CHICAGO — When Jeff Beck first heard the music of Les Paul, it set him off on a mission to master the guitar and in the process become one of the defining instrumentalists in British rock.
Last summer, Beck paid homage to the late, pioneering guitarist on what would have been Paul’s 95th birthday at a concert in New York, documented on a recent DVD and CD, “Jeff Beck’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul)” (ATCO). He teamed with Irish singer Imelda May, who channeled the vibrant vocals of Paul’s old ‘50s sidekick (and then-wife), Mary Ford. Beck also dug into some of his other early influences in rockabilly and surf music, but the primary inspiration was Paul, whose unrivaled technique, melodic songwriting and innovative production remain Beck’s golden standard.
Beck took a break from rehearsals for his tour with May’s band for an email interview about his inspiration.
Q: You’ve championed Les Paul for a long time. I know his music hit you at an early age, but what was it exactly that impressed you about Les’ music and guitar playing?
A: Young is right. I was 6 years old when I first cottoned on and my mother told me it was tricks being played on the radio. Tricks. Tricks which I knew instantly I wanted to know. I didn’t think the sounds were even possible to achieve. Les was an innovator. How could you not be impressed by his music? It’s a testament to it that I’m a little bit older than 6 these days and it still blows my mind everytime I hear it. You can’t say that about all music, can you? All the records he made were beautiful examples of musicianship with melody, harmony and bass lines all there. Not many drums — it was all guitar-based, it was a perfect match for voice and guitar.
Q: Can you give a sense of where Les Paul’s music fit in with your training as a young guitarist: Did you practice guitar along with the Les Paul records? Technically, was it more demanding than other music (rock ‘n’ roll, blues, etc.) you were learning?
A: Let it be known, Les played at an unbelievable speed. I remember hearing “How High the Moon’ on the radio and being mesmerized. I could not believe what I was hearing: The intro, the amazing solo. I knew there and then I wanted to learn that piece of music. I think I needed to know if I was capable of getting my guitar to produce such sounds. Whether I did or not remains to be seen, but I can tell you that the intro was pretty damn tricky to master. Ultimately though, I wanted other people to feel about my guitar playing as I did for Les’ playing. I wanted people to be blown away. I practiced all the time. My challenge was to pick up his speed but still retain the originality and richness. Hopefully people hear this across my records.
Q: What about your interactions with Les Paul — did Les ever give you any career or guitar player advice that stuck with you? What kind of a guy was he?
A: Les was one of the funniest guys I have ever met, with a wicked sense of humor. Combine that with his approach to music as well his unbelievable talent, and you really didn’t need advice from him. The man was a walking endorsement for what you can achieve if you work hard and don’t have to falsify the nice guy mentality. He was inspirational and that’s about the best way to describe him — a tremendous character and an amazing musician. He is missed.
Q: On the new live album and DVD you also dig into ‘50s and early-‘60s rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, surf and instrumental music. Obviously, people like Cliff Gallup, James Burton, Johnny Burnette and Scotty Moore were very different guitar players than Les Paul. What did you glean from their styles in your own development?
A: Well, I think it is very important to develop your own style. I like to put my own touch on everything I play, and all of the aforementioned guitarists are guilty (thankfully) of the same thing. The rockabilly tracks along with the early rock ‘n’ roll stuff is phenomenal when you think about it because it has stood the test of time so well. The tracks are so energetic. Bands and artists come and go but great rock ‘n’ roll and great guitar playing never dies — it will be around a lot longer than any of us, I’m sure of it.
Q: Obviously the blues was in there too (though not so much on the Les Paul tribute album) but when/where did that come along in your development as a guitarist? Were you differentiating styles, picking up different things by genre, or was it all just music to you?
A: Music styles constantly changed throughout the years, and I think my style was continually evolving as I was trying to find where my style of playing really fit in. Most musicians took the mainstream path of music in those days but I didn’t really want to conform to that route. So whenever I was playing I was exploring and constantly pushing myself to create my individual identity as a guitarist.
Q: The Jeff Beck Group albums of the late ‘60s (“Truth,” “Beck-ola”) were cited as precursors of heavy metal. Do you agree? Is metal something you listen to at all? It’s not a style or sound you have returned to much since. Why?
A: I have learned that everyone interprets music in their own categories. What is heavy metal to one person is rock to another. I don’t tend to listen to metal music that often but sometimes I will put some tracks on. The reason I didn’t return to it was I don’t think that style of playing really suited me.
Q: Your playing suggests that you see the guitar as a voice, with a range of expression and emotion that is beyond mere technique. When did you come to that understanding of the guitar, that it wasn’t just about playing a lot of notes very fast? Did that development stand side by side with the ability to play Yardbirds-style raveups or “Truth”-style heaviness?
A: For me the guitar is my voice, it is my form of expressing my music and myself. Sometimes it surprises me the sounds I can create. To put these sounds together with other musical instruments you don’t always need to have a singer to get the emotion of the music across ... The simplicity and beauty of Jeff Buckley’s voice sounded amazing to me. I felt that if I could do with my guitar what he can do with his voice then I could have something pretty special (on Beck’s 2010 album “Emotion and Commotion”). It’s worked!
Q: What about Imelda May and her band? What was it about their music that impressed you and made you want to work with her and them?
A: I met Imelda through her husband, and guitar player, Darrel Higham. I went to see her perform one night at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. Man, her voice just blew my mind, she sounds so similar to Mary Ford in her day! Imelda’s style and looks reminded me of the perfect ‘50s girl but with a modern edge. Her husband Darrel and the rest of her band fit this style of music perfectly.
Q: I understand you will be working with Rod Stewart again on a new album? Can you tell me anything at all about it?
A: We are working on things at the moment so there is nothing concrete to tell anyone yet. We are both putting our ideas down to see where we go from there.