Jeff Beck died of bacterial meningitis on 10 January 2023. He was 78. In its obituary, The New York Times described Beck as “one of the most skilled, admired and influential guitarists in rock history”. That’s high praise, yet it is a sentiment echoed by critics, music fans, and musicians from Jimmy Page, to Mick Jagger, to Brian May and many more.
As a guitarist, Jeff Beck was admired for both the technical virtuosity of his playing and his innovations. While he was primarily a rock guitarist, he was not afraid to draw from other music traditions including jazz, Indian music, and classical music. The video of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma is but one of Beck’s interpretations of classical music.
What a breathtaking performance! Bravo! That’s how you get one of Pavarotti’s favourite arias to rock without surrendering the nuances of the composition. Describing Beck’s technique on Nessun Dorma, Classic FM’s Kyle MacDonald writes: “By bending the pitch of the strings, and bringing elasticity to the rhythm of the solo, he conveys the feeling of a sweeping, vocal portamento, with that grand opera house rubato. His guitar really does sing”.
Jeff Beck’s first released electric guitar take on classic music, in this case Ravel (Beck’s Bolero), was recorded in 1966. While the track was released under his own name, at the time Beck was still a member of The Yardbirds, the group which first brought him to public attention. Other notable guitar interpretations of Classical Music by Beck include sublime takes on the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th symphony and Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol. Here is a live version of the Mahler:
Jeff Beck joined the Yardbirds in March 1965, on the recommendation of group-member Jimmy Page. Beck lasted two years before being fired on a tour of the United States, apparently for tardiness in showing up and for being difficult to work with due to his perfectionism. Besides his obvious guitar skills, Beck’s time with the Yardbirds is remembered for his pioneering and innovative experiments with fuzz, distortion and feedback.
After a brief interlude, Beck formed the Jeff Beck Group, with members including Ron Wood and Rod Stewart. This period is regarded as a golden period for Beck’s music. This version of the Jeff Beck Group broke up in July 1969. Other versions followed but were not as magical.
Jeff Beck’s most commercially successful record was the instrumental, jazz-influenced Blow By Blow (1975), produced by George Martin, who found fame as the producer of the Beatles. While Beck would continue to release records, tour, and collaborate with other artists, these became intermittent as Beck gained a reputation for being a reluctant celebrity. He famously declined the opportunity to perform at Live Aid. He later explained that he was averse to large crowds.
Nessun Dorma appeared on Beck’s album Emotion & Commotion (2010). In 2011 the track won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Jeff Beck’s final album, 18, was a collaboration with Johnny Depp. It was released in July 2022.
Rest in Peace, Jeff Beck. If you would like to see more from Jeff Beck, you can subscribe to their YouTube channel.