Jeff Beck, rock guitarist who defined electric blues sound of the 1960s, dies at 78

Deeply identified with his guitar, the Yardbirds guitarist and solo great leaves behind a legacy of music that itself occupies a chapter in rock history

Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck, the skilled, admired and undoubtedly one of the most influential guitarists in rock history, died on Tuesday in a hospital near his home at Riverhall, a rural estate in southern England. He was 78.

The cause was bacterial meningitis, Melissa Dragich, his publicist, said.

Beck is remembered as having crafted the rock-blues template of the 1960s sound together with such greats as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, all of whom passed through the same powerhouse, the Yardbirds, and later as leaders of their own bands.

Beck replaced Clapton when he joined the Yardbirds in 1965, becoming part of one of Britain’s defining acts in the growing electric blues movement. Three years later, he formed his own band, the Jeff Beck Group — along with Rod Stewart, a little-known singer at the time, and the equally obscure Ron Wood on bass. — the weight of the music created an early template for heavy metal. Another former guitar colleague from the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page, went on to found Led Zeppelin several months later.

A single was released under his own name in March 1967, “Hi-Ho Silver Lining,” which featured a rare vocal by Beck, which he abhorred. “I sound unbearably bad,” he told Music Radar in 2021. The song got to No. 15 in Britain, and its B-side provided a home for “Beck’s Bolero.”

In 1975, Beck began his solo career with the “Blow by Blow” album, which became a Billboard Top 5 and, selling a million or more copies, a platinum hit.

Beck pioneered important technical innovations on the guitar, elaborating the use of distortion and feedback effects that had been earlier explored by the Who’s Pete Townshend, and notably intensified the effect of bending notes on the guitar.

Beck was deeply identified with his guitar — the Fender Stratocaster — which he called his other arm. “I’ve welded myself to that. Or it’s welded itself to me, one or the other.”

Beck often worked without a lead singer, and his groups seldom lasted long. After his first band turned down the offer to play at Woodstock, the group dissolved shortly thereafter. With Beck, Bogert & Appice – the latter two the rhythm section of Vanilla Fudge – he scotched the project two years after a gold album in 1973. “I’ve never made the big time, mercifully,” Beck told Rolling Stone in 2018. “When you look around and see who has made it huge, it’s a really rotten place to be.”

Beck married Sandra Cash in 2005, and she survives him.