Under Investigation: Jeff Beck Live in Tokyo

It’s high time that guitarists unite and expose Jeff Beck for exactly what he is—one of the greatest singers of all time!
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It’s high time that guitarists unite and expose Jeff Beck for exactly what he is—one of the greatest singers of all time!

It’s true. While the rest of us mere mortals struggle daily with the cumbersome mechanics of guitar playing and amp tones, Beck has longsince transcended that process—he simply hears what he wants to play and voilà, out it comes, just like the greatest vocalists, the only difference being that his notes are channeled directly through fingers instead of vocal cords. It’s a divine talent every player aspires to, but few ever achieve.

Though well known for unpredictable riffing and incendiary soloing, it’s Beck’s uncanny instinct for beautiful melodies that sets him far ahead of the pack, and nowhere is this more evident than on the 2014 DVD/Blu-Ray release Jeff Beck Live in Tokyo [Eagle Vision]. Passionately performed by his killer new band—Jonathan Joseph (drums), Nicolas Meier (guitars and synth), and Rhonda Smith (bass)—the set establishes a new high-water mark in Beck’s career, with devastating and often flawless performances of classics and staples, from “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” “Angel (Footsteps),” and “Where Were You,” to a hefty helping of new material, including “Loaded,” “Yemin,” “Danny Boy,” “Why Give It Away,” plus a lovely cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”

Foregoing the usual “hot licks” approach, this month’s investigation focuses instead on Beck’s unique “vocalizations” (and sometimes simultaneous accompaniment) with excerpts from three distinctively different musical environments. But first, let’s check out the players and what they’re playing.


There’s so much to be gained by scrutinizing Beck’s right-hand “embouchure,” and Live in Tokyo offers many close-up opportunities to do so. Watch closely and you’ll notice that most of the time Beck plays melodic lines with his thumb, while resting his index finger on top of the whammy bar (for downward bends), curling his middle finger under the bar (for upward bends), and leaving his ring and pinky fingers free for on-the-fly, nearly constant manipulation of the Volume and Tone controls. Beck’s palm is generally positioned near his floating bridge, at the ready for some impromptu palm-muting or signature manual bridge vibrato, a fluttering pitch effect he achieves by rapidly pounding on the rear part of the floating bridge plate. For fingerpicking, Beck lets go of the bar and resorts to free thumb-, index-, middle-, and ring-finger strokes, while fast, alternate-picked runs are accomplished by pinching the thumb and index finger together, as if holding a pick. Try to follow these guidelines throughout all of the upcoming examples.

Beck’s pedalboard has grown a bit for this gig, most notably with the addition of a genuine vintage (and real-estate-sucking) Maestro Ring Modulator, but in addition to two pedals I couldn’t identify (we only get fleeting glimpses throughout the disc), little else has changed. The Klon Centaur is still front and center, along with the Snarling Dogs Whine-O Wah, Hughes & Kettner Tube Rotosphere, Way Huge Aqua-Puss and MXR Carbon Copy analog delays, and Lehle Little Dual A/B/Y amp selector, all of which have resided in Beck’s rig for several years. Guitar-wise, the set’s opening number, “Loaded,” finds Beck torturing a Tele (tuned down a whole-step), but the rest of the show features Jeff’s signature white Stratocaster tricked-out with custom pickups by John Suhr. But Beck’s not alone here.


Swiss-born Nicolas Meier is an accomplished solo artist, and virtuosic fingerstylist and plectrum player equally well versed in a multitude of styles, including classical, flamenco, blues, rock, jazz, and world music, who now resides in the U.K.. He joined Beck’s band in 2013 and has since been responsible for providing electric and acoustic sounds, as well as synth pads and textures on three tours. His arsenal includes four Godin guitars—two LGXTs, a nylon-string Multiac, and an A12 12-string—plus a Roland GR55 and “many pedals.” As you’ll discover in our first two selections, Beck couldn’t have chosen a better wingman.


A tip-of-the-hat to Jan Hammer, the opening riff to “Hammerhead” was born from a figure devised by keyboardist Jason Rebello for an intro to the long-time Beck albatross “Hi-Ho Silver Lining,” as performed at the Royal Albert Hall with David Gilmour on July 4th, 2009. Here, the song begins with Meier’s clean, fingerpicked D5-D7/5-Dsus2- D7/5 arpeggios, as depicted in Ex. 1. Six repeats, plus a sustained, barand- a-quarter Dsus2 set up Beck’s entrance, the absolutely devastating ensemble pickup and two-bar, D-blues-based rhythm figure notated in Ex. 2. (Meier switches to overdrive and uses a different, fifth-position fingering for this riff.) We’re only illustrating two bars here, and Beck never plays it the same way twice, but you can home in on all of his phrasing nuances—the finger slide and microtonal bend in the pickup, the bar- (or finger-) bend in bar 1 capped with a staccato quarter- step bend on the downbeat of bar 2, and the re-phrasing of the pickup with a b3-to-3 hammer-on in bar 2—and run with them. Note how Beck plays this entire figure with his thumb—at least this time around!

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Ex. 3 is framed by bassist Rhonda Smith holding down Rhy. Fig. 1, while Beck’s spacious Miles-Davis-like melody (Gtr. 1) sings over Meier’s atmospheric, stringy synth swells (Gtr. 2). Rhythmically, Beck’s bar-inflected root-9-b7-6-b7-5 melody hits fall where you’d least expect them—on the third eighth-note of beats four (in the pickup, and bars 4 and 8) and beats three (in bars 2 and 6), and the third eighth of beat two (in bars 3 and 7). Meanwhile, Meier’s ethereal synth pad swells into each beautifully voiced chord a beat later. Play Ex. 3 twice, hold the last note, and segue directly back to Ex. 2 for a re-intro into Beck’s second round of the melody, which he plays one octave higher using the same fingering, but, as always, drastically different phrasing.

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Following the 8va melody, Beck moves to the bridge melody (Ex. 4), where he finesses key chord tones resident in Meier’s Gm7-Gm6-A-Gm-Gm7 accompaniment with a combination of manual bends (bars 1 and 4), and whammified grace-note dips and melodic upward bends and releases (bars 2, 5, and 6). This adjourns to two rounds of Rhy. Fig. 1 (from Ex. 2) minus the pickup, which completes the form and adds yet another element of coolness as the riff seems to turn itself around.

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This beautiful Eastern-flavored Nicolas Meier composition proved to be right up Beck’s alley—after all, he’s been flirting with exotic melodies and instrumental techniques since his earliest days with the Yardbirds. Featuring the kind of everbuilding melody that Beck seems drawn to, the tune begins with Meier’s astounding extended free-time nylon-string solo intro, which he concludes with a four-bar fingerstyle rhythm figure (Ex. 5.) that defines the groove and sets the stage for the melody. Basing his moves on a G-minor tonality, Meier decorates an open-G5 shape with Cs, Ebs, and a lone Bb (the 4, b6, and b3 of G minor, respectively). Ex. 6 marks the entrance of the melody, which is based on a repetitive, one-bar rhythmic motif and variations of the Cs, Ds, and Ebs (plus a few Fs) from Meier’s intro in Ex. 5. Here, Beck embellishes each phrase with hammer- ons and grace-note slides, and/or upward or downward bar-generated bends and vibrato, while Meier supports with a rhythm figure that adapts the chords and partial picking pattern from Ex. 5 to the melody from Ex. 6. (Meier actually plays the figure much more sparsely than written, so try omitting a few sixteenth-notes between the downbeats.)

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This segues directly to second half of the melody, which is presented in Ex. 7 as a D.I.Y. affair. Below chord grids depicting Meier’s voicings, you are given a skeleton of Beck’s melody notes. Your mission is to apply the rhythm motif from Ex. 6 to each one-bar melodic phrase, adding as many Beck-isms as you see fit along the way, and to adapt Meier’s chords to his picking pattern from the same example. (Tip: Refer to the video.) The return to G5 and Beck’s G melody note in the last bar coincide with Meier’s four-bar re-intro, which is similar, but not identical to Ex. 5. This is followed by Beck’s 8va melody—Ex. 6 and Ex. 7 played an octave higher with different amazing phrasing—which segues directly to an eight-bar bridge, the first half of which is portrayed in Ex. 8. On his first pass, Beck utilizes a combination of manual and bi-directional bar bends to manipulate key chord tones from Meier’s Am7-Emadd9-Cm7-B7sus4- B7 accompaniment. The second pass is identical, except for the last two beats of bar 4, where Meier transposes his B7sus4-B7 moves up a minor third to D7sus4-D7 and Beck responds with a 22nd-fret high D (not notated). Meier’s four-bar re-intro follows before he and Beck embark on an improvised two-guitar dialogue that must be seen to be believed.

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Beck has reimagined quite a few chestnuts over the years, from “Old Man River” to “Over the Rainbow,” and most recently, he unveiled a wonderful rendition of the timeless “Danny Boy” in the key of D. Beck’s free-time, chord-melody intro is absolutely sublime, and Ex. 9, though rhythmically subjective, shows my best attempt to capture its beauty in print. Here’s the play-by-play.

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A three-note pickup prefaces Beck’s perfectly executed steely oblique bend (Ouch!) in the first half of bar 1, and his thumb-fretted broken D13 voicing in the second half. The melodic bar bend and release starting on the and of beat four serves as a pickup to the broken thumbon-6 G and G/A IV- and V-chords in bar 2. Four sixteenth-notes on beat four lead back to a fifth position I chord (D) at the top of bar 3, while the next two sixteenths accommodate a shift up to seventh position, where Beck breaks up the VI chord (Bm7) in Jimi-like fashion (beat three), and then adds an effortless bar bend-and-release topped with a staccato pull-off. I went back and forth many times between notating bar 4’s Hendrixy II-V (Em7-to-A) moves in the seventh or twelfth position—the camera work offered no clues—before finally deciding on the latter. Why? To me, that first note has the unmistakable tone of a fat sixth string. Use your thumb to slide into the twelfth-position Em7 shape, add the beautiful filigrees on the first two beats, and then slide up a whole-step to arpeggiate the A/C# chord as shown.

Halfway through the intro, Beck pauses, restates his opening pickup, and then enters bar 5 with another E-to-F# bend sustained over the delayed D root, reminiscent of the move in bar 1, but a lot easier to play. A D-to-E pickup precedes the ultra-cool half-step whammy dip and release of the D7 chord on beat three before Beck adds the 6/13 (B) and finishes out the measure with a slinky faux-slide lick. In bar 6, he lands back on the G voicing from bar 2, but this time follows up with a broken G#dim7 chord that creates tension that is only partially resolved by the D/A in bar 7 (due to the 5 in the bass). Beck suspends and then resolves the 3 of D, before morphing into a reverse A arpeggio on beat three, and adding a few unexpected half-step bar tugs and releases from E to F that lead into a slide to the tonic D in bar 8. Lastly, Beck ices the cake with a descending gospel turnaround—G-D/F#-Em7-D—and embellishes the last chord with a sultry half-step bar dip, release, and subsequent vibrato. Glorious! Cheers, Jeff! (Special thanks to Nicolas Meier for his input.)