Personalities | Jeff Beck | Yardbirds to Pioneer | Guitar Heroes

The most mercurial guitarist of his generation, Jeff Beck (b. 1944) has never conformed to the conventional image of a guitar hero. He has repeatedly left or broken up bands before their commercial potential could be realized.

He restlessly changes style from one album to the next, refusing to be tied down musically. And his live appearances are intermittent. ‘I just can’t stand endless nights playing,’ he told an interviewer in 1990. ‘The pitch that I play at is so intense that I just can’t do it every night.’ But despite these idiosyncrasies, he is widely acclaimed as a genius.

These virtuoso qualities became apparent soon after he joined the Yardbirds in 1965 as a 20-year-old unknown to replace Eric Clapton. His vibrant, fearless playing – using distortion, bottleneck and Indian influences – was a major element of the band’s biggest hits: ‘Heart Full Of Soul’, ‘Evil Hearted You’, ‘Shapes Of Things’ and ‘Over Under Sideways Down’. But towards the end of 1966, he abruptly quit the band, which had recently added guitarist Jimmy Page, at the start of an American tour.

Early in 1967, Beck scored a solo hit single with ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, an unabashed pop song that he has disowned ever since. But the instrumental flip side, ‘Beck’s Bolero’, a riotous swirl of feedback, overdubbing and backwards guitar, has become something of a signature tune.

He then formed the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ron Wood on bass. Truth (1968) was arguably a template for Led Zeppelin’s first album a year later, with Beck taking the blues to excess. But internal tensions broke apart the group after they recorded their second album, Beck-Ola (1969), and Stewart and Wood decamped to form the Faces.

Beck had been planning to form a band with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice from Vanilla Fudge when he cracked his skull in a car crash in 1969, putting his career on hold for 18 months. He returned with a new group of his own that included Bobby Tench (vocals), Max Middleton (keyboards) and Cozy Powell (drums), blending rock with funk on Rough And Ready (1972). When Beck, Bogert & Appice was finally recorded in 1973, it was suitably bombastic but lacked a singer to match the instrumental pyrotechnics, and by early 1974 Beck, was on his own again.

After another hiatus, Beck re-emerged with the all-instrumental, funk-infused jazz-rock of Blow By Blow (1975), his most successful album. Recorded as a quartet with Max Middleton, Phil Chenn (bass) and Richard Bailey (drums), the album was produced by former Beatles producer George Martin. For the follow-up, Wired (1976), Beck brought in Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboard player Jan Hammer and drummer Narada Michael Walden. Hammer also featured on There And Back (1980), which included contributions from UK musicians Tony Hymas (keyboards) and Simon Phillips (drums).

While Beck’s solo career was becoming less...

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