10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Jeff Beck

November 28, 2007

, she wasn’t just whistling “Hail Britannia.” An international treasure whose wizardly way with the guitar has defined the state of the ax for over four decades, Geoffrey Arnold Beck was not only present and accounted for at the launch of the great Brit-rock guitar revolution of the mid ’60s, he kicked its ass.

Beck’s timing couldn’t have been better. Already a fearless musical renegade and always one step ahead of the pack, Beck answered Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend’s clarion call to arms with a feedback-laden fuzztone roar heard ’round the world—first with the Yardbirds, then with a string of his own groups whose lineage continues to this day. As Clapton himself once pointed out, “There’s something about Becky that beats everyone else.” E.C.’s right—Beck has always sounded downright dangerous.

With their landmark Truth album, the first Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart on vocals) created the lead-singer-plus-guitar/bass/ drums-trio template that Led Zeppelin and myriad acts would follow, but never received the credit they were due. Despite this lack of recognition, Beck has remained innovative, musically adventurous, and at the top of his game throughout his entire career, earning the respect and admiration of peers and collaborators from John McLaughlin and B.B. King to Tina Turner and Luciano Pavarotti, and garnering a few Grammys along the way. (Beck even backed Kelly Clarkson on American Idol last April.) The reasons for his longevity are no mystery, though. A strict vegetarian diet, a love of gardening, and a penchant for building classic hot rods have kept the 63-year-old Strat master healthier and more balanced than most of his contemporaries. Seriously, the guy looks half his age.

Beck’s constantly evolving style, which began as an unlikely amalgamation of Cliff Gallup, Les Paul, Otis Rush, and the Tamla-Motown sound, and currently incorporates elements of Southeast Asian, Eastern European, and Indian music, as well as techno and drum-and-bass. How does he do it? It’s time for you, dear readers, to reap the benefits of an obsessive-compulsive disorder I’ve harbored for years. (Yes, I’m a Beck-oholic.) This healthy cross-section of musical Beck-cerpts—most of which were inspired by the Guv’nor’s spellbinding 2007 performance at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival held in Chicago last July—doesn’t skimp on the details, so read through each phrase carefully and don’t skip a single squiggle. More on the music in a minute. First, you’ve gotta ...

1: Build a Model “B”

Beck built his reputation first with Fender Esquire/Telecaster guitars, Vox amps, and a Colorsound fuzz pedal. Later, he used a Gibson Les Paul, Marshall stacks, and a Vox wah. It was in the early ’70s that Beck found his soul mate in the Fender Stratocaster. He vacillated between all three models for a few more years, but finally settled on the Strat as his main squeeze in 1976. Nearly 15 years later, Fender introduced the Jeff Beck Signature Stratocaster, which sported a huge neck, Lace Sensor pickups, a Wilkinson roller nut, and a floating tremolo bridge set up to raise the open G string a Beck-approved range of three semi-tones (a full minor third).

The current model has a slightly smaller neck profile and is fitted with Fender’s Vintage Noiseless pickups, though, on his personal guitar, Beck has installed custom pickups made by luthier John Suhr. Presently, the Guv’s only mandatory pedal seems to be a Snarling Dogs Super Bawl Whine-O-Wah, a key component in Beck’s spot-on blues harp emulation. Secondary effects spied on Beck’s ’board include a ring modulator of indeterminate origin, a Boss flanger, and a Hughes & Kettner Tube Rotosphere. Beck’s elusive sound is warm and gainy, yet crystal clear with rich mids and a chest-pounding bass thump that can only come from one or more 4x12 cabinets (Marshalls, in Beck’s case). In the past, he’s mentioned running his Marshall JCM 2000 DSL50’s treble controls full up while keeping his guitar’s tone controls dialed back, and rarely maxing out his guitar’s volume control. During his most recent shows, Beck added either Fender Super Sonic or tweed Twin amps and extension cabs to his Marshall rig. All in all, Beck’s minimalist approach to gear reaffirms that it’s all in the fingers, which means you’ve gotta ...

2: Get Your  Hands Dirty

Every note Jeff Beck plays is lubed with some sort of emotive finger grease, be it a slippery slur, microtonal bend, whammy bar articulation, or a bit of primal bang-on-the-bridge vibrato. (Fact: Currently, the majority of Beck’s vibrato emanates from his picking/plucking hand.) Beck typically employs several techniques at the same time, such as swelling his volume control into a pre-bent (with the bar) natural harmonic, combining whammy bar dips and finger bends, or playing plucking-hand “Jaco-style” artificial harmonics with fret-hand bar manipulations. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, and you could easily spend a few lifetimes dissecting Beck’s playing. Check out Truth, Beck-Ola, Rough and Ready, Blow By Blow, Wired, There and Back, Guitar Shop, Frankie’s House, Crazy Legs, Who Else!, You Had It Coming, and Jeff, and you’ll hear what I mean. But even after you get your gear and sound together and learn a slew of Beck-approved techniques, there’s one more major factor involved in conjuring the maestro’s mojo: Yes, you’ll have to ...

3: Lose the Plectrum

(That’s “pick” to us yanks.) Sure, it’s a tall order, but this meat-on-metal approach may be the most crucial element in the ultra-expressive way Beck currently shapes his tones. His integration of thumbed downstrokes (p) and index- (i), middle- (m), and ring-finger (a) upstrokes gives each note a unique envelope and timbre, something you just can’t get from the uniform attack of a flat piece of rigid, synthetic material. For “plectrum” sounds, Beck resorts to his index fingernail positioned as if holding a pick (as you’ll soon see).

Ready to convert? The triplets-and-bendie motif in Ex. 1a certainly goes back to Beck’s plectrum days, but this current fingerstyle version really pops, especially when you snap the strings with your index or middle finger. Ex. 1b displaces its rhythm and adds a pair of high C bends, plus a signature semi-tone release to Bb, the 3. (Tip: Try this one over the third pass of the groove in Ex. 4a.) Ex. 1c ventures into trill territory with a held G bend and high B pedal tone. Transpose the same lick down to a bent D and F pedal to emulate some wailing blues harp. The trills in Ex. 1d feature tapped Bbs and descending pull-offs, while Ex. 1e reverts to fingerstyle, displacing and dropping the pedal Bb an octave. Ex. 1f borrows the descending line from Ex. 1e and pits it against a high G pedal with some bonus action on the last two beats. Beck’s accuracy on trilled chromatic octave runs like the one in Ex. 1g is downright frightening. The target, unison-bent b7 (F) is another Beck trademark. Ex. 1h downshifts intervals from octaves to minor seconds, but the premise remains the same. (Astute readers may recognize the move on beat four from last month’s “Guitar Heroes A-Z” lessons special.)

4: Channel Elmore James & Little Walter

Beck’s faux-slide whammy bar antics have confounded the best-trained ears for years. These days, Beck’s plucking-hand whammy embouchure typically entails holding the bar in “ready” position with his index finger on or near the tip, and his remaining fingers wrapped loosely underneath, leaving his pinky perfectly poised for on-the-fly volume control manipulations. This also allows him to slide the bar between his index and middle fingers, making it easy to combine thumbed downstrokes and 1st-finger upstrokes at will, while still maintaining control of the bar. Ex. 2a illustrates how a combination of bar bends, releases, dips, and a pinch of bar “flutter” can conjure a totally convincing slide vibe. (Beck achieves the flutter effect by pulling up on the bar and releasing it like a slingshot.) Ex. 2b is a bit more Beck-ified, with its gradual bar bends, grace-note releases, 12th-fret-to-open-string pulled-off dive, and lower-register response. Perhaps even more astonishing is Beck’s ability to coax, as we touched on earlier, authentic blues harp licks from a six-string. Cock your wah pedal to a lower-midrange howl, then open it up as you rake and dip into the opening Ds in Ex. 2c. Pay close attention to each written articulation during the last two beats and you’ll wind up in harp heaven. Ditto for the equally tasty honkin’ in Ex. 2d.

5: Become One with  Your Ax

Now that you’ve got a bunch of stylistic moves under your belt, let’s see how Beck uses them to have his way with a beautiful melody. Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” (from Blow By Blow) has been a mainstay in Beck’s set for over 30 years, and Jeff seems to breathe new life into the song with each performance. Ex. 3, a four-bar excerpt culled from the ’07 Crossroads set, shows what happens when revolutionary technique meets sheer melodic mastery. Beck’s bar-bent melodies, dragged-triplet pre-bends with staccato releases, intense rhythmic phrasing, and delicious bluesy inflections all add up to a feast for the fingers. Savor it.

6: Nail the Hammer

That’s “Hammer” as in “Jan.” When Beck collaborated with the ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra synth genius for Wired and a corresponding 1976 tour, I was ecstatic. These were two of my favorite musicians, and the musical sparks this pair generated in a single concert could power New York City for a week. Beck had found a musical sparring partner whose compositions fit him like a glove, and since then, I’d lay odds that Jeff has performed at least one Hammer song at every concert. “You Never Know” and “Star Cycle,” both originally released on 1980’s There and Back, have remained in Beck’s set list throughout 2006 and 2007. Examples 4a and 4b condense the former’s A-section groove and B-section ensemble riff (the up-stemmed part in Ex. 4b shows Beck’s Hammer-esque variation of the main theme), while Ex. 4c is Jeff’s take on Hammer’s sequenced synth intro to the latter. You can outline the entire “Star Cycle” form by playing this two-bar riff twice as written (in F), once transposed to D in the tenth position, back to two bars of F, up a whole step to G, then back to D. (Fact: Beck and Hammer reunited for a brief UK tour in 2004.)

7: Take a Sad Song  and Make it Better

Making someone else’s song truly your own is no easy feat, but Beck recently recast a Beatles anthem and, in the process, may have found a new signature tune. We won’t divulge the title, but the pre-bent and half-released melody in Ex. 5a, the faux-slide third intervals and growly low-E dive-bomb in Ex. 5b (tip: Try replacing the first four sixteenths in beat one with an eighth-note triplet), and heavenly melodies that run the cycle of fifths in Ex. 5c should provide more than enough clues for you to win this round of Name That Tune.

8: Build It Bigger

It doesn’t get any heavier than this, folks. Like many of Beck’s greatest riffs, “Big Block” (from Guitar Shop) is overbuilt to the max. The song starts on a foreboding note as a relentless “where’s one?” bass figure idles beneath the heavy metal funk of Beck’s ninth chord stabs (Ex. 6a), which soon give way to all sorts of sonic mayhem. (Tip: Convert some of the licks in Examples 1 and 2 to 12/8 and drop them into this groove.) Beck cues a one-bar low-E crescendo, then breaks into the song’s massive B section depicted in Ex. 6b. Following a deafening silence on beat one, the ensemble roars through the unison figure in bar 1, targeting three different power chords on each repeat. Feel free to fill up that giant hole in bar 2 at will, but be sure to hook up with the ensemble for the final, triplet-based, stop-and-start unison line that segues back to the intro. Don’t let the 14/8 time signature throw you—it’s just another bar of 12/8 with a 2/8 hitchhiker.

9: Go Bollywood

Okay, it’s not Bollywood per se, but Beck’s note-perfect adaptation of Indian classical singer Swati Natekar’s amazing vocal inflections on his cover of Nitin Sawhney’s dreamy drum-and-bass tune “Nadia” (from You Had It Coming) may be his most astounding accomplishment since the Bulgarian Women’s Choir-influenced “Where Were You,” from Guitar Shop. (See the February ’90 GP for my full transcription of that whammy-bar tour-de-force.) The four-bar snapshot of “Nadia”’s first two “verse” melodies in Ex. 7 comes from a 2006 festival gig in Tokyo.

The devil, of course, is in the details, so let’s break down each phrase in this I-IV (Dmaj7-Gmaj7) progression note-by-note. (Tip: If these rhythms seem difficult, try double-timing your count and doubling the value of each note.) Bar 1 begins with a volume swell into F#, a hammer-on to A, and a downward bar bend to G. Hold the tremolo arm down, then release it and simultaneously pull off to F# on beat two. Beck uses an E-to-F# finger bend on beat three (that’s three F#’s in three beats, all phrased differently!), then adds a syncopated 7-to-root (C#-to-D) hammer during beat four. The final move in the first phrase anticipates the downbeat of bar 2 with a half-step bar bend from F# to the new tonic G, which is held, then quickly released, re-bent, and released again with the addition of a gradual whole-step dive. The second phrase starts out more conventionally with a repeated G and hammered A, another A decorated with a little bar wiggle, and a slurred G-A-B-A move that lands in the tenth position. Begin the last measure with a B-C-B grace-note bar bend, release and shake, then slur back into seventh position for the closing combo of up/down whammy bends. Wow.

10: Wish Upon a Star

One of Beck’s most endearing traits is his ability to deliver melodies with such power and emotion that they leave listeners with tears in their eyes. Nowhere was this more evident than during the encore on his last few tours. Beck’s choice of “Over the Rainbow”—played as a duet with keyboardist Jason Rebello—would have met these specs in itself, but his strategy to phrase the
Wizard of Oz classic’s second verse entirely in natural harmonics puts the tune totally over the top. After he plays the song’s opening melody in the key of F using conventional fretting (except for a single bent G harmonic that anticipates things to come), the heavens open up. Beck modulates to D and unleashes the cascade of angelic harmonics depicted in Ex. 8. (Tip: A little compression goes a long way.) Be sure to explore alternate fingerings and phrasing techniques. I’ve seen Beck play the passage in bars 3 and 4 at least three different ways. For instance, try adapting the exact same bar bends from bar 1 to the G harmonic on beat two of bar 3. Lay this one on your sweetie and you’ll see how a little romance in your playing can go a long way. (Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.) Cheers, Jeff, and thanks for the perspiration!

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