When guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani started imagining a recording career for himself based around instrumental compositions, he knew it could be possible — thanks in large part to the fact that the late Jeff Beck had scored hit albums (Blow by Blow, Wired) without the help of a singer a decade earlier. Satriani, who also replaced Beck on Mick Jagger’s 1988 solo tour, shared his thoughts on Beck’s legacy in a new interview on our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast. Here’s his tribute in his own words:
When I started playing, there was a group of players like Jeff, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, George Harrison, Martin Barre [of Jethro Tull], Jimi Hendrix — all those players. They were my introduction to real electric guitar playing. I didn’t know about Buddy Guy, B.B. King, or Albert King, all those guys that influenced that group of players.
It was really fascinating for me to build a style as a young guitar player on these second-generation electric blues players. And then after a while discovering who their foundations were, and then going back and then look at Buddy Guy and say, “OK, now who is he influenced by?”
But Jeff, whether he meant it or not, he had this irreverent attitude every time he paid homage to these blues players. And it just came out as Jeff Beck being very much Jeff Beck. No matter who he played with, he just took over and redesigned the thing.
Eric Clapton was super respectful. Eric would show you, “These are my roots. I’ve studied. I’ve created this cultured style based around these people, and I’m showing you.” And Page was a little crazier. Hendrix took it to another level. With Jeff, it was almost like he was saying, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve listened to all these guys and they’re great, but watch what I’m doing with it.”
For me, it would’ve started with [1968’s] Truth. I was too young for the Yardbirds. And then when I started playing in a high school band when I was 14, with these guys who were about a year or two years older than me, they really introduced me to all these other players, and Jeff Beck specifically. The first time I heard “Going Down,” I just thought that was the definitive version.
I figured, what could get better than that? Especially the way Jeff would dart in and out. What a strange way to play a blues song. What a great way not to copy every other blues player who’d done it. I just thought that was really brilliant and it was so different.
But over the decades, the thing is, Beck just got better and better. I don’t want to say he refined what he did. He just added like so much stuff to what he could do on the guitar. Technically speaking, what he did with the Stratocaster was really interesting. Hendrix definitely sort of reinvented what you could possibly do with the Stratocaster, and Beck was right there with him.
Beck just really focused in on picking with his fingers, using the guitar in the arrangements in a sort of a quasi-melodic, riff-meets-rhythm way accompanying the singer. Jimi sang himself, so it was a slightly different approach, but you could see [the] “Hey we’re coming from the same place” in what they were trying to do with the Strat.
He just kept adding to it. And when I think about [1989’s] Guitar Shop, I think that’s a perfect example of a record that blew people away the same way that Blow by Blow or Wired did.
He would expand his horizons by playing with new people, writing new material, and he’d always bring out some technical thing, like using harmonics. And he would represent his personality with these things — not copying a trend, but somehow bringing out more of himself. He was always bigger than the technique.
What interested me most is his melodic thing. I loved playing crazy guitar and making noises, and I love the showbiz attitude about rock & roll. But if it’s not melodic, I somehow check out. If it’s just a display of technique, I’m not there, and Jeff had a way of just being really beautifully melodic.
But Jeff also had that crazy attitude. You knew he was a dangerous rock & roll guitar player. He always made that obvious with every song that he did. I kept that with me in the middle Eighties when I was feeling like I might do something else in my life and I just wanted to start making some fun recordings at home. I was leaning on that idea that Jeff had made a great career out of doing what he wanted to do.
He sought out musicians who were on the cutting edge of what he thought was great new music. And he tried to incorporate that into how he saw the electric guitar, and how it would fit into this new idea of combining rock and blues and jazz. At the time it was fusion. But he never lost himself in it. No matter who he played with, he retained that Jeff Beck attitude.
It was like a reminder: You don’t have to water your stuff down. As a matter of fact, you gotta go the other way. Look at what Jeff did. He just became more Jeff with every record, and that’s why every time he released a record, people would go, “Oh my God, what the fuck is that? What’s he doing now?”
When Blow by Blow came out, I was just finishing playing with a disco band for about a year. The rhythm section, we were all rockers just looking for money. We needed a gig that paid every week. So that’s why we were in this band. But our hearts were in rock & roll. And when that record came out, we would just always be jamming on that stuff, especially “Freeway Jam.”
The way Jeff used harmonics [later on] — to me, the song “Where Were You” is probably one of the most outstanding instrumental pieces on guitar ever recorded.
I’ve seen him play it live and it’s really breathtaking. He never did it the same twice, but he hit that beautiful mark every time. It was just such a tour de force of putting together an almost impossible technique, and pulling it off. In the live clip of him doing [it] at Ronnie Scott’s, you really get the feeling, like, OK, here’s a guitar player who’s taking the biggest risk ever. Because this can’t be done in tune, really. And not every harmonic is gonna come out the way it did on the album.
But there he is, putting all of his heart and soul into it with a little bit of a smile here and there. And you can see how difficult it is and how his hands are just like treasures. It’s amazing. It’s like the guitar loves his hands and they’re saying, “OK, we’ll play along with this.” When he hits those high notes, it just takes your breath away, and you forget about the technique. Until somebody says to you, “Hey, do you know how to play that?” And you go, “Yeah, but no. I’ve got it memorized and I can play all the notes, but man, does it not sound like Jeff doing it.”
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