Hot Rod Hero: Jeff Beck on Cars and GuitarsAug 1st, 2008 | By admin | Category: Feature Articles
by Adam St. James
Jeff Beck wafts in and out of our lives like that enigmatic â€œBlue Windâ€ his guitar cried about on his landmark album Wired, way back in â€™76. He has sometimes let years pass between releases, largely disappearing from public life into his alter-ego persona, the hot rod auto mechanic from London, before re-emerging renewed and refreshed â€“ and ready to rock our worlds once more.
Fortunately, of late, Beck has seemed reinvigorated, and three new discs have gusted from his hands to ours in just the past four years. Among them was the excellent August, 2003, release, Jeff, Beckâ€™s 14th album since leaving the Yardbirds in 1967 at the peak of that seminal bandâ€™s popularity. As always, his tone is impeccable. His style is unapproachable. And with this disc, driven by the electronica-inspired grooves of a variety of collaborators, he remains totally unique in the world of music.
I recently met up with Jeff Beck backstage at the Chicago venue where he would later perform with B.B. King during the Windy City stop of the 12th annual B.B. King Music Festival. Beck was relaxed and talkative and shared his thoughts on a number of topics, including his gear, his cars, and the possibility of a one-off concert with Eric Clapton and a third guitarist, yet to be named, for future CD and DVD release. Read on for the details, and don’t miss our interview with Jeffâ€™s guitar tech, Steve Prior, who reveals many of the secrets to Jeffâ€™s tone.
Adam St. James: Havinâ€™ fun out there on the road with B.B.?
Jeff Beck: Yeah. Yeah, weâ€™ve been out for like seven weeks now.
St. James: B.B. is probably tearinâ€™ it up out there too?
Beck: B.B.: Yeah, itâ€™s like somebodyâ€™s got him out of a box and plugged him in.
St. James: Youâ€™ve really been crankinâ€™ out some albums the past few years. Certainly you must be more inspired these days.
Beck: Yeah, well I just got fed up with just possibly not playing again, you know, the music scene changing. I hadnâ€™t had any fun with it when it was my first turn around. I just got tired of wondering what to do. And you know, I need money as well. I canâ€™t sustain a lifestyle without input and cash flow. A lot of people think Iâ€™m a multi-millionaire, but Iâ€™m not. Not at all, not in any way. Not compared with some people you could name. But itâ€™s nothing to do with the money really, itâ€™s just that that was starting to be a compound problem.
St. James: Sure.
Beck: I just didnâ€™t know what direction people want, you know music was going down a path, and I couldnâ€™t turn on a radio without being disgusted completely. And now itâ€™s just gotten to the point where I canâ€™t listen to anything, itâ€™s trashy. Itâ€™s just a hundred channels of garbage all over. And not just here, itâ€™s in England as well. Itâ€™s almost just like a global effort to knock the sense out of you if youâ€™re a musician (laughs). Thereâ€™s not any little morsel for musicians to latch on to. Itâ€™s all glossy, lipstick shit. More tits and bare midriffs. Unless you go to a blues club, or some outrageous, hip dive somewhere that nobody knows about until the night before, the pickings are slim for inspiration.
St. James: What do you listen to these days? Do you pop CDs in?
Beck: Yeah, I buyâ€¦I just listen to people Iâ€™m involved with. Thatâ€™s the best guideline, rather than just buy a bunch of CDs that you donâ€™t know what they are. There goes another five hundred bucks on a lot of rubbish that you wouldnâ€™t even have as a gift. But, you know, I canâ€™t really pick out any names. I still listen to Django Reinhardt, his catalog. Iâ€™m just catching up with that after several years of not really listening to him proper. You know heâ€™s the greatest. And itâ€™s the sort of thing youâ€™ve got in the cupboard, because itâ€™s the fear thing. And you donâ€™t want to be humiliated every day of your life. But now Iâ€™m getting used to it.
St. James: Yeah, I tried to learn some of his licks about 20 years ago and Iâ€™ve never gone back to try again (laughs).
Beck: I think it should be left alone. He was God. Just amazing. But heâ€™s like Art Tatum.
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St. James: Well, the sounds that you come up with are just mind-blowing sometimes. I donâ€™t even understand where the tone is coming from. You donâ€™t use effects?
Beck: All Iâ€™ve got is an A/B switch, a single switch, which kicks in the distort channel. It adds some level and distortion. The other position is off. In other words, it goes to a clean channel. For certain things where you have chords in E, you canâ€™t have too much fizz. And for cleanâ€¦some figures that I play, little chops, theyâ€™re like early Stax soul, like Steve Cropper. And he would never use distortion. A lot of people think that Jimi (Hendrix) used a lot of distortion, but a lot of his records are very beautiful: clean, pure tone. Although heâ€™s got the power and the sustain, it was clean.
St. James: What amps are you using these days?
Beck: Iâ€™ve just got one head. One JCM 2000 (DSL50) head. As long as I spend time dialing in sound through the side fills on the stage, and give the front of the house guy plenty of time to dial out the nasty fizz, itâ€™s been fine. Although I am going to change up and go back to all four cabinets and two tops (after the B.B. King tour), â€™cause thatâ€™s not for B.B. They went berserk on me â€™cause it was too loud on stage at one point. And I just went, â€˜OK, if I turn it down, I donâ€™t get the fatness and the importance of the sound. It just disappears into a country sound,â€™ (laughs) which is fine if youâ€™re playing country. But if you want powerful attack to replace a 20-piece band, you need to be louder. Have the capacity to be loud.
St. James: So you donâ€™t use a wah pedal or anything?
Beck: Yeah, Iâ€™ve got a Snarling Dog wah. Thatâ€™s a radical pedal. I mean itâ€™s one or two steps further than any wah pedal ever known. Itâ€™s got an active circuit, as opposed to just a battery-powered toggle pot. So it kicks in a lot more dB and a lot more sweep and a lot more depth variable in the wah-wah itself. You can preset it so it wonâ€™t take your head off, which is good. Iâ€™ve seen guys play it in a bar where itâ€™s time to leave the building.
St. James: So thatâ€™s it then. Everything else youâ€™re doing with your tone and volume knobs?
Beck: Iâ€™ve got a chorus, a flange-chorus thing for one bar in a song which has like bell sounds in it. But thatâ€™s it really.
St. James: What kind of chorus is it?
Beck: Itâ€™s a Boss pedal.
St. James: Just a little box? A CE-5 or something like that?
Beck: Yeah. There might be an octave thing in there, â€™cause I have to take over the bass line of a certain part where Tony is soloing. I have a dual guitar stroke, octave lower bass sound for that. But thatâ€™s only in there for about a minute.
St. James: And speaker cabinets, youâ€™re using one or two?
Beck: Just one with two mics on it.
St. James: With some of the stuff you do, you get the most killer tones, and youâ€™re jumping around with different riffs and tones so quick, I just canâ€™t understand what youâ€™re doing. You play with your fingers, right?
St. James: So where is this stuff coming from? How are you hearing this stuff? Do you sit down and jam with these tracks for a long time to come up with what you really want?
Beck: Yeah. Oh yeah. I do that in any case. I think with music, â€™cause nobody writes songs per se, you can turn instrumentals. Weâ€™ll start with just a click track and a guitar and I just try and inspire myself and those who work with me. We get the sickest sound, and we get a loop of that, and we build it from nothing, like a grain of sand. And we try and put a shape to it.
St. James: And then what happens when you have to go out and reproduce it live?
Beck: Forget it. (laughs) Thatâ€™s when you find out all your sins come back to you. We can do it, but it does take a lot of commitment. And a lot of boring moments, you know, when thereâ€™s a certain sound on the record that has to be there, and you canâ€™t do it because youâ€™re going through a different circuit, or whatever. So then you have to adapt. You have to find something that does work, otherwise youâ€™d be bored stiff after two or three days. The stuff we play is definitely high-wire stuff â€“ no safety net.
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St. James: Will we be hearing some of your older material too?
Beck: Weâ€™ll see, and have a look at the set list.
St. James: Do you play without a set list?
Beck: No, no. Iâ€™ve got that; we change it. But even if we have one alteration it can throw you. Like I left out â€œGoodbye Pork Pie Hatâ€ by mistake the other night. And they (drummer Terry Bozzio and keyboardist Tony Hymas) were looking at me very strangely. But luckily it was a smooth transition where I left the gap; it did work quite well. But then we came off they were like, â€˜We left out â€œPork Pie.â€ â€™
But yeah Iâ€™ve got a set list down on the floor. I like to know three or four numbers ahead. I go, â€˜OK, this sound sucks,â€™ so Iâ€™m thinking, while Iâ€™m still playing, â€˜What am I gonna do when I get to that part?â€™ Like a chess game, you know. You have to think several moves ahead. And hope that youâ€™re not just fluffing around what you should be playing. Iâ€™ve got two parts to the brain in operation.
St. James: Right. You play with the volume knobs and the tone knobs a lot too.
Beck: Quite a lot, yeah. I donâ€™t with the tone so much, because I preset all the top off the guitar, until I find it a little bit muted or muffled, then I add a little bit. Rather than go full blast with full top, â€™cause that can hurt people. If the guy out front doesnâ€™t know exactly what Iâ€™m gonna do, and he doesnâ€™t know Iâ€™ve got full top on the amp, and on the guitar, he has to suddenly jump on the gas and do something about it. I donâ€™t want that to happen. Iâ€™d rather it be muted, and then add the clarity as we go along.
St. James: So youâ€™re playing a Fender Custom Shop Strat?
Beck: A Strat, yeah.
St. James: Is that your main guitar these days?
Beck: What it is, itâ€™s the remains of an old guitar. All the electrics and the neck are off a Sea Foam Green guitar called Richard, because Little Richard signed it. Thatâ€™s hanging in a safe place at home. But I didnâ€™t want to lose the sound. Iâ€™ve got a big split appearing in the back. I threw it in the air and missed it; it clattered on the floor. But the soundâ€¦you couldnâ€™t really put your finger on how it did it.
I took all the guts out of it and put it on a new body and it just didnâ€™t sound the same. Itâ€™s some freak thing, I donâ€™t know what it is. So whoever says that solid body guitars have no acoustic properties at all, or they think you can get the same tone if you use the same pickup â€“ itâ€™s rubbish, because it just doesnâ€™t have the same quality, the character.
St. James: What other guitars do you bring with you on the road?
Beck: Iâ€™ve got a 175 Gibson which Iâ€™ve never used yet partly because the sit in with B.B. King has been a bit erratic. One night he says, â€˜Yeah,â€™ and the next night he doesnâ€™t feel up to it. And so I never really got into playing it. I was gonna use it on his set, just so I could play the complete style. But because Iâ€™m suddenly thrust into his music, with his band, I need to have some comfort line, you know what I mean? So the Strat is the thing that stayed. And also I didnâ€™t want to get feedback from the hollow-body guitar. You know after this big build up I walk out and go (makes feedback noise). Didnâ€™t want that.
St. James: Do you use feedback at all?
Beck: Not really, no.
St. James: There are some tones that I hear from your recordings thatâ€¦
Beck: Oh, I did. On a couple of tracks I just put together a long, big, drawn-out note. â€œMy Thingâ€ isâ€¦ on one of the tracks called â€œMy Thing,â€ I did that a bit. Itâ€™s a bit of a â€™60s thing. (laughs)
St. James: But there are sometimes when your guitar has such a violin-like tone, I wondered if you were playing with feedback â€“ not a Jimi Hendrix-style feedback, but just a little bit of resonance getting rolling?
Beck: Yeah. Well, that will happen. But Jimiâ€™s feedback was a bit out of control, because he had such volume. And the Marshalls were really a different animal altogether back then, it was just volume immediately, to compensate for the lack of P.A.s. You start playing big audiences, like 50,000, and you need that. The P.A.s were just useless. When you put drums and bass through it, youâ€™re lost. Itâ€™s just mashed up. So I guess they made the amps bigger for bigger gigs.
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St. James: So this Gibson 175, you havenâ€™t played it at all, or is it a guitar youâ€™ve played before?
Beck: I played it for a tribute to Sun Records. I bought it especially â€“ well, actually the guy gave it to me â€“ â€™cause I rented it so many times he said, â€˜Look, you might as well have it.â€™ And I did a thing with Chrissie Hynde on it, â€œMystery Train.â€ I wanted to get the Scotty Moore tone. So I kept it. Itâ€™s a beautiful thing. [Editorâ€™s Note: Beck and Hynde teamed up on the 2001 release Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records.]
St. James: But most of the time youâ€™re playing your Strat?
Beck: I donâ€™t use it. Yeah. I have to change the guitar three times because of the tunings, and these songs are so crucial to have the right tuning.
St. James: What other tunings are you using?
Beck: I just drop the E down to a D or a C. I canâ€™t do that on a Strat onstage, otherwise Iâ€™ll throw the other five strings out. And I hate changing guitars, but I canâ€™t get around it. Unless you have some dancing girls come on and distract the audience (laughs).
St. James: Sure, why not? So where do you go after this date? Youâ€™re wrapping up the tour with B.B. in a few weeks, right?
Beck: Yeah, in about 10 days.
St. James: Will you be back in the States after that?
Beck: I donâ€™t know. It all depends what happens to the record. Epic know that weâ€™re on the road so theyâ€™re kind of light- footing it with the publicity. But weâ€™re doing it. Whether they carry on when we leave off will determine whether we come back sooner or later. But like, listen to the radio. Thereâ€™s not a dogâ€™s chance of you hearing any track off there on the radio. It just wouldnâ€™t fit in. And I understand that, but itâ€™s sad that there arenâ€™t any underground radio stations. A couple that I know of.
St. James: Thereâ€™s one station here in Chicago â€“ and I donâ€™t actually listen to the radio a lot â€“ but they might be playing some of your new tracks. Itâ€™s (WXRT . Theyâ€™ve been around for 30 years, and theyâ€™re a really cool station with a very broad playlist. Theyâ€™ll play the most modern rock, and theyâ€™ll turn around and play B.B. King right next to that. Itâ€™s one of the most incredible stations Iâ€™ve ever heard in the country.
Beck: Well, when I think about it, I think of how obscene it is that kids would love what they could have, if they were only given a chance. But this sort of editing, what do you call it: Censorship â€“ we got over that! The Rolling Stones broke through all that. And the Beatles â€“ they broke those barriers: the hair styles, the fashion. Everything was blasting out a million miles an hour. People were free to listen to what they wanted to. And they, in a way, determined what was on the radio. But now itâ€™s the record companies, and probably threats (laughs), deals. You know. And that keeps really, really interesting stuff off the air.
I mean, in London, itâ€™s bad. But thereâ€™sâ€¦If youâ€™re in the immediate London area â€“ the West London area where I live â€“ thereâ€™s really dodgy radio stations coming from peopleâ€™s bedrooms and stuff. Thatâ€™s what I like. And you can tell theyâ€™re illegal, because thereâ€™s obscenity on the telephone and stuff like that. It would never passâ€¦ But man some of the unbelievable stuff, the Indian dance music, with outrageous scales. Thatâ€™s where Iâ€™m at. You know, listening to stuff where it really takes you by surprise. And everything else is just like a plastic burger to me.
St. James: Right. And a lot of the stuff on the new disc has kind of a dance or club groove to it.
St. James: How did you get to that interest?
Beck: Well, because Iâ€™ve been to clubs where itâ€™s been outrageous. I mean, the sound, the excitement â€“ even on music that I donâ€™t care for â€“ is not to be ignored. Stuff that, when itâ€™s amplifiedâ€¦ If you play it on a small little thing like that (points to my tape recorder), youâ€™ve got (nothing). But when itâ€™s played on a really amazing system, I look for the energy that the guy was trying to put across when he made the record. Even though the singing is crappy or maybe a bass line is bad. I listen to the sonic presence of the drums that are now just mind-boggling and powerful. And I try to use that the same way we did in the â€™60s, when we listened to Elvis Presley â€“ ten years earlier â€“ and we tried to get the sound of those drums, like â€œHound Dog.â€
We tried to get a drum sound that would drive people to get off of their asses and dance. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with dance music as long as its got interesting beats, and not just four on the floor bass drum. That went out in â€™75. K.C. and the Sunshine Band, stuff like that. Fine for them, but when you think of how many great musicians are around like Billy Cobham, who was firey. All the players were on fire. It was a spectacle. I had high hopes for music going up, but it just leveled off then. And then Shakti came along and gave us that incredible Eastern thing. Youâ€™ve got to look to some of the underground club circuits in England to get that.
St. James: Do you get out and listen to some stuff?
Beck: Do I? Yeah. I go for aâ€¦thereâ€™s so many disappointing venues that we go to. You go all the way 60 miles into town and find that you wished you hadnâ€™t gone.
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St. James: What about the exotic scales we hear on your songs. Do you practice guitar a lot? Do you practice exotic scales and things?
Beck: Well yeah, Iâ€™m catching up where I should have been about 30 years ago with my scales. But they werenâ€™t necessary for stuff we were doing, until Blow by Blow came out and I started fooling around with chromatic (scales) and stuff like that. But I listen to more Indian â€“ itâ€™s always coming back to Indian. Listening to Nitin Sawhneyâ€™s record. I was inspired by one of the tracks that he had on there with this guest vocalist. She sang notes that I couldnâ€™t get. I couldnâ€™t figure out what she was doing with her voice. And I slowed it down and listened really slow, one section, repeated and repeated. And I could mimic it. Itâ€™s like Iâ€™ve tried to copy the sound of a bird. Iâ€™ve tried to do that as well.
St. James: What recording was this on?
Beck: The last album.
St. James: By who?
St. James: No, no, the one that influenced that?
Beck: Nitin Sawhney. Heâ€™s an Asian guy. Absolutely amazing. He letâ€™s people feature on his record. Heâ€™s kind of like the catalyst. Keyboard player, guitarist. And he has Trilok Gurtu on tabla drums. Theyâ€™re into crossover music. Theyâ€™re coming toward a Western rock groove. Itâ€™s much simpler than traditional Indian stuff. And Iâ€™m going more that way, so itâ€™s kind of a happy medium there.
St. James: Have you done anything with Trilok?
Beck: No. Iâ€™m gonna do something. Iâ€™ve had an offer to do something. Just as weâ€™re speaking thereâ€™s something in the pipeline.
St. James: That would be cool.
St. James: We have a lot of younger readers. Do you have any advice for people on guitar, or recording â€“ anything specific.
Beck: Yeah. Well, thatâ€™s a very responsible question to have to answer, and Iâ€™m not a responsible person (laughs). Godâ€¦. If youâ€™ve got what it takes, you wonâ€™t need my advice. Youâ€™ll be really into it. If youâ€™re exposed to the right kind of music â€“ that would be the first thing to do: Go and give everybody a listen, right back to the â€™20s. And even if it doesnâ€™t sound like an exciting idea, I guarantee you, it is not wasted to go and look at Django Reinhardt and see how he played in 1934. (laughs). And itâ€™s as hip, as fresh (now) as it was back then. Then go right through the rockabilly guys, andâ€¦whatever you can get a hold of that was big at the time. Donâ€™t go for the â€“ whatâ€™s the word? â€“ lesser known rockabilly guys. Thereâ€™s so much stuff you could listen to that wouldnâ€™t give you any inspiration at all, unless youâ€™re a real, like, â€˜I listened to this rare record by Fat Jack so-and-so.â€™ Donâ€™t waste your time with that.
Just go for the Bill Haley thing. Thatâ€™s where the real rhythm thing started, in â€™55. And blues: Just buy a whole set of CD box sets for that. And then just keep at it, â€˜cause youâ€™re not going to get there easy. Well, it came easy to me, because I suppose I was at the right place at the right time.
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St. James: What about finding your style? How does somebody find their style after they digest all that stuff?
Beck: You have to take stock of what people are doing and not copy them. Itâ€™s like â€œRoad Closed.â€ Donâ€™t go down there. You could go, but youâ€™d get into trouble. I just think that if thereâ€™s a slight hint of a closed road. Avoid that style and what is left will be you, hopefully. But then itâ€™s not easy. It depends on how your mindset is from a young age. If you were brought up around classical music, youâ€™re going to have that implanted in your long-term memory, a lot more than a guy who decided that he wanted to be a rock guitarist, and heâ€™s just been listening to the bad, the worst part of rock â€™nâ€™ roll. And I would tell you to go and spend a year down in Tower Records, and not come out.
St. James: And what about in the studio: What advice do you have for people trying to capture their sound in the studio?
Beck: Well nowadays thereâ€™s no excuse for missing a gem because youâ€™ve got this complete loop that you put on your computer and you just play all day. And just go back â€“ if youâ€™ve got the time â€“ and listen to what you did. And when you hear what you think is very special you just take that, make a note of it â€“ because you can make a note of the second. And if something stands out a million miles from what youâ€™ve done the rest of the time, use that, and find out what you did that made that sound. Just examine it. Really look closely at what you did. And thatâ€™s all you can do really. If you want to be original, thereâ€™s only one way and thatâ€™s to look inside yourself, and just start impressing yourself by what youâ€™ve come up with. Not with what somebody else has done.
St. James: Are you happy with things after you lay them down, or are you always dissatisfied?
Beck: No. I was at a birthday party â€“ somebody put me on a special surprise birthday party â€“ and they werenâ€™t very smart. They did the uncoolest thing which was to put a complete evening of my albums on. And I couldnâ€™t enjoy it because every time somebody would talk to me Iâ€™d hear an old track that I did and Iâ€™d be like, â€˜Oh Geez!â€™ It was like a memory trip down 15 different records. I donâ€™t really listen to myself and Iâ€™m never that happy with myself. After a month or so of not listening to it, I go back and (listen). And then I have to put it in a box at some stage, and kiss goodbye to it, and not alter it. To someone else it doesnâ€™t matter because they hear it fresh. They didnâ€™t sit around while we did it all those boring hours, exploration and down-time.
St. James: When you create these loops and you play along with them, are you actually recording hours and hours of stuff?
Beck: Not hours. I play it back after about a five-minute loop. And then Iâ€™ll play it and play it and play it until I find something thatâ€™s extraordinary against something else. And then weâ€™ll use that. Itâ€™s a bit like gabbing into a microphone and suddenly coming up with a thought that makes a lot of sense, amongst all the gibberish.
St. James: So you lay down like five-minutes of stuff, and then go back and listen to it and see if youâ€™ve got anything you like there. And if not, you erase and do it again?
Beck: Yeah. As long as thereâ€™s progress made on the tapeâ€¦ I look at the expression on the guysâ€™ faces who operated it. When he starts to look around I know that Iâ€™ve woken a little brain cell that was asleep. And heâ€™ll stop it right there and say, â€˜Letâ€™s see what youâ€™ve done.â€™ But it requires both parties to be attentive at all times. If the phone rings, itâ€™s over. And the phone did ring. In fact I got so annoyed, that I actually left that phone ringing on one of the tracks to remind the guy, if he ever plays that record, that his phone interferred with my track. It actually came out â€“ I donâ€™t know how, some freak thing â€“ it rang through the pickup and the pickup of the guitar acted.
St. James: Iâ€™m gonna shut mine off real quick (laughs).
Beck: No, no. Weâ€™re talking about a land line phone. Itâ€™s a real loud phone. Itâ€™s in two of the tracks.
St. James: So are you using Pro Tools these days?
Beck: Yeah. But this album is the last one. Iâ€™m definitely trying to get some old studios to look at and see if I canâ€™t go back and get the playing right â€“ get the drum sound right, without all that stuff. I listened to some great jazz the other day and the drum sound was to die for! Even though it was really busy and esoteric jazz, the guy was kicking butt. The groove was there. It was like Eric Dolphy or somebody. And there was no Pro Tools in those days. Weâ€™re talking like â€™59 or â€™60.
You could see the guy playing even while you were listening. You could see the guy in this room. There was a vibe with the sound of that thing. Thatâ€™s what I miss. Just vibe-less records everywhere. You listen and itâ€™s just dead. Thereâ€™s no ambient sounds unless itâ€™s faked. Obviously it stands up to being played now in a club because itâ€™s ideal for that. But at home, listening, I wanna listen to the possibility that weâ€™re all in a room together, and enjoying that magical experience of listening to it.
St. James: And the bleed-through on the mics of the live bandâ€¦
Beck: Right. But loud rock â€™nâ€™ roll became a problem because everybody played too loud and they had to separate it and then it became tame again.
101 Recording Tips: Stuff All The Pros Know And Use With advice from Jeff Beck, Tom Dowd, B.B. King and many more.
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St. James: Do you look at new equipment at all? Do you look at new guitars?
St. James: Your stuff is Fender Custom Shop?
St. James: I used to run Fender Frontline magazine and used to know some of the people over there. Itâ€™s been a few years, theyâ€™ve changed. Do you know who works on your stuff?
Beck: The latest guy, I donâ€™t. I know thereâ€™s been major shifts over there. Theyâ€™ve been brilliant. Theyâ€™re reallyâ€¦they do everything for me. [Editorâ€™s note: Fender Custom Shop Manager Mike Eldred says Custom Shop master builder Todd Krause works on Jeffâ€™s guitars these days. ]
St. James: Do you have any special requirements on those guitars, as far as electronics or anything?
Beck: Theyâ€™ve got some quiet pickups that donâ€™t pick up radio, thatâ€™s worth having. Nine times out of ten you donâ€™t need it and then one gig youâ€™ve got a radio station right in your amp.
St. James: Are those the Lace-Sensor pickups?
Beck: No. Steve [ Editorâ€™s note: Jeffâ€™s guitar tech Steve Prior also spoke to us at length. See his interview for more details. ] will tell you what they are. Theyâ€™re just very quiet, special wound â€“ shielded wounds. [ Editorâ€™s note: Fender Custom Shop Manager Mike Eldred says Fender builds these pickups especially for Jeff, and refers to them as Jeff Beck Custom Noiseless pickups. Eldred also says heâ€™d love to start selling the pickups someday, but for now, they are only available to the public in a Fender Jeff Beck Signature Model Stratocaster. ]
St. James: Steve your guitar tech?
Beck: Yeah. He knows. He builds pickups and guitars.
St. James: Do you work on guitars at all?
Beck: Only when they donâ€™t play right. I tweak them myself, make the final adjustment, in a bedroom or a hotel. But they do change, with these extreme temperatures. Weâ€™ve been playing places like Fresno and Sacramento, 111-degrees on stage. The guitar will be lying around for a few minutes in the heat, and the neck will warp. Or itâ€™ll go back. When heâ€™s adjusted it, itâ€™ll need readjusting when it cools off.
St. James: Do you pay much attention to vintage instruments?
Beck: Not really. I donâ€™t really care. I donâ€™t want to get attached to any more inanimate objects (laughs). Iâ€™ve got cars and stuff like thatâ€¦ Iâ€™ve become a little more worldly wise about things and not as fanatical about owning something. Obviously if it helps forward your career, but itâ€™s not all about vintage Teleâ€™s anymore with eight million bucks on the price tag (laughs).
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St. James: What about cars? You work on cars a little bit? Is that your other main thing?
Beck: Yeah. Yeah thatâ€™s what I do more as a main job, than play guitar. Because of the nature of my career, and the way that weâ€™re in England, and my career is basically here, I wouldnâ€™t be able to support myself with the work from England. Itâ€™s all corporately-run over there. Youâ€™re either big bananas or youâ€™re nothing. You have to pay to play a small club. So I canâ€™t keep going over here, I canâ€™t keep going to Japan. Itâ€™s a sort of bi-annual thing or every three years.
St. James: Why did you never move here?
Beck: I donâ€™t know. I love where I live. Iâ€™ve got a beautiful place and I belong there. I feel a sense of belonging which will never go. I lived in L.A. for a few months, and that was a good trial period â€“ at no expense because I was actually being forced out of the country by our government because they were taking 90 percent of (my income).
St. James: So what car projects do you have going on right now?
Beck: Iâ€™ve got a couple at the moment. I managed to find a rare circa â€™34 three-window coupe advertised in a Danish magazine, or Swedish paper. And I just looked at it and thought, â€˜Itâ€™s all original, and itâ€™s one-off.â€™ You donâ€™t get those ever! — three-window. Five-window yeah, or sedan. And I sent my girlfriend up to Copenhagen with a mechanic friend of mine. It runs, itâ€™s all there, itâ€™s perfect. So I bought it. It was an impulse buy. Now itâ€™s on itâ€™s way to California.
St. James: Why is that?
Beck: Because Iâ€™m busy, busy. Iâ€™ve got concerts to do in England, Iâ€™ve got a Pavarotti date. You know Pavarotti?
St. James: Yes.
Beck: I played on a single, which he fell in love with. But they didnâ€™t tell him who it was on guitar. And he said, â€˜I want that guy.â€™ And when they told him it was me, he invited me to play in Austria. So Iâ€™m gonna do that. It doesnâ€™t look like Iâ€™ ll get much mechanics done by Christmas. But by the time Christmas arrives this car will be disassembled, sand-blasted, and ready to re-assemble over at my friendâ€™s shop in California. So Iâ€™ll go out there and check it out and just make sure whatâ€™s going on.
St. James: Will you do any of the work yourself?
Beck: Not on this particular one, but all the others. Iâ€™ve built 14 or 15 street rods in 25 years. And Iâ€™ve kept most of them. The ones I bought whole over in L.A. in â€™76, and had them shipped back to England â€“ they started to go rusty. And I thought, â€˜Iâ€™m not going to rebuild this. I didnâ€™t build it in the first place.â€™ So I cleaned it up, except the ones that were already clean, and let somebody else have them. But I never sold anything after. I canâ€™t see 18 months of work go down the driveway. In a flash someone else has got the car, for a few bundles of notes that are all going to go out the window. So Iâ€™ ve built a special shed for them.
St. James: What are your favorites?
Beck: Theyâ€™re all fantastic. Theyâ€™ve all got memories. They all twitch and roll and do their things.
St. James: Do you have time to get out and drive them now and then?
Beck: Yeah, every time it stops raining.
St. James: Do you do any drag racing?
Beck: Yeah, weâ€™ve been to a couple. The fun is in the run, you know. We take a picnic and take the whole day and go. And watch a few people make idiots of themselves, and come home. Itâ€™s not the quality of drag racing like it is here. But thereâ€™s some good, real competitive cars. The fun is in meeting other people.
St. James: Are you in touch with people from your musical past at all?
Beck: No, not really. Obviously if thereâ€™s a big event, where I meet, like, Pagey Iâ€™ve seen. Iâ€™ve seen Jimmy several times. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame â€“ that kind of thing.
St. James: Eric?
Beck: Yeah, from time to time, because Ericâ€™s starting to get interested in hot rodsâ€¦the same shop I was telling you about, Eric goes, in San Francisco. Yeah, heâ€™s had a couple of cars built.
St. James: Jeff, Iâ€™ve been an advisor to a guitar festival in Buffalo, New York, since it started in 2001, and Eric played this festival the first year. The festival is run by the Public Television Station in Buffalo.
Beck: PBS. Yes.
St. James: When they first talked to me about the festival, they said, â€˜Weâ€™ve been talking to Eric Clapton about doing a concert with him and a couple of other players for CD, video, and DVD â€“ and your name has come up among those people. Are you interested in that? Does it seem like a good idea to you?
Beck: Yeah, Iâ€™ve been approached several times about it. Carlos (Santana) was gonna be on that, but he wouldnâ€™t do it because he had that big album.
St. James: Yeah, with Supernatural, and then he got really busy for the past few years.
Beck: And then I suggested they get into Prince. And that was the hot item. They talked about it years ahead.
St. James: Iâ€™ve told them a couple of times, â€˜If youâ€™re going to have Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, the historic rock and roll third person would beâ€¦â€™
St. James: Jimmy.
Beck: It should be.
St. James: Is that do-able, do you suppose, among the three of you?
Beck: I donâ€™t know what Jimmy would think about it. Iâ€™ve got hours of that kind of [music] that I could do. I could select a half dozen numbers from any album you name, and play them instrumental. But Jimmy would have to come and perform as a guitarist, solo. He couldnâ€™t have Zeppelin there. It would have to be a house band, with us doing pre-arranged material he selected.
St. James: But emotionally, could you three guys do that?
Beck: Mmm-hmm. It might be a bit sticky. I donâ€™t care. It would be a big draw. I canâ€™t see it not being.
St. James: Oh yeah. And Iâ€™m sure the CDs and DVDs would do well.
Beck: But getting a big draw up front is not as important as the desire. The reason to be there should be big. The reason to be there should be bigger than the draw. If itâ€™s only, â€˜Wouldnâ€™t it be neat ifâ€¦.â€™ But then what would we play? I donâ€™t see the common catalyst there. â€™Cause Eric would want his own players there; Iâ€™d want my own. It would be three separate concerts. And where does Jimmy come in, without a singer?
St. James: Billy Gibbons would be cool too.
Beck: There you go. I see his style adaptable to whatever. The guyâ€™s just got a talent to die for. He could play â€œPeter Gunnâ€ and it would be amazing. We could all groove on tried and true rock â€™nâ€™ roll instrumentals: The Ventures, or anything like that. Whatever.
St. James: Right. And you mentioned Prince.
Beck: I did, because I think that heâ€™s a great player. They all say heâ€™s a great performer, forget that. He dances great, he writes great songs, he sings well â€“ and he plays a blistering guitar. Get him on there. He showed interest, but obviously heâ€™s waiting to be contacted, or some developments. Just like Eric. Of course, I want to see it in blood (laughs) â€“ a signature in blood that theyâ€™re gonna do it. These things are teases. Theyâ€™re annoying because you think, â€˜Wow, what a night that would be.â€™ And you look for it and you go, â€˜Where is it?â€™ It just vaporized.
St. James: Well, it would be an incredible night. It was great to talk to you, thanks so much for spending time with us.
Beck: Thank you.
[Editorâ€™s Note: A follow-up conversation with the Buffalo-Niagara Guitar Festivalâ€™s organizer revealed that plans are in the works for Beck, Clapton, and â€“ possibly â€“ Prince to appear together at a future festival, tentatively fall of 2005. ]
[Editorâ€™s Note: The above editor’s note was written in 2003. Obviously Eric Clapton’s June, 2004, Crossroads Festival may have changed the above plans. ]
[Editor’s Note 2008: Well, with two major Crossroads fests in the bag, obviously the Buffalo-Niagara thing was not to be.]
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Parts of this interview may have previously appeared on or in the following publications: Guitar.com, Musician.com, Guitar World, Guitar Edge, Guitar, Guitar Shop, Guitar World Acoustic, Frets, Bass Player, Maximum Guitar, Los Angeles Daily News, Fender Frontline Magazine, MusiciansFriend.com or any of the other 50 or 60 publications I’ve written for since the mid-’80s. But hey, I wrote it, and this is my archive — Adam