RAMBLIN ROUND: Jeff Beck: The guitarist who created new sounds in rock and jazz-fusion

Jan. 15—The first time I heard Jeff Beck play guitar, I didn't even know his name — but my ears were instantly attuned to his unique style.

I didn't hear much — only a repeated riff to open the song, with a short solo in the middle.

But what a riff! I'd never heard a guitar sound that dirty before — meaning a slightly distorted sound that seemed to emanate from some mysterious and exotic place I couldn't quite pinpoint.

After hearing the song a few times on the radio, I soon learned its title: "Heart Full of Soul" by the 1960s British group, the Yardbirds, who'd scored a previous hit with "For Your Love."

I also learned the name of the guitarist behind that magical riff — Jeff Beck. He'd tried to emulate the sound of an East Indian sitar with his electric guitar when he recorded "Heart Full of Soul" as the Yardbirds' lead guitarist. Beck took over the role when an East Indian sitar player hired to play on the recording didn't work out. Beck later said the sitar player couldn't nail the rock rhythm required for the part.

Beck achieved the distorted sound on the riff by utilizing one of the first "fuzz tones" ever created by recording engineer, Roger Mayer. He used the distorted fuzz sound on the guitar a month before Keith Richards would use it on the Rolling Stones' big hit "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

Out of the three guitar virtuosos who performed with the Yardbirds — Eric Clapton, Jeff Back and Jimmy Page — I have long settled on Beck as my favorite.

Sure, Clapton and Page may be more well-known among many music fans, thanks to Clapton's turns with Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, and his many solo albums. Page's crunching guitar work with Led Zeppelin has long thrilled that band's army of fans, but to me Beck always epitomized the role of a pure musician.

Maybe that why the news of Beck's passing this week left me stunned. After all, he recently completed an enthusiastically-received tour featuring a solo set with his band along with a guest spot by actor Johnny Depp. Only a few months ago, he and the band turned in a powerful rendition of his instrumental solo hit, "Freeway Jam" when the group opened their American tour at The Anthem in Washington on Oct. 4, 2022.

At 78, Beck looked vibrant, as if he could go on forever. Alas, it was not to be.

Word of Beck's passing, posted on his website Jan. 11, stated:

"On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck's passing. After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday. His family asks for privacy while they process this tremendous loss."

No doubt much of the music world will also be trying to process this tremendous loss in the days to come.

An eight-time Grammy winner, Beck is also among an elite group who have twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. First came his 1992 induction for his work with the Yardbirds, followed by a second induction in 2009 for his performances and recordings as a solo artist.

Beck played with an array of musicians during his long career.

One of his first bands, The Jeff Beck Group, included Rod Stewart as lead singer and Ron Wood on bass. After that band broke up, Beck performed alongside several different lineups. Not a singer himself, he included various lead vocalists in his band— but for awhile beginning the mid-1970s, he decided to do away with singers completely and record instrumental albums.

Beck knew what he wanted musically and he didn't waver. in its pursuit.

After Mick Taylor left the Rolling Stones in 1975, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards invited Beck to join the band. After a day of playing together, Beck decided he didn't want to roll with the Stones. He decided they wouldn't gel musically and he's been quoted as saying he and Keith would have ended up punching each other out.

Things worked out for all involved. The Stones invited Beck's former bass player, Ron Wood, to join the band as a second guitarist and Wood, of course, is still with the Stones.

Beck, meanwhile had the opportunity to work with George Martin, the famed producer of The Beatles, who would produce Beck's next album, "Blow by Blow." Released in 1975, "Blow by Blow" became the biggest album of Beck's career. It shot to No. 4 on the bestselling album charts in the U.S. and eventually received a platinum album certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, signifying 1 million album sales.

Standout tracks include the rollicking "Freeway" — a number Beck included in his concert repertoire for the rest of his career, including his October 2022 American tour with Johnny Depp.

While Beck could play the blues and blues-rock so favored by Clapton and Page, he also pioneered the jazz-fusion guitar sound, of which "Freeway" is a prime example.

He followed "Blow by Blow" with another instrumental album, "Wired," which hit #16 on the U.S. album charts and won another RIAA platinum certification, signifying a million sales.

On another note, Jimi Hendrix isn't the only well-known rocker to perform an instrumental version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

While Hendrix famously performed his version at Woodstock, Beck performed his rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at an outdoor baseball stadium on June 20, 2010, at Comercia Park, prior to a game between the Detroit Lions and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Later that year, he played the National Anthem again, this time joining it with "God Save the Queen," in only the fourth NFL game played outside the United States at the time, when the San Francisco 49ers clashed with the Denver Broncos in Britain's Wembley Stadium.

As much as I like Beck's rendition of Stevie Wonder's song "Cause We've Ended as Lovers" on the "Blow to Blow" album, Beck really shines on the song while using it as a near-showstopper during his live performances, when he and his instrument — usually a Fender Stratocaster with the whammy bar intact — seem to emulate the sound of a crying guitar.

Wonder originally wrote his song "Superstition" for Beck to perform — but Wonder liked it so much he recorded it himself and achieved yet another hit. Beck would record his own version of "Superstition" with Tim Bogert and Carmen Appice, after he formed a short-lived trio with the former members of Vanilla Fudge and Cactus.

Oh yes, back to "Heart Full of Soul." I did feel some empathy for that East Indian sitar player who ended up being turned away because he couldn't quite nail the sound needed on a rock record. He didn't leave the session empty-handed though.

Since Jimmy Page was recording in an adjacent studio as a session musician prior to joining the Yardbirds, he took an interest in the East Indian instrument and bought it on the spot, deciding to learn to play the instrument himself.

Page would later join the Yardbirds when the group had an opening for a bass player, but soon moved to co-lead guitar with Beck. After Beck left the group, Page continued as the group's guitarist, finally putting together a group called the New Yardbirds.

When the New Yardbirds didn't fly, Page reconfigured the group with a new name — Led Zeppelin — a band with which he occasionally utilized those sitar playing skills he'd attained.

Luckily for rock music and rock guitarists the world over, Beck's attempt to emulate the sound of a sitar on a distorted electric guitar proved only the start of his guitar experimentation.

His sound experiments had humble beginnings though. As a kid, Beck wanted to learn to play a guitar, but his family couldn't afford one.

Beck, already an improviser, built one of his own — out of a cigar box!

It proved the first, but certainly not the last time, Beck played a "smoking" guitar.