” which became an FM radio breakthrough. Beck’s own instrumental “Definitely Maybe” was foreshadowing the strong melodic direction – tempering accessibility with élan – that he would soon begin to pursue.
But before then, there was a supergroup. Beck, Bogert and Appice marked a union of Beck with Vanilla Fudge bassist Tim Bogert and valkyrie drummer Carmine Appice. The result was soul and psychedelia twisted with high-flying dynamics, daredevil guitar and a rhythm section specializing in hard, slow grooves. Alas, the group only lasted long enough to tour briefly and to also record a live album that documents their unique ensemble sound. Beck’s guitar lines and singer Bogert’s noir choirboy’s voice harmonize beautifully on the Mayfield number in particular, creating a sound so lovely it seems to nullify time. Really.
Beck’s love affair with his Oxblood Les Paul came to its apex with Blow by Blow, the instrumental album Beck carefully mapped out with producer George Martin to put on him a higher echelon of commercial appeal. That Beck stuck to his aesthetics along the way – with extravagant wah-wah, talk box, other judicious but potent effects, dancer-like technique and tone for miles – is a tribute to the ability of his artfulness and his intelligence.
After touring behind Blow by Blow with his own band, Beck joined forces with ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboard player Jan Hammer’s group to circle the world again. The resulting concert album, Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group Live, is a self-made tribute to both artists. Their interplay on Beck’s “Freeway Jam” and Hammer’s “Darkness/Earth in Search of a Sun” is required listening. Go. Now.
Beck returned to the Les Paul with a serious commitment in 2010. First, there was the Grammy appearance followed by a tour that paid tribute to both Paul and to Beck’s early rock heroes, like Gene Vincent and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. That tour was captured on film for Beck’s DVD and CD Rock ’n’ Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul), where the incendiary performances are proof that Beck’s love for both Les Paul and the guitar that bears his name was in full amour whenever he took the stage.