Jeff Beck was building up a racing rhythm. The lauded guitarist thumbed a few knobs and dials, shoved the pedal level and revelled in the boisterous noise that swept over him. He wasn’t riffing though, he was driving. His instrument wasn’t a Fender amp, it was the howling engine of a Ford hot rod.
“To be honest I go through phases of which is the ‘best’ or my ‘favourite,’” Beck says of his exquisite custom cars, a collection that includes a Ford Deuce Coupe modelled after the one in the movie American Graffiti. But picking a favourite would actually be the easiest of all his hot rod decisions. “Recently, the challenge has been finding enough time to build and work on them. I like to oversee every part of building and be at home when parts arrive. With all my touring over the last few years, the building has taken a bit of a back burner.”
That hands-on ethic has served him well as a guitarist. At the age of 67, Beck is now in the midst of a career resurgence that eluded him for decades.
His first break came in 1965 when Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds, a budding British Invasion troupe, to pursue a purer blues ethos. The Yardbirds’ first choice for a Clapton substitute, Jimmy Page, politely turned down the invitation in favour of a lucrative studio session gig. The future Led Zeppelin architect did, however, point the ’birds toward Beck, a fellow session guitarist who was developing a sterling reputation for his ability to mimic a gamut of playing styles.
Beck’s stint in The Yardbirds produced only one album, but his brief tenure turned out to be the band’s peak. The guitarist’s dabbling in fuzz tones, which purred like a well-oiled engine, and his feedback and backwards-echoes experimentations gave rock ’n’ roll a new brawn that we now take for granted.
Beck followed up his time in The Yardbirds by recording a solo single, “Beck’s Bolero,” with the help of a supergroup backing band: Page; soon-to-be Zeppelin bassist John Paul-Jones; Nicky Hopkins (who played piano on several Rolling Stones hits); and The Who’s Keith Moon on drums. This eventually led to the formation of The Jeff Beck Group, featuring Rod Stewart on vocals and future Rolling Stones rhythm guitarist Ronnie Wood.
Beck’s career momentum stalled near the end of the decade, however, when he fractured his skull in a car crash. After a year of recuperation, his bandmates had moved on. He formed a new lineup for The Jeff Beck Group. The fresh incarnation dabbled in jazz and soul, but Beck failed to reach the same creative or commercial heights.
Throughout the ’70s he bounced from one collaboration to the next, recording disappointing solo albums despite his attention to detail. Months after playing with jazz fusion troupe Upp, for example, Beck called producer George Martin and asked to redo his solo. Martin’s reply? “I’m sorry, Jeff, but the record is in the shops.”
By the early ’90s, Beck’s revived touring career included an invitation to join Guns N’ Roses onstage in Paris. Although it was a great opportunity, the experience proved costly. While rehearsing for the gig, drummer Matt Sorum’s thunderous cymbal literally left Beck deaf, albeit temporarily.
“Losing my hearing was very difficult and frustrating, as well as depressing,” he says. “You lose your balance, live in a bubble for a while. I now suffer from tinnitus, but I have learned how to cope and adapt when it rears its ugly head.”
His physical resiliency mimics that of his music. In 2010, he headlined Madison Square Garden with Clapton, and nabbed two Grammys — best pop instrumental performance and best rock instrumental performance — for songs from the critically lauded album Emotion & Commotion. The electro songs are intricate and meticulous. They are a far cry from his earlier strummings, but remain infused with a fixed ethos.
“I was six years old when I first heard Les Paul’s ‘How High the Moon’ over the radio. I knew then that I wanted to play the guitar, but we couldn’t afford one,” Beck says.
“So I built my first guitar with some wood I bought from the local wood shop. It was horrible, but I played that thing as much as I could and never looked back. I suppose that first guitar helped me to get to where I am today.”