Beck died Tuesday after “suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis,” his representatives said in a statement released Wednesday.
Beck first came to prominence as a member of the Yardbirds and then went out on his own in a solo career that incorporated hard rock, jazz, funky blues and even opera. He was known for his improvising, love of harmonics and the whammy bar on his preferred guitar, the Fender Stratocaster.
“Jeff Beck is the best guitar player on the planet,” Joe Perry, the lead guitarist of Aerosmith, told The New York Times in 2010. “He is head, hands and feet above all the rest of us, with the kind of talent that appears only once every generation or two.”
Beck was among the rock-guitarist pantheon from the late ’60s that included Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. Beck won eight Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice — once with the Yardbirds in 1992 and again as a solo artist in 2009. He was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
Beck played guitar with vocalists as varied as Luciano Pavarotti, Macy Gray, Chrissie Hynde, Joss Stone, Imelda May, Cyndi Lauper, Wynonna Judd and Buddy Guy. He made two records with Rod Stewart — 1968’s “Truth” and 1969’s “Beck-Ola” — and one with a 64-piece orchestra, “Emotion & Commotion.”
“I like an element of chaos in music. That feeling is the best thing ever, as long as you don’t have too much of it. It’s got to be in balance. I just saw Cirque du Soleil, and it struck me as complete organized chaos,” he told Guitar World in 2014. “If I could turn that into music, it’s not far away from what my ultimate goal would be, which is to delight people with chaos and beauty at the same time.”
Beck career highlights include joining with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice to create the power trio that released “Beck, Bogert and Appice” in 1973, tours with Brian Wilson and Buddy Guy and a tribute album to the late guitarist Les Paul, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul).”
Geoffrey Arnold Beck was born in Surrey, England, and attended Wimbledon Art College. His father was an accountant, and his mother worked in a chocolate factory. As a boy, he built his first instrument, using a cigar box, a picture frame for the neck and string from a radio-controlled toy airplane.
He was in a few bands — including Nightshift and The Tridents — before joining the Yardbirds in 1965, replacing Clapton but only a year later giving way to Page. During his tenure, the band created the memorable singles “Heart Full of Soul,” “I’m a Man” and “Shapes of Things.”
Beck’s first hit single was 1967’s instrumental “Beck’s Bolero,” which featured future Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, and future Who drummer Keith Moon. The Jeff Beck Group — with Stewart singing — was later booked to play the 1969 Woodstock music festival but their appearance was canceled. Beck later said there was unrest in the band.
“I could see the end of the tunnel,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010.
Beck was friends with Hendrix and they performed together. Before Hendrix, most rock guitar players concentrated on a similar style and technical vocabulary. Hendrix blew that apart.
“He came along and reset all of the rules in one evening,” Beck told Guitar World.
Beck teamed up with legendary producer George Martin — a.k.a. “the fifth Beatle” — to help him fashion the genre-melding, jazz-fusion classic “Blow by Blow” (1975) and “Wired” (1976). He teamed up with Seal on the Hendrix tribute “Stone Free,” created a jazz-fusion group led by synthesizer player Jan Hammer and honored rockabilly guitarist Cliff Gallup with the album “Crazy Legs.” He put out “Loud Hailer” in 2016.
Beck’s guitar work can be heard on the soundtracks of such films as “Stomp the Yard,” “Shallow Hal,” “Casino,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Twins,” “Observe and Report” and “Little Big League.”
Beck’s career never hit the commercial highs of Clapton. A perfectionist, he preferred to make critically well-received instrumental records and left the limelight for long stretches, enjoying his time restoring vintage automobiles. He and Clapton had a tense relationship early on but became friends in later life and toured together.
Why did the two wait some four decades to tour together?
“Because we were all trying to be big bananas,” Beck told Rolling Stone in 2010. “Except I didn’t have the luxury of the hit songs Eric’s got.”
Beck is survived by his wife, Sandra.