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Jeff Beck's 10 Essential Songs

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The songs could barely contain Jeff Beck’s guitar. He nudged the songs with brute force riffs. He wrestled with singers for the spotlight. He grabbed the edges of the verses and choruses, screaming melodies of his own, making the notes slide and squirm; at times, he would scrape funky and controversial rhythmic chords.

However, in quieter moments, Beck’s guitar can also be surprisingly tender, pumping out a melody or uttering taunts, hinting at hidden undercurrents. Beck, who died on Tuesday at the age of 78, was also a master of electric guitar tones, amplification and distortion. He could make his Stratocaster sound icy, searing, cutting and otherworldly over the course of a single track.

With a career that began during the British Invasion, Beck initially put his guitar work on songs aimed at pop radio. But by the late 1960s, he was fronting his own groups, backing up his lead singers with boisterous, boisterous arrangements that had them screaming to keep up; he was making his way towards the metal. Beck’s instrumentals came to prominence in the 1970s when his material shifted towards jazz-rock. But he never left behind the blues and rockabilly that inspired him from the beginning.

Here, in chronological order, are 10 tracks that reveal Beck’s range and intensity.

The insistent, up-and-down, oriental-tinged guitar line that opens the song, and the contorted guitar riff behind the chorus, transform this track from breezy British Invasion pop into something far more urgent. Beck’s lead guitar takes over for the entire last minute, mixing rockabilly and something like raga, leaving the rest of the band to follow.

Beck’s remake of a Yardbirds song has Rod Stewart on vocals and an upbeat arrangement that rivals anything from contemporaries like the Who. The song gallops from the start as Beck responds to his own power chords with high and low countermelodies. The bridge triggers in double time, and after the final verse, the band stages a slow-motion breakdown.

Bandleader Beck, aided by sobbing backing singers including Suzi Quatro, catalyzed this boisterous song by Donovan, the normally soft-spoken child troubadour. Beck’s electric guitar opens with a vibrant rockabilly syncopation, lays down the churning piano groove, and pointedly pumps things up. He actually starts crying towards the end of the song, free-for-all.

Beck and Stevie Wonder shared songs and appeared on each other’s albums in the 1970s, and “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” from Wonder’s “Talking Book” featured the guitarist at his most melodic in the song’s bridge. His solo hits a high note and then drops casually, continuing into the track to grace Wonder’s vocals with little slides and arabesques, revealing the song’s sophisticated chord progression.

Beck’s best-known ballad is an instrumental version of a Wonder song. He plays it with long sentences and ever-changing nuances of tone: like a dialogue, like a high-pitched lament, like bitter self-accusations, like an anguished plea, like a fragile chance of hope. From beginning to end, he sings.

Written by Max Middleton, then-keyboardist in Beck’s band, “Freeway Jam” is a fast-paced shuffle that materializes and disappears as if plucked from a jam session, though the parts are clearly mapped. This gives Beck room to play a few bugle melodies and then attack them with trills, bent notes, blues licks and dissonances. A live version with keyboardist Jan Hammer, released in 1977, makes the song even more frantic.

Rod Stewart teamed up with Beck for a remake of Curtis Mayfield’s soul gospel standard, “People Get Ready,” which starts out subdued but grows fervent. Beck delivers a towering, swashbuckling guitar hook after the first verse, then gets Stewart deeper and deeper: taking over the melody with variations of note bending, surging up from below, prompting Stewart to scream and leap into falsetto. Despite its 1980s-dated production, music meets spirit.

Could a player as physical as Beck handle mechanically moving electronics? Of course. A relentless programmed drum beat drives “THX 138,” but Beck drives it in a variety of ways: with an Eastern-tinged modal loop, with sustained power chords, with soaring blues lines, with fierce stereo call-and-response chords, with a melody that jumps to the sky. For all the gadgetry, human hands dominate this mix.

Before forming Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page was co-guitarist with Jeff Beck and later his successor in the Yardbirds. In 1966, they collaborated to record “Beck’s Bolero”, written by Page, for Beck’s first solo single. This graceful latter-day reunion for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is loud, flashy, virtuosic, and over-the-top in exactly the right proportions.

For all his speed and dexterity, Beck never underestimated the beauty of a sustained melody. He played this Hollywood pattern backed by chords from a string orchestra, gliding through the melody, holding some notes and using tremolo on others, making each turn of the familiar music sound like a precious discovery.

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