Jeff Beck on Giving Jimmy Page the "Stairway" Tele and Other Tales from a Life in Guitars | Bacon's Archive

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. Stay tuned for more interviews from Bacon's Archive coming soon.

For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Tom Petty and Chet Atkins, as well as conversations with Leo Fender's longtime partner George Fullerton, Fender visionary Dan Smith, and Gibson's Ted McCarty.

I've interviewed Jeff Beck a number of times, and we did this one in 2005 for my first book about Telecasters (Six Decades of the Fender Telecaster). Naturally enough, we concentrated on Jeff's use of Teles and Esquires, which predated his later moves to Les Pauls and, later still, to Strats.

We settled down in the kitchen of his 16th century Sussex pile for a cup of tea and a good chat about Yardbirds guitars, Jimmy Page's birthday present, and Seymour Duncan's Tele-Gib, among quite a few other things.

Jeff, you told me once that your first Fender was a Strat you bought in 1961, when you were about 16, on HP [credit]. And I think you sold that to buy a car?

I think I did, yeah [laughs]. I think I got a phone call saying there's a Strat in London, and I'd get on the train, which is something I never would have dreamed of doing—I'd never even get a bus—so I found my way to Charing Cross Road, all on my own, looked at this guitar, and dreams floated off into the distance [laughs]. I actually saw it, touched it, and that was enough.

I had a catalogue way before then, which I used to look at, an American from Fender when it was in Fullerton. I always remember it was on a ritzy looking paper, and I always thought these guitars have got to be about a thousand quid, and then I found out they were only £147—and even then I thought well, I can see myself being able to get hold of the money, if I sold everything I had.

In the end, I got it on HP. It was a 1960 sunburst, didn't have a vibrato arm, and I painted it pink, or lavender. I sold it back to the… I remember it was split in two, this big split appeared along the back of it. I'd whacked something with it. So on the train as I went to sell it, I touched it up with my girlfriend's nail varnish. It matched perfectly. Fantastic story, eh? And they never spotted it.

The Deltones in 1961. George Clarke, Johnny Del, Mick Godfrey, John Owen and Jeff Beck

All the [Gene] Vincent Blue Caps guys had matching white Strats, so I had to have one of those—I had to have a Strat. My rhythm guitarist [John Owen, in Beck's first proper band, The Deltones] actually had the first Fender. He had a Telecaster, a few months before I could even afford a down payment to put on a Strat.

So I would ogle this thing. I spent more time playing it than he did! He put everything in motion to try and get me to get the Strat so I wouldn't keep nicking his guitar all the time. And eventually I ended up with that Tele.

Talking about the Strat for a moment—I can't imagine what that guitar must have looked like to people when it first appeared in the mid-'50s.

Well, you know, the reason I left school was because of that [laughs]. I mean that is brain damage when you're a kid of 14 and you see that—it's just a piece of equipment that you dream about touching, nevermind owning.

The first day I stood in Lew Davis or one of them shops [in central London] I just went into a trance. I got the wrong bus home, just dreaming about it, you know? It just blew my brains apart, and it's never been any different since. The Futurama never even was a threat. Even when I was 15, I used to look at the Futurama with great disgust—it was like the Woolworth's version of the Strat.

Why did you want John Owen's Tele?

Because of the sound that Ricky Nelson's records had. We all thought that was a Telecaster. We weren't sure, because there was no information on the records at all. I don't know who told us, but we all assumed it was a Tele because it sounded so close when we plugged it in. On the back pickup it sounded a lot like James Burton, and he played a Tele on a lot of those records.

I suppose you didn't even know it was James Burton back then.

No. We all thought Cliff Gallup was Scotty Moore and Barney Kessel played lead guitar on Elvis's records [laughs]. But how could we know? The thing that did it was that movie The Girl Can't Help It, which made me think that Cliff Gallup played an Esquire and was a 15-year-old blond kid.

That's who was in the movie—and he was just a stand-in, you know? His name was Russell Willaford. He was the guy that still remains a massive mystery—no one ever found out anything about him [speaking in 2005]. He just came and did the film and disappeared, and did some publicity shots, with an Esquire.

We didn't know if the Telecaster and the Esquire were the same guitar, with the pickup blacked out so you couldn't see the neck pickup. But we soon found out from the catalogue that there were two available, and the student cheapie version was the Esquire, which I think was 89 or 95 quid, and the deluxe model was £107, exactly 107 quid. Which was like four million pounds to a 16-year-old!

A publicity photo from The Girl Can't Help It

It was something you wanted for all those reasons.

Affordability, plus the utility of it—it was a perfect rhythm guitar. Albeit that I nicked it and played it most of the time until I got the Strat, and then I didn't want to hear about the Tele at all. But you go back, don't you? You go back and find the tone, the qualities, and everything about it being totally different from the Strat.

I think of the Tele as a grown-up guitar.

Yes, it's not for kids. No whammy bar or anything like that on it. It's a real workhorse guitar, you know? It reveals all your failings and all your plus points. It's a great thing to keep you on your toes, for sure.

How would you describe the sound of a Tele?

It's a lot creamier. I always thought it had a creamy sound—we used to describe it. In with the top, Jimmy Page used to make it sound anything but creamy, but if you play it through a reasonable amp, take a little bit of the tone off on the guitar, it really sounds great. A magical, ethereal, creamy sound that the Strat doesn't have. The Strat is just brutal, a very wiry sound.

There's always that shadow of the Strat in the background when you talk about Teles, isn't there?

I don't think any country player can sound as good on a Strat as they do on a Tele. It just sounds fantastic, whatever it is: the body shape, the pickups, I don't know. The Strat's just too edgy for country, to my ears anyway.

I remember seeing Little Richard's band also had a Tele, in the same film, The Girl Can't Help It, in the background—a really nice battered-looking Tele—which we used to get mouth-watering at. He used to keep the cover on the bridge pickup, which was unusual, most people took that off.

Little Richard - "She's Got It" (From The Girl Can't Help It, 1956)

We didn't understand what the guitars were. The Fender bass with a huge great neck on it with pegs sticking out—we couldn't figure out what that was. But that film was the first real pictures I saw of those guitars, tantalizingly short, a few seconds. In your mind's eye it was about 20 minutes.

Quite an important film, then?

The most pivotal film in my career, and my life, really.

Do you remember where you saw it?

Yep, Sutton Granada, after school.

When was that?

May or June of '56, when "Be-Bop-A-Lula" was first released. I was gone from that minute on. My schoolbook was plastered with Telecasters.

Eric Clapton with the red Telecaster

When Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds and you joined to replace him, early in '65, he left a red Tele for you, didn't he?

Yes, I had to use that, because I didn't have a guitar when I joined the Yardbirds. I actually didn't have a guitar of my own, I was so hard up. The Yardbirds sort of sneaked Eric's guitar out. He'd finished using the red Tele and was using a Les Paul, so he didn't care a shit about the red Tele. Giorgio [Gomelsky], the manager, said well, 'You'd better use Eric's guitar—we can't afford to go out and buy one now.' So I borrowed Eric's for the first couple of gigs.

It was that or a Jazzmaster, and the Jazzmaster was so bloody awful—a diabolical mistake from Fender I think that was. I'd sold the Strat and John Owen still had the Tele, as far as I know. Then, when I borrowed his Tele, I never gave it back.

I think there are pictures of you with the red Tele.

But that is… you're talking February, March 1965, because I got rid of that soon after. It was a terrible guitar.

So, you very soon got that Tele from John Owen.

Yes, he's a diamond geezer. Still is—he's a retired fire chief. He realized I could play better than him. I think that's what it was. I got him on drums, because he wasn't very good on the guitar.

It was a blond rosewood-neck Tele, wasn't it?

Yes, I think it was a late '59 or a '60, which he got in the Jennings shop [in Charing Cross Road, central London]. He must have played it more in the shop. The boss there kicked me out once—I put my foot up on this tweed amp and he kicked me out of the shop.

I had it in The Yardbirds. I had a Tele and an Esquire. The Tele that I got from John Owen somehow miraculously became Jimmy Page's, I don't know how. I left The Yardbirds in a huff—I just decided in a minute I was going to leave. So I didn't take the guitar, and Jimmy carried on playing, and because he was the only lead guitarist he had to mimic what I did—that's how come he got the guitar.

I've never actually explained that to John, which I must do one day [laughs]. I gave him a purple Strat to replace it. Jimmy plastered that Tele with psychedelic paint—he did floral painting all over it. So the early Zeppelin stuff was on John Owen's Telecaster.

Jeff Beck playing the tele with a homemade black pick guard
Jimmy Page playing the tele in The Yardbirds

Did you ever talk to Jimmy about that?

Yeah—well, he knows what it meant. He in turn gave me a Maccaferri for a birthday present. A plastic Maccaferri. And I went oh, nice one, Jim. It had a thing with it that said: "To keep your guitar in tip top condition use a damp cloth." I thought, Oh dear. It was from about 1937 [actually probably '50s]. But I've never stopped playing it! It's the most incredible, great sounding guitar, and I didn't like it at first. A kind of cheapo Django thing, but great. So he's kind of justified having my Tele for so many years.

The Maccaferri present must have been much later, though.

Yes, just a few years ago [speaking in 2005]. The Tele is definitely his forever, much as though I know John would love to have it back.

Did you see Jimmy play it after he got it?

Oh yes. I think he used the bow on it. Not sure. I saw him several times.

With Zeppelin?

Well, Zeppelin consisted of me, Keith Moon, John Paul Jones—because we had a recording session where we did "Beck's Bolero," which was what I dreamt of as being my next band, albeit undecided on who was going to sing. Then… shit happened, and then Jimmy thought, What a great sounding band, couldn't get Keith Moon, so went up to Birmingham and got Percy [Plant] and John [Bonham], and that was the end of it. But we preceded Zeppelin by about six months.

Zeppelin had a sort of inaugural tour in America and died a death, until they hit Chicago where a newspaper picked up on Bonham's solo, where his hands started bleeding. That's when people started to come and see him apparently do his bloody-hand drum solo. And they picked up from there. But you could have knocked me down with a feather when they took off.

Jeff Beck - "Beck's Bolero"

I believe Jimmy used that Tele to play the solo on the studio version of "Stairway To Heaven."

Did he? [Pause.] Wow! That's even more amazing. So that's gonna come to a bit of dough when he sells it.

If he ever did. I suppose he still has it?

Oh yeah. He's never going to let that go.

I would say not.

I got an offer from Paul Burlison—well, the woman who was trying to flog [a Telecaster] told my office that he'd died and wanted to give me first refusal. But I since found out that he hadn't died [laughs]. She'd got hold of it and was trying to sell it. It was some ridiculous amount of money—I don't know, $100,000—about five years ago. [Burlison was guitarist in the groundbreaking Rock 'N Roll Trio with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. The Yardbirds covered their '56 single "The Train Kept A Rollin." Burlison died in 2003.]

I rang Jimmy, I said look, the guitar, the Tele, the one that was on all the Johnny Burnette stuff, is for sale. He went: Wow! And then when I said it was 100-plus he went: Fuck off! I think he might have gone back and had another go because he was so desperate for it, but then it turned out that Paul Burlison wasn't dead, and I thought, Oh, leave it alone. And now he is dead. And no one ever knew if it was him playing on those records anyway. It was a toss up between him and Grady Martin. And now he's dead, too, so you can't ask him.

Great records, though, whoever played on them, great Tele sound.

Yes, and then there's Arthur Smith, and Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. Incredible! I didn't need any pushing, but I just listened to Jimmy Bryant recently when Albert Lee had it on a guitar-special programme he did. It was like a Desert Island Discs for country players, telling where all their influences came from. I thought I must dig that out, and he was right. Bloody hell! Jimmy Bryant, clean as a whistle. It's the best sounding Tele, isn't it? Totally undistorted.

It's such a simple guitar, the Tele, but it still sounds different whoever plays it. You'd never know that Albert Lee plays the same guitar as Jimmy Bryant, and on to Paul Burlison and all the rest of them.

To Keith Richards.

[Laughs out loud.] Why do we always laugh when his name's mentioned? What's funny about that? Except he takes the bottom E-string off for some reason. He said it gets in the way.

The Tele is sort of a transparent guitar, don't you think? The player comes through it.

Also, you can adjust the neck to have almost zero action, or you can have it high to play bottleneck—Muddy Waters for example, there's another one.

What about that back pickup, isn't that the key to it?

Yeah, I heard the Japanese were trying to duplicate the aging of that magnet. To get rid of them, the Fender guys said, "Oh, it was an accident, Leo dropped it once and put it back and it changed it." So they had a team, this uniformed, regimented Japanese workforce, they were dropping pickups on concrete floors. I suppose they probably didn't just want them copying it to that degree.

The bridge pickup, Jeff—it has to be something to do with all that metal around it, and the strings through the body, and the slanted pickup.

I remember some classical guitarist saying on TV, publicly saying, "Oh, this guitar, this Telecaster, means nothing—you could have any old shape bit of wood and pickup, they all sound the same." Complete bollocks. Complete and utter rubbish. To him it may sound the same, but we know differently.

I still think the pickup picks up whatever character is in the acoustic sound of the string, and that's going to vary according to every single facet of the guitar. Thickness of the body, resonance of the wood, all the rest of it. Of course it's going to make a difference, otherwise every electric guitar would sound pretty much the same.

Leo was continuing the idea of some of his lap-steel pickups.

Well, Fender made me a Tele with a raw neck, you know? A neck that had been rough-cut, just a huge blank of timber, square, without any shaping or profiling, and I would use it as a lap-steel. It was massive. The action was about an inch off the neck, like a lap Hawaiian guitar. Sounds absolutely awesome.

You can have like a 13 or 14 in the first, which you couldn't dream of doing on a regular guitar, and get this huge, thick, big, clangy sound. You've got to learn to play, because it's so powerful, the sound, if you fuck up—well [laughs], you've got to know what you're doing.

The Yardbirds

Let's just nip back to The Yardbirds for a sec.

OK, I bought my first Esquire from John Walker. We were doing a package tour with The Walker Brothers—christ knows when, '65, '66? [It was an April/May 1965 tour, with The Walker Brothers replacing The Kinks toward the end.] First thing I saw at rehearsals at some bloody theatre was this really good looking pair of brothers, and one had an Esquire with a white pickguard and blond neck. And I wanted the blond neck. Because you couldn't get the blond neck after a certain run—they changed it to rosewood.

I said I want that guitar. He said, 'Oh, 75 quid. Give over!' They're only about 85 quid new! And his had been shaved into a contoured body. I bought it anyway.

Do you know where he got it from?

He never told me. Some California place.

You bought it?

I bought it, yes, right at the end of the tour. I haven't got it now, because Seymour Duncan swapped me for a custom Seymour with Gibson humbuckers on it. [The swap happened in 1973, when Beck exchanged his Yardbirds Esquire for a "Tele-Gib" that Duncan had put together from a '59 Telecaster body, a '63/'64 neck, and a pair of humbuckers from a Flying V.]

I saw that guitar on a Secret Policeman's Ball thing on TV.

Yes, well, it takes the thin whine out of the Tele, but it's not really what you want. It's for people who don't really want a Les Paul—the weight of it, too bulky—but the feel of a Tele and just this big fat sound of the humbuckers. It's a really good combination. Just doesn't look that great.

Fender Custom Shop Jeff Beck Esquire

As Seymour went out the door with my Esquire I went, Oh, there it goes. It was only an hour afterwards I realized it was gone forever. But it isn't really—it's in a museum, and it's on loan to Fender, who'll be knocking them out, repro, for $10,000. [Fender's Custom Shop launched a nitpicking replica of the swapped Esquire in 2006, calling it the Jeff Beck Tribute Esquire.]

I've got one here. Brand spanking new. I opened the box and I thought, They're having a laugh. They've sent my guitar back! Every ding, every scratch, every little bit of ink stain. I wrote something on it and it's sunk in—they've done that. Quite amusing.

So I've got the repro and someone else has got the real thing. They've even got it accurate to the point where the treble control doesn't work, because it didn't work on mine. Either that or they didn't hook it up, one of the two [laughs].

I think you played the Tel-Gib on "Cause We've Ended As Lovers." Is that right?

That was the Seymour one, yes.

What made you choose that? I tend to think of Blow By Blow as a Les Paul record.

At that point I was divvying about between Strat and Les Paul, and eventually when I started to do "Freeway Jam" and stuff like that and needed to go crazy, I decided the Strat was more my tool, you know?

But why the humbucker Tele on "Lovers"?

Umm—because the Esquire had gone, the Jimmy Page Tele had gone, and up comes this, smack in the middle of the sessions, and Seymour turns up with his humbucker Tele. The Les Paul, I thought well, everybody's got those, and I wanted to speak quite clearly as me.

The Les Paul sounded good, but it just sounded like—well, I won't mention who it sounded like [laughs]. There wasn't much amplification variables that could make me sound like it, but as soon as I picked up the Tele, there was something there.

How much did you use the Tele and how much the Esquire in The Yardbirds?

The Esquire—oh golly. Why did I want the Esquire when I had the Tele? That's the question.

The maple neck?

I think what it was, I was quite amazed what I was getting out of a one-pickup guitar. There must be records that were done on that Esquire. Towards the end, the last few gigs, I got the Les Paul, so there's not that much evidence of that on The Yardbirds.

So it's between the Esquire and the John Owen Telecaster, and I'm buggered if I can remember what happened. I must have had the John Owen Tele, because I gave it to Jimmy on the tour. There were two guitars there, for some reason. I don't know, perhaps I tuned it different. I think that's what it was—I used to use it with a different tuning.

Do you think about any of the Yardbirds recordings as good examples of your work with a Tele or Esquire? They all sound great to me!

No, umm—I was still messing around with pre-Hendrix fuzzes. I was all into gizmos and stuff that would make a guitar sound anything but a guitar, if you know what I mean.

"Heart Full Of Soul" [recorded April '65] isn't too bad.

Yeah, that kind of droney stuff. Luckily, Roger Mayer was around, who was trying to flog me these pedals. I told him to piss off, because I wanted to do my own thing. And then when I wanted him, he'd gone with Hendrix [laughs]. He stuck two fingers up.

What about "Shapes Of Things" [recorded Dec '65]?

That was the Esquire. Yep.

Was it easy to get that guitar to feed back?

No. That was done in Chess Records, where we were all completely blown away with the way they did things. The drum sound was great, and everything was like a dream come true—because we were playing in Chess, albeit the last throes of it. There was Marshall Chess there and the guys that used to record Muddy. Really great.

I was standing right next to an AC-30 on a chair, which I used to use so that I could easily reach the controls, so I just moved around to get the right noise, you know? It was madness, pure experimentation.

I suppose you'd think it would be anything but an Esquire in that situation, but that's what you had.

That's what I had. I wanted the Les Paul, but when I got it [he got his first one early in 1966], it was so refined, and not really the tool you need on stage for some reason. The controls were in the wrong place. I kept hitting the pickup selector on/off in the wrong position. The Esquire—no problem at all. I used to spin it around on top of the amp and change the speed of the echo while it was feeding back. Total lunacy! I used to try and break it. And I never broke it.

Are there any other Yardbirds tracks you think of for what you did with a Tele or Esquire?

We did a couple of albums and they're just snapshots of what was going on at the time. The Les Paul stuff I did on "Over Under Sideways" [recorded April '66]—that was the last sort of stages of my involvement with the band. "Ten Years Time Ago" [recorded July '66], that was all Les Paul.

What did you play on "Train Kept A Rolling" [recorded Sep '65]?

That was the Esquire.

The Yardbirds - "Train Kept A - Rollin'"

There's some lovely little rockabilly arpeggios in there, and that buzzy riff.

Yep, there was some fertile inventiveness going on there. It was exciting. What it was, it was a treat to go to a studio where all the ideas flooded out, rather than sitting there for six months trying to get a hi-hat sound [laughs]. You went in there, heard yourself back, which was a rarity, and then you fed your inspiration from that, rather than playing live and not really knowing what you sounded like.

Do you ever play any of those records now, Jeff?

No. No thanks. It's like looking at an old photograph album. Sometimes an LA or San Francisco radio, late at night, it suddenly comes on, and, What the fuck is that! Ah, it's me. It's funny, amusing, and a good record of what went on.

Have you had any other Teles or Esquires?

Yeah, I had an Esquire that I bought for 50 bucks from a thrift shop in Memphis, and it was bad. It must have been one that got away. It was a genuine Esquire but it played and felt and looked as though Leo hadn't finished it properly. It just turned me off. I'd love to have it back, but I auctioned it [at a Nordoff Robbins charity event in 1987]—Jonathan Ross got 9,000 quid for it. Went to the Hard Rock, I think, and went up there on the wall as the one I used in The Yardbirds.

Jeff Beck

I told the bloke after he bought it: "You know, it's not the one." Eric Clapton bid for it. I said, "You don't want that piece of shit!" So he put his wallet away. But I realized I should have said yeah, buy it, buy it [laughs]. So it ended up in the hands of the Hard Rock guy, who I really didn't want to con. I said, "Look, it's not the one I used," and he said, "I don't care, I don't care." "Right—as long as you know."

You got that mid-'70s?

Umm, yeah, '74, '75? I've got a nice reissue Tele, a '54 or '55 reissue, which is fantastic, still got that, and I've got one that was destined for Graham Parker, but my roadie had it hidden in his bedroom. I said, "What's in the case?" And he said, "Nevermind that." So I opened it, thank you. He went, "$600." I went, "Right, I'll give you $600." Graham hadn't tried it, so he didn't know what he was missing. It's '54, mint—well, mint in terms of originality. It's battered, but all original.

OK Jeff, one last question, we haven't seen an album from you for a while now [speaking in 2005]. Anything planned?

I'm the sort of bloke that's like a ton of bricks, you know? I won't be moved until I hear something that really sends me up in the air, then I'll be around pestering everybody, playing for them. I can't see the point in putting out an album, kidding yourself that it's great, if you don't believe it. You've got to believe in what you're doing—and then you can take all the crummy reports that are going to come, and you can say, 'Well, sod you, I like it.' And that's the main thing.


About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Telecaster Guitar Book, Electric Guitars: Design & Invention, and Sunburst. His latest is a new edition of Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Chartwell). Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.


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