Call him a “guitar god” or a “guitarist’s guitarist,” but Jeff Beck was in a class by himself. Beck, one the most acclaimed guitarists in rock and roll history, died Tuesday after contracting bacterial meningitis, according to a statement released by a publicist on behalf of his family. He was 78 years old.
Beck could play rock, jazz, blues, soul, whatever caught his eye. For Beck, the guitar was as versatile an instrument as the human voice, at least in the way he played it. “I was just trying to be a singer,” he said in a 2010 interview with NPR. You can hit a whammy bar as they call it, but it’s really a vibrato bar. Infinite variations can be created by raising or lowering the pitch. You can pluck a chord to lower its pitch – six strings at a time. “
Beck was born in Warrington, England in 1944. He fell in love with the guitar as a child and first came to prominence when he appeared in The Yardbirds, joining Jimmy Page as Eric Clapton’s replacement. Beck left the band shortly thereafter to form the Jeff Beck Group (along with a then little-known singer named Rod Stewart).
In discussions of guitar virtuosos, Beck is often mentioned along with players like Clapton, Page and Keith Richards. But Beck has always been a recluse and doubts the attention that comes with being a famous musician. He explained to The New York Times in 2010 what he thought of the music industry as a whole:
“It’s a diabolical business,” he said. “I can’t imagine how hellish it must be to be hounded like Amy Winehouse and people like that. I have a little peripheral place on the outskirts of celebrity, when I go to premieres and that sort of stuff, which is as close as I want to get. I cherish my privacy, and woe betide anyone who tries to interfere with that.”
Despite his efforts to stay out of the limelight, Beck was still recognized and celebrated. He has been nominated for 17 Grammy Awards, including Best Rock His Performance at This Year’s Ceremony, and has won eight. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame his two times. Once with the Yardbirds and once he’s alone.