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Image: Jeff Beck
Denis Oregan  /  Getty Images
Jeff Beck, who performed at the Hammersmith Apollo in London on Jan. 13, is gearing up for a Les Paul tribute tour.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 2/7/2011 8:53:38 PM ET 2011-02-08T01:53:38

He is a sonic Magellan, going to places unfathomable by the complacent human. He thinks out of the box, and in this case the box is usually hand wired, with bass, treble and reverb knobs. He has countless imitators, but no one can duplicate his knack for originality.

Les Paul? Exactly right.

Jeff Beck? Right again.

The two men have seats next to each other in the music pantheon, in the room with the killer acoustics. Even though Paul passed away in August 2009 at the age of 94 and Beck is still wired, rough and ready at 66, their legends remain intertwined. They forged reputations as guitarists who wanted to go to places no one else had ever been.

“I think it’s the inquisitiveness that’s the same,” Beck said.

He was in the Los Angeles area recently, satisfying his passions for music and cars. He has as much love for, and expertise in, the creations coming off his fabled Stratocaster as he does the workings of the Ford ’32 Deuce Coupe, his chariot of choice. He flew in from England to prepare for the Feb. 13 Grammys — he received five nominations for his “Emotion & Commotion” disc, including best rock album — and to attend the Grand National Roadster Show and visit the NHRA Museum, both in Pomona, Calif.

Beck is also gearing up for the Iridium Tour, an expansion of a two-show tribute to Paul that he performed last year at the Iridium Club in New York, where Paul maintained a residency almost right up to his death. Kicking off in March, it’s being billed as a “Rock 'n' Roll Party,” and he’s playing along with Irish singer Imelda May, who performs a similar role to the one vocalist Mary Ford had with Paul in the 1950s.

There was also a recent report that Beck and singer Rod Stewart — his old mate from the days of the Jeff Beck Group, circa 1967 — were mulling a reunion project, although that is said to be way on Beck’s back burner. They wowed an audience by doing two surprise songs together during a Beck show in April 2009. “Everybody knows I started Rod out,” Beck explained. “It was full circle meeting again. People went nuts. It felt good.”

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Beck boasts an unparalleled catalog of guitar mastery, from his early blues-rock work with the Yardbirds, the Jeff Beck Group and Beck, Bogert & Appice, to an array of solo albums that explore various musical styles. But he said it all started one day when he was 6 years old and heard Paul play “How High the Moon” on the radio.

“I didn’t know what it was,” Beck said. “My mum said it was an electric guitar. I knew what an ordinary guitar was. I said, ‘What is it, you plug it straight into the voltage in the wall?’ She fascinated me by saying, ‘Oh, it’s all tricks.’ Because she read somewhere that a critic said Les was all multitracks, and my mum didn’t go for none of that at all. And I said, ‘That’s for me.’

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“But that’s as far as it went. I couldn’t pursue it because I didn’t have any money. We were really poor, let me tell you.”

Instead, Beck said he went to the local wood shop, bought some wood and made himself a guitar. “Dismal it was,” he said. “As long as it made a noise, it was a toy. And then it became more and more serious. I never dreamt I’d be doing what I’m doing now.”

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Years later, the kid grew up to be an iconic guitarist in his own right. One day he met the man whose guitar strings pulled him into the profession.

“He showed up without warning at one of the gigs I did at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, with John McLaughlin,” Beck recalled. “This was ’74, ’75. Someone said, ‘Les Paul is watching in the audience.’ I was (on) after John. I thought, ‘If he’s still there after John, there’s hope.’ Because John was shredding all over the place, and I just didn’t think somehow Les would go for that kind of distorted sound, because his was clean. Even though he was doing tricks, he was clean.

“He was standing there in the wings when I came off. He said, ‘That was mighty good.’ I said, ‘Oh, good.’ He said, ‘You guys carry on whatever it is you’re doing. I’ll see you later!’ ”

A few years later, Paul and Beck connected again. “I think the best example of how we really got together was when were asked to do a show together at the Perkins Palace (in Pasadena, Calif.), around ’80,” Beck said. “I knew Les was staying at the hotel, that’s as far as it went. I didn’t know what he was like, other than how we briefly met at the Avery Fisher Hall. I knew he was a little bit reserved, a little bit sarcastic, to say the least.

“We checked into this hotel in Pasadena and I get this call: ‘What the hell are you doing down there? All the tea and things are up here!’ So I nervously go up to his room and knock on the door and he opened it and said, ‘It’s all here — the sandwiches, the cucumbers.’ He was trying to do the English tea bit. I was just blown away.”

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For the upcoming Iridium tour, Beck teams up with May, after spotting her act at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. “A little Irish girl, kicking butt,” he said. “She looks right, like she walked right off a Coke commercial in the 1950s. I said, ‘Yeah, you’ll do. You’re perfect.’ ”

While the sound quality will be extremely high, the volume will be uncharacteristically low. On these dates, Beck will eschew heavy amp wattage for a cozier, quieter experience. “I’ve blown enough people’s heads off over the years,” he said with a chuckle.

“And that all started when I was offered a gig in ’64 in Richmond (England). It was a big athletic ground. And I just had a real concern about being heard. I figured, if I’m going to get the biggest gig of my life, they’re going to hear me.

“I got some people to contact Vox, who made big amps. I said, ‘Bring every one you got.’ So I had this big row of Super Beatle amps. I plugged into that and it sounded not too bad. It was right for the venue. I suppose I could have been the first person to play through that many amps.

“Then it went stupid. Then Marshall got a hold of the idea and started making higher wattage. So it was all my bloody fault, really.”

The Iridium tour will take place inside more intimate spaces, at lower volumes. “I think people adjust,” he explained.

Sometimes, in between gigs and recording sessions, Beck likes to switch gears. Literally.

He calls his passion for automobiles “another nuisance in my life,” but clearly it brings him almost as much pleasure as ripping “Scatterbrain” or “Hammerhead” in front of thousands of devotees.

He owns 14 hot rods, housed at his English estate. But that doesn’t keep him from pursuing more. He has a particular obsession with the ’32 Deuce Coupe. He wrote the forward to Tony Thacker’s book, “’32 Ford The Deuce: A formal and sporting history of Ford’s first V8 and the Model B,” Beck describes how he acquired his very first Deuce by swapping a ’63 split-window Chevy Corvette for it and 800 English pounds. And that happened after he had become somewhat of an aficionado by devouring every American hot-rodding book and magazine he could get his hands on as a kid.

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Beck has had two holy grails, one of which he has officially given up on. “I did try to make a play for the ‘Graffiti’ coupe,” he said, referring to the Deuce featured in George Lucas’ 1973 film, “American Graffiti.” But Lucas wouldn’t part with it at the time, Beck said, and later it was acquired by a buyer from San Francisco who was even more fanatical about it than Beck, although Beck now owns an uncanny copy.

But Beck spotted another in a magazine not long ago — he described it as “a serious, nasty piece of work” — and he’s hot for it. “It’s in bits in someone’s garage (in Pennsylvania),” he said. “For 27 years. It’s an iconic rod that just disappeared. ... This one I’ve got mild hopes about.”

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For Beck and the Deuce, it was love at first sight. “It’s just the best shape,” he said. “The Model A preceded it, and for three years they made the Model A, which is a beautiful little car. But when the ’32 came out, it was like a jet fighter against a prop plane.

“It’s just a better looking body. And it had a V8 engine in it. A really landmark car.”

The Deuce and Les Paul were major components of the cultural lure that enabled Beck to follow his curiosity and led him to where he is today.

“Everything about America was striking a chord with me in the '50s,” he said. “And then it went into the Beach Boys. Not only were the records prior to that explosive and descriptive, the subculture was all in your face, like Little Richard’s lyrics, ‘Wop bop a loo bop,’ in ‘Tutti Frutti.’ It was like, ‘What was that?!’

“Then you had ‘Little Deuce Coupe.’ I thought it was ‘Little Bit of Skirt.’ But I said no, it was about a car. Then out came the hot rod magazines and it all started to make sense.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.

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