Upon learning of guitarist Jeff Beck’s passing, I find myself reflecting on the significant impact his music had on my development (in addition to, of course, the impact he had on music itself). I encountered his music in passing here and there as a kid (hearing a Yardbirds song here and there, watching the MTV video for his cover of “People Get Ready,” etc.), but without much initial impact. When I was around 15, a couple friends turned me on to his Blow By Blow album and I was totally hooked – indeed that was one of the few all-instrumental albums I really enjoyed before I started getting into jazz, and one of even fewer that remained relevant to me even after. While he could certainly shred, what really stood out to (and particularly influenced) me was the expressiveness and tonal nuance that came from his unusual technique and deep melodic sense. While he was truly one of the great rock guitar heroes, his legacy goes well beyond that and that legacy will remain secure even now that he is no longer with us.
Here, in chronological order, are a handful of the many songs by or featuring Jeff Beck that have been impactful for me.
1 ) “Heart Full of Soul” from Having a Rave Up With the Yardbirds by the Yardbirds (1965)
As a youth I was into the Yardbirds, going back to the Eric Clapton era, but this was the first song where the guitar playing really stood out to me as something unique.
2 ) “Over Under Sideways Down” from Roger the Engineer by the Yardbirds (1966)
If the previous track was the one that first hit me as being uniquely demonstrative of Beck’s “voice” on the guitar, the main riff of this fun song took that to another level.
3 ) “Shapes of Things” from Truth by Jeff Beck Group (1968)
I direct those who are reading this list for discovery/educational purposes to start with the Yardbirds’ classic original version of this song both because it’s awesome and to provide some context for this slower, gnarlier version from Jeff’s first album under his own name. This record also introduced audiences to two musicians who would each go on to multiple Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, namely guitarist/bassist Ronnie Wood and vocalist Rod Stewart.
4 ) “Rice Pudding” from Beck-Ola by Jeff Beck Group (1969)
This borderline-epic instrumental is fun and impressive on its own terms, all the more so in how it foreshadowed the extensive instrumental work that would come to typify Beck’s output on and off for decades.
5 ) “I’m Going Down” from Jeff Beck Group by Jeff Beck Group (1972)
Jeff’s interplay with keyboardists is one of the things that really drew me in early on, and his work here in dialogue with Max Middleton’s piano is electrifying, holding its own with the gritty lead vocals of Bobby Tench on this classic Jeff Beck Group performance.
6 ) “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” from Blow By Blow by Jeff Beck (1975)
I could write a whole essay on the apocryphal stories surrounding Jeff’s relationship with Stevie Wonder and populate a list with examples thereof, but I’ll focus on this one, quite possibly THE definitive Jeff Beck guitar performance and certainly (with respect to Syreeta Wright) the definitive version of this Stevie tune. It’s blues, it’s rock, it’s jazz, it’s quintessential Beck, and it is utterly gorgeous.
7 ) “Rock ‘N’ Roll Jelly” from Modern Man by Stanley Clarke (1978)
I’m glad for Jeff that he was generally categorized as an instrumental rock artist in the ‘70s as opposed to a jazz fusion artist, because he presumably sold a lot more records as a result. But his high-energy featured appearance on this track is a good example of how well he could have fit into the latter category.
8 ) “Steel Claw” from Private Dancer by Tina Turner (1984)
While his guest solo on the title track from Tina’s big comeback/commercial breakthrough as a solo artist gets more attention (and deserved attention), I particularly dig his gnarly soundscapes in the solo on this rocking album cut.
9 ) “Where Were You” from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop by Jeff Beck, Tony Hymas, and Terry Bozzio (1989)
I remember reading about this album a lot when it came out, and while some of the guitar playing is “standard” late-80s rock guitar fare (in quotes because he, of course, was one of the architects thereof), this ballad is the tune where the sensitivity of the guitar playing really hit me in the gut. Technically drummer Bozzio sits this one out, making it a guitar/synth duo with Hymas, an important longtime collaborator.
10 ) “Led Boots” from Live at Ronnie Scott’s by Jeff Beck (2008)
This funky Max Middletown tune from 1976 album Wired is revisited potently here in a live club performance with, I dare say, his most classic 21st century line-up with Jason Rebello, Tal Wilkenfeld, and Vinnie Colaiuta.