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Still a player: guitar legend Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck

Guitar legend: Jeff Beck

By Stephen Wilmot

Published: September 30 2010 18:01 | Last updated: September 30 2010 18:01

Most musicians are known for a particular sound, style or song. But not rock guitar legend Jeff Beck, who says the secret of his staying power has been the ability to “move on to something else”. It’s a journey that has taken him – via rock, heavy metal, jazz and soul – to his current world tour, backed by a full string orchestra.
“I’m at home with anything that’s got a groove to it,” says the ex-Yardbirds guitarist, pointing to a DVD he is making in tribute to legendary guitarist Les Paul and 1950s jazz. “I get just as much of a kick from that as I do coming up with something from tomorrow-land.”
But Beck’s taste for experimentation does not stretch to his finances – something in which he claims to have no interest but just a little “intuition”. He was almost persuaded to buy a portfolio of shares just before the financial crisis; luckily, he decided at the last minute not to sign. “It was a near-miss for me. But I said no, because I wasn’t satisfied with – or didn’t understand – what was being proposed. When people talk bank-talk, I glaze over after five minutes,” he admits.
Beck now uses the London-based private bank Duncan Lawrie, mainly because it offers a reassuringly old-fashioned experience. Lamenting the passing of the days when “you could almost have a pint with your local bank manager”, he remembers how he and his former concert manager grew frustrated with the impersonal service and “incompetence” of their high street bank. After doing research, manager settled on Duncan Lawrie and suggested Beck switch too.
“I felt nervous at first, because I didn’t really know whether I was making the right decision. But I’ve no complaints. It’s so important to have a one-to-one talk with someone at your bank. They’re handling your money, after all. You go around the world and make your money, and you want to be sure it’s being looked after.”
Beck is currently on the second leg of his world tour. He is still basking in the success of his latest album, Emotion & Commotion, which was released in April and is now up for eight Grammys. He says it is the best response that he has received since 1975, when he teamed up with Beatles producer George Martin to make the album Blow by Blow.
Fans have been particularly struck by Beck’s lush use of strings as backing for his electric guitar. “There’s no substitute for a full string orchestra,” he explains. “I was fulfilling a dream – I wanted to do it back in 1966, but couldn’t afford it. I was always impressed by people like Tina Turner and the way that kind of record was produced. It’s a beautiful sound that can only be achieved with acoustic instruments.”
Beck is also pleased with the popularity of Emotion & Commotion because singers, not instrumentalists, tend to dominate the charts. The guitarist has been wary of working too closely with singers ever since he parted ways with Rod Stewart – then the unknown lead singer of his up-and-coming band the Jeff Beck Group – back in 1969.
“Rod was a bit of a problem because his name wasn’t on the ticket, and the whole ego thing kicked off. I said if you put your name on the ticket you won’t sell any seats, but he wasn’t happy being treated as a sideman,” Beck laughs.
Stewart left to join the group the Faces, which seemed a career upset for Beck, but turned out to be liberating. “The singer problem was gone when Rod left. Rather than see that as negative, I thought: the doors are open.” He says it was working with the New York jazz-rock group Mahavishnu Orchestra in the mid-1970s that made him realise there was “life after singers”.
Beck considers the US his second home. He cites American rock and roll, blues and jazz as his original creative sources, and the US still gives him the warmest reception. It was there he spent a year in tax exile in 1977, which ironically was to pay for his English home – an Elizabethan manor house in the Sussex Weald that he fell in love with on first viewing.
“It was complete lunacy, as I didn’t know if I had the money. But when the estate agents opened the door I just wanted them gone,” he reminisces, grateful that his home turned out to be a good investment too.
Beck struggles to single out one highlight of his career, which has spanned four and a half decades and at least 10 different groups. “The big highlight is that I’m still in the business,” he says with another raucous laugh.

FT.com / Special Reports – Still a player: guitar legend Jeff Beck

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