Joe Beck

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Joe Beck
Beck in 1977
Beck in 1977
Background information
Born(1945-07-29)July 29, 1945
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedJuly 22, 2008(2008-07-22) (aged 62)
Woodbury, Connecticut
GenresJazz, jazz fusion, post bop, mainstream jazz, soul jazz
Years active1960s–2008
LabelsKudu, DMP, Whaling City Sound

Joe Beck (July 29, 1945 – July 22, 2008)[1] was an American jazz guitarist who was active for over 30 years.


Born in Philadelphia, Beck moved to Manhattan in his teens, playing six nights a week in a trio setting, which gave him an opportunity to meet various people working in the thriving New York music scene. By the time he was 18, Stan Getz hired him to record jingles, and in 1967 he recorded with Miles Davis.[2] By 1968, at age 22, he was a member of the Gil Evans Orchestra. Beck described his early success in an interview near the end of his life:

My career happened because I happened to be in the right place at the right time in a very unique time of jazz music. ...when I would finish a gig around two in the morning I would go around the corner to the Playboy Club and sit in with Monty Alexander and let Les Spann take a breather and I would finish the gig for him. Then we would go and listen to Kenny Burrell play around the corner or we would go up to Mintons and listen to Wes Montgomery and sit in with him ...[3]

Beck played in a variety of jazz styles, including jazz fusion, post bop, mainstream jazz, and soul jazz, but also respected rock stylists and cross-over players (he was good friends with Larry Coryell)[3] and briefly flirted with rock music styles himself in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In 1970 Polydor released Rock Encounter.[1] In 1975 he released an eponymous album (upon which he simply referred to himself as "Beck") while recording the Esther Phillips album, What a Diff'rence a Day Makes, both for Kudu.[1][4] Beck was subsequently reissued as Beck & Sanborn to cash in on the success of alto saxophonist David Sanborn. In 1978, he went for more of a rock sound by forming a band named "Leader". They performed in the Northeast and recorded demos at Sound Ideas Studios in New York City, but soon disbanded when the band's gear was stolen after a gig at Joyous Lake in Woodstock, New York. In the 1980s Beck recorded for DMP including with flautist Ali Ryerson. In 2000, he collaborated with guitarist Jimmy Bruno on Polarity[1] and in 2008 on Coincidence with John Abercrombie.[1]

Beck worked as a sideman or session guitarist with a wide variety of well-known jazz, rock, and fusion musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Miles Davis, Maynard Ferguson, Howard Roberts, Tommy Tedesco, Larry Coryell, John Abercrombie, Tom Scott , Jeremy Steig, and Gabor Szabo. In mid-life Beck spent less time playing and worked more as a composer of commercial jingles and as an arranger, writing arrangements for Frank Sinatra and Gloria Gaynor. He returned to performing and touring in the late 1980s.

For the next two decades Beck toured and recorded with duos and small groups, releasing two more solo albums (1988, 1991) before retiring in 2000.

Beck died in Woodbury, Connecticut, of complications from lung cancer.[1] His album Get Me Joe Beck was posthumously released in 2014.[5]

Alto guitar[edit]

In 1992 Beck began touring as a duo with flutist Ali Ryerson. To fill out the sound he wanted to present—bass lines, harmony, and melody—in a duo setting, he developed what he called the "alto guitar". This began as a standard, full-body, electric jazz guitar with a unique stringing pattern and reentrant tuning. As described by Beck:

It's pretty straight-ahead, really. Take your whole guitar and tune it down a fifth to the key of A, and then tune the middle two strings up an octave. What I've done is take the normal tuning of the guitar and changed it so that I have bass strings for my thumb; sort of a banjo register for my first two fingers, and then a low melody register for my other two fingers. [...] So you don't have to change any of your fingerings; it's the same intervals as in normal tuning, just in the key of A, so it's A-D-G-C-E-A."[6] [7]

While devising the tuning Beck realized that some restringing was going to be needed to obtain optimal resonance from the strings, so he commissioned a custom-built instrument from luthier Rick McCurdy, of Cort Guitars:

I had someone build me a guitar, Rick McCurdy as it happens, and he made me a beautiful guitar and so I started using it on the concert stage.[3]

I'm actually playing through three channels. The reason the guitar is a patented invention is that this pickup is split so that the bass strings have their own output. And the top four melody strings are coming out of another output, which in turn is split stereo by a chorus. The bass strings are .080 and .060. Then a .022 wound and a .016 plain. Then a .026 wound and a .018 plain. [...] I wanted to be more pianistic, to play clusters sort of like those Bill Evans employs, that you couldn't possibly play otherwise."[6]


As leader[edit]

  • Nature Boy (Verve Forecast, 1969)
  • Rock Encounter (Polydor, 1970)
  • Beck (Kudu, 1975)
  • Watch the Time (Polydor, 1977)
  • Tributaries with Larry Coryell, John Scofield (Novus, Arista, 1979)
  • Beck and Zoller (Progressive, 1979)
  • Empathy with Red Mitchell (Gryphon, 1980)
  • Relaxin' (DMP, 1983)
  • There's Gonna Be Trouble with Jay Leonhart (Sunnyside, 1984)
  • Friends (DMP, 1984)
  • Back to Beck (DMP, 1988)
  • The Journey (DMP, 1991)
  • Live at Salishan with Red Mitchell (Capri, 1994)
  • Finger Painting (Wavetone, 1995)
  • Alto with Ali Ryerson (DMP, 1999)
  • Polarity with Jimmy Bruno (Concord Jazz, 2000)
  • Django with Ali Ryerson (DMP, 2001)
  • What Is My Heart For with Sarah Brooks (Whaling City Sound, 2002)
  • Tri07 (Whaling City Sound, 2007)
  • Coincidence with John Abercrombie (Whaling City Sound, 2008)
  • Get Me Joe Beck (Whaling City Sound, 2014)

As sideman[edit]

With Gene Ammons

With Gato Barbieri

With John Berberian

With James Brown

With Rusty Bryant

With Hank Crawford

With Miles Davis

With Richard Davis

  • Song for Wounded Knee (Flying Dutchman, 1973)

With Duke Ellington and Teresa Brewer

With Gil Evans

With Joe Farrell

With Maynard Ferguson

With Ronnie Foster

With Chico Hamilton

With J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding

With Al Kooper

With Hubert Laws

With Mike Mainieri

With Brother Jack McDuff

With Blue Mitchell

With Idris Muhammad

With Houston Person

With Esther Phillips

  • What a Diff'rence a Day Makes (Kudu, 1975)
  • For All We Know (Kudu, 1976)

With Dom Um Romao

  • Spirit of the Times (Muse, 1973)

With Don Sebesky

With Paul Simon

With Lonnie Liston Smith

With Leon Spencer

With Leon Thomas

With Bobby Timmons

With Kai Winding


  1. ^ a b c d e f Wynn, Ron. "Joe Beck". AllMusic. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  2. ^ Losin, Peter. "Session details: Columbia 30th Street Studio (December 4, 1967)". Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Joe Beck Interview With Jazz Guitar Life (08/14/07)
  4. ^ Sleeve notes to CD reissue of Beck & Sanborn
  5. ^ "On Final Recording, Joe Beck Exposes Possibilities of the Guitar". 1 September 2014. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  6. ^ a b Stern, Chip (1 July 2000). "Shop Talk: Jimmy Bruno & Joe Beck". JazzTimes. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  7. ^ With octave designations: A1 D2 G3 C4 E3 A3. This makes the tuning reentrant (the highest pitched strings are in the middle) and allows for unique chord voicings. The range is roughly that of a baritone guitar.

External links[edit]