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Classic rock guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck dies at 78

Guitarist Jeff Beck performs during the 43rd Montreux Jazz Festival. The influential guitarist died on January 10, 2023 after contracting bacterial meningitis.
Fabrice Coffrini
AFP via Getty Images
Guitarist Jeff Beck performs during the 43rd Montreux Jazz Festival. The influential guitarist died on January 10, 2023 after contracting bacterial meningitis.

Call him a "guitar god" or a "guitarist's guitarist," but Jeff Beck was in a class by himself. One of the most acclaimed guitarists in rock and roll history died Tuesday after contracting bacterial meningitis, according to a statement released by a publicist on behalf of his family. He was 78 years old.

Beck was born in Wallington, England in 1944. He became enamored with the guitar as a child and first came to prominence playing in The Yardbirds, where he replaced Eric Clapton and played alongside Jimmy Page, who also joined the group. Beck left the band shortly after, and formed The Jeff Beck Group (along with a then little-known singer named Rod Stewart). But across an extensive discography, his versatility spoke louder than his name. Beck could play rock, jazz, blues, soul or anything else that caught his ear, and still sound like himself.

"He was admired for his one-of-a-kind sound, which he created by manipulating his amplifiers, the way he picked his strings using only the fleshy part of his right thumb and a singular use of the tremolo or 'whammy' bar that stuck out from his famous Fender Stratocaster," explains Alt.Latino host Felix Contreras. "Beck was truly one of the last guitar heroes who came of age expanding the technical capabilities of the electric guitar."

For his own part, Beck believed the guitar — at least the way he played it — could be as expressive an instrument as the human voice. "I just tried to become a singer," the artist told NPR in a 2010 interview. "I think the Stratocaster, the particular guitar Stratocaster, lends itself to endless possibilities because of the spring-loaded bridge that it's got. I can depress the whammy bar, they call it, but it's actually a vibrato bar. And I can do infinite variations on that by raising or lowering the pitch. I can play a chord and lower that pitch — six strings simultaneously."

In debates over guitar virtuosity, Beck is often listed in the same breath as players like Clapton, Page and Keith Richards. But the artist was always a bit of a recluse — wary of the attention that came with being a famous musician. He explained to The New York Times in 2010 how he felt about the music industry as a whole:

"It's a diabolical business," he said. "I can't imagine how hellish it must be to be hounded like Amy Winehouse and people like that. I have a little peripheral place on the outskirts of celebrity, when I go to premieres and that sort of stuff, which is as close as I want to get. I cherish my privacy, and woe betide anyone who tries to interfere with that."

"I think he was more of a musician than a rock celebrity," remarks music critic Tom Moon. "He was very much interested in the art of the instrument and the art of music. He explored a lot of different things. He had periods where he played basically all instrumental music, jazz, rock — and what made him so riveting was, you wanted to follow him. He would start a solo with essentially a single note, often with lots of space in between everything, and it was that patience that made it riveting."

Despite his best efforts to stay out of the spotlight, Beck was still recognized and acclaimed. He accumulated 17 Grammy nominations, including one for best rock performance in this year's ceremony, and won eight. And thanks to his respective breakthroughs with The Yardbirds and on his own, he is among the rarefied group of musicians to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.