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Classic rock guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck dies at 78

A man with long hair wearing a sleeveless shirt holds an electric guitar on stage.
Fabrice Coffrini
AFP via Getty Images
Guitarist Jeff Beck performs during the 43rd Montreux Jazz Festival. The influential guitarist died Jan. 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. Beck, one 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 could play rock, jazz, blues, soul and anything else that caught his ear. To Beck, the guitar — at least the way he played it — could be as versatile an instrument as the human voice.

"I just tried to become a singer," he 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."

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 joined Jimmy Page. Beck left the band shortly after and formed The Jeff Beck Group (along with a then little-known singer named Rod Stewart).

In debates over guitar-virtuosity, Beck is often listed in the same breath as players like Clapton, Page and Keith Richards. But Beck 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."

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 has won eight. He has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice — once with The Yardbirds and once on his own.

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Andrew Limbong
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.