Geoffrey Arnold Beck was a war baby, a term exclusively used for kids born during WWII, I think because of the sheer trauma of the times. He grew up in lower middle class surroundings, his Da an accountant and Ma teaching piano. Jeff was recognized as talented, especially in drawing, but efforts to get him to play the violin and piano in either a classical (Mom) or jazz sense (Dad) were met with frustration on all parts. Piano was given up when little Geoffery ripped a black key off the home box. Jeff wanted to play guitar.
He became crazy about the rockabilly happening in the mid ’50s, especially Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps featuring a guitarist that would wake anybody up, Cliff Gallup. But he could not beg his way into a guitar from his parents so by 14 Jeff had made a handmade guitar out of a wooden box and a plywood neck making strings using thin wires from his model airplane collection. With no idea what he was doing, he changed the different string thicknesses by guessing and doubling them up, playing through an old radio. Mom must’ve loved dat.
All the while he was still dreaming of an actual instrument. And I mean sleep dreaming and day dreaming. This passion almost consumed him; he’d gotten addicted to hot street automobiles from the time he was young and he spent weekends with an uncle who would run young Jeff out in his ragtop MG and open it up on the country roads. That passion stayed with him to today. But the guitars. He spent so much time with his nose pressed against the window of the local guitar shop he flattened it. The nose, the nose ya semantic police. OK. I don’t know what happened to that proboscis but it’s a rock classic rivaled only by Zappa.
At 16 he worked up the nerve to go to an audition for The Bandits who had a contract to back up a tour of Elvis and Vincent impersonators. But first he had to beg his pop for a real guitar. How he finally did this is known only to Jeff, but he talked, begged, and howled until his dad coughed up the princely sum (in 1960) of £25 seven shillings six pence. For that Jeff got a sorta Strat copy Guyatone LG-50, a rather unimaginative guitar that’s gained cult status like a lot of ’50s guitars, in this case for their pickups. Jeff loved it. Hey. Don’t you remember your first real guitar? I still have mine. A cheap Yamaha classical with the impossibly wide neck and nylon strings, complete with a real bad stain on the front from something. Same deal, I had to beg my dad to loan me $100 in 1973 to buy it.
The amazing part of this story was Beck had gotten good enough on that homemade monster that with a proper but different guitar he still got the job.
The Bandits contract was only for a summer and when it ran out Jeff had to go back to school studying art. Amazing how many English musicians came out of art schools. I think they went to avoid working a job or going to traditional school, and so met a bunch of like-minded musician wannabes.
Then came the Deltones. They were a seasoned pro group of local musicians in their 20s doing cover songs, and Jeff would hang out at rehearsals. When the lead guitarist left Jeff pushed for an audition. There was real trepidation that this 16 year old boner with the weird nose couldn’t cut it but cut it he did. Unbelievably he balked when offered the job, only taking it if they’d take on childhood friend John Owen on rhythm guitar. Owen and Beck had been through hard times together, and Jeff attributed John to talking him through the low periods when Jeff would want to give up guitar and do something else.
Thank you John.
After the Guyatone he used a hated Hofner Futurama which thankfully fell under a bus and he went to beg again. Jeff had found his dream axe, a real Stratocaster sunburst for £150, and got Mom to co-sign a credit agreement.
In 1961 he’s 17 and packs the art school in, going all in on music. But the Deltones split up in mid 1961. What followed was a weird span of years where finding Jeff could have been a comic book. Between odd gigs he worked on a golf course, did house painting and found work in a garage which suited his ‘rod sense’ doing odd jobs as panel-beater and paint sprayer.
Soon a virus called the blues was infecting Great Britain. And Jeff would come down with the fever. In 1962 a couple of blues crazed musicians Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner started a band named Blues Incorporated dedicated to bringing the blues to British devotees. The band ran a turnstile of line-ups through which passed and trained a number of eventual stars like Long John Baldry and Graham Bond. Featuring an ‘open mike’ approach to their gigs they welcomed anyone to brave the stage and show their wares. At one point a slide guitarist named Brian Jones met two other stage crashers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and formed their own band. Blues clubs and subsequently bands sprang up everywhere and opportunities to play this stuff started to grow. Out of this stew Beck met Ian Stewart.
Jeff had not spent much time with the blues, being more of a rockabilly guy. But Stewart lent him a bunch of blues albums. In the middle of Beck studying these guys to take advantage of the need for blues guitarists, an accident happened. His head exploded.
Listening to guys like Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Muddy Waters who had a 26-year-old phenom on guitar named Buddy Guy, Beck found the path from his beloved rockabilly back to Chicago and the Mississippi Delta.
He helped form The Nightshift with Brian Wiles and Dave Elvidge. Running the blues up the pole they found regular gigs and in 1965 cut two singles “Stormy Monday” and “Corrina Corrina”. Beck was on both singles but actually left the band in 1964 after marrying.
During this period JB was getting phone calls but he struggled making a commitment. Tom McGuinness, later of Manfred Mann, started a band called The Roosters but couldn’t pay what Beck wanted so they got a kid named Eric Clapton. A guy named John Mayall was starting a band called the Bluesbreakers and pestered Beck on the phone until Mayall gave up. I love this guy but he could be a bit of a wanker.
In 1964 Beck eventually joined a band that The Nightshift had opened for a few times called The Tridents. It was with this band Beck truly took off. His playing was approaching legendary status. The Tridents had a lead player Mike Jopp. But when Beck said he wanted to join the band it was Jopp who had to step aside. Which he did with reluctance and complete understanding. He said at the time, “There was this guy with a Telecaster and the notes were just flying everywhere. Nobody at this point was doing anything like it. He’d play off the neck near the pickup, detuning the strings and making these unbelievable noises.”
Check out “Nursery Rhyme” from 1964.
The stories from The Tridents are rock lore, Beck stealing fingers and hearts with playing that was wild and experimental. He developed his mad trills, dissonance, over-bending, hammer-ons and pull-offs that would stay with his playing for his career and influence a generation of guitar players who would have killed just to have that tone he got from a flippin Tele.
And with that tone came the use of a Binson Echorec. Look that early shit up. This effect box had 12 echo settings, plate reverb, and valve compression. Beck made full use experimenting with the Binson using his already abusive fretboard styling to add what one critic would call ‘sonic mangling’ and everyone else just thought was surreal and exciting. This was 1964. The Beatles had just reached cult status with “She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah” and Hendrix wasn’t due for 3 years.
Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey remember being stupefied with Beck and The Tridents when they caught them at the Eel Pie Club. That club is another column in itself. A rickety old barn that was accessed over a failing wooden bridge and had a floor rotted enough that it rocked but never rolled with a swaying old stage, the owner was dedicated to providing blues at first but any new music that came along. The effect on musicians and bands like The Who that were inspired by visits to the Eel Pie Club and came away with new ideas is incalculable.
In May 1963 the Rolling Stones were in the process of tearing up the blues scene and one of a hundred new blues bands was formed called The Yardbirds, named after a line from Kerouac describing railroad drifters. The guys were blues nuts worshiping the likes of Muddy Waters and Blind Lemon Jefferson. They had a problem in that their lead guitarist Anthony Topham struggled with the instrument and being 15 years old had trouble getting out of the house. He left the Yardbirds in September of that year. One of the band members had met a player while at Kingston Art College (of course) who had been with the Roosters but was still working for his grandfather in construction. They brought on Eric Clapton.
Clapton had been working so hard on his fretwork as well as his stage persona that the focus shifted from lead vocalist Keith Relf to the lead guitar that captivated audiences. The band had a small hit with “Good Morning Little School Girl” but followed with their first major single “For Your Love”, a gothic rocker. This irked Clapton however. Ever the blues purist he left the band in March 1965 the day the single was released and joined John Mayall and the Bluebreakers. Before leaving he recommended his buddy Jimmy Page to take his place but Page had a lucrative session career going and so refused but recommended his boyhood friend Jeff Beck. In fact, there is a 1965 video of the band performing “For Your Love” live (rare at the time) with Beck on a 12 string acoustic. Wait. Here it is.
Jeez. Folks screamed at everything in those days.
Next: Jeff Goes Yard
[Header image: Beck in the Yardbirds, featured in Blow-Up.]