As one of the instrument's most skilled rock stylists, Jeff Beck has burned a template for guitarists second in importance only to Hendrix. Though he ranks behind his former band the Yardbirds' two other premier playersJimmy Page and Eric Claptonin terms of commercial success and popularity, Beck eclipses them both when it comes to sonic innovation. He's been universally lauded for his work in rock, jazz, fusion, metal, and pop, but his career has also been plagued by long gaps of inactivity, erratic behavior, and under-the-radar releases that tended to subordinate his work on landmark guitar albums like Wired and Blow By Blow. Yet without albums like these and Beck's abundant originality laying the groundwork, guys like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eddie Van Halen might never have become the kind of modern icons they are today.
Now 55, Beck still commands the kind of respect most living guitarists can only dream of, and his new album, Who Else?, should serve to keep him on the map at least through the Millennium celebrations. Draped in a dark fleece jacket to ward off the chill of a New York City winter, Jeff Beck sits in the corner of a posh hotel restaurant sipping a cup of tea, and ponders some major issues.
Guitar.com: What exactly is your relationship with your guitar?
Jeff Beck: If you took a look at it you'd know. It's sad. Of course, it's your best friend. When I'm ailing it's the first thing I reach for. Sometimes it protects you from the misery of being ill. I can't work on my cars if I'm not content with things in my life; I need some degree of good feeling to enjoy the cars. So the guitar is a convenient leaning post. I've got one in every room.
Guitar.com: Does it ever take the place of romance for you?
Beck: [Laughs]. I've been pretty lucky in some ways, because of the rock 'n' roll life. I've had a pretty good bite of a tasty cake. I'm not obsessed by fame like some people; it's amazing the pain they'll go through to keep it. Before I picked up a guitar, I couldn't get arrested, I couldn't pay enough money for a girl. Suddenly, I got my confidence in the band, and the money that followed, of course, helped even more.
Guitar.com: Do you ever see yourself trying to do an Unplugged project?
Beck: Are we talking acoustic? Oh, I couldn't do that. You mean, completely unplugged? I unplug for nobody! It's like throwing yourself to the lions, I'd feel exposed. I'd rather be involved in something that was interactive. I've gotta start using some of what I felt when I saw Bjork and Prodigy play live. I want to give that amount of joy.
Guitar.com: You were inspired watching Bjork?
Beck: Yes! She sings with such total freedom and knowledge of rhythm. There was no pulse but she was singing on time and coming back right on the beat. It was astounding, the first time I was impressed with modern sounding stuff. Personally, I need a more organic, less modern set-up; Im not comfortable without a drummer. I'll have one for whatever project I'm working on, but from now on I think it will compete with the machines and the power of electronics.
Guitar.com: You're new album, Who Else?, is really modern-sounding. Was that purposeful?
Beck: I told a good friend of mine before the project started that I wanted to take the electronic rhythms of industrial music and put my guitar sound over it and he said, "Yes! The screaming guitars, the mayhem. It's what Hendrix would be doing if he were alive!" So I knew when he said that, I was on the right track.
Guitar.com: What took you so long to get this album out?
Beck: It doesn't matter if you get a 10,000,000 quid advance, you can't just go up the road for a while and come back with great ideas. There's no way you can force it. We tried a million things, just writing riffs and whatever you could think of. But then, as time went by, we knew we at least had to have something extraordinary to show for it.
Guitar.com: You've had some morale problems over the years. Can you talk about them?
Beck: It doesn't matter how much good happens to me these days, my negative kicks in and destroys it. I constantly feel that I'm failing and frustration. In 1968 I didn't get time to cogitate and deliberate like I do now. Back then, every day was charged with activity, and we finished off with a meeting of the lads in a bar somewhere. You don't get that newsline anymore.
Guitar.com: Surely people tell you how much they appreciate what you've accomplished?
Beck: But you just don't know whether people are genuine. If I have half a dozen people tell me I'm the greatest, who's to say they won't say the same thing to the next guitarist who comes in the door? I've always had favorable comment. You're the guy! Is it patronizing bullshit or is it real. Far-out rock n'roll Is it bolocks? And besides, there's no time to sit around and look for compliments.
Guitar.com: What's been your biggest problem?
Beck: My biggest problem is maintaining a steady flow of incoming work, having something always on the horizon. I'm not in a position to sit around and put my feet up and say, "Fuck off! I don't want to work anymore." I'm driven by the need to work.
Guitar.com: You have a home studio at your place, don't you?
Beck: Yes, it's an attic space that had been taken up by all these matchboard divisions, so I tore them out and the space made either a great bowling alley or a new studio. I had a D88 put in and some outboard gear. There's a Mackie mixing board, which is a small, modest desk with great quality. The main stable force of my art is that good old-fashioned thud from my amp, courtesy of that analog circuitry. From there I have everything move with me. That's what I do for a living, plain and simple.
Guitar.com: You've always been a Marshall amp guy, right?
Beck: Yeah, without wishing to get too nerdy about it, I'm not much of a techie. Marshalls have been in my life for a long time. They have a vintage-style head now, that gives me a great, vintage low-level distortion, even when you don't crank it up. It's the biggest nightmare for a soundman if you're too loud onstage, because he doesn't know how to put you back into the mix where you belong. I play at a fairly low level now just blasting along. I've done it that way all along.
Guitar.com: Looking back on your career, what could I have done differently?
Beck: The obvious thing is to get a great-looking singer. No can do. By the pure lack of no more Rod, Little Richard, Robert Plant, that's God's way of saying you've got to do it yourself. When someone suggests a singer, I feel like it's my shortfall, that I must be failing now. Having a singer is a different thought process.
Guitar.com: If you had a singer you wouldn't have been able to develop as a player.
Beck: I'm very proud to say that I haven't had a singer for 25 years. Who needs 'em? That places the onus on the songs and the melodies and whether they will carry on a guitar. Or whether it's not necessary to have too much embellishment on the chordal changes on guitar or whether it needs to be more minimalist.