I'm not sure exactly where Jeff Beck picked up the nickname "guitar mechanic." It could be due to his well-known fondness for fast cars – Beck once considered a racing career over slinging guitars. What I do know is that wherever he picked it up, the name fits him like a proverbial grease rag.
Jeff Beck's approach to the guitar has always been one of surgical precision. Even as he bends the notes in a way quite unlike anyone else playing — his use of the tremelo bar alone would qualify him as one of the greats — Beck still finds a way to make every single note count. In other words, nothing is wasted in a Jeff Beck guitar solo.
The first time I heard Beck play — on the Yardbirds' groundbreaking single from the Sixties, "Shapes Of Things" — I was absolutely stunned at how somebody could make a guitar sound like that.
To my pre-adolescent mind at the time — I was maybe eleven years old — I couldn't believe how Beck made the guitar sound more like what was to my ears, a violin of all things. Later, on his first solo album Truth with the song "Beck's Bolero," I marveled once again at how he went from classical, to hard rock, to an almost Hawaiian sort of sound in something like under five minutes.
I've seen Jeff Beck live in concert several times since over the years, and in many different musical settings. From the short-lived power trio Beck Bogert & Appice (with those two guys from Vanilla Fudge), to his jazz rock excursions with the likes of Jan Hammer, Beck has throughout the years remained one of my all-time favorite guitarists.
And as one third of the Sixties holy trinity of rock guitarists (along with fellow Yardbirds alumni Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page), Beck has by this time also influenced a couple of generations of younger players. So it was inevitable that some of his more devoted students would eventually pay homage to the master with a tribute album.
Freeway Jam: To Beck And Back includes a great lineup of some of music's best axemen taking on several of Beck's finest moments. The most noteworthy name here is probably Eric Johnson, who is best known for the G3 concerts with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, but is otherwise something of a guitar hero in his own right.
Johnson's take on "Beck's Bolero" here is a particular stunner. It starts out with a blast of guitar pyrotechnics, before settling into that song's gorgeous mid-section. Johnson expands on the song's trademark instrumental "chorus" — with its windtunneling sort of effect — and stretches it into the fusion sort of territory he's most familiar with playing-wise. From there, Johnson brings it back quite nicely to the song itself, ending it with some very nice use of sustain.
Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse likewise makes nice work of "Freeway Jam," from Beck's classic fusion jazz-rock album Blow By Blow. Morse plays this one fairly straight (at least as opposed to Johnson's expansion of "Bolero"), and that's just fine, because in doing so he pretty much nails it. He does however, do a great mimic of the car horn sounds Beck himself has been known to make in live performances of this song.
I found this to be a nice touch.
John Scofield digs into the Yardbirds catalog with Beck for his own contribution here, and ends up pulling up "Over Under Sideways Down." Scofield basically deconstructs the familiar pre-psychedelic, blues-based Yardbirds riff into a more modern funk take on it. The song is barely recognizable at first, until out of nowhere Scofield pulls out Beck's unmistakable signature riff in that song. Then it's back into funk territory, and it is several minutes before we again hear the familiar riff. This is yet another great expansion on the original version.
Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band takes on "The Pump," and at first he takes things even deeper into swampy funk territory than Scofield. From there, Haynes settles into a tight little groove, where his guitar pretty much does all the talking – offering up his own decidedly Beckian take on the better uses of sustain. Haynes performance here probably plays it the closest to the vest with some flat-out amazing guitar playing, which makes this cut a particular standout on the album.
Finally, Greg Howe gives another of Beck's best fusion numbers –"Blue Wind" from Wired — a slightly more metallic-sounding treatment. The song has always rocked, but never quite like this.
In addition to all of the great guitar soloists here, equal credit should be given to the "house band," who play on all ten of the tracks. Mitchel Forman plays keyboards, Stu Hamm is on bass, Jeff Richman plays rhythm guitar, and Vinnie Colaiuta and the great Simon Phillips trade off on drums.
This album is highly recommended to anyone who simply loves hearing great guitarists go at it. It is also a decent introduction to Jeff Beck himself. But to truly "get" Beck, it might be best to start with the recordings of the master himself. I'd start with Truth, before moving to Blow By Blow and Wired. From there, you could pretty much go to any of his albums without going wrong.