Songs could barely contain Jeff Beck’s guitar. It jabbed at tunes with brute-force riffs. It sparred with singers for the spotlight. It clawed at the limits of verses and choruses, screaming melodies of its own, making notes slide and wriggle; sometimes it scraped out funky, contentious rhythm chords.
Yet in quieter moments, Beck’s guitar could also be startlingly tender, cherishing a melody or proffering teasing, insinuating undercurrents. Beck, who died on Tuesday at 78, was also a master of electric guitar tones, of amplification and distortion. He could make his Stratocaster sound icy, searing, slashing and otherworldly in the course of a single track.
With a career that began during the British Invasion, Beck at first tucked his guitar work into songs aimed for pop radio. But by the end of the 1960s, he was leading his own groups, backing his lead singers with roiling, slamming arrangements that made them shout to keep up; he was blasting his way toward metal. Beck’s instrumentals moved to the forefront in the 1970s, as his material shifted toward jazz-rock. But he never left behind the blues and rockabilly that had inspired him from the start.
Here, in chronological order, are 10 tracks that reveal Beck’s range and intensity.
The pushy, up-and-down, Eastern-tinged guitar line that opens the song, and the squirming guitar riff behind the chorus, turn this track from jaunty British Invasion pop into something far more urgent. Beck’s lead guitar takes over for the entire last minute, melding rockabilly and something like raga, leaving the rest of the band to whoop along.
Beck’s supercharged remake of a Yardbirds song has Rod Stewart on vocals and a churning, whipsawing arrangement that rivals anything from contemporaries like the Who. The song gallops from the get-go, as Beck answers his own power chords with countermelodies high and low. The bridge rockets into double time, and after the final verse the band stages a neat slow-motion collapse.
Donovan with the Jeff Beck Group, ‘Barabajagal’ (1969)
Beck the bandleader, abetted by wailing backup singers including Suzi Quatro, catalyzed this rowdy song by Donovan, the normally soft-spoken flower-child troubadour. Beck’s electric guitar opens with twangy rockabilly syncopation, sets up the choppy piano groove and pointedly spurs things along. He really starts to wail toward the song’s free-for-all finish.
Beck and Stevie Wonder shared songs and appeared on each others’ albums in the 1970s, and “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” from Wonder’s “Talking Book” featured the guitarist at his most sweetly melodic in the song’s bridge. His solo eases up to a high note and then casually trickles down, continuing through the track to garland Wonder’s vocals with little slides and curlicues, reveling in the song’s sophisticated chord progression.
Beck’s best-known ballad is an instrumental version of a Wonder song. He plays it with long-lined phrases and constantly changing nuances of tone: as a dialogue, as a keening lament, as bitter self-accusations, as an anguished plea, as a fragile chance at hope. From start to finish, it sings.
Written by Max Middleton, then the keyboardist in Beck’s band, “Freeway Jam” is a brisk shuffle that materializes and fades out as if it’s excerpted from a jam session, though parts are clearly mapped out. It gives Beck room to peal some clarion melodies and then attack them with trills, bent notes, blues licks and dissonances. A live version featuring the keyboardist Jan Hammer, released in 1977, makes the tune even more gleefully frenetic.
Rod Stewart rejoined Beck for a remake of the Curtis Mayfield gospel-soul standard, “People Get Ready,” that starts out restrained but grows fervid. Beck offers a stately, fanfare-like guitar hook after the first verse, then engages Stewart more and more: taking over the melody with note-bending variations, surging up from below, goading Stewart to shout and leap into falsetto. Despite its dated 1980s production, the song finds the spirit.
Could a player as physical as Beck handle the mechanical drive of electronica? Of course. A tireless programmed drumbeat drives “THX 138,” but Beck rides it in multiple ways: with an Eastern-tinged modal loop, with sustained power chords, with high blues lines, with ferocious stereo call-and-response chords, with a melody that leaps skyward. For all the gadgetry, human hands dominate this mix.
Jeff Beck with Jimmy Page, ‘Beck’s Bolero’ (2009)
Before he formed Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page was Jeff Beck’s colead guitarist, and then his successor, in the Yardbirds. In 1966 they collaborated to record “Beck’s Bolero,” written by Page, for Beck’s first solo single. This gracious latter-day reunion for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is noisy, flashy, virtuosic and over the top in exactly the right proportions.
For all his speed and dexterity, Beck never underestimated the beauty of a sustained melody. He played this Hollywood standard backed by chords from a string orchestra, sliding through the tune, holding back some notes and using tremolo on others, making every turn of the familiar song sound like a precious discovery.