Few fellow guitar heroes were more visibly affected by news of Jeff Beck’s Jan. 10 death, at age 78, than Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, whose first social response consisted of profanity and incomprehension. He followed that with a whole tweetstorm’s worth of appreciation for the man who helped shape him. Variety spoke with Reid about what made Beck one of a kind.
“The guitar community is blindsided. We’ve had many bad days — I think of Steve Ray Vaughan and Dime Bag Darrell and Chris Cornell; back before there were socials, (Chicago’s) Terry Kath or Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain; even our elders, like BB King — but this is undoubtedly one of the worst. On Twitter, my initial response was just, ‘Fuck, no.’ It blew my mind. It’s blowing my mind just talking about it.
“Jeff Beck was a fearless guy. He was one of those rare prodigy people that actually kept developing. He was kind of a rockabilly prodigy coming into it, and then he had these big open ears. He wasn’t stuck with the Yardbirds. He heard jazz and he was free to be influenced by it, but he wasn’t even stuck with jazz fusion. He was a hotshot early on and he just had that under his belt and knew that, so he’d go to places that he didn’t know. He was in the top (rock) ranks like a Jimi Hendrix or Van Halen or Jimmy Page, but he was also uniquely himself like a Robert Fripp — he could be both those things.
“I was too young for the Yardbirds, but I came in with ‘Blow by Blow’ and ‘Wired,’ or between him playing with Stevie Wonder on ‘Talking Book’ and then going into jazz-rock. He was so ubiquitous in one way, and yet he had such an individuality and was so open and didn’t care what the audience thought. When he heard jazz music, when he heard ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,’ he heard a melody that just moved him and he went with it. When he heard Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin and post-Tony Williams Miles Davis, it affected him and he went with it, and he challenged his audiences. And whether he was playing quasi-gospel doing ‘People Get Ready’ or playing rock ‘n’ roll doing ‘I Put a Spell on You’ with Joss Stone or ‘Shapes of Things’ with Rod Stewart, he always inhabited the space in a way that was utterly unique.
“And he collaborated across so many lines. You know, he’s prominently featured on this Malcolm McLaren waltz record (‘House of the Blue Danube’), playing with Bootsy Collins and being all over that record killing it because he just took a fancy to it. He dug it and he didn’t care what people who are not Malcolm McLaren fans thought; he just went with it. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s one of my personal heroes. If you’re attached to your legend, then you have to be careful about how you move. and he got to this extraordinary place not by being careful, but with a reckless precision, if you will. He went forward in a way that would frighten normal people.
“He also brought this haunting quality; it went into the realms of the ethereal — not just chops. He could get down and dirty or he could be in the upper atmosphere, just floating in the clouds, while still grounded. He didn’t have to be going up and down the scales really fast to be interesting. He didn’t have to tap on the neck — and he loved and could do all that stuff. The lyricism was in details like his vibrato. His dynamics, how he handled the strings, the body of the guitar, the way he squeezed the melodies out, not by picking — that’s what made him extraordinary. I’ve seen many guitarists that just blow me away with what they do — like Allan Holdsworth, Jesus Christ, It’s like, aye yi yi! His was a whole different type of mastery. Beck blew me away with real subtle, small things. He would play a fill, not even the main solo — just toss off a thing — and I’d be like, ‘What just happened?’
“Thinking about a favorite, one of the most obvious things would be to pick ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ or or ‘Shapes of Things’ or ‘People Get Ready.’ Those are things that are very populist. ‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers’ was a wonderful tune. But for me it would be either his version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ or this thing he did that every time I hear it I’m shaking my head: this short instrumental ballad called ‘Where Were You.’ And the fact that he goes, ‘Where were you,’ and it’s not a question. He makes it a statement and he doesn’t add a question mark to the title. It’s ambiguous, but it just feels like the fragility of life on this planet, where everything is interconnected and we all evolved together, and he gets at that.
“There are a couple of different versions of ‘Where Were You’ — there’s the recorded version, which is astonishing, but there’s a live version from ‘Live at Ronnie Scott’s,’ and he’s playing it in real time and it’s jaw-dropping. He’s able to get a kind of Beltone harmonic and play one note, and then use the whammy bar to play the rest of the melody only by manipulating the tremolo arm. I can’t explain how incredibly difficult that is, to play a note, have it sustain, and then, without fretting, to do it with just the twang bar. It’s an astonishing level of technique, but it’s a very delicate and very nuanced technique. He staggered the rest of us, because we would be like, ‘Holy shit. How? Huh?’
“I didn’t spend as much time as I would’ve liked to with him, but he was always incredibly gracious and, and he was a really friendly dude. I remember that he was touring with Santana and playing at the Felt Forum (in New York City), when I was sitting in with Carlos, and I was standing maybe 20 feet from him. It was just astonishing, because I’m looking at his hands and trying to correlate where his hands were with the sound coming out of the guitar — and I couldn’t do it. It was like he was performing sleight of hand with a full deck of cards and short sleeves.
“Now, it’s like the idea that Prince is a character of the past — it’s crazy. It’s the same way people once lived alongside extraordinary figures like Mozart, or ‘There’s Paganini, right there,’ or went down to the Village Vanguard to see Coltrane. He was a living person doing his thing in real time. And it always comes down to: We were fortunate to even have them with us. At some point you go, ‘Shit, I was on earth with this person when they were doing their thing.’”