He never had a signature song the way his peers and sometime bandmates Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton did, but the genres that Jeff Beck explored throughout his career chart the changes in rock — and rock guitar — over decades. One of rock’s most physical technicians, seeming to enjoy wrestling with his instrument, Beck made his name with British Invasion pop. But not content to stay there, he moved into the in-vogue blues-rock of the late Sixties and then the harder boogie and fusion of the next decade. The settings changed, but his style stayed constant: notes that could cut like a switchblade, but also revel in the melody of a song. Here are his greatest songs.
“Heart Full of Soul” (1965)
The two great fuzz-guitar riffs of 1965 were recorded just a few weeks apart, and Jeff Beck got there first, laying down his decade-defining, sitar-aping line on this hit before Keith Richards stomped on his own pedal for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” For the solo, Beck simply reprised the verse melody — a move that worked as well for him as it would for Kurt Cobain 26 years later. — B.H.
Yardbirds, “Jeff’s Boogie” (1966)
“You had to know ‘Jeff’s Boogie,’” Stevie Ray Vaughan once said. “And nobody knew it was really the Chuck Berry song ‘Guitar Boogie.’” Beck no doubt owed Berry at least a co-writing credit for this track, but on the other hand, he does rev up his version almost beyond recognition, packing it full of ahead-of-their-time blinding runs and pinging harmonics. — B.H.
The Yardbirds, “Stroll On” (From Blow Up, 1966)
There are a ton of unforgettable moments in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, one being the scene where David Hemmings’ character catches the Yardbirds in a club while trying to solve his photographed murder. Keith Relf tears through the vocals while a young Jimmy Page plays along, but Beck gets frustrated by his amp and destroys his guitar. “When Antonioni said that he wanted me to break my guitar I had a fit,” he told us in 1971. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s Townshend’s thing.’” He also recalled seeing the film for the first time: “I was thoroughly embarrassed. I had a fucking hard-on in the picture, man! It gets hot under them lights, after all, rupturing myself with those tight trousers.” — A.M.
“Beck’s Bolero” (1967)
This deceptively brief mad-genius proto-prog instrumental is the work of an epochal supergroup, with the Who’s Keith Moon on drums, future Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones on bass, frequent Rolling Stones collaborator Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Beck trading off guitars with Page, his Yardbirds bandmate and future Zeppelin mastermind. It starts with Page strumming an acoustic while Beck carries the melody on electric, before ascending into chiming psychedelia and an all-time-classic hard-rock explosion. — B.H.
Jeff Beck Group, “I Ain’t Superstitious” (1968)
When Led Zeppelin first debuted, some rock fans (including rock critic John Mendelsohn, who famously trashed them in Rolling Stone), saw them as an inferior ripoff of the Jeff Beck Group. Tracks like this powerhouse take on Willie Dixon’s blues classic, first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf, help explain why, with Beck squawking triumphantly on a stereo pair of wah-wah guitar tracks throughout. — B.H.
Jeff Beck Group, “You Shook Me” (1968)
A year before Zeppelin got their hands on it, the Jeff Beck Group cut a fuzzed-out take on Willie Dixon’s 1962 blues classic “You Shook Me” that included future Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones on organ. “I was terrified because I thought they’d be the same,” Jimmy Page said. “But I hadn’t even known he’d done it, and he hadn’t known that we had.” We’ll take Page at his word that his bassist didn’t mention this to him, and it must be said that the Jeff Beck take is clearly the superior one. — A.G.
Beck, Bogert, Appice, “Superstition” (1973)
The result of a jam session with Beck and Stevie Wonder, “Superstition” was recorded before Wonder’s own version on Talking Book, and it became the signature song for Beck’s short-lived trio with the Vanilla Fudge rhythm section of Carmine Appice and Tim Bogert. It’s still a kick to hear Wonder’s monster clavinet part played instead by Beck’s guitar. — D.B.
“Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” (1975)
Beck’s skills as a technician often overshadowed how emotional his playing could be, and there’s no better example in his catalog than his instrumental version of this Stevie Wonder ballad, from 1975’s Blow by Blow. His guitar jabs cajole, and ultimately cry. — D.B.
“Blue Wind” (1976)
For a period in the mid-Seventies, Beck reinvented himself as a fusion gearhead, working with producer George Martin and, at times, keyboardist Jan Hammer. Written by Hammer and included on 1976’s Wired, the insanely rubbery and tumultuous “Blue Wind” demonstrated that Beck could fly up and down the fretboard as much as any of the leading fusion players of the time, but with added fury and sting. — D.B.
Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, “People Get Ready” (1985)
Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart took two very different paths when the original Jeff Beck Group dissolved in 1969, but they came back together 16 years later to cover Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” on Beck’s LP Flash. Stewart told Rolling Stone in 2018 that his voice and Beck’s guitar were a “match made in heaven,” and that’s very apparent on this cover, which wound up their final studio collaboration. — A.G.
“A Day in the Life” (1998)
The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” is the kind of masterpiece that’s hard to cover in any meaningful way. One exception came on the obscure 1998 George Martin LP In My Life, where Jeff Beck tackled the song without a vocalist, recreating the vocal melody on his guitar. It’s a stunning example of his virtuosity, and it was the climax of his concerts for the last quarter-century of his career. — A.G.