In this article, I’ll take you through some of the techniques that form the cornerstone of Jeff Beck’s guitar style and discuss how he uses them to create his own unique brand of sound. I’ll also talk about his go-to equipment and his main musical influences.
No matter how good you are, Jeff always seems better. I hope you find the information in this article entertaining and it helps you take your guitar playing to the next level. For now, just sit back with your favorite beverage and enjoy reading about the man I consider to be one of the all-time greats!
So, Who The Heck Is Jeff Beck?
Did you really have to ask?! If you are a serious rock, blues, or jazz-fusion guitarist, then you most likely are quite familiar with the man that has won 8 Grammy awards, is a two-time Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee, and has been called “The Gov’nor” and “The Axe Murderer.” See Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame – The Killer Guitar Players!
Jeff continually reinvents himself, preferring not to get locked into one particular musical style. He originally played with The Yardbirds before leaving to form many versions of his own band. I could go on and on, but instead of simply regurgitating all the things you can read about on Wikipedia, I’ll give you my own take on what makes some of the best guitarists in the world speak his name with reverence.
Jeff is definitely one of “God’s special people”, who immediately stands out from the crowd of guitar heroes, whether you like what he does or not. I first heard his Freddie King cover of “Going Down” way back in 1972 on his “Jeff Beck Group Album.” I was so blown away that I even remember what I was doing at the time (playing pool at my house with my brother and our two friends).
We all worshiped on the altar of big guitar solos from sonic titans like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, but as the guitar player in our band, I couldn’t believe that they weren’t as stunned as I was with Jeff. Looking back, I now realize that a lot of his subtle magic can easily escape the attention of non-guitar-playing folk. This whole album is filled with incredible “Beckisms” that make me smile, even after all these years.
Jeff Beck’s Guitar Style
It’s almost impossible to pin down the essence of what makes Jeff Beck’s style so unique. His guitars, amps, equipment, and preferred settings/setups all come into play, but most of his sound comes from his fingers. I’ve heard many guitar players attempt to cover his tunes and fail miserably to capture the special something that makes him the one and only Jeff Beck.
Here are some of the techniques he uses to work his magic. If you have ever actually seen him play, then one of the first things you probably noticed is that he continually adjusts the controls on his guitar throughout practically every song.
Whammy Bar Technique – The Cornerstone Of Jeff Beck’s Guitar Style
Jeff’s unique style relies on using the guitar’s whammy bar and volume control to create notes that sound like they are being “pushed or pulled” in a particular direction. He can do this by picking the strings with his thumb and index fingers while controlling the whammy bar and the volume and tone control with the other three fingers. He fiddles with the volume and tone knobs almost constantly.
A typical Jeff Beck guitar setup utilizes a “floating” bridge, which allows him to use his whammy bar in both directions. He can easily pull a note up as high as 2 to 3 semi-tones and higher when the musical circumstance calls for it. This setup also allows him to “whammy up” by pressing on the bridge with the palm of his hand instead of using the bar, a particular technique that I’ve only seen him do.
Jeff uses his whammy bar so dynamically that he can go from the slightest bend to a massive divebomb seamlessly! He is an absolute master at conjuring quarter-tone and microtonal bends that complement the harmonic structure of the song perfectly while delightfully twisting the melody. He is in total control of your musical emotion and loves to toy with it at will.
Have a listen to what he does with Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” on this Live At The Hollywood Bowl video (2017), and you will hear his guitar sing and mimic the sound of a sad human voice.
Left-Hand Bends And Vibrato
Jeff blends finger bends and vibrato into and around his whammy bar excursions, or he uses them as a featured technique if he’s using a Telecaster. He likes to combine finger bends with volume swells or tone knob adjustments to make them sound almost three dimensional. It’s just an unbelievable experience to watch him do this close up!
Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs, And Pre-Bends
Although these are generally considered fairly simple techniques, Jeff routinely pulls them off with machine-gun speed and surgical accuracy to make them uniquely “Beck.” He combines them with whammy bar gymnastics to produce a most unusual sound that typifies him in the extreme!
Harmonics – They Really Make Jeff Beck’s Guitar Style Pop
I’ve heard a lot of approaches to adding harmonics to guitar lines but none so unique and quirky as what Jeff does. They help create the signature flash in his guitar licks as he bends them in and out of the musical space-time continuum. He also uses them to create hauntingly beautiful melodic lines.
Take a listen to what he does with harmonics on the song “Over The Rainbow” on his Emotion And Commotion album at a concert in Gothenburg (2011).
Jeff does a lot of slide playing above the neck to create notes and sounds in a very high register. Often-times he uses his guitar slide to “tap” the note instead of sliding into or out of it. These techniques require extreme precision and a guitar with spot-on tuning and intonation to execute reproducibly. A lot of his slide work reminds me of sci-fi sound effects for alien movies.
Jeff uses right-hand finger tapping techniques sparingly. He tends to tap the same note multiple times in rapid succession, which fits nicely with his particular sound. This is distinctly different from guitarists like Eddy Van Halen (RIP), who did a lot of harmonic tapping, or Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, who tend to tap out intricate melodic lines all over the neck.
Jeff frequently uses “banjo rolls” to spice up short runs of his firey licks. Listen closely, and you will hear them. When I saw Jeff perform live in the late 1970’s he played his version of the theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies TV show during the encore. It was incredible and featured his mastery of banjo rolls. I’ll never forget it.
Dynamics And Emotion
Last but certainly not least is Jeff’s ability to use dynamics to inject emotion into everything he plays. If you have ever heard the great Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti sing the classic Nessun Dorma, listen to Beck’s instrumental version. It’s an outstanding example of how Jeff can easily convey music’s power and emotion in a genre totally outside his wheelhouse!
This video of Nessun Dorma is from the Eric Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival.
Jeff Beck’s Main Musical Influences
Here is a list of some of the artists that had the most significant influence on Jeff. To be sure, this is only a modest representation of the artists that inspired Jeff and helped power the evolution of his sound.
This diversity of players eventually led Jeff into the jazz fusion sounds that can be heard on albums like Blow By Blow and Wired.
Les Paul was one of the earliest influences on Jeff Beck’s guitar style. Les’s innovative recording techniques, such as sound-on-sound and echo, which he coupled with dazzling finger speed, caught Jeff’s attention as a way to take the sound of the guitar outside the realm of what was normally possible. This approach ignited the beginning of Jeff’s playing “outside the box.”
Cliff was the lead guitar player in a band called Gene Vincent And The Blue Caps. He used a flat pick in conjunction with a fingerpick on his middle and ring fingers, with his pinky finger left free to work his vibrato bar. Jeff adopted a modified version of Cliff’s technique when he ditched his pick later on in his career and used all of the fingers of his right hand to pluck the strings and work his volume control and whammy bar. He first saw Cliff play guitar in “The Girl Can’t Help It”, which is still one of his favorites.
Buddy guy and his Chicago-based blues style, which he took to the next level, left an indelible mark on Jeff’s playing early on. Buddy took much of what he had learned about traditional blues, from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and added his own brand of fiery riffs and showmanship. You can easily hear Buddy’s influence in the dynamics of Jeff’s playing.
Jimi Hendrix, who made the Marshall amplifier a household name among guitar players, introduced Jeff to what could truly be done with a Stratocaster on overload. Jimi’s “wall of sound”, controlled feedback, and ultimate guitar showmanship provided Jeff with a new musical blueprint. Jimi’s totally unorthodox use of the whammy bar would become a major focus of Jeff’s style.
John McLaughlin And Jan Hammer
John McLaughlin’s work as a guitarist with Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which also featured keyboardist Jann Hammer, was a turning point for Jeff into jazz fusion territory. Jeff would record several albums with Jan Hammer and made some musical appearances with John, which he has called one of the greatest guitarists ever.
Stevie Wonder’s impressive harmonic structure and melodic patterns caught Jeff’s attention early on in his career. He covered Stevie’s song “Superstition” on the Beck, Bogert, And Appice album. Later, Jeff would do his famous cover of Stevie’s “Cause We Ended As Lovers” on his Blow By Blow album.
Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, And Lester Young
Pianist Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus (bassist and pianist), and Lester Young’s saxophone were all influential sources of Jeff’s songwriting. Jeff famously covered the tune “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” on his Wired album, which Mingus wrote as a eulogy for Lester, who was known for wearing a pork pie hat.
Jeff’s Go-To Equipment
Guitars – The Stratocaster Helped Define Jeff Beck’s Guitar Style
Jeff has played different guitars over the years. He started with a 1954 Fender Esquire in The Yardbirds. He changed to his oxblood Les Paul during his jazz-fusion days and even used Cliff Gallup’s Gretsch Duo-Jet for the rockabilly tunes on the album Crazy Legs.
As his style continued to evolve, he made the Fender Stratocaster his main guitar, which provided him with the whammy bar that helped define his style. He has called the Stratocaster “the perfect guitar” and claims it cannot be improved upon.
He briefly used a pink Jackson “Soloist” guitar with a Kahler Tremolo during his “Flash” album era but returned to his trusty Stratocaster, which he still uses today. He loves the layout of the Strat’s pickup selector switch, volume and tone knobs, and the simplicity of the tremolo system.
Fender makes the Jeff Beck Signature Guitar that he routinely uses. His strats are pretty standard, except for a Wilkinson nut (the version that is slanted under the E, A, and D strings), and he has used custom-wound pickups and stainless steel bridge saddles.
The commercial version of the Jeff Beck guitar uses an LSR roller nut. He initially favored a very large (“baseball-sized”) necked but changed to a thinner C-shaped neck on his more recent Strat models.
I’m lucky enough to own 4 Jeff Beck signature guitars, two with Fender LSR roller nuts and two with Wilkinson nuts, one of which is master-built by Todd Krause (who builds Jeff’s guitars and strats for Eric Clapton). To get my tremolo to respond to even the slightest movement, I wrap the tremolo arm with Teflon plumber’s tape, and my guess is that Jeff does something similar.
For more info on the Wilkinson nut, see Stratocaster Tremolo Setup – Tips For Awesome Results.
Jeff’s Guitar Setup
This is how Jeff likes his strats set up. The info in the table below info was taken from Dan Erlewine’s book “How To Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great”, Second edition, 2011.
Some of Jeff’s Todd Krause master-built guitars were examined by Dan, one of which had the strings removed. This allowed Dan to take precise measurements.
|Neck Scale||25 1/2 ” (648 mm)|
|Neck Radius||Compound radius: 9 12″ (241 mm) at nut|
to 12″ (305 mm) at end of fretboard
|Bridge Saddle Radius||Between 12″ (305 mm) and 14′ (356 mm)|
|Fret Size||.098′ X .050″ (2.47 mm X 1.26 mm)|
|Strings||1989: Ernie Ball 9s (9, 11, 16, 26, 36, 46)|
2011: Ernie Ball 10s (10, 13, 17, 26, 38, 48)
sometimes increasing string guage to 11s
|Neck Relief||1989: Straight to .006″ relief|
|Nut||Wilkinson 1st generation nut (slanted on bass side)|
Nut height set up so that with the strings pressed at
the 2nd fret there is just enough clearance
over the 1st fret to see daylight (.11″ bass side &
.006′ treble side).
|Neck Action in 1989||At 12th fret – 1/16″ (1.6 mm) bass side|
3/64″ (1.2 mm) treble side
|Neck Action in 2000||At 15th fret – 1/16″ (1.6 mm) bass side|
1/16″ (1.6 mm) treble side
|Pole Pie Height||The pole piece heights for the neck, middle, and bridge pickups were all|
“touching*” (see below) on the bass side and 3/64″ (1.2 mm).
|* With the strings off the guitar, Dan laid his straightedge on the frets|
and then measured the clearance between the straightedge and
the polepieces. I don’t really see how this makes the pole piece
So, you see, there is no real magic here. Jeff can play on any guitar you give him, and it will sound like him. Even when he plays a guitar without a whammy bar, like a Tele, you can recognize his playing almost immediately!
Check your guitar measurements against the info in this table to see if any adjustments might improve your playing. Don’t make adjustments to your guitar if you don’t know what you are doing. It’s better to bring it to a qualified guitar technician.
Jeff’s Amplifiers Of Choice
Jeff has always favored Marshall and Fender tweed amps. He loves the predictability of how a Stratocaster behaves played through a Marshall stack. Jeff particularly likes the sound of Marshall JTM45 and DSL amps.
Magnatone recently built him a special version of their Super Fifty-Nine called the BECKTONE. This amp can be seen and heard at his 50th anniversary “Live At The Hollywood Bowl” show, which was recorded in 2016 (but released in 2017).
He sets the sound of his amps on the trebly side with the bass turned all the way down and the “presence” control tuned up.
Guitar Effect Pedals And Other Little-Known Facts
Jeff was not typically known for using a lot of effects until more recently. In the early days, he sometimes used a wah-wah pedal and a Pro Co Rat distortion box but favored plugging directly into his amp and turning it up to get his overdrive.
These days, Jeff has a pedalboard with various boxes and pedals but uses them sparingly and tastefully. When you’re Jeff Beck, you can let your fingers make most of the sounds you need.
As already mentioned above, Jeff uses a glass guitar slide to create absolutely wicked legato sounds that seem to propel his music into the next dimension.
Jeff used a talk-box in 1968 on “Blues Deluxe” with Rod Stewart from the “Truth” album to emulate the sound of a human voice. He used it again on “She’s A Woman” from his 1975 album Blow By Blow. Take a listen for a special treat.
Jeff uses a guitar cable to plug directly into his array of effects and amps even to this day. He does not use a wireless transmitter, which he feels would change his sound. He is really a perfectionist and purist at heart.
Jimmy Page is another notable player that does not use a wireless setup. For more info on Jimmy, see Led Zeppelin Celebration Day Review – Their Fabulous Return!
Let’s not forget that bottle of baby powder that Jeff has been seen using on stage. If you look closely, you can spot it sitting on one of his amps. He apparently has sweaty hands, making his guitar neck gymnastics a little difficult to pull off, even for him.
Songs That Showcase Jeff Beck’s Guitar Style
It isn’t easy to pick just a few songs that demonstrate the full range of techniques in Jeff’s guitar style.
Here are a few of my favorites that I grew up with and some of his newer tunes.
You can begin with these and then progressively listen to everything in the discography listed below.
- Beck’s Bolero – Truth (album)
- Ice Cream Cakes – Jeff Beck Group
- Going Down – Jeff Beck Group
- Freeway Jam – Blow By Blow
- Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers – Blow By Blow
- Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – Wired
- Blue Wind – Wired
- Space Boogie – There and Back
- Star Cycle – There and Back
- Guitar Shop – Guitar Shop
- Where Were You – Guitar Shop
- Nadia – You Had It Coming
- Nessun Dorma – Emotion and Comotion
- Over The Rainbow – Emotion and Comotion
If you listen to Jeff’s 18 albums in chronological order, you will definitely hear the progression in his style’s evolution, which was “uniquely Jeff” from the very beginning!
You can also hear his transition from guitar pick to fingerpicking, which began around the 1980s and became apparent on the album “There & Back.”
- Yardbirds (1966) – AKA “Over, Under, Sideways Down” and “Roger The Engineer”
- Truth (1968) – With Ronnie Wood & Rod Stewart
- Beck-Ola (1969) – With Tony Newman & Nicky Hopkins
- Rough and Ready (1971) – With Bobby Tench, Max Middleton, Cozy Powell, and Clive Chaman
- Jeff Beck Group (1972) – Also With Bobby Tench, Max Middleton, Cozy Powell, and Clive Chaman
- Beck, Bogert, and Appice (1973) – With Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice
- Blow by Blow (1975) – With Max Middleton, Phil Chen, Richard Bailey, and Stevie Wonder (clavinet on “Thelonius”)
- Wired (1976) – With Max Middleton, Jan Hammer, Wilbur Bascomb, Narada Michael Walden, and Richard Bailey
- There & Back (1980) – With Jan Hammer, Tony Hymas, Mo Foster, and Simon Phillips
- Flash (1985) – With Jan Hammer, Tony Hymas, Carmen Appice, Rod Stewart, and many others
- Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989) – Wth Tony Hymas, and Terry Bozzio
- Frankie’s House (1992) – Movie soundtrack in conjunction with Jed Lieber
- Crazy Legs (1993) – With Adrian Utley, Ian Jennings, Clive Deamer, Leo Green, and others
- Who Else! (1999) – With Tony Hymas, Jennifer Batten, Jan Hammer, and many others
- You Had It Coming (2001) – With Jennifer Batten, Steve Alexander, Randy Hope Taylor, and others
- Jeff (2003) – With Steve Barney, Saffron, Andy Wright, and many others on vocals
- Emotion & Commotion (2010) – With Tal Wilkenfeld, Jason Rubello, Vinnie Colaiuta, and many others
- Loud Hailer (2013) – With Carmen Vandenberg, Rosie Bones, Davide Sollazzi, and Giovanni Pallotti
Jeff Beck stands as one of the true musical innovators of our time. His playing style is essentially unbounded, and he makes the guitar speak in a way that is both captivating and spellbinding.
Beck routinely breaks new ground in blues, rock, rhythm & blues, and jazz fusion. He has never been content to stand on his laurels and is constantly taking his music in a new direction.
Jeff makes you want to take that whammy bar out of your guitar case and make it an integral part of your playing. His microtonal bends and guitar slides will have you brushing up on your ear training. See my article on Ear Training For The Guitar – Keeping It Simple For Success!
If you are not familiar with his music, I urge you to listen to his recorded works. It will definitely widen your musical horizon and make you a better guitar player.
So is Jeff Beck the best guitar player on the planet? I guess that depends on your measuring rod. If you value pure innovation and tasteful playing above all else, then he very well might just fit the bill. At the very least, Jeff is a monster guitar player whose music is certainly destined to be immortal among guitar freaks everywhere.
Tell Us What You Think About Jeff Beck’s Guitar Style
I hope you enjoyed reading my article on Jeff Beck’s guitar style and that you found it helpful. If there is anything that I can clarify or if you have any questions about Jeff’s technique, please let me know in the comment section.
- Where does Jeff rank in a list of your top ten favorite guitar players, and why?
- What is your favorite Jeff Beck song?
- Have you ever been to a Jeff Beck concert and what was your overall impression?
- Do you own a Fender Jeff Beck Signature Stratocaster and what do you like or dislike about it?