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Under Investigation: Jeff Beck

March 5, 2013
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I CAN’T THINK OF A BETTER WAY TO INAUGURATE THIS new investigative series than by spotlighting the world’s foremost master of the Stratocaster, Jeff Beck. Sir Beck continues to baffle us with the combination of impossibly beautiful and borderline evil sounds that has kept him poised at the top of guitarists’ most-wanted lists for nearly a half century. But what makes him so unique? Why does Jeff Beck sound so different from any other guitarist on the planet, and how does he keep getting better?

It’s certainly not about his gear. While Beck has long been revered for killer tones, his chosen axes, amps, and effects have always been fairly Spartan. We’re talking Fender Telecasters and Gibson Les Pauls in the early days, and then Strats, Strats, and more Strats beginning circa 1972. Add a vintage, modern, or reissue Marshall or Fender amp—Beck used a beefed-up Fender Pro Junior paired with a Klon Centaur overdrive on his recent Rock ‘n’ Roll Party tour—plus a Snarling Dog Whine-OWah, and you’ve got the essentials covered.

So if it’s not the vehicle, it must be the driver. For instance, Beck essentially stopped using a pick beginning in the late ’80s, and his bare-skinned, constantly changing attack brings out harmonic overtones that just don’t exist for most of us! In fact, Beck’s fingerstyle technique is so organically integrated that he often has three or four different things going on simultaneously— perhaps a volume-swelled micro-bend decorated with a dip of the whammy bar—which is precisely why we’ve placed him (play Gmaj7#5/E here) under investigation. There’s plenty more to uncover, so let the proceedings begin.

M’Lords and Ladies, I ask the following: Does Jeff Beck’s guitar playing constitute a threat to the public at large? Isn’t this sort of thing dangerous? Should anyone be allowed to get that good?!? The charges stand as follows:

LEAVING FINGERPRINTS AT THE SCENE

Hearing a Jeff Beck phrase that doesn’t feature some sort of manually generated modulation on almost every note is a rare occurrence. To properly Beck-ify a lick, you need to add a generous amount of finger grease. Ex. 1a sets us up with a garden-variety, one-bar blues lick in G. There’s really nothing special going on here besides a couple of generic bends and releases, but in Beck’s hands, the same idea is likely to come out sounding something like Ex. 1b. Let’s check out the eighth-note play-by-play (noting that the first five notes are played staccato): We’ve got a whole-step pre-bend, a half-step release (played like a pre-bend), two quarter-step pre-bends in a row, a repeat of the first two notes, and a pull-off to a heavily-vibrated, quarter-prebent b3. Pretty twisted, huh? Almost out-of- tune, but in a really good way—that’s the ticket! Ex. 1c offers another set of possibilities, this time with a swing-eighth feel and slight rhythmic alteration. Have at it!

FALSIFYING SLIDE-GUITAR STATEMENTS

Beck’s infamous faux-slide playing—accomplished with bare hands and a whammy bar—has long fooled the keenest of ears. Ex. 2a shows the unadorned version of an already Beck-ish descending G Dorian-based run before the sleight-of-hand ensues in Ex. 2b with downward whammy-bar bends between the b7 and 6 (F to E), and the b3 and 2 (Bb and A), all key Dorian tones. (Tip: Release the bar at the same time you pull off.) Ex. 2c brings a cool, bar-bent chromatic passing tone (Eb) to the party. Try the same technique on different scale tones and go on a bender!

STALKING FLAT 7S AND SUSPENSIONS

Sections of several early pre-whammy Beck solos highlight the b 7 of the key with oblique bends, where two notes are played, but only one is bent. The bent and non-bent pitches may or may not be identical, and it’s the former that is illustrated in the two bars of G-based moves (culled from Beck’s pick period) shown in Ex. 3a. Bar 1 emphasizes the b7 (F) with oblique unison bends played in swing-eighths, while bar 2 reveals a lovely suspension and resolution via an oblique-bent 4 (C) to a half-released and shaken-not-stirred 3 (B). Also noteworthy is the clever placement of single notes between bends. Ex. 3b recasts our b7/F over the IV chord (C9), where it is paired with its neighboring 6 (E) to temporarily function as a very groovy string of 4-to-3 suspensions (all played using bends and pre-bends) and resolutions. Bar 2 ends with a vibrated, pre-bent 4, plus another zip up—and this time back down—the B string, before launching the sixteenth-note barrage of gnarly, G-blues nirvana in bar 2, one of my favorite J.B. licks of all time. Don’t forget to swing it, baby!

FAKING TESTIMONIAL BLUES HARP

Like his whammy-induced “slide” work, Beck’s faux blues-harp honking is to die for. Again, we’re back to just two hands and a whammy bar, but OMG! Master the subtleties of Ex. 4a and you’ll swear you’re channeling Little Walter. Rake the opening G triad, flat the 5 with a half-step bar bend, and then add bar vibrato by rapidly and repeatedly releasing and re-flatting the 5. (Tip: A low-to-high-to-low-frequency wah sweep enhances the effect.) Another trick up Beck’s sleeveless-T is to bang his fist directly on his floating bridge, completely bypassing the bar. This typically results in the kind of half-step bends and releases notated in Ex. 4b. It’s a less harp-like, but equally cool move!

ORGANIZING A GANG OF THREE

Beck’s short-lived power trio and super-group, Beck, Bogart & Appice, may not have gained the worldwide notoriety they deserved, but they certainly blew a sizeable crater in the terrain with high-octane, call-and- response ensemble rhythm figures that contrasted power chords with low-register single notes, like the one shown in Ex. 5a. And dig it: Beck was still using a pick to toss off gems like Ex. 5b’s snarly, finger-twisting, open-position E blues run. (Tip: Skip the G#, replace the final E with a G chord, and it makes a twisted country lick in G.)

STEALING FROM THE BEST

Beck’s long-standing admiration for the father of the electric guitar has spanned most of his life, culminating in 2010’s Jeff Beck Rock ‘n’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul. The flurry of Les-approved triplet pull-offs shown in Ex. 6a dates back to Beck’s days with the Yard-birds, but was initially coined by Paul 30 years earlier. (Becks-ersize: Move the lick to different fret positions and add palm-muting to taste.) The same goes for the bulk of Ex. 6b, where a string of chromatically descending sixteenth-note triplets tributes L.P., but that final zip up the B-string and quick drop to a target b3 is pure Beck.

HIJACKING SOME BASIC CHORDS…

…“and having your way with them,” is perhaps how that title should continue. Whether he’s finessing jazz voicings or gleefully dropping bombastic power-chord assaults, Beck handles them all with equal panache. Inspired by one of Beck’s early-’70s soul-jazz outings, Ex. 7a features a two-bar, Barney Kessel-style, I-IV-II-V-based chord-melody in G, before Beck-y puts his unmistakable stamp on bars 3 and 4, with pulled-off bass notes, signature Bb/C and Eb/F voicings, and funky single-notes reminiscent of another famous J.B.

Okay, finesse be damned. One of my most moving Beck moments occurred during a performance of a then-untitled and unrecorded song that began with a lovely, delicate, and deliciously Scottish-influenced melody played over a G-based I-V-IV progression (G-D-Csus2). On the second round, Beck held the last Csus2, and then, in a spine-tingling moment, segued directly to the incredibly powerful reimagining of the four basic chords used to create the monument to heaviosity depicted in Ex. 7b. (Note the triple forte.) Crank it up and bathe in its magnificence. Case closed!

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