Jeff Beck, iconic British rock guitarist, dies aged 78

Beck, a guitar virtuoso and innovator, died after contracting bacterial meningitis, his family said.

Rock guitarist Jeff Beck performs at the Grammy Foundation's Starry Night gala honoring Sir George Martin in Los Angeles, California July 12, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/File Photo
Rock guitarist Jeff Beck performs at the Grammy Foundation's Starry Night gala honoring Sir George Martin in Los Angeles, California July 12, 2008 [Fred Prouser/Reuters]

Jeff Beck, the influential, genre-bending English guitarist who rose to fame with The Yardbirds before later embarking on a solo career, has died at the age of 78, his family said.

“On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck’s passing. After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday,” a statement on the English-born musician’s website said on Wednesday.

“His family ask for privacy while they process this tremendous loss.”

Beck is a two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee – in 1992 for his work with The Yardbirds and as a solo performer in 2009. In 2015, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Beck as the fifth greatest guitarist of all time, one spot ahead of blues icon BB King.

In 2022, Beck released his final album, 18, a 13-track collection of mostly cover songs with Hollywood star Johnny Depp.

“We slowly built songs that we just like. We didn’t really make any design,” Beck said at the time.

A native of Wallington, England, Beck won his first Grammy award in 1985 with the instrumental Escape. He would go on to win seven more of the gold-plated statuettes in his career.

Beck’s death quickly reverberated around the music world, with tributes pouring in from rock icons like Ozzy Osbourne, with whom Beck once collaborated, and Kiss lead singer Gene Simmons, who called Beck’s passing “heartbreaking”.

“No one played guitar like Jeff,” Simmons posted on Twitter. “Please get ahold of the first two Jeff Beck Group albums and behold greatness. RIP.”

Mick Jagger hailed Beck as “one of the greatest guitar players in the world”.

“He was quiet as moccasined feet, yet mercurial, innovative, impossible to categorise,” wrote punk-poet laureate Patti Smith. “One of the masters of my generation.”

Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi mourned Beck’s death on Twitter, saying he was shocked to hear of his passing.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, also a former Yardbirds member, paid tribute to Beck, saying his technique was unique and imagination limitless.

‘I don’t care about the rules’

Born Geoffrey Arnold Beck on June 24, 1944, the self-taught artist got his start tinkering on a borrowed guitar and even tried building his own.

He has cited guitarists from Les Paul to Ravi Shankar to Django Reinhardt as influences and built a life off of experimenting with new sounds and fusions that pushed rock’s boundaries.

Beck played in a number of groups while in art school in London and had already recorded pioneering rock sounds by the time the Yardbirds hired him in 1965.

He auditioned after the departure of one of the band’s star guitarists, Eric Clapton, and helped propel the British avant garde rock sound with multiple groundbreaking recordings, including the fuzz-filled guitar licks on Heart Full of Soul.

By 1966, he was paired in the Yardbirds with fellow guitar wizard Jimmy Page, who went on to found the British blues rock sensation Led Zeppelin.

Rock star Jeff Beck contemplates a reporter's question during recent interview in Los Angeles, July 14, 1980. Since the mid-60s, when he first emerged with the Yardbirds, Beck has been a hero to just about anyone who ever plugged a guitar into an amp.
Rock star Jeff Beck contemplates a reporter’s question during an interview in Los Angeles, July 14, 1980 [Wally Fong/AP]

A year later Beck formed his own band – the Jeff Beck Group, which included Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on bass – and swiftly drew widespread praise.

The musician found solo success in 1975 with Blow by Blow, a sleeper hit produced by George Martin of Beatles fame, who Beck later credited with saving his career.

By the 1980s he’d stopped using a guitar pick, producing innovative sounds by plucking with his thumb.

“I don’t care about the rules. In fact, if I don’t break the rules at least 10 times in every song then I’m not doing my job properly,” the Recording Academy quoted Beck as saying.

He found regular success collaborating with his peers and throughout the 1980s was a regular feature, performing on albums from the likes of Tina Turner, Roger Waters and Jon Bon Jovi, who hailed Beck as a “legend”.

“Jeff Beck was on another planet,” said Stewart of his former bandmate. “He was one of the few guitarists that, when playing live, would actually listen to me sing and respond. Jeff, you were the greatest, my man.

“Thank you for everything.”

Musicians Jeff Beck, left, and Eric Clapton perform in concert at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 in New York.
Musicians Jeff Beck, left, and Eric Clapton perform in concert at Madison Square Garden on February 18, 2010, in New York [Evan Agostini/AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies