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13 January 2023

Why Jeff Beck was the best guitarist in the world

Jeff Beck’s astonishing virtuosity was always driven by emotion – and he kept challenging himself until the end.

By Kate Mossman

I don’t know how many times my dad and I went to see Jeff Beck play – it was what we did. Though he operated under most people’s musical radar he was constantly on the road. The last time was in the courtyard of the Royal Chelsea Hospital in 2018: the Pensioners were watching from their bedroom windows. And there was that night in the little theatre within the O2 arena, when he played nothing apart from 1950s Les Paul music. Before the gig he was presented by his manager, Harvey Goldsmith, in a short masterclass – an inappropriate format for someone who mumbled and worked in the medium of constant self-deprecation. Beck, who died aged 78 on 10 January, was dressed in his white athletic stage gear, stitched for him by the costume designer for Downton Abbey, and wore calf-high boxing boots. His sinewy right arm would do an impossible 360 degrees in its shoulder joint when he hit a particularly big chord.

“I need to rethink the stage gear,” he later told me, though they never did. In his Ealing comedy accent, his haircut and strange outfits, he aped the archetypal rock god (he was the inspiration for Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap) but in his approach to music he was as obsessive as a classical soloist, and far more creative. He could not listen to other guitarists, he said. His shtick was to pretend he was intimidated by Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page (he wasn’t) and fall to his knees if they walked on his stage. He said he’d get us tickets to see Pat Metheny – one of the few guitarists alive who was on his level – at Ronnie Scott’s then suggested he’d have to wait in Bar Italia over the road instead.

In his seventies Beck would still practice, tinkering with his instrument as he tinkered under the bonnet of his classic cars; he experimented to the point that he was able to do things that no one else could do – which is why it’s so hard to explain why he was the best guitarist in the world. He was virtuosic, sure, but mainly he was tender – a tenderness that felt like the result of a private and fanatical connection with his instrument. He’d touch a bottleneck down the frets in a series of little sonic explosions; he’d play a solo with his tremolo, appearing to pick notes out of an invisible scale in mid air; he’d do exceptionally loud metal riffs, then fly off into polyphonous jazz solos. The music was driven by emotion. His most moving tracks are instrumental ballads such as 1989’s Theramin-like “Where Were You” and his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers”.

Wonder wrote “Superstition” for Beck to play but decided to keep it for himself. Beck turned down many lucrative job offers in the first half of his life: when I spoke to him in 2016 he recalled the time in the mid 1970s he was flown to Rotterdam to discuss the possibility of joining the Rolling Stones. “I’d been there two days and I hadn’t seen a Stone, and I thought, ‘Right, I’m witnessing what it’s like to be a Stone – not playing, and having single malt whiskies.’ ” He thought to join the band would “truncate my whole being”. He moved into jazz rock instead. Like other “guitar heroes” of his era he was able to occupy the space of both technician and icon, but today the culture no longer elevates instrumentalists to celebrity status. It is too obvious to say we will not see his like again – but it’s fair to say that if there are others out there who can do what Beck did, they are likely to remain in the shadows.

Because he kept challenging himself, his critical high point came later in life. He was in his 60s when he did a seven-day residency at Ronnie Scott’s with Jason Rebello, Vinnie Coalita and a phenomenal 20 year-old bass player called Tal Wilkenfeld. Beck always had women such as Wilkenfeld in his band in recent years. They were generally attractive and often wore leather trousers but they were always good players: his stage was never, as someone once said of the ageing rock bands, “like looking into an open grave”. He mentored these women – one of the last was Bill Oddie’s daughter Rosie Bones, which was a bit of a surprise but gave a nice sense of the minor celebrity world he moved in, down in his village in East Sussex.

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I wish I knew what Beck was really like. He had six women – two of whom he married – but no children. He had many dogs and cats and 14 vintage cars, and lots of his money went to animal welfare. He lived in the same Tudor mansion for decades near the town of Wadhurst, where his ex-girlfriend the model Celia Hammond also lived, and ran her own chain of animal sanctuaries – how strange to think they must have seen each other down the shops buying pet food. He found a way to play the music he wanted, and his cartoon image protected him, allowing Jeff Beck – whoever he was – to be left in peace.

[See also: The £7m fingers: how Jeff Beck became a guitar hero by saying no]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis