The legendary rock guitarist Jeff Beck has died. “After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday,” his family wrote in a statement. “His family ask for privacy while they process this tremendous loss.” Beck was 78 years old.
Geoffrey Arnold Beck was born in Wallington, Surrey. He sang in a church choir as a child and began playing guitar in his teens, learning on a borrowed guitar and making several attempts to build his own by bolting a cigar box to a fence post. “I was interested in the electric guitar even before I knew the difference between electric and acoustic,” he later said. “The electric guitar seemed to be a totally fascinating plank of wood with knobs and switches on it. I just had to have one.” He pursued a musical career after briefly studying at London’s Wimbledon Art College, during which time he also played with Screaming Lord Sutch.
In March 1965, Beck was recruited as the Yardbirds’ lead guitarist on the recommendation of Jimmy Page following the departure of Eric Clapton. The Yardbirds had many of their biggest hits during Beck’s 20-month tenure with the band, including ‘Heart Full of Soul’, ‘Shapes of Things’, and ‘Over Under Sideways Down’, and released their only UK album, Yardbirds (familiarly known as Roger the Engineer), in 1966. Page joined the Yardbirds in June of that year, first as a bassist and later on second lead guitar. Only two Yardbirds songs feature the Beck-Page twin-lead lineup: ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ and ‘Stroll On’, a reworkig of ‘Train Kept A-Rollin” for Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up.
In 1968, Beck released his debut solo album, Truth, drawing on hard rock and blues to create a blueprint for heavy metal. An album by the Jeff Beck Group, Beck-Ola, followed three years later. After declining an invitation to join the Rolling Stones, Beck teamed up with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, but a fractured skull sustained in a car accident derailed his plans.
After recovering from his injury, the guitarist founded a new incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group and issued two albums, 1971’s Rough and Ready and 1972’s Jeff Beck Group. He then reconnected with Bogert and Appice, who became available after Cactus dissolved in late 1972 and joined them on tour with the Jeff Beck Group alongside Max Middleton and vocalist Kim Milford. The following year, the Beck, Bogert & Appice supergroup released its only LP, which notably featured a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’.
Beck fully embraced jazz fusion after touring with John McLaughlin’s jazz-rock group Mahavishnu Orchestra, as evidenced by his 1975 solo album Blow by Blow, which was recorded with George Martin. Two more instrumental sets, Wired and There and Back, followed in 1976 and 1980, respectively.
In the ’80s, Beck’s output became more sporadic due in part to a long battle with tinnitus. He performed a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ with Sting, Phil Collins, and Donovan, and released another solo album, 1985’s Flash, which was produced by Nile Rogers and featured a range of vocalists, including his former bandmate Rod Stewart. It also earned Beck his first-ever Grammy Award, with the single ‘Escape’ winning Best Rock Instrumental Performance. He took home another trophy in the instrumental category with its 1989 follow-up, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop.
In the 1990s, Beck collaborated with artists including Tina Turner, Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Kate Bush, and Hans Zimmer. He returned with the album Who Else! in 1999 and continued collaborating and putting out records in the 21st century. His most recent project was a collaboration with Johnny Depp, 18, released last year.
“Now Jeff has gone, I feel like one of my band of brothers has left this world, and I’m going to dearly miss him,” Ronnie Wood wrote on Instagram. “I’m sending much sympathy to Sandra, his family, and all who loved him. I want to thank him for all our early days together in Jeff Beck Group, conquering America for the first time. Musically, we were breaking all the rules, it was fantastic, groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll! Listen to the incredible track ‘Plynth’ in his honour. Jeff, I will always love you. God bless.”
Rod Stewart said in a statement: “Jeff Beck was on another planet. He took me and Ronnie Wood to the USA in the late 60s in his band the Jeff Beck Group and we haven’t looked back since. He was one of the few guitarists that when playing live would actually listen to me sing and respond. Jeff, you were the greatest, my man. Thank you for everything. RIP.”
“With the death of Jeff Beck we have lost a wonderful man and one of the greatest guitar players in the world,” Mick Jagger wrote. “We will all miss him so much.”