Jeff Beck: On Building His First Guitar and Why He’s Not a Fan of Tapping

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

Jeff Beck is busy. The man who boasts everyone from Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page to David Gilmour, Joe Perry and Slash amongst his most ardent fans, is slinging his guitar far and wide this summer. He’s out on the road with Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers and Heart’s Ann Wilson, while fitting in solo dates along the way, as well as promotion for a new documentary about his career and life, Still On The Run: The Jeff Beck Story.

The shows are earning Beck the effusive praise typical of the kind the legend has always gotten from journalists covering his performances who’d forgotten just how remarkable his gifts on the guitar are. The film is a reminder to the rest of us just how vast Beck’s mark on music has been over the past fifty years, and how remarkable, quirky and unpredictable his career has always been.

When we last met, in 2016, upon the release of Beck’s fantastic Loud Hailer album, he was very in-the-moment. But the process of producing the documentary has clearly forced Beck – never nostalgic – to look back and reflect on just how far he’s traveled since a teenage Jimmy Page knocked on his parent’s door and asked him to come out and play.

Rock Cellar: I’d heard the story before, but I found it hard to believe. But you really did build your first guitar, didn’t you?

Jeff Beck: Yeah. The guy next door to my parents was older. Much older. He said, “I’ll build you a solid body guitar for five pounds. Fucking five pounds, which to me was 500 back then, but anyway, I went ahead and did it. The first one I built was in 1956, because Elvis was out, and everything that you heard about pop music was guitar. Elvis, I mean everybody; Billy Haley. And then I got fascinated. I’m sure the same goes for lots of people.

Rock Cellar: This is great stuff. Definitely the sort of thing the guitar magazines would love to get from you. I think I told you this last time because you said the same thing about the guitar magazines Paul McCartney once said when Bass Player Magazine asked him what kind of strings he uses. He said, “long shiny ones.”

Jeff Beck: But it’s like Microphone Monthly for the vocalist. I’ve told all the stories over and over, over the years.

And besides,  you can have all the same gear – a Fender Strat, Marshall amps, the same pedals – but it will never sound like me. Never.

Rock Cellar: You have a lot going on right now. At the LiveNation press event yesterday, where you launched the tour with Paul Rodgers and Ann Wilson, you seemed pretty low key.

Jeff Beck: Yeah, I got swept along in some invisible tsunami.

Rock Cellar: But it’s great, you’re doing solo dates, plus the tour with Paul and Ann, you’ve got the documentary. That’s a lot of activity for you in a short amount of time.

Jeff Beck: It seems to have just gone that way. I kind of think that it wasn’t much by design. I had to have all year off last year, because I had a shoulder operation. And although it sounds nice, you know, to sit by the pool – and it was a beautiful summer – when you’re lying in the sun and you can’t get up, it’s not much fun.

Rock Cellar: What happened?

Jeff Beck: I had a torn rotator cuff. What happens is sometimes your bone grows crystal and extends in some ways and starts digging into the soft tissue. And if you leave it, it just gets worse and worse, and it damages the soft tissue. But if you get it before that, they just file away the bone, and it’s no big deal. It’s a microsurgery. There’s no evidence now.

But don’t let anybody tell you it’s a small operation. I can tell you, it felt like somebody just called my arm off and  stuck it back with super glue.

Rock Cellar: That may be what they did. [Laughter.] Did it affect your playing in any way?

Jeff Beck: No. I mean I could still play. The motion was still there in the elbow and the fingers and all that, but it was so painful. And then my doctor said, “It’s a good job he didn’t do the other one at the same time.” It was nearly a year before I could put a t-shirt on. I had to get my Mrs. to help pull it down. I could get it over my head and just about get both arms in but I couldn’t pull it down.

I needed my dog to learn to jump up and pull it.

Rock Cellar: If only you could train your dog to do that.

Jeff Beck: Oh, he’s smart enough to do it!

Rock Cellar: What kind of dog do you have?

Jeff Beck: I have two Border Collies. One’s more pure. The other one’s a real mongrel. But they’re both amazing. The youngest is five, the other one is about seven or eight.

Photo: Ross Halfin

Rock Cellar: So is the five year old still a little crazy, probably?

Jeff Beck: I mean, if you’re a rambler, don’t go near my house.

Rock Cellar: So I shouldn’t just wander by to say hello?

Jeff Beck: This woman comes by on her horse, very sweet, and she’d just stopped in to say, “Stop barking. Calm down.” I thought that was so sweet of her to do that, instead of causing a ruckus, because then they bark for ten minutes.

So I said, “Why don’t you just call out their names?” And after two or three times they didn’t bark anymore. I’m in a lane, so it’s quiet anyway. We only get three or four cars a day, so when somebody does appear, like the UPS man, it’s very exciting for them.

Rock Cellar: He’s had it, your UPS man, Jeff.

Jeff Beck: Well, he actually has to come up to the house. I mean, that’s the thing, you know, I have a very good relationship with him, because I get a lot of packages.

Rock Cellar: From Fender, no doubt.

Jeff Beck: They are very kind.

Rock Cellar: I’m sure they are. I actually asked them for material about your artist guitar, because I noticed, in the documentary,while you’ve played your share of Gibsons over the years, you’ve mostly played Fenders.

Jeff Beck: Well, the Strat was the thing. Dear Hank Marvin made it sound so sweet. I mean, all guitars are basically the same, but in different hands, just totally different.

But I’ve always thought the Fender Stratocaster is the most versatile guitar for rock and roll. And the Custom Shop Esquire they made is just amazing.

Rock Cellar: The amount of different sounds you get from a Strat — just going through your back catalogue again watching the documentary — whatever amps you’re using, or whatever pedals you’re using, and however you’re getting your sounds in the studio or live, it’s really remarkable.

It’s a real testament to the power of what you said, the right guitar in the right hands. Hendrix could obviously do almost anything he wanted with it, and Hank Marvin certainly set the template, but what you do is a whole other animal. Do you ever look at at guitar — the tools you have in your hands — and think that you have to work around its limitations, or do you feel as though you can do anything you want to do?

Jeff Beck: The best, most reliable thing to do is see what the guitar is telling you. Do you find a harmonic? Double harmonic? Make a note of where that is, and then use that as the bar. That’s what I do. I guess you could say for somebody who can’t really play guitar it’s a way of getting out of trouble. I mean, it’s a joke, obviously, but I think there’s some substance in the joke. Whereas most people immediately swing over to the idea of tapping, and swing over to that, to me that’s a circus rather than a musical performance.

Those guys just try to outdo each other. I’ve noticed on YouTube, looking for young talent to maybe join me, everything in that realm has already been done. Eddie Van Halen has already done it. So leave it to him. I mean, don’t come near me with tapping.

How effective is it when you do endless runs at high speed, like a run of bumblebees? And in every single song, I don’t see see the tone variation. I don’t feel the pain of a bent note. There’s no lyricism. It’s just complete typewriter. And it doesn’t sound great.

And, by the way, it’s fucking annoying.

Rock Cellar: Well, that brings up an interesting point, because even in your jazziest forays, there’s always a lyrical nature to what you’re doing. Jimmy Page says in the documentary, you may not be singing – or speaking – but that is how you’re speaking, with your guitar.

Jeff Beck: It’s a subliminal vocal, I suppose. It’s replacing the vocal. And the prerequisite, when you decide you’re not going to have a vocal, is that you’ve got to have something to carry the melody. And that is the whole thing.

Rock Cellar: Well, the tapping people would argue that that is the melody, I suppose.

Jeff Beck: The long, drawn-out note can do a million things, as opposed to 400 notes that are extraneous and not really necessary. When people like “Sleepwalk,” by Santo and Johnny, that’s just a beautifully recorded piece.

It’s a steel guitar, and the tone is just to die for. At one point I thought maybe I should do something like that, but then I realized that the strings are about half a mile away from the board! {Laughter.] But the tone cannot be equaled. It’s just completely clear and powerful.

I think that’s what got me going on the melody thing. There were a lot of great instrumentals back when I was coming up. Link Wray? Amazing stuff. You try to copy one of his numbers and, let me tell you, they’re not the simplest thing.

Rock Cellar: From our conversations, and what I know about you, you never struck me as a career documentary kind of guy. How did they talk to you into that?

Jeff Beck: They kept banging on the door. That’s what they did. One meeting I had was with six people, and I was on the other side of a long table, and felt like I was being judged. I told them, “you’ve wasted your time.” But then, what happened was, they booked a room above a club in London to interview me – because I’d tentatively said yes — and every 10 seconds the dumbwaiter would come over with some food and clatter.

And everyone was like, “Oh, we can’t have this.” And I thought I was out of trouble. I went home. But then they kept on. So I thought, “Okay, I should at least be polite and let them put in a proposal of some sort. And I thought, if I can get artistic control, then what’s the problem, you know? They’re going to do scrambling around the world, getting stuff together that I will never do. My dear friend is a film director, and I think we would have made something very funny and probably slightly more avant-garde, but it wouldn’t have been as factual this is. They’ve done a damn good job, I think, and from the information they, and Jimmy [Page], who glued the whole thing together in a special way, describing the key moments in my career in such a visual way, and I think it’s great.

Rock Cellar: Like many of your fellow musicians, you didn’t do so well in school.

Jeff Beck: I had trouble thinking of why they would bloody teach us those equations, when we wouldn’t in any way need them. At least, if you’re going to start talking Greek, then at least make it interesting. We did have a history teacher who was enthralling us. But now you can’t even say teacher, because it seems to have the stain of authority.

But, fuck it. If you come to my house, I’m going to teach you stuff. But it’s all down to the performance of the teacher. It was incredible, too, because teachers would walk in and all the chaps I knew would be sizing him up in a heartbeat, because we thought we could take the piss out of them. But if they passed the first ten minutes, we’d pay attention. Otherwise, we’d be sending notes. “Did you see the way he’s dressed?” “Yeah, he’s got his fly open!”

Rock Cellar: I’ve followed your career for a long time, but I learned some things, and I was reminded of things I’d forgotten. Did you take away anything from it the process? Did going through it and corralling the people to talk about you, help you remember things?

Jeff Beck: My wife was great. I couldn’t bear to watch the rough cuts. But then she came in and goes, “Oh, my God, it’s just what I wanted.”

I think Eric [Clapton] was the biggest surprise in the whole thing to me. I didn’t know he was in it. They didn’t tell me. And then to have him say what he said, as the others did as well, was wonderful. But he was the one that I didn’t expect. I thought there would be some well-founded critique, this and that, you know. But Eric? Because in the air between the us in those days, and even just quite recently, there was always a sort of crackle of distance, you know.

No awkwardness, but whether he didn’t like me being his shadow or whatever, there was something. But things changed definitely when he came down to my house — which was a first. I don’t think he’d been anywhere near my house, ever.

But there’s a picture of us walking across one of the fields, with the dogs, and I thought, “There’s two friends there. How wrong did we get it for all those years?”

He seems to be settling in a way in his ’70s. He’s a great guy, these days. Way back he desperately wanted to be famous. I had no idea why you’d want that. We were just after such different things. But I don’t think I was ever challenged by him in anyway, other than just playing. You know, my music was not in any way on his coattails.

I don’t think he was strictly blues – “Wonderful Tonight” and “Tears in Heaven,” beautifully done — but he was very blues focused, throughout his career, while I was always going here and there. So we’re two separate people, and I think he realized that recently, and that there’s no need for any more…whatever there was in the past. [Laughter.]

Rock Cellar: David Gilmour is great in the documentary, too. He’s a little younger than the rest of you, but in the same class, if you will, and it seemed it was easy for him to talk about how he saw you, and what he observed as you made your mark early on.

Jeff Beck: I joined Pink Floyd but he got the gig!

Rock Cellar: Yeah. I know! And I didn’t know that you were Richard [Wright]’s favorite guitar player. That’s kind of amazing, but it makes total sense, because he was such a musician. He had such an amazing sense for chords, and that big, lyrical nature and improvisation, in a way for other musicians, it’s not in their nature.

Jeff Beck: And I made Amused to Death with Roger. The “Amazing Album That Never Was.” Have you heard the surround mixes from a few years ago? Outrageous!

Rock Cellar: I saw Roger on that tour, actually, and I loved that album at the time. But then he went off and did other things. It felt like he didn’t pursue his solo career for a long time there, and that was kind of the last thing he did before he disappeared. I’ve interviewed Roger, and when I brought up that record he didn’t seem to want to talk about it. I felt as though he kind of dismissed it.

Jeff Beck: No, no, no. I’m not having that. He said in an interview, waxing lyrical about The Dark Side of the Moon, that there’s a better album: Amused to Death. And suddenly my antenna went up come on why was it not huge. And I think the reason being was that it was so depressing to the record company.

Rock Cellar: It was his third depressing record in a row. In short order, he’d delivered The Final Cut and The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, and then Amused to Death. So it was third depressing record in a row, the third “downer,” I’m sure, from the record company’s point of view.

Jeff Beck: Doesn’t mean to say that is not an amazing record! I understand what you mean, though. I’ve never thought about it that way.

Rock Cellar: The Jeff Beck Group looms large in the documentary. By the way, today is the anniversary of the “orange album.”

Jeff Beck: Thank you Twitter for unbelievably boring facts. [Laughter.]

Rock Cellar: But what was fascinating to me, as i was watching this amazingly creative period, with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, and you refusing to play Woodstock, that even as the band disintegrated, “Definitely Maybe” kind of helped you carve your way forward. I mean, you took a left turn, that didn’t completely work, maybe, at the time, but then you found George Martin.

Jeff Beck: I think that what we’re touching on is expanding through other people. Other than being confined in a band, because you’ve got this wall around you, when you’re in a band, and this restriction, it’s hard to stop. You’re a successful unit, but you’re probably not absorbing what’s going on too far outside that wall. It’s limiting. But you’ve got to grab onto whatever fruit is around.

I’m always looking for new things. Those left turns, as you say. That’s my entire career, right there.

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