Jeff Beck, the celebrated guitarist who played with the Yardbirds and led the Jeff Beck Group, has died aged 78, his representative has confirmed.
Beck died on Tuesday after “suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis”, the representative confirmed. “His family ask for privacy while they process this tremendous loss,” they added.
Often described as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Beck – whose fingers and thumbs were famously insured for £7m – was known as a keen innovator. He pioneered jazz-rock, experimented with fuzz and distortion effects and paved the way for heavier subgenres such as psych rock and heavy metal over the course of his career. He was an eight-time Grammy winner, recipient of the Ivor Novello for outstanding contribution to British music and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame both as a solo artist and as a member of the Yardbirds.
Musicians began paying tribute minutes after the news broke. Gene Simmons called it “heartbreaking news … no one played guitar like Jeff. Please get ahold of the first two Jeff Beck Group albums and behold greatness. RIP.”
Ozzy Osbourne tweeted, “I can’t express how saddened I am to hear of Jeff Beck’s passing. What a terrible loss for his family, friends & his many fans. It was such an honour to have known Jeff and an incredible honor to have had him play on my most recent album.”
Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi wrote that he was “totally shocked”. “Jeff was such a nice person and an outstanding iconic, genius guitar player – there will never be another Jeff Beck,” he wrote on Twitter.
Beck was born Geoffrey Beck in 1944, in Wallington, south London. As a child, he sang in a church choir, and began playing guitar as a teenager, getting his first instrument after trying to dupe a music store in a hire-purchase scheme. “There was this guy, he wasn’t old enough to be my dad but he offered to be my guarantor. He said, ‘I’ll tell them I’m your stepfather’,” he told the New Statesman in 2016. “Within a month, they’d sussed out he was nothing to do with me whatsoever and they snatched the guitar back. My dad went along and explained that we couldn’t afford it – so they waived the rest of the payments and I got the guitar.”
After briefly attending art school in London, Beck began playing with Screaming Lord Sutch until, after Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page recommended Beck as his replacement. Although already successful by that time, the Yardbirds had many of their biggest hits during Beck’s short tenure in the band, including the 1966 album Yardbirds – the only album by the band to be released in the UK – and the No 3 single Shapes of Things. Beck was only in the Yardbirds for 20 months, leaving the group in 1966 due to inter-band tensions that had arisen during a US tour. (Later, he would say that “every day was a hurricane in the Yardbirds”.)
In 1968, Beck released Truth, his debut solo album, which drew on blues and hard rock to form a prototypical version of heavy metal. Three years later, he released an album with the Jeff Beck Group, Beck-Ola but had his solo career derailed after he suffered a head injury in a car accident.
In 1970, after recovering from his skull fracture, Beck formed a new incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group, and released two records – 1971’s Rough and Ready and 1972’s Jeff Beck Group – which displayed his earliest forays into the jazz fusion sound he would become known for.
In the mid-70s, Beck supported John McLaughlin’s jazz-rock group Mahavishnu Orchestra on tour, an experience that radically changed how he saw music. “Watching [McLaughlin] and the sax player trading solos, I thought, ‘This is me’,” he said in 2016.
Inspired, Beck embraced jazz fusion fully on the George Martin-produced Blow By Blow. A platinum-selling hit in the US which peaked at No 4, it was Beck’s most commercially successful album ever, but he later expressed regret. “I shouldn’t have done Blow By Blow,” he told Guitar Player in 1990. “I wish I had stayed with earthy rock’n’roll. When you’re surrounded with very musical people like Max Middleton and Clive Chaman, you’re in a prison, and you have to play along with that.”
Despite his later feelings about Blow By Blow, Beck continued to experiment throughout the 70s, releasing another platinum-selling jazz fusion album, Wired, in 1976, and There and Back, in 1980.
Beck’s output slowed dramatically in the 80s, in part due to his suffering from tinnitus. His projects through the decade were sporadic but notable: in 1981, he performed with Clapton, Sting and Phil Collins at Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Other Ball benefit concerts, and returned with his first solo album in five years, Flash, in 1985. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, it presented a dramatic shift for Beck in that it primarily featured vocal-led pop tracks, a change from his largely instrumental 70s output. People Get Ready, a collaboration with Rod Stewart, became one of Beck’s rare hit singles under his own name, charting in the US, New Zealand, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland.
The 1989 album Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop was his last solo album for a decade, but he remained active through the 90s, collaborating with Jon Bon Jovi, Kate Bush and Roger Waters, among others; in 1999, he released Who Else, which incorporated techno and electronic elements.
In the 2000s and 2010s, Beck only released a handful of albums, but began to settle into his role as an elder statesman and lauded influence, performing with artists such as Kelly Clarkson and Joss Stone. He has lived on an East Sussex estate since 1976, and married his sixth wife, Sandra Cash, in 2005.
Beck’s most recent project was last year’s 18, a collaborative album with Johnny Depp that featured original songs penned by Depp and covers of Marvin Gaye, the Velvet Underground and other classic artists. The album was widely panned; in a two-star review, the Guardian’s Michael Hann described it as a “peculiar and hugely uneven record,” while noting that “it’s to Beck’s credit that alone among the guitar heroes of the 1960s UK R&B boom, he has not retreated into coffee-table blues.”