Jeff Beck, restless and virtuosic guitar hero, dies at 78


Jeff Beck, the British guitar virtuoso who rose to prominence in the 1960s as a member of the Yardbirds, moving the group into the rock-and-roll vanguard before establishing himself as an influential, prolific and breathtakingly adventurous solo artist, died Jan. 10 at a hospital near his home in Surrey, England. He was 78.

The cause was bacterial meningitis, said his publicist Melissa Dragich-Cordero.

Widely considered one of the greatest guitarists in history, Mr. Beck shifted seamlessly between genres, recording albums that drew on hard rock, heavy metal, jazz fusion, blues, funk, electronic music and Indian raga. Playing a Fender Stratocaster with the amps turned way up, he helped unleash new sonic possibilities with the guitar, expanding the instrument’s vocabulary along with contemporaries including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and his friend Jimmy Page.

“I don’t care about the rules,” he once said. “In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least 10 times in every song then I’m not doing my job properly.”

During his brief tenure with the Yardbirds, Mr. Beck helped pioneer the use of feedback and distortion, developing a hard-edged new sound that informed hits such as “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” He later formed the Jeff Beck Group, a rotating group of musicians that initially included singer Rod Stewart and bassist-guitarist Ronnie Wood. That lineup was featured on his 1968 solo debut, “Truth,” which peaked at No. 15 in the United States and showcased his blues-influenced playing style, notably on a psychedelic cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious.”

“At every break, Beck’s aqueous wah-wah tone makes his instrument sound like it’s talking — Chicago blues upgraded for the age of the bad trip,” Rolling Stone later wrote, including the song on its list of the 100 greatest guitar tracks. Mr. Beck seemed to agree with that assessment, once telling the magazine: “That’s my whole thing, trying to explore the blues to the maximum, really. It’s in the blood.”

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Mr. Beck received eight Grammy Awards and was twice inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, first as a member of the Yardbirds in 1992 and then as a solo artist in 2009. But his standing as a brilliant and inventive musician was shadowed somewhat by his reputation as a moody loner, a bandleader who repeatedly struggled to keep his bands together.

“My problem is that I’m not very professional,” he said. “I get bored very quickly, then I get irritable.”

After collaborating with Stewart, Mr. Beck worked with singers as varied as Macy Gray, Buddy Guy, Wynonna Judd, Cyndi Lauper and Luciano Pavarotti. He also recorded predominantly instrumental albums such as “Blow by Blow” (1975), which reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart, and joined supergroups including Beck, Bogert & Appice, a power trio that featured bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice. In the 1980s he played with the Honeydrippers, a rock group that included Page and his former Led Zeppelin bandmate Robert Plant.

Mr. Beck was still making music in recent years, partnering with actor and musician Johnny Depp to record the 2022 album “18,” which included covers of songs by the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye and the Velvet Underground.

Yet he also fell out of the limelight while avoiding interviews and corporate sponsorships, cherishing his privacy and seeking to avoid distractions. When the creators of the video game “Guitar Hero” asked him to be an avatar in their musical world, he was uninterested, telling the New York Times in 2010: “Who wants to be in a kid’s game, like a toy shop?”

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Even as he lagged behind contemporaries in sales and popularity, his fans and his fellow guitarists never doubted his greatness. “Jeff Beck is the best guitar player on the planet,” Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry told the Times. “He is head, hands and feet above all the rest of us, with the kind of talent that appears only once every generation or two.”

Geoffrey Arnold Beck was born in Wallington, in London’s southern suburbs, on June 24, 1944. When he was 6, he heard electric guitarist Les Paul play “How High the Moon” on the radio and asked his mother to tell him the name of the instrument. “That’s for me,” he said in response.

Mr. Beck learned on a borrowed guitar and made crude attempts as a teenager to create his own, once trying to bolt together cigar boxes for a body. At the Wimbledon School of Art, now part of the University of the Arts London, he played in R&B and rock bands, refining his technique while experimenting with genres.

His break came via another young musician on the London scene, Page, who turned down an offer to join the Yardbirds as a replacement for Clapton, recommending Mr. Beck instead. While the band was previously known for its traditionalist approach to the blues, Mr. Beck broke new ground, using his guitar to imitate the sound of a sitar while performing on their only U.K. studio album, which became known as “Roger the Engineer” (1966).

Mr. Beck lasted only 20 months with the band — for a time, he shared lead guitar duties with Page — before moving on to work as a solo artist. His first solo recording, “Beck’s Bolero,” was an epic instrumental that he made in 1966 with a backing band that included Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Keith Moon of the Who.

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Over the next few year, he struggled to translate his ideas into music while grappling with the audio technology of the time. “Everyone thinks of the 1960s as something they really weren’t,” he later said. “It was the frustration period of my life. The electronic equipment just wasn’t up to the sounds I had in my head.”

The combination of his prodigious talent and fiery personality were such that members of Pink Floyd considered asking Mr. Beck to join the band, according to drummer Nick Mason’s 2004 memoir “Inside Out,” but “none of us had the nerve to ask.”

Mr. Beck’s later records were an eclectic catalogue of his interests: pop (on “Flash,” 1985), instrumental blues-rock (“Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop,” 1989), the rockabilly musician Gene Vincent (“Crazy Legs,” a 1993 cover album) and techno and electronica (“Who Else!,” 1999). When he wasn’t making music, he was often in the garage working on vintage cars.

Survivors include his wife, Sandra Cash Beck, whom he married in 2005.

Mr. Beck usually avoided stage banter while performing, letting his guitar do the talking. Seeing him at Madison Square Garden in 2016, Times music critic Ben Ratliff noted that “there was something particular, specialized and unusual about pretty much every individual sound he produced,” including “his ways of making a phrase sound physical, falling and rising and pulsating.”

“This is prestidigitation,” Ratliff added, “a kind of large-theater magic-show. (It feels very early-20th-century.) You wonder, ‘How did he do that?’ once, then twice, and then you have too many questions to keep track of: He’s got you.”

Emily Langer contributed to this report.


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