You’re likely to find Jeff Beck‘s face on any Mount Rushmore of guitarists — and maybe of musicians, period.
His musical praises are being sung worldwide since his shocking death Wednesday (Jan. 11) from bacterial meningitis at age 78. And rest assured that everything being said about the seven-time Grammy winner and two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is true. And maybe even understated.
While his skills are unquestionably worth celebrating, those discussions sometimes obscure the fact that Beck’s greatest gift was in service to the songs he played. Whether with the Yardbirds or the various incarnations of his own band, or with a wide variety of collaborators, Beck elevated his songs with purposeful and deliberate choices — of notes, riffs, phrasings — that raised them to the proverbial next level. He demonstrated plenty of flash and drama during his 60 years of recording, but always in a manner that made the songs soar.
The best are, not surprisingly, hard to choose, and there’s plenty of genuine greatness to be found deep in all of Beck’s albums. But these 10 — in alphabetical order — are at the top of the heap, all performances that transcend the individual songs to establish some new standards for music itself.
"A Day in the Life" (1998)
Few would have the audacity and, well, balls to take on this Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band opus in any manner, much less instrumentally — and to do it for Beatles producer George Martin, no less. But Beck was up to the task for In My Life, the Martin-produced collection of Beatles covers, and he captured the track’s majesty and melodicism with a fearless bite, “singing” it with his six strings, at once re-creating and reinventing it.
"Beck's Bolero" (1968)
This early declaration of purpose was recorded during May 1966, while Beck was still in the Yardbirds, but came out 10 months later in front of his first solo album, Truth, as the B-side of his first single, “Hi Ho Silver Lining.” The personnel was worth the price of admission alone: fellow Yardbird Jimmy Page, who wrote and reportedly had some hand in producing it, on guitar; The Who’s Keith Moon on drums; future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones; and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. The suite-like arrangement starts with Ravel’s “Bolero” and blasts off into hard-rock heaven, almost as if Beck was shaking off any constraints he felt with the Yardbirds and heading toward limitless musical vistas. Shapes of things to come, if you will.
"Cause We've Ended as Lovers" (1975)
Beck’s Blow by Blow album featured two Stevie Wonder covers — this and “Thelonius” — and, of course, he made short work of “Superstition” on Beck, Bogert & Appice’s self-titled album in 1973. “Lovers” is the best of the bunch, though; Beck tucks into the moody ballad like it’s a fine meal, savoring and exploring its melodic nuances and never rushing to make its points — and leaving our (and, by all reports, Stevie’s) jaws on the floor. A masterclass in just under six minutes.
"Freeway Jam" (1975)
For a song whose creation came from keyboardists — it was written by Max Middleton and produced by Jan Hammer — the largely improvised Blow by Blow track is a ferocious celebration of Beck’s guitar skills. It’s lighthearted and a great deal of fun, showing off the facile chemistry of a quartet that included Middleton, Phil Chen on bass and Richard Bailey on drums. The only problem is that if you’re listening to it in a real freeway jam, it may just inspire you to hit the accelerator and plow into the vehicle in front of you.
"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" (1976)
Back to audacity: Beck, in full jazz-fusion flight, took on this Charles Mingus standard for his Wired album. This is a wonderfully understated interpretation, Beck finding plenty of space within Mingus’ structure to make the song his own and weave his intricate patterns atop the quartet’s equally empathic playing.
Beck cited periodic collaborator Jan Hammer as the inspiration for this Emotion & Commotion track (hence the title), but its wah-wah intro also feels like a nod to Jimi Hendrix. Producer Steve Lipson gives the track (as well as the album) a wide sonic vista as Beck steers one of his strongest ensembles (co-writer Jason Rebello on keyboards, Tal Wilkenfeld on bass, Alessia Mattalia on drums) toward the heavens. It gave Beck his sixth Grammy Award for best rock instrumental performance, with good reason.
"Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" (1966)
Beck and Jimmy Page didn’t record many songs together as joint guitarists in the Yardbirds, but this group-written single was the finest of them. With Page laying down a tight rhythm and Beck blending some Middle Eastern flavors into the mix, it covers a lot of ground during its semi-psychedelic nearly three minutes. And that’s Beck himself speaking under the fuzzed-out mid-song guitar solo. Fans, especially of the Yardbirds’ pop hits, didn’t know quite what to make of it, but hindsight has revealed it as an adventure that pointed a way forward for rock in general.
"Heart Full of Soul" (1965)
Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds because he didn’t like the commercial direction the band was taking. Beck had no such reservations as he stepped into the ranks for this Graham Gouldman-written song — and beyond. There’s a lot of skill-flexing here, from the fuzz box (borrowed from Jimmy Page) sonics to his aping of sitar stylings after the group decided it wasn’t happy with a real sitar player’s work on the track. The birth of a new guitar hero in a tidy two and a half minutes.
"I Ain't Superstitious" (1968)
This Willie Dixon-written tune for Howlin’ Wolf (circa 1961) was a staple for blues and rock players by the time the first Jeff Beck Group took it on for Truth. It’s a team effort with hard-hitting performances by vocalist Rod Stewart, with Ron Wood on bass and Micky Waller on drums, while Beck is otherworldly with his muscular riffs and fills and unhinged wah-wah attack. A hands-down, definitive treatment of the song.
"People Get Ready" (1985)
The magic on this Flash reunion with Rod Stewart is in what Beck doesn’t do. He treats the Impressions cover as a vocal track first and foremost, giving Stewart his space but having his own way with the melody to open the song up during the solos, then elevating it with a recurring four-note fill that puts Beck’s indelible stamp on it and lets him take ownership of yet another classic.