Jeff Beck at the Pittsburgh Carnige Hall 4/23/11

Some background.

The electric guitar is a radically different stringed instrument than the rest. Technically a percussed string instrument, the piano has 88 frequencies and all sound the same no matter who plunks one, whether it be a 5th grade student or Elton John. The difference is only how fast, how frequently and how many strings can be plunked in sequence. Similarly, acoustic stringed instruments such as the acoustic guitar and cello all have a mostly monotonic quality, broken up by technique. (I expect to get some argument on this)

The electrified guitar (e.g.: a Fender Stratocaster- see photo of mine) has six strings and 23 frets for a total of 138 discrete frequencies, added to which are the nuances of string bending, stretching, muting and position on which they are struck with a plectrum (pick) or the fingers. The guitar can be played like a piano (Stanley Jordan and the late Jeff Healey) or with a plectrum or with the fingers.  The result is a blip on an oscilloscope having frequency and amplitude (loudness) that’s interpreted by the human ear as “sound”.  That sound can then be passed through electronic processing to render echo, delay, distortion, chorus and a host of other effects, generating an almost infinite variety of tone falling on the ear.

The most technically proficient players are not the most listenable. At one end of the spectrum, awesome technicians that can play with all ten fingers at lightning speed (Eddie Van Halen, Satch Satriani, Steve Vai) are interesting for about three minutes than you start getting a headache. Angus Young once commented that EVH sounded like he practiced all the time, implying a lack of natural soul.

On the other end of the spectrum is BB King, a guitar minimalist said to be capable of embodying all human passion in one note. You can listen to BB all day long and ask for more (“BB King live at the Apollo”).

Then there is everything in-between, and that brings into play the concept of soul in rock music. Traditionally, soul (blues) is a medium of emotional pain and protest. Rock is an emotional disturbance that engenders danger and incites anarchy. I saw an audience rip chairs out of the floor at a Jerry Lee Lewis concert in 1962 (much more about JLL when he dies, if he ever does). Cops on Guns N’ Roses wackos like pit bulls on poodles.

The most listenable rock artists are those that combine some measure of soul. Pound for pound, Eric Clapton embodies near consistent perfection in this regard for a very full career. Never-a-day-of-music-training Neil young consistently reaches into a bag and drags out the exact right sound for every song, some chords no one else has ever seen. No one can sit still through Angus Young et al. Led Zeppelin assaults the senses on every level. The list goes on.

A true virtuoso of the instrument, Beck uniquely integrates measured selections from all the above. His knowledge of the fret board is encyclopedic and his ability to mobilize both right and left hand technique is about as good as it gets.  He stands in one place and rarely takes his eyes off the fret board. He plays using his thumb as a plectrum, which is a bit unusual (I can’t do it), but brings other finger style techniques into play, including occasionally tapping harmonics EVH style.

But I’m not impressed that Beck is a soulful player. Beck’s technical ability on the fret board is excellent but not stellar. The thing about Beck is the richness and variety of the tones he can produce. A lifetime of experimenting.

Tone is tempered by the design of the sound pickups, nature of the strings, variety of wood in the body and fret board and whether the instrument is hollow or solid. Then modulated by electronic amplification. Whether the amplifier is tube driven or digital, size and engineering of speakers. Most electric guitarists (including moi) spend years in search of the perfect tone.  My current rig is about as good as I will ever get and it took me 20 years to get there.  I’m on the low end of the spectrum. Dave Evans (“The Edge”) of U2’s rig looks like the cockpit of a 747.

Beck effortlessly creates a huge variety of tone mimicking horns of all variety, organ, and every kind of stringed instrument, virtually anything that creates a sound. He casually walks over to a standard array of effects pedals, tapping lightly and weaving them into exceptionally creative and expressive music. This is Beck’s stock in trade and why he’s still drawing full houses after a career of 46 years plus (~2000 people at the Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh last night).  He got a full standing ovation.

If you appreciate all kinds of guitar music, he shouldn’t be missed.

He gets a full 5 of 5 signature Strats.

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