Les Is More
Last summer, Jeff Beck and friends took to the stage at a tiny New York
jazz club and paid their respects to the man who once had a residency
there, pioneering guitar great Les Paul. Interview by Steve Bailey
The highlight of the 2010 Grammy awards show was without doubt Jeff Beck’s immaculate renditions of the timeless classics of Mr Les Paul.
Jeff, his band and some special guests like Brian Setzer, Imelda May and Gary US Bonds then took the concept and expanded it at Les’s one-time home-from-home, the Iridium Club in New York as a fitting tribute to the great man.
They played two nights and captured the best bits to create the Jeff Beck Rock’n’Roll Party, Honoring Les Paul album and DVD. The 20 songs performed included Twenty Flight Rock, The Train Kept A Rollin’ and Peter Gunn as well as Les Paul belters like How High The Moon and Mockin’ Bird Hill.
We caught up with Jeff shortly before his June UK tour and popped a few questions.
What were your most memorable moments from doing the Les Paul concert for the DVD?
The two shows we did were crazy. I was worried we weren’t rehearsed enough, a s we did them mid-tour and we arrived in NY on the afternoon of the first show. All I wanted to do was make Les proud. I was amazed by the number of musicians in the room who had come to the show, and the artists who joined me on stage were phenomenal as well. It was a whirlwind two days.\
What were your first memories of Les Paul?
I remember the first time I heard his music. I was six years old and it came through on the radio in our front room… I was mesmerised by the sound he made.
The first time I met him, he was watching me play from the side of the stage. When I came off he said that I was good, and to carry on with what we were doing… and then he left.
What did you learn from him?
The sounds that Les made on his guitar, and what he did later with multi-tracking, were a revelation and completely excited every part of me. He always used to tease me about my choice of guitar – when he saw my Fender strapped on he would jokingly ask ‘What is that piece of shit hanging around your neck?’ Les never minced words!
Unusually, you used a pick for some of the Les Paul numbers on the DVD, and it sounded great. How come you don’t use one more often?
For my playing I don’t use a pick as I feel that I can get a better and different sound just using my fingers. I think I have more control over the strings.
You and Imelda May seem to be a perfect combination. What do you look for in a singer?
Imelda is fantastic; her voice is so similar to Mary Ford’s in her day. Imelda’s style and looks reminded me of the perfect ’50s girl, but with a modern edge.
The singers I’ve used recently all have a rare quality; not only with their voices but in their personalities too.
How do you put your own stamp on old tunes without getting away from the original spirit of the song?
I didn’t amend any of Les’s songs… that would be pretty impossible to do. I wanted to keep them all to true to Les’ original style, playing and sound.
How did you decide which guitar to use?
My Fender Strat is my main guitar and I can pretty much play any number on it. But for the Les Paul shows I wanted to keep the numbers close to Les’s originals, which is why I mainly used the Gibsons.
Brian Setzer put in a great turn at the Les Paul concert. What do top-level guitar players like you and Brian talk about when they meet?
You can’t have a rock’n’roll party without Brian Setzer being on stage with you. We talk about the usual stuff, and not so much about guitars and music.
How did the Iridium event feel compared to touring Emotion & Commotion?
The Rock’n’Roll Tour is a completely different show to my own tour. There I was paying my respects to my friend and mentor Les Paul and trying to keep my playing in that style.
The show was based around the rock’n’roll era so I didn’t break out into my own music or style. On my show with my band of Jason Rebello, Rhonda Smith and Narada Michael Walden, we’re doing my music.
The energy quite unique, and that’s down to the people I share the stage with.
How did you choose the sleeve picture for the Emotion & Commotion CD?
My friend Jennifer Batten sent me a picture of a budgie holding a spoon in its claws, so I put my own interpretation on it with my Fender and an eagle!
You’ve said in the past that you were influenced by Eastern musicians like sitar player Ravi Shankar. What did that add to your playing?
A whole new dimension, I think. I listen to all different styles of music and then I try to create my own version in my style.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received from another guitar player?
Stay true to yourself and your playing.
Do you think you’ll ever return to the style of music you played with the Jeff Beck Band on records like Truth?
Maybe one day. At the moment I’m enjoying the sounds we are creating, bringing in some old and new.
What do you think your next album will sound like? Have you started planning it yet?
I have a few ideas going round my head right now!