The Biggest Milestones In Jeff Beck's Illustrious Career

The sudden and unexpected death of guitarist Jeff Beck in January 2023 (per The Guardian) came just as his career was entering a new phase. Just months before, he had released a new album, "18," in partnership with Johnny Depp after several years of collaboration (per Billboard). If that particular endeavor was somewhat tarnished by the controversies surrounding Depp's personal life, it didn't alter the overall popular perception of Beck, whom The Telegraph once referred to as the guitarist's guitarist.

The esteem with which Beck's peers held his work as a musician did not translate into a comparable measure of fame with the general public. While the names of other guitarists who first came on the scene in 1960 reached everyone's lips, Beck's was often well out of the limelight. But that was as much by his own choice as it was the whims of fate — he rejected offers that might have brought him more fame and fortune and focused instead on experimentation and variety with his playing. His range and talent made him an influential force behind many trends in rock, pop, and jazz throughout his career, despite his relatively low profile.

He hopped around bands early in his career

Jeff Beck, real name Gregory Arnold Beck, was born in Surrey on June 24, 1944, and took to the guitar young. According to Loudwire, he was so enthusiastic about the instrument in his youth that he tried to build his own more than once before finally getting a loaner. He took his passion with him to the Wimbledon College of Art, where he played with numerous bands in short stints that would typify his later journeyman behavior as a professional musician. According to Peter Buckley's "The Rough Guide to Rock," Beck bounced around four different groups while at Wimbledon. Among them was Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, and Beck's work for them can be heard in their single "Dracula's Daughter." But his tenure with them was short, as it was with the Rumbles, the Crescents, and the Bandits.

Beck demonstrated his changeability during this time as well. Per Annette Carson's "Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers," he was first exposed to R&B during this period and went all in on it. He was so swept up by the new sound that he formed his own R&B group, the Nightshift. The band gained a measure of fame and collaborated with a young Tim Rice on the single "That's My Story," but Beck continued to play with other bands, and the Nightshift eventually fizzled out. R&B remained an attraction, compelling Beck to join the Tridents, but he wasn't long with them either.

He came to fame through the Yardbirds

Jeff Beck's early musical wandering while at college built up his reputation among rock 'n' rollers in the early 1960s, per Annette Carson's "Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers." It also put him on a career trajectory with uncanny similarities to another skilled and versatile guitarist: Eric Clapton. The parallels only deepened when Beck was chosen to replace Clapton as guitarist for the rock band the Yardbirds.

Beck's presence radically altered the Yardsticks' reputation. Per The Guardian, they went from a bluesy group to the cutting edge of rock and pop. He experimented frequently, generating new sounds that often anticipated their more widespread and popular use by later groups. Among his innovations was making use of feedback, a technique he stumbled upon by accident. "We played larger venues," he told the BBC, "and the PA was inadequate. So we cranked up the level and found out that feedback would happen. I started using it because it was controllable – you could play tunes with it."

For all his influence through and over the group, Beck's membership of the Yardsticks was tenuous and often unhappy. By his own admission (per "Crazy Fingers"), his temper could be ferocious, brought out by faulty equipment, unenthusiastic audiences, and the rigors of touring. After a particularly intense spat that resulted in a smashed guitar, the other members of the Yardsticks had enough and arranged to part company with their guitarist. Beck's stint with them came to about two years.

His hit solo single was a mixed blessing for him

After leaving the Yardsticks, Jeff Beck toyed with the idea of leaving music altogether. According to the BBC, he said as much at the time. His seriousness in declaring such was undermined by how quickly he found new work. Beck fell in with music producer Mickie Most, who encouraged the guitarist to produce something popular. While Beck felt that Most showed very little interest in the type of recording he wanted to do, the producer's success and influence convinced him to put out a solo single.

"Hi Ho Silver Lining" was first released in 1967 (per Rolling Stone) and was a big hit. It placed on the charts again in 1972. But the pop tune's content and popularity did not sit easily with Beck. He didn't enjoy providing vocals for the song and told Making Music magazine (via Martin Power's "Hot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck") that singing was embarrassing for him. Divorced as it was from his preferred musical explorations, he continued to have mixed feelings for "Silver Lining." At times, he said it wasn't such a bad tune to be associated with; at others, he referred to the song as "a pink toilet sink hanging around my neck for the rest of my f****** life."

The (first) Jeff Beck Group helped pave the way for heavy metal

For all his renown within guitar and rock circles, Jeff Beck's efforts to have a stable group of his own were not successful. In 1967, less than a year after his departure from the Yardbirds, he formed the Jeff Beck Group (per The Guardian). After a few bumps in the road, the band's lineup was made up of Beck on guitar, singer Rod Stewart, bassist Ronnie Wood, and drummer Micky Waller (per Classic Rock). And after a few initial tours, they put out their first album, "Truth."

Classic Rock called "Truth" the holy grail for rock band debut albums, though Beck saw it as no more or less than another record release. Largely made up of covers the group had honed in live shows, it was an eclectic mix of musical styles and a herald for the emerging heavy metal sound. Among those influenced was Led Zeppelin, who shared a manager with the Jeff Beck Group. Indeed, when Led Zeppelin released their first album a few months after "Truth," the two had a song in common: Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me."

Among Beck's initial obstacles in forming the band were his personality clashes with potential members. The Jeff Beck Group were often at loggerheads, and tensions rose during a U.S. tour according to the BBC. The band fractured in 1970 after releasing just one more album. A second Jeff Beck group was similarly short-lived.

His switch to instrumental music was a game changer

When the first Jeff Beck Group split up, Jeff Beck himself didn't have long to consider its impact on his career (per Britannica). More pressing was his recovery from a serious car crash in 1969 (via The Hollywood Reporter). After recovering, Beck tried to reform the Jeff Beck Group with a new line-up but enjoyed little success with it. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, he could have become part of the Rolling Stones — he auditioned for the legendary band. But besides considering himself a poor fit, Beck's musical interests were shifting.

His follow-up to his two short-lived Jeff Beck Groups would be "Blow by Blow," an all-instrumental solo album. It wasn't done entirely on Beck's own, and among his collaborators was producer and arranger George Martin of the Beatles. With a small group of musicians and Martin's arrangements, Beck's guitar essentially replaced the part kept for a lead vocalist throughout "Blow by Blow," and Beck would largely follow that template for the rest of his career.

"Blow by Blow" was not only a hit record in 1975 — it was celebrated for being a successful fusion of rock with jazz. But the very thing that won it praise was something Beck expressed regret for years later. Speaking to Guitar Player in 1989, he said that he wished he had never done the album, considering the impulse behind fusion akin to mixing badly-matched flavors. "I wish I had stayed with earthy rock 'n' roll," he added.

He and Clapton came together for The Secret Policeman's Other Ball

Coincidental parallels kept Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton connected. Both came up in the same musical environment, and both served as guitarists for the Yardbirds. The connections, however, didn't make for a lasting friendship. Beck, per Classic Rock, was sure that Clapton resented him for assuming his role with the band and being a part of their growing success. The Yardbirds' tour of the United States with Beck, he suspected, was a particularly raw nerve for his predecessor.

Despite this assumption of rivalry, Beck and Clapton would go on to collaborate for an Amnesty International benefit concert. The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, held in 1981, was a development on earlier comedy benefits in Britain (via Annette Carson's "Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers"). Funnymen were still on hand, but the program was expanded to include pop and rock acts. Among them was a jam session by Beck and Clapton, both of them shredding through multiple covers.

The rivalry softened over the years. Carson described them as friends in her book, and Beck conceded to Classic Rock that Clapton's perceived jealousy subsided with time. When a documentary was produced on Beck, he told Rolling Stone that the one part that brought him to tears was Clapton's praise.

He contributed to film scores and soundtracks

Jeff Beck wasn't afraid to retreat from the spotlight. After achieving massive success with albums and tours throughout the 1970s, he disappeared for the better part of three years. "The pitch I play at is so intense that I just can't do it every night," the BBC quoted him as saying. When he came back on the music scene, it was often in partnership with other artists.

Some of those partnerships were done on behalf of motion pictures. One of his more prominent film jobs came in 1988 when, according to "Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers," he lent his guitar and face to the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle "Twins." Beck played a bandleader strumming country tunes and recorded a cover of "The Train Kept A-Rollin'." Beck's recording of "House of the Blue Danube," done with impresario Malcolm McLaren, was used in the trailers for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" two years later.

In 1990, Beck was asked by composer Hans Zimmer to contribute to the score of "Days of Thunder" (per "Crazy Fingers"). Beck claimed not to have enjoyed the assignment, recorded in four days, and none of his playing was on the soundtrack album. But it did make it into the film itself.

Jeff Beck reunited with an old bandmate for a hit single

By his own admission, Jeff Beck could sometimes have hostile relations with bandmates. Rod Stewart, the lead vocalist of the first Jeff Beck Group, put some of that down to Beck's inadequate efforts as a leader. "It was all about the music, as far as [Beck] was concerned," Stewart wrote in "Rod: The Autobiography." "He appeared unconcerned about how the band's financial affairs were being run and about staying on top of things on behalf of his musicians." The mismanagement of money sometimes left Stewart with no cash on hand for food, and Beck was stingy with affection for his bandmates.

For his part, Beck told Guitar World that there were jealousy issues on Stewart's part. But Beck could be glib about the relationship. When the latter was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Beck was asked to say a few words. According to "Rod Stewart: The New Biography" by Tim Ewbank and Stafford Hildred, Beck told the crowd that he and Stewart "have a love-hate relationship. He loves me and I hate him."

Despite such comments, the two remained on fairly good terms, and in 1983, they reunited for a cover of "People Get Ready." The song, first performed in 1965 by the Impressions (per Ultimate Classic Rock), was a minor hit, led to additional recordings between Beck and Stewart, and featured on a Grammy-winning album.

He recorded with famous names as a journeyman guitarist

Jeff Beck kept busy throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but he couldn't be said to have a stable professional home. He was something of a journeyman, playing guitar with and for various artists and groups while taking periodic and lengthy absences from the scene. AllMusic names some of these collaborations: A 1980 recording with Jan Hammer, an album produced with Nile Rodgers and featuring Rod Stewart's vocals in 1985, the lead guitar part for Mick Jagger's "Primitive Cool" in 1987, and the same role for Roger Waters' "Amused to Death" in 1992. Beck's own output included "Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop" at the end of the decade, and he recruited Stevie Ray Vaughan for the accompanying tour.

Many of these artists would be quick to pay tribute to Beck after his death in January 2023. "[Beck] was one of the few guitarists that when playing live would actually listen to me and respond," Stewart wrote on Twitter. "Jeff, you were the greatest, my man." On the same platform, Jagger called Beck "one of the greatest guitar players in the world."

He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice

Twice in his career, Jeff Beck was honored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, albeit for different achievements. The first time came in 1993 when the Yardbirds were inducted. Per the Hall of Fame's website, members from throughout the band's short but impactful time were brought in for the ceremony; besides Beck, guitarists Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page were in attendance. The happy occasion didn't pass without Beck offering a facetious comment on the band's past tensions. In an acceptance speech (via YouTube), Beck noted he had done other work and added, "Somebody told me I should be proud tonight. But I'm not, because they kicked me out. They did. F*** them."

Beck's former bandmates seemed to take his flippancy in good humor, and in 2009, it would be one of them, Page, who introduced Beck as he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for his individual work (via the Hall of Fame's website). Page offered effusive praise for Beck's work in innovating on the possibilities of the electric guitar, and Beck seemed in a more sentimental mood as he accepted the honor. "I've been very naughty all my life, and I don't deserve this," he said before going on to thank friends and colleagues. Not that sincerity stopped him from offering a middle finger to those who hadn't supported him.

He dabbled with electronica when he returned to albums

The 1990s saw Jeff Beck make another turn into a new musical genre. After experimenting with rock, jazz, R&B, fusion, and pop, he decided to dive into electronica. In 1999, he released the album "Who Else!", his first collection of original material in years. It wasn't all Beck's work; according to Ultimate Classic Rock, he was only credited on three of the songs. Most of it was written by Tony Hymas, Beck's keyboard player for many years, and Beck was happy to acknowledge the contribution.

"If this album does anything, I shall be so pleased I stuck with loyalty to [Hymas's] writing," Beck told Fuzz magazine in Sweden (via Guy Guitars), adding that keyboardists were the people to turn to for fresh content. The collaboration and the resulting sounds were apparently enough to satisfy Beck, as he continued to pursue electronic music in his records until 2003.

Public perception was another matter — Rolling Stone gave "Who Else!" a largely glowing review, while critic Robert Christgau declared it a bomb with a simple icon (via Christgau's personal website). But the album did fairly good business; one assumes, then, that Beck was pleased to follow Hymas' lead after all.

From Brian Wilson to Johnny Depp

The last stage of Jeff Beck's career began with a fresh collaboration. He teamed with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in the 2010s for a series of live shows (per the BBC). The tours were meant to promote an album the two had performed on, but the record wasn't finished when the tour began, and the chemistry between Beck and Wilson didn't come to much. In interviews with Mojo and Classic Rock (via Louder), Beck complained of being pressured into promotional efforts, being denied time off even for medical procedures, and of a lack of communication and support from Wilson.

But as that partnership deteriorated, Beck found another: Johnny Depp. He and the actor-guitarist struck up a friendship following the tours with Wilson, and from there, they moved into musical collaboration. Beck and Depp's proved a happier relationship, and after playing together at the tail end of the 2010s, they recorded and released an album, "18," in 2022. Their time together coincided with Depp's highly publicized conflict with ex-wife Amber Heard, a fact that sometimes colored perceptions of their album. The Guardian's review of "18" dismissed it as an exercise in self-pity on Depp's part. But Beck and Depp remained on good terms until the former's death in 2023, and Depp was allegedly among the last visitors Beck received (per People).