He’s one of the most revered lead guitarists in rock history, going on to forge a steady and formidable reputation as a true virtuoso since his mid-’60s stint with The Yardbirds. Even after half a century of performing, Jeff Beck is still exploring the possibilities of the electric guitar, pursuing a varied array of worldly musical styles – including an upcoming collaboration with Brian Wilson. In the meantime, Beck is returning to Australia for this year’s Bluesfest, and has a new-look band in tow, yet remains an electric guitar traditionalist, unenthusiastic about modern guitar technology.
“I don’t want to hear about new gizmos that are safety nets in any way,” says Beck. “[If] you give me an amp and a guitar and I can’t do anything impressive with that, then something’s wrong. Can you imagine Django Reinhardt playing with a wah-wah pedal? Or flanging with a chorus? It’s not necessary. If the melody is good, you’re playing well, and have your craft under control, then I’m not really interested in what’s there that wasn’t invented in the ’50s with the electric guitar. I don’t like the sound of digital records. We had it right, why mess with it?”
A generation of music fans would agree. But though they romanticise the glory days of yore, Beck doesn’t look back on his formative years with The Yardbirds with rose-tinted glasses. “I look back with some disdain. I don’t recall too much of it because every day was a nightmare back then. It was so fertile, and you didn’t know which way was up. Look what happened when Elvis Presley hit the screens in 1956 or whenever it was; the whole world went crazy. Then in the ’60s, it became even crazier as even more people began to realise, ‘Hey, if I get a guitar and make a terrible noise on it, I can be famous!’ And that’s what happened. If you were in LA in ’65 you’d know what I’m talking about. Between ’65 and ’68 there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t potted out of their heads walking along Sunset Boulevard, all having a completely nutty time.”
Armed with decades of back catalogue jams, including the eclectic 2010 album Emotion & Commotion,compiling a setlist for the Australian tour is a challenge in itself. “When you have a new album you need to decide how much of it to put in the show before people start looking at each other wondering what they’re thinking, too,” says Beck. “It’s a worry, not wanting to baffle people with new material. But if you don’t leave the old stuff behind you’re going to be stuck with it, so you have to choose a song you have absolute belief in that it will rock the place. But there is no way of testing the stuff. People come with a pre-conceived notion of what you’re going to play, so you don’t want to bombard them with weird music they’ve never heard before. I just hope I make the right choices when I come down there,” he laughs.
Following on from a collaborative US tour last year, Beck is set to put the finishing touches on a full-length team-up with Beach Boys legend Wilson. “The album is finished without me, I’ve got all the backing tracks done and mixed as close as we can get without the guitar. So I can take that in the car and imagine what I’m going to play. I can play 14 songs in the car without me playing features. There are riffs, but the solo sections are left empty so I can dial into what I want to play, instead of just blindly playing at the time of recording. That’s been my problem, thinking that the live performance is the be-all. But it’s not necessarily so. If you want to really deliver the best solo, you need to think about what you’re doing first. Unless it comes out naturally, that one-off genius. But for me, with the difficult, Eastern-influenced music that we’re playing, I need to have it in my pocket for a couple of weeks before committing to a solo.”
The match of Brian Wilson’s impeccable pop acumen with Beck’s at-times aggressive guitar style may seem incongruous on paper, but the fusion of musical minds reaches beyond the sum of its parts. “The texture, the style is predetermined; the melody is just suggested,” Beck explains. “Who knows how Brian’s organisation works – he doesn’t say a lot in the sessions. It’s a bit of a guessing game, but there’s always a map to guide you. It’s not an easy task – you obviously wouldn’t play an aggressive solo over a pretty ballad. There was one track with an aggressive riff, and he explained to his people that he wanted me to be me on it, but it’s still in the making as far as I know.”
Jeff Beck plays at Byron Bay Bluesfest 2014 with Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Buddy Guy, Erykah Badu, John Butler Trio and many more at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm from Thursday April 17 from Monday April 21. He also appears with Beth Hart at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, Monday April 21