“But Tom,” you say, wringing your hands in despair. “Didn’t you just say Steve Lukather was the greatest living player? Then how come Jeff Beck is number two?”
Its simple. Jeff Beck simply isn’t thought of as human by musicians.
He’s sort of above it all, mercurial, inscrutable, and generally non-co-operative to whatever anyone else wants to do. His guitar isn’t like anyone else’s. Everyone sounds notes on an instrument. His Stratocaster behaves like a human voice, it sings, grunts, belches and vomits. He hears noises and tones no one else does, follows trends years before anyone else, and changes his style every time he reemerges into the public eye.
Beck emerged from legendary British band the Yardbirds, where he replaced Eric Clapton, and proceeded Jimmy Page. He frustrated everyone with inconsistent performances, bursts of abstract noise and distortion and utterly brilliant blues inspired playing.
He eventually started his own group, with future Rolling Stone Ron Wood, and future superstar Rod Stewart on vocals. Like most alliances, Beck has put his hands to, it didn’t last, but it marked a venture both into folk and psychedelic rock, and some interesting spins on blues.
Another few incarnations of the Jeff Beck Group started to appear, and they started to hint where Beck was going.
In the 70’s Beck switched to jazz. He’d bounced around a lit bit, doing bits of session work, and various appearances that just didn’t seem to quite work out. But in 1975, he released Blow by Blow, and nothing was ever the same again. For the rest of the decade, Beck explored jazz, although, like everything else he did, it wasn’t that linear.
He played fusion, and then eschewed the guitar pick, creating a style with his tremelo bar and fingers that allowed him to become a vocalist, something demonstrated in his jaw dropping cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers.”
Jeff returned to rock in the early 80’s. After all, at this point, he had an awful lot of famous friends. You saw him then, you just didn’t know who the man was going from video to video, trading licks in one concert after another. This all led to his most controversial album, his collaboration with Nile Rodgers on Flash. Flash combines Rodgers savvy pop sound with a confused Beck doing his own spin on Eddie Van Halen’s techniques. I think its still riveting. Jazz purists hate it.
It was a hit, and won him a Grammy, so naturally he responded by disappearing for four years and then putting out a fingerstyle album. After that, he spent a great deal of time working on cars.
When he reappeared in the 2000’s he immediately began dominating whichever song he guested on, and whatever stage he appeared on. He always does.
Jeff Beck is simply a genius. Everyone has learned to stop trying to make him do things, and just take what he gives you, when he’s ready.