How Jeff Beck Defined The Rock Guitar

Rock1960s

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How Jeff Beck Defined the Rock Guitar

by Alex Petrachkov

Introduction

Since Jeff Beck's untimely death in January 2023, many of his peers hailed him as the greatest rock guitarist of all, "the guitarists' guitarist". Much deserved praise has been given to Beck's inimitable skills, faultless taste and perpetual evolution. His works, including albums Truth and Blow by Blow, were both pioneering and influential.

However, one key aspect of Beck's legacy is often overlooked and is probably unknown to many music lovers.

In the mid-1960s, a new genre - rock - began to emerge from British pop music.
There is no universal definition of rock music and there won’t be. The limits between rock and roll, rockabilly, beat, rhythm & blues, pop and rock are too blurred. Bill Wyman gave a smart and cheeky definition of rock as “popular music that to a certain degree doesn't care if it's popular”. It doesn’t tell the full story though.
The kind of music that began emerging in Britain around 1964 was a leaner, harder and screechier version of pop music, with no compromises on the beat. It did not seek to be diluted with lovely harmonies and other niceties to please the listener (although beautiful melodies were not precluded as the Beatles had demonstrated). Orchestration was kept to the bare minimum: guitars, bass, drums and, occasionally, keyboard. Think of tomato concentrate v tomato juice, or, for connoisseurs, pure malt v scotch & soda. Later, as British rock was getting harder, Rod Stewart provided the right kind of vocals to strengthen the spirit.
The electric guitar with distortion was the essential ingredient of rock music in its British version. In August 1964 Dave Davies of the Kinks slashed the cones of the speaker cones to alter the sound of his guitar in You Really Got Me. The two-note riff was primitive but attracted attention: guitar distortion entered British pop. Messing with the razor, however, was not the way forward. The new music era that was about to begin required quality equipment and guitar prodigies to master it.
Four young guitarists have defined rock music and, to-date, remain the greatest guitar icons. However, in 1965, Eric Clapton was playing blues, Jimmy Page was busy as session guitarist and Jimi Hendrix was nowhere until October 1966. It was Jeff Beck who became Britain's most respected and influential guitar player in the nascent rock scene.

In March 1965, twenty-year old Jeff Beck was recommended to the Yardbirds by Jimmy Page who, in turn, was suggested by Eric Clapton who left the group, unhappy with the turn it took from blues to pop. In Beck’s own words, “The general buzz of the band was that they thought they were finished when Eric left. At my debut with the Yardbirds at the Marquee, I showed them what was what, and I got a standing ovation, so that was the end of that.”

Four episodes illustrate how Jeff Beck laid the foundations of rock guitar playing during his eighteen-month spell with the Yardbirds, which was also the golden period of the group.


Episode 1. The Riff. Heart Full of Soul (recorded in April 1965)

Episode 2. The Solo. Shapes of Things (recorded in January 1966)

Episode 3. Rock Rhapsody with Heavy Metal. Beck’s Bolero (recorded in May 1966)

Episode 4. Double Lead Guitar. Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (recorded in September 1966)

RIP Jeff Beck and thank you.

 
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Rock1960s

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How Jeff Beck Defined the Rock Guitar

by Alex Petrachkov

Episode 1. The Riff. Heart Full of Soul (recorded in April 1965)

The guitar riff was born with the blues in 1940s; however, it became mostly associated with rock music when the latter was beginning to emerge. No surprise, three of the most memorable and influential guitar riffs were created in 1965 (Heart Full of Soul, I Can get No (Satisfaction), Day Tripper).

For his riff, Jeff Beck used a novel device – a “fuzz box” - to distort the guitar's sound to a particular effect. Jeff made his riff to sound like the Indian sitar (he stepped in to suggest it to his bandmates after a hired “real” sitar player failed to get the 4/4 rhythm). For this, he not only used a fuzz machine but also cleverly bent his strings, in a way only he knew. This episode is characteristic of Jeff Beck’s ever-experimenting spirit. Similar situations often happened in his career: in his perpetual quest for new sounds he often invented not just one thing but several in one shot.

The sitar-inspired riff in Heart Full of Soul was unprecedented. No one did such things before in pop music and a following was born (sometimes called raga rock). George Harrison actually played the sitar six months later in Norwegian Wood and Brian Jones did his part in March 1966 for Paint it Black.

Heart Full of Soul was recorded in London on 20 April 1965. Three weeks later, on 12 May, Keith Richards used a fuzz box for the recording of his riff in (I Can Get No) Satisfaction on the opposite side of the planet, in Hollywood. Both songs were released within a day of each other in early June in the UK and the US, respectively. The Yardbirds’ composition reached number 2 in the UK and entered top 10 in the US Billboard charts. The Stones’ blockbuster topped the charts worldwide and became one of defining moments of rock music, eclipsing lesser pop hits of the period.

Beck’s and Richards’ riffs were created independently from each other and equally deserved the palm leaf for a world premiere. Nonetheless Jeff’s mesmerizing guitar play in Heart Full of Soul was recorded earlier and to-date remains an iconic sound of the sixties. Since 1965, the guitar riff based on sound distortion became one of the fundamentals of rock music.

 

Rock1960s

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How Jeff Beck Defined the Rock Guitar

by Alex Petrachkov

Episode 2. The Solo. Shapes of Things (recorded in January 1966)

It could have been just another British pop song, albeit with dark lyrics in anti-war and pro-environment mood. However, the furious 25-second guitar solo imagined and performed by Jeff beck established the song's lasting legacy. The “most extraordinary” solo, in Jimmy Page’s expert words, probably contributed more than any other piece of music to the birth of rock from British pop.

To understand the blasting effect of Beck’s solo, one should consider what existed earlier. Since the early days of rock & roll, many songs featured brief interludes on guitar. They typically replicated and emphasized the notes of the song’s main melody. And, of course, there were no fuzz boxes or other means of sound distortion in guitar solos. Beck’s solo departs from earlier conventions. It breaks the rather solemn metronomic rhythm of the Yardbirds’ song by adding the sonority and the speed that sound like an independent piece within a composition.

Shapes of Things, together with Eight Miles High by the Byrds, is often considered one of the earliest examples of psychedelic rock (for whatever reason). Beck’s controlled feedback from his guitar, providing the eerie droning background to the song, was another world premiere. However, it was the guitar solo that mattered most; since then, near every composition in rock music would have one. To feel an early impact, check out Paul McCartney's guitar in Taxman (April 1966).

In May 1968, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart created a "dirty and evil" (in Jeff’s words) cover of Shapes of Things. It was probably the first song in hard rock recorded in Britain, where Rod’s novel vocals mattered as much as Jeff’s guitar. Comparing both versions allows seeing the immense progress of rock music in Britain over just a two-year period.

With the beat, the rough distorted guitar and the riff, the British version of rock music was born in the mid-1960s. With his ground-breaking guitar solo, Jeff Beck opened the door to what was about to come.

 

Rock1960s

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How Jeff Beck Defined the Rock Guitar

by Alex Petrachkov

Episode 3. Rock Rhapsody with Heavy Metal. Beck’s Bolero (recorded in May 1966)

In May 1966, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page with friends, all future rock legends (John Paul Jones, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins) recorded the ethereal Bolero. Nothing close to similar was recorded in pop music at that time to this avant-garde instrumental rock rhapsody. Although the composition was released only ten months after the recording, it was still ahead of its time, even though rock music evolved at incredible speed.

Beck’s Bolero, largely conceived by Jimmy Page for his friend to display his skills, consists of four parts (some authors mention only three). The first part is driven by the rich Ravel-style rhythm provided by Page on his 12-string guitar. On this foundation, Beck builds the main melody with a cosmic “horns-of-heaven” effect from his fuzz-toned guitar. In the second part, Beck’s guitar slides into a glissando to create a sunny hovering sound, before revisiting the main theme. The third part begins with a fierce drum break by Keith Moon giving way to another change of style from Jeff Beck - a thick descending riff. This part is formally the first heavy metal guitar ever recorded. The fourth part returns to the main theme climaxing with various guitar effects, including phasing, echo and controlled feedback. The whole composition makes the most powerful and varied display of electric guitar-playing that was technically possible in May 1966.

Of course, no promotional video was made for the instrumental, especially with Keith Moon’s “secret” participation. But it is worthwhile watching Jeff Beck playing the Bolero, with amazing ease, at live performances recorded some forty to fifty years after its original release. Bolero remained one of his favourites over the years.

The musicians themselves listened to the results of their recording session with some awe. Keith Moon uttered the words “lead balloon” to describe the impression from Jeff’s guitar backed by the rhythm section, which John Entwistle changed to "lead zeppelin" (we know what followed two years later when the “a” was dropped).

The Beatles with Rubber Soul, released in December 1965, unleashed their second musical revolution (the first being the British Invasion). Pop/rock music became conceptual and elaborate art, not just teenage entertainment. Complex compositions followed suit but, before Good Vibrations, A Day in The Life, Space Oddity and Bohemian Rhapsody, there was Beck’s Bolero.

 

Rock1960s

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How Jeff Beck Defined the Rock Guitar

by Alex Petrachkov

Episode 4. Double Lead Guitar. Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (recorded in September 1966)

In June 1966, Jeff Beck brought Jimmy Page to the Yardbirds, as the bassist, thus the returning the opposite “favour” done fifteen months earlier. Soon, Jimmy moved from bass to guitar. The next five months or so remain to-date an unprecedented period in rock music where two of the guitarists that have regularly been ranking in the top 5 greatest of all time, were members of the same band.

The typical setup of a beat/pop/rock group included a rhythm and a lead guitar. Keith Richards and Brian Jones did show some interchangeability within the Rolling Stones. However, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, with their guitar brilliance and innovation, brought the two-guitar interaction in a rock formation to a level not only unheard of before but still remaining unmatched.

In the composition, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page presented two lead guitars engaged in a dialogue (“like dueling fighter planes", according to journalist Bob Stanley). They switched from rhythm to lead roles or shared the lead between them. The song featured the most avant-garde and heavy guitar music of its time, by far. Whatever could be generated from guitar gear in September 1966 was there, including a realistic rendition of a police siren for fans’ delight. Jeff and Jimmy had the greatest possible fun; however, the dream team did not last long. There was one genius guitar too many in a single band. Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds parted ways shortly afterwards, but not before being filmed in a cult scene in Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. It was clear who the boss was on the stage, reluctantly breaking his guitar à la Pete Townsend (Jeff did not forgive Antonioni for imposing this pseudo “violence” show upon him).

By the end of 1966, Jeff Beck did his part in defining the rock guitar and went on experimenting, like he did all his life. And then Jimmy Hendrix embarked in London and “smeared everybody across the floor” (in Jeff Beck’s humble words). Eric Clapton and history’s first supergroup Cream were fomenting Disraeli Gears. Jeff Beck bumped into Rod Stewart in a pub and started putting together his own group. Jimmy Page was raising a new species of Yardbirds, which in 1968 became Led Zeppelin. A whole new guitar universe was about to be born. What a time it was.

The legacy of Jeff & Jimmy duo lives on. Ever since September 1966, double (or triple or more) dialoguing lead guitars are the delight of every on-stage jam session of the guitar’s greats. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page did the gig more than once, sometimes joined by Eric Clapton. It will be no more, what a pity.

 

CrazyConnie

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I will let Magic know.

I'm a simple mod that can get things
to the right section, but not on the same
thread.


I just reported it to Magic.
 

Magic

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Thanks guys!

I agree.

I messaged Rock1960’s to make sure it’s ok with him/her to move things. I’m sure it will be.

@CrazyConnie
@dr wu
@Aero


Edit: threads merged into one topic.
 

Rock1960s

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Hi and thanks everybody. I am a new user and still have to learn some technicalities. The problem I had was that my entire piece exceeded the authorized limit (12,000 words?), so I had to split it in episodes. Will try to avoid this in the future.
 

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