This summer’s touring marriage of English rock guitar hero Jeff Beck and veteran Texas blues rock trio ZZ Top in one sense brings full circle a mutual musical admiration society that was born 46 years ago.
That was back in 1968, when Beck, on tour with the Jeff Beck Group after ascending into the pantheon of rock guitar greats with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, reached Dallas, where he played to an audience that included ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of supergroup Beck, Bogert & Appice bassist Tim Bogert as Bogart.
“He had never seen anything like the size of my amplifier,” Beck, 70, recalled with a laugh earlier this week from a stop in Santa Barbara on the tour that reaches the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
“That was when I had Rod [Stewart] in the band, and this furniture is wheeled in and I think the top of the cabinet was touching the ceiling,” Beck said. “The whole audience was in shock, including Billy.”
Gibbons subsequently helped Beck’s group transport their equipment from that gig, but then they went their separate ways, Beck pushing the boundaries of blues-based rock guitar playing into more musically and sonically expansive realms, Gibbons and ZZ Top honing in on blues-rooted rock that became the stock-in-trade of “that little ol’ band from Texas.”
On the current tour, Beck is accompanied by guitarist Nicolas Meier, bassist Rhonda Smith, drummer Jonathan Joseph and singer Jimmy Hall. They play a two-part set—the first instrumentals, the second with Hall handling vocals—before turning things over to Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill and Drummer Frank Beard.
“We could never figure out what Beck was doing on his instrument to get those sounds, and it was that mystery that inspired us to push our own sound to the next level,” Gibbons said recently in a statement. “It is an honor to be sharing the stage with the curator of crunch.”
After the separate sets, Beck and ZZ Top join forces for a few more numbers—at some early shows they’ve collaborated on ZZ Top hits “La Grange” and “Tush” and one night added a rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” a nod to the influence the early American rockers had on both acts.
While Presley was never a guitar hero, Beck said the King and his band had a huge impact on him.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The thing is, because he was girly fodder and he looked so great, I always instantly focused on the guitar sound and the drums on his records. D.J. Fontana’s drums were mind-blowing.
“We pursued all the big [early rock] guys,” he said. “My favorite was Gene Vincent. He didn’t look like Elvis—he wasn’t hunky. He looked like a serial killer. But the accuracy of all that backing from his band [The Blue Caps] was what swept me away.”
Beyond shared musical passion, Beck and ZZ Top also are major aficionados of classic cars. When Beck saw ZZ Top’s car-rooted campaign for its 1983 breakthrough album, “Eliminator,” “I thought, ‘They’ve just stolen my whole idea. But that was American subculture through and through, and I had no right to claim any of it. And they did it so beautifully.”
Beck developed a reputation for his innovative guitar work in the early ‘60s, and was drafted as a member of the Yardbirds in 1965, to replace one Eric Clapton, himself a replacement for the group’s original lead guitarist Anthony “Top” Topham.
Fans and press often conjectured about a rivalry between Clapton and Beck, but Beck has downplayed any animosity between the two over the years. In recent years Clapton has lauded Beck as the best rock guitarist in the world.
Both, however, were in awe of Hendrix when he surfaced, especially after they were able to see him perform when he was in England in the mid-1960s. Beck noted that before Hendrix, most rock guitar players concentrated on a similar style and technical vocabulary, something that Hendrix blew apart with his unconventional approach to the instrument.
That encouraged Beck to push his own limits, and over the decades he’s created a distinctive, emotionally deep, melodically rich style that’s earned him a reputation as a musician’s musician. A white Fender Stratocaster is the instrument most closely associated with him.
He’s long been fascinated with classical music, and has even recorded an arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for electric guitar, a recording he hopes to release if he can find record label support for the project.
In a year when 50th anniversaries of the Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. and the launch of the British Invasion are being celebrated on multiple levels, Beck—who first hit the big time in early 1965 after joining the Yardbirds—says he’d like to put together a 50-year career retrospective show. It would tap the various facets of his musical path, from the Yardbirds to the Jeff Beck Group through other associations including with Beck, Bogert & Appice and multiple solo ventures.
“That would take a year to assemble,” said Beck, who also is going through live recordings from recent shows in Japan for possible release as a live album later this year. “I’d like to use the Strypes, that little band from Ireland, to open, because they look like me, and what the Yardbirds look like, only maybe five years younger. I’d like to get whoever is alive and kicking and still playing and get them along instead of having a core band, and do a proper production with all the bells and whistles.”
Such an project would dovetail with plans in the works for an autobiography and a film based on Beck’s life, all of which, the guitarist said, would incorporate heavy doses of humor.
“I want the movie to be made,” he said. “I think I’ve got the funniest film ever, from Day 1 when I was first able to recognize my mum. It would be sort of enchanting and Disney-esque, with all the nastiness of a horror film. Mostly horror.”
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