Whether you call him a “guitar god” or a “guitarist’s guitarist,” Jeff Beck was in a league of his own. According to a statement released by a publicist on behalf of his family, one of the most acclaimed guitarists in rock and roll history died Tuesday after contracting bacterial meningitis. He was 78 years old at the time.
Beck was born in 1944 in Wallington, England. As a child, he was enamoured with the guitar and rose to prominence with The Yardbirds, where he replaced Eric Clapton and played alongside Jimmy Page, who had also joined the group. Beck left the band soon after, forming The Jeff Beck Group (along with a then little-known singer named Rod Stewart). His versatility, however, spoke louder than his name across an extensive discography. Beck could play rock, jazz, blues, soul, or whatever else piqued his interest and still sound like himself.
“He was admired for his one-of-a-kind sound, which he created by manipulating his amplifiers,” explains Alt.Latino host Felix Contreras. “Beck was unquestionably one of the last guitar heroes to emerge, expanding the technical capabilities of the electric guitar.”
Beck, for one, believed that the guitar, at least the way he played it, could be as expressive as the human voice. “I just tried to become a singer,” the artist explained to NPR in 2010. “Because of the spring-loaded bridge, I believe the Stratocaster, specifically the guitar Stratocaster, lends itself to endless possibilities. They call it the whammy bar, but it’s actually a vibrato bar. And I can make an infinite number of variations by changing the pitch. I can play a chord and lower the pitch at the same time — six strings at the same time.”
In discussions of guitar virtuosity, Beck is frequently mentioned alongside players such as Clapton, Page, and Keith Richards. However, the artist was always something of a recluse, wary of the attention that came with being a famous musician. In 2010, he told The New York Times how he felt about the music industry as a whole:
“It’s a diabolical business,” he said. “I can’t imagine how hellish it must be to be hounded like Amy Winehouse and people like that. I have a little peripheral place on the outskirts of celebrity, when I go to premieres and that sort of stuff, which is as close as I want to get. I cherish my privacy, and woe betide anyone who tries to interfere with that.”
“I think he was a musician more than a rock celebrity,” says music critic Tom Moon. “He was fascinated by the art of the instrument and the art of music. He experimented with many different things. He went through phases where he played mostly instrumental music, jazz, and rock — and what made him so captivating was that you wanted to follow him. He’d begin a solo with essentially a single note, often with a lot of space in between everything, and it was that patience that made it so captivating.”
Despite his best efforts to avoid the spotlight, Beck was recognised and praised. He received 17 Grammy nominations, including one this year for best rock performance, and won eight. And, as a result of his successes with The Yardbirds and on his own, he is among a select group of musicians who have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.
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