Almost two months ago to the day, on November 12, 2022, Jeff Beck took the stage at Reno, Nevada's Grand Sierra Resort. Performing with his friend Johnny Depp, Beck ran through a setlist of fan favorites and covers. The guitar virtuoso made every song his own, with razor-sharp precision, an elegant tone, and a spellbinding touch. Little did anyone in attendance know that the concert would be Beck's last. After a short battle with bacterial meningitis, Jeff Beck has passed away at the age of 78.
An artist for whom tags such as "bluesman" or "rocker" were far too restrictive, Beck was inspired by a potpourri of formidable guitar heroes, among them Les Paul, B.B. King, Lonnie Mack, and Steve Cropper. After performing in several bands around England and making a reputation as a session player, he came to the attention of The Yardbirds in early 1965, then looking for a replacement for Eric Clapton. Though Jimmy Page was initially unavailable, the future Led Zeppelin leader recommended Beck for the job. He led the blues-rock band through a brief but fertile period of creative exploration, employing reverb, fuzztone, feedback, distortion, and other tools of the trade to change The Yardbirds' sound dramatically on such landmark recordings as "Heart Full of Soul," "Shapes of Things," and "Over Under Sideways Down" as well as the Yardbirds a.k.a. Roger the Engineer album. The band ushered in the era of British psychedelia, and for a brief period, Jimmy Page joined him to create one of the most exciting two-guitar lineups in rock history as heard on just a precious few tracks including "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" with Page's future Zep bandmate John Paul Jones on bass.
By 1967, The Yardbirds were in Beck's rearview mirror. He began a solo career in earnest with the single "Hi Ho Silver Lining" b/w "Beck's Bolero." The Ravel-inspired B-side featured Page, Jones, Keith Moon on drums, and Nicky Hopkins on piano - Beck's first, but not his last, supergroup. He continued to record with pop producer Mickie Most (Lulu, Herman's Hermits) on an eclectic array of songs from "Greensleeves" to "Love Is Blue," yielding a handful of singles and the 1968 album Truth. Though credited to Jeff, the album featured the nucleus of The Jeff Beck Group: singer Rod Stewart and bassist Ronnie Wood. Today, Truth is recognized as a major stepping stone on the path to heavy metal with its thunderous approach to blues, rock, and beyond; the album even featured a powerful cover of the Show Boat classic "Ol' Man River."
Between 1969 and 1972, The Jeff Beck Group released three LPs, though Stewart and Wood would only stick around for the first one. The second unit with vocalist Bobby Tench, keyboardist Max Middleton, bassist Clive Chaman, and drummer Cozy Powell, was more R&B-oriented than the initial lineup, but one constant was Beck's incendiary playing - devoid of cliché, technically precise but daringly phrased, capable of conjuring a mood in a matter of just a few bars.
Since those early days, Beck rarely resisted the siren call of adventure. He formed a power trio with Vanilla Fudge expatriates Carmine Appice and Tim Bogert; teamed with legendary producer George Martin for 1975's Blow by Blow and 1976's Wired; moved into jazz fusion with Jan Hammer; and continued to the push the envelope of instrumental fusion on his eclectic albums, released every few years. 1985's Flash put CHIC mastermind Nile Rodgers in the producer's chair, and Rodgers encouraged Beck to sing on his tracks for the first time in many years; he also traded his signature Fender Stratocaster for a Jackson Soloist. A reunion with Rod Stewart on the album's cover of "People Get Ready" earned Beck an international hit single. In 2010, Beck put his guitar front and center of a 64-piece orchestra, reimagining the stately, majestic likes of "Over the Rainbow" and "Nessun Dorma" with the same sensitivity, fire, and passion that had animated him as a younger man. A 2013 tour found Beck sharing the stage with The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson - an experience that ended in disappointment for Beck (and an abortive, incomplete album) but nonetheless produced some transcendent moments onstage showing the depth of Beck's connection with the entire spectrum of popular music.
Jeff Beck's eleventh and final solo studio album was 2011's Loud Hailer, but he returned in 2022 with Johnny Depp to record 18 on which he saluted John Lennon ("Isolation"), Marvin Gaye ("What's Going On"), Lou Reed ("Venus in Furs"), Janis Ian ("Stars"), Smokey Robinson ("Ooo Baby Baby"), and both Brian Wilson ("Caroline No," "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)") and his late brother Dennis Wilson ("Time"). While a collaborative album, 18 encapsulated Beck's truly catholic approach to music, his spirit and skill undiminished. Most recently, Beck lent his axe to Ozzy Osbourne's Patient Number 9 album.
Jeff Beck earned two inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (one with The Yardbirds, which prompted him to quip, "They kicked me out...fuck them!") as well as eight Grammy Awards (out of seventeen nominations) and an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music. Speaking to Total Guitar in 2016, Beck said, "I'm an experimenter. It's rich because every album I've done, except for a couple techno-y records, are different. Really you've got to hand it to the Fender Strat, because there are songs in [that guitar]. It's a tool of great inspiration and great torture at the same time, because it's forever sitting there challenging you to find something else in it, but it is there if you really search." He described his Stratocaster as "another arm...it's part of me. It doesn't feel like a guitar at all. It's an implement which is my voice." That voice is one of the most resonant, distinctive, and passionate ever in the rock canon - and will always remain so. Rest in peace, sir.