Jeff Beck talks guitar innovation, 'American Idol' and 'Over The Rainbow'

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It says a lot about the Yardbirds that their roster of guitarists in the 1960s included Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.

And it says a lot about Jeff Beck that he hasn’t been overshadowed by the other two guys.

Beck never achieved the same level of mainstream success as Slowhand and Mr. Led Zeppelin. But over the past half-century, he’s became one of the most influential lead guitarists of all time, always pushing the boundaries of blues, jazz and rock 'n’ roll. One minute he’s distorting his inimitable sustain into sounds that are new, strange and beautiful; the other he’s reaching back to ’50s for a pure rockabilly stompfest.

At 67, Beck is as popular as ever. His 2010 album Emotion & Commotion, his first studio disc in seven years, tackles songs made famous by artists ranging from Judy Garland to Giacomo Puccini to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. It was the best-charting album of his career, and it won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. He even made the cover of Rolling Stone. (Okay, yes, he was standing next to Clapton. But still.)

On Friday and Saturday, Beck will close out a North American tour with two shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. (The Saturday show is sold out; click here for details on Friday's show.) From a tour bus outside Pittsburgh, the legendary guitarist took a few minutes to answer some questions by email.

You recently wrapped up a string of shows for your Rock 'n’ Roll Party Tour, honoring Les Paul, rockabilly artists and the early days of rock 'n’ roll. Why did you choose to pay tribute to that era? What was it about the guitar sound back then that spoke to you?

I was paying tribute to my friend and mentor Les Paul who sadly died the year before, and so I wanted to create a show that showed how talented he was and also to incorporate other greats from that era to create a “party.” I first heard the sound of Les (when) I was 6 years old and I sat by the radio in our house and I was mesmerized. I knew that I wanted to be able to do “that” someday!

One of the highlights of Emotion & Commotion, and of your recent live shows, has been your cover of Over The Rainbow. It’s one of the most covered pop songs of all time, and you still manage to present it in a new way. Why did you decide to tackle that song, and how did you go about putting your own stamp on it? 

Jason (Rebello, pianist) said one day, “Why don’t we play Over the Rainbow at the end of the show for a change?” I was not keen at all, but we tried it out one day. I distinctly remember where we first tried it out, and all the band and crew where in the rehearsal studio. Vinnie (Colaiuta, drummer) was writing emails, not listening to what we were doing, until I played the first few lines of it. And he folded the top down on his laptop and he went “F--- me. That’s great, unbelievable.” Goose bumps, because once again, the tune is familiar. With this song, I just tried to get the emotion out of the notes I hear.

Putting Rainbow aside for a moment ... It’s 2011. The electric guitar has been around for nearly 80 years. Are we as a society running out of things to do with the electric guitar? Hasn’t most everything that can be done, been done? What’s the next step in musical innovation?

Look how ahead of his time Les Paul was when he developed. He was an innovator. I think that as long as we push ourselves constantly to evolve, then there are still many things that can be done with the electric guitar.

There’s a viral video out there about how you can basically run through decades of pop music history using the same chord progression: E, B, C#m, A.  Why do simple songs hold such sway in pop music? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It’s the melody that can make a “simple” song great. For me I listen to a melody to see if it works for what I want to do with it, and if it can be adapted so I can put my touch to it.

You’re touring with a young guitarist named Tyler Bryant. How can you tell if a young guitarist might be great? How do you know if they have “it”?

Tyler is great and a really nice guy. You can see the passion in someone with what they are doing, and if he stays true to the music that speaks to him and practices then anyone can have “it.” But it’s constant work, practice and pushing yourself to be the best possible.

You were recently booked to appear on American Idol, but you decided to back out. Is that something you’d still like to do in the future? What appeals to you about American Idol?

I think shows like Idol are great for people who need a platform to get heard and start out in the industry. It is hard to get started and noticed. I wouldn’t have been rehearsed enough to play with each of the contestants, and it was their time, not mine, and I wanted them to have the best chance.

Finally, you’re doing a two-night stand in Clearwater. Will you be mixing up the setlists from night to night? Or planning anything else special, since it’s the final stop on your tour?

If I tell you then it won’t be a surprise.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: AP.

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 11:16am]

    

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