The following interview was originally published in Guitar Player's November 1975 issue.
Jeff Beck is not ready to let his guitar playing rest on its own laurels. He has already made weighty contributions with a legendary stint in the Yardbirds in the ‘60s, as well as later endeavors in various groups he has formed. Those heralded accomplishments, however, are only so much history. Beck, now in his early 30s, has gone through what one of his associates appropriately called a “musical rebirth.”
After a lark with Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice in 1973, the British guitarist retreated to a reclusive lifestyle at his home in rural England. This year, he re-emerged on the music scene with an album entitled Blow by Blow. A guitar-dominated disc, it shot to the top of the sales charts in a matter of weeks—quite a feat for an all-instrumental album. But beyond its high listenability, the album displayed new directions for Beck, who has moved into a mode some call “jazz-rock.” Beck’s unmistakable style remains, but jazz leads and more involved rhythms and chording also grace his latest vinyl effort.
With the album’s success, Beck and a new band (Max Middleton on keyboards, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Wilbur Bascomb on bass) made a tour of the United States on a double bill with another musical innovator, John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra. In Detroit, Beck agreed to talk about the increasingly popular jazz-rock fusion and the movement of his guitar playing towards that style. Relaxing in his dressing room, he was friendly and attentive, although, earlier, he had given three encores—one where McLaughlin had joined him for a jam—and had a second, sold-out concert to do later the same evening.
Did you move towards jazz for the sake of expression or because it was more of a technical challenge?
Both. It really wasn’t too much of a challenge, because if anything gets the better of me, I leave it. But it was nice to hear myself play something else than basic rock.
Were there any particular records that led you in that direction?
I’m not a record freak. If I get a tape, I’ll play it in the car while I’m driving someplace. But I don’t sit down and religiously listen to records. I just buy a handful of tapes that knock me out things like Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke, and all the great rock and rollers. I call Billy Cobham a “rock and roller” because he’s so forceful. Rock is an energy to me. It’s more complex now than it was, but it’s rock just the same.
But the licks you are playing. they are nothing like the cliches on your 1968 album, Truth.
No, No. That’s gone. It’s finished. Everybody has been doing them—like Humble Pie, you know. Mick Ronson tries to do it. jimmy Page does it still, and he gets away with it—he makes a living at it.
Do you think audiences—especially the older ones—are getting sick of most rock sounds?
They’re not getting sick of it, but they need to be led some other place. They need to be given the opportunity to get into some other things. I suppose I could get a group and go out there and clean up by singing about rot, and playing “I Ain’t Superstitious” by turning it into nostalgia. But that is nothing new. I’d rather have people start shouting with “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”—something that has some class. Because it’s written by Stevie Wonder, that gives it immediate class.
From the technical end, have you been listening to one musician in particular that influenced your guitar playing?
Yes. I listened to Jan Hammer—the Moog player from the previous Mahavishnu Orchestra. He also played with Billy Cobham on Spectrum. That gave me a new, exciting look into the future. He plays the Moog a lot like a guitar, and his sounds went straight into me. So I started playing like him. I mean, I didn’t sound like him, but his phrases influenced me immensely.
Do you play a lot of scales?
No. I play the notes I think I want to hear. I don’t practice a scale. That’s very hard—very depressing. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: I like to play easy things that sound hard.
On Blow by Blow though, in some cuts you run up the neck in rapid-fire, notes-jazz style. Were you capable of doing that, let’s say, five years ago?
Oh yeah. But it was so out of place in the music I was doing then. I would sound like I was showing off all the time. When you have an intricate rhythm section, it fits in.
Does it help to learn how to read music?
It doesn’t help me at all. After all, nobody is following the little dots. The audience isn’t going to clap because you’ve hit every little dot. They’re going to clap because they like what they hear. That’s the way I look at it. It’s far away from the standard set of rules laid down by the concert pianists. If they don’t play their pieces absolutely by the book, they boo you off. You know, even if they miss the last note in the concert. [laughs] That’s too heavy for me.
You’re still improvising a lot, then?
Oh, yeah—just jazzing around. There’s no sense restricting yourself in music. It’s supposed to be there to give you freedom.
Have you been jamming with anyone during the layoff you’ve had since Beck, Bogert & Appice?
I don’t jam. I’m a country boy, and there are always things to do with the house, garden, cars. When I’m finished doing what I have to do, I play to relax. I don’t get up at breakfast time and practice.
You’re not a six-hour-a-day man, then?
No. I think that’s a good way to be great, but then you fizzle out—you peak too soon. I want to peak out just before I die, you know. [laughs]
Has playing with Max Middleton, who’s quite jazz-influenced in his keyboard work, helped your musical growth?
Very true. When I want to put something into practice, I always call Max up, because he can get the right piano and play just what I have in mind. His backing is so fantastic that it makes a simple lick sound great. He encourages me in everything I want to do. He’s incredibly enthusiastic.
Did he draw you out?
He draws out something in me that I’ve been afraid would be there which is, like, taste.
Nothing wrong with that.
No, but it could put me out of a job, you know. [laughs]
On the song “Diamond Dust” there’s orchestration. Are there any difficulties working with strings?
I hated it when I first heard it, because I was so used to listening to the track without it. Like you go into the studio fresh the next morning, and you think, “Ahh, that’s a nice track. Leave it alone.” Then you overdub, and you hear people messing around with the mix, and you get used to it, and then when you finally hear the strings on it you think, “Oh, my God!” But it’s too easy to kick the stuff off. You have to live with it awhile. I take my recordings home and listen to them so that I know I’m giving them a fair chance. If, after a month or so, if I hate what I’ve done, I take it off.
Have you made any equipment changes?
I’m still using the same wattage output—200 watts with two Fender speaker cabinets and two Marshall tops. I have the amp miked, though. I used to use Sunn amps. The Marshall tops give you the right sort of gritty sound. The Sunn is a bit too clean. The Fender speakers are a bit more reliable than the Marshall speakers, but the Marshall top is better, I think.
You used your 1954 Les Paul Standard on the album and tour, but also some Stratocasters. I thought you had given up on Stratocasters?
No. I don’t know. It’s just a good stage guitar, although it’s technically a bitch to get a hold of and play. But it comes over well, and it slices through the atmosphere with the highs.
What accessories are you using?
An overdrive booster and a wah-wah. The boost is just a preamp—it’s not a fuzz box—that gives you instant power, sustain, and distortion.
What is the principle behind that bag and tube you use that makes your guitar sound like it’s talking?
It’s a signal from the guitar that comes up the tube. When I hit the note, it will come up the tube into my mouth. Then, you can “play” the sound into your mouth through the tube, and make the sound do what you want just by moving your mouth. That was invented about 40 years ago in Sparky’s [Magic Piano] kid’s record they used to play. This kid used to go for piano lessons, and he had a dream where his piano came to life, and started talking to him. It was a voice by a piano chord going “Spaaaarky.” It was great, and that’s where the idea came from.
If you could make a generalization, what would you call the music you’re making now?
It crosses the gap between white rock and Mahavishnu, or jazz-rock. It bridges a lot of gaps. It’s more digestible—the rhythms are easier to understand than Mahavishnu’s—but it’s still on the fringe.
There are many guitarists who are in rock and roll ruts. What advice would you have to get out of that—to help someone expand into different musical veins?
That would make it too easy for them if I told you, wouldn’t it? I’ve spent half my life trying to get out of ruts. You’ve just got to do what you do best. Get a band you really like playing with, and just go. If you’re in a depression, it’s a personal thing. Pull yourself out of the personal depression, and start playing. If every thing is jumping around you, you jump with it. The music usually reflects what’s going on in your personal life.