Guitarist Mark Wingfield pays tribute to Jeff Beck, “master of tonal nuance and expression”, who passed away on 10 January 2023 aged 78.
Mark Wingfield writes: This won’t be an exhaustive run-through of Jeff Beck‘s career as there are plenty of those already out there. My tribute is written from the perspective of a jazz guitarist who saw Jeff as one of the great innovators of expression on the instrument. Part of this was Jeff’s amazing technique, not in terms of speed, but in terms of precise control of the tone, the pitch and the shape of each note. The important thing for me is what this technique enabled: voice-like emotional expression. He could make the guitar sing a tune like no one else.
Although Jeff’s technique set him apart, if you’re not a guitarist, this might not be immediately apparent when you listen to his playing next to a typical jazz guitar player running 16th notes over changes. Jeff would do the occasional fast riff, but what he became most revered for was his slow playing.
Jazz guitar can sometimes have a limited concept of technique. It’s often the case that a note is simply fretted with one hand and then plucked or hammered to make the string sound and there’s no more to it than that. You might get a bit of sliding between notes and the occasional hint at a bluesy string bend, but not much more. With a lot of jazz guitarists it’s all about how you juggle the notes, not about how you “pronounce” or shape them.
Sax players and singers on the other hand are intimately familiar with creating emotional expression through manipulating tonal nuance and shaping each note. This is exactly what Jeff did on the guitar. It turns out that developing this kind of technique on the guitar is at least as difficult as the technique needed to play reams of 16th notes. Saying a lot with one or two notes on the guitar requires a whole different area of technique and dedication. In this realm, Jeff was a master. You didn’t see him play 16th note be-bop or scale runs, but what he could do with a handful of notes or even one note, could pluck your heart from your chest.
Along with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, Jeff Beck was seen by many as one of a trio of fusion superstars when the genre first became popular in the 1970s. Unlike the other two however, Jeff’s take on fusion was to mix rock and blues with jazz and classical. His most influential 70s’ albums included renditions of Mingus, Ravel and Stevie Wonder compositions which he used as vehicles for expression on his guitar.
As an improviser, Jeff falls fairly solidly into the blues and rock traditions. But for me, and I think many other guitarists, what was amazing about his playing was what he could do with a melody. I almost think of Jeff as a singer rather than a guitarist. When we think of most jazz singers there can be an element of free scatting, but in the main, we look to singers to improvise using tones, inflections, dynamics and emotional interpretation of the melody. This is exactly what Jeff did on the guitar and where he leaves most other guitarists in the dust. A good example of this is one of his standards, the Stevie Wonder tune “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”. You can watch a video of Jeff performing this tune at Ronnie Scott’s here:
It was on the 1975 album “Blow by Blow” that he first recorded “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” which remained a mainstay for him until his last concerts in 2022. This was followed by the album “Wired” and one standout tune on this is Jeff’s rendition of Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. The shear variety of tones he conjures on this track from a guitar, his fingers and a couple of standard 1970s effects boxes is staggering. But the really important thing is how he used these tones to express the emotional flow of the melody. Over the following decades he relied less and less on effects boxes and more on creating tone with just his hands. But this track was definitely proof of concept and like nothing that had been heard before. I would recommend these two albums as an introduction to what first made Jeff so revered by guitarists of all genres.
Ten studio albums followed over the next 40 years, at times interspersed with long gaps of six or seven years between albums. Each time he re-emerged with a new album he seemed to get better and better. The 2000 release “You Had it Coming” was one such example. The standout track on this album for me is the Nitin Sawhney composition “Nadia”. Jeff plays this beautiful melody with such fluidity and informed reference to the Indian classical tradition that it takes your breath away.
The accurate and complex pitch manipulation you hear on this track was way beyond anything that had been done before on the guitar. I literally drew breath and put my hand to my chest when I heard this track for the first time. The second time I heard it I threw my guitar down and just thought… I give up! That didn’t last of course and this track ended up inspiring me to practise even harder. As a huge fan of Indian classical music, I was absolutely blown away when I heard an electric guitar playing like this. I don’t think anyone even thought it was possible to do this on a guitar. To my mind, it was a monumental achievement and a turning point for me as a player.
As Jeff aged, instead of gradually losing his flair and spark, it got stronger, deeper and more subtle. He lost none of the controlled articulation and nuanced technique, it just got more nuanced, expressive and un-copiable.
Another example of Jeff’s mastery of playing melodies expressively is his rendition of the “Adagietto” from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. He plays this with incredible flowing nuance and subtlety, gradually building as the composition moves. As the composition reaches climactic points his playing evokes the full emotional power of the music without ever straying from the melody. I challenge anyone with open ears and an open heart to get to the end of this piece without having been deeply moved by the way he plays. A true master of the electric guitar.