Here are a few things you probably know about Jeff Beck: He's one of rock's most accomplished and innovative guitarists, he replaced Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds, he formed the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, and he's an eight-time GRAMMY winner.
Something you might be less likely to know: He's a hot rodder. Not as in a euphemism for guitar shredder. The man is literally either buying, refurbishing or building cars from scratch when he's not lighting up the fretboard.
On Oct. 24 Beck will be honored by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles at its annual fundraising Race, Rock 'n Roll Rally Gala, along with actor/racer Patrick Dempsey and rally driver Ken Block. The honor is acknowledgment that Beck's passion for music is rivaled only by his affection for hot rods, and he doesn't simply admire them from afar — he's a collector who also gets grease under his nails while building them himself from the ground up. He calls driving "the most amazing adventure," and finds heated seats and adjustable mirrors "not necessary at all."
Born in Wallington, Surrey, England, Beck began his professional music career as a session player before gaining international recognition in the Yardbirds, the Jeff Beck Group and as a solo artist. In the decades since, the acclaimed instrumentalist has been hailed as one of the great innovators in music history, blending rock and jazz into a new hybrid and rewriting parts of the rock guitar rule book. His accolades include six GRAMMYs for Best Rock Instrumental Performance and a fifth-place ranking on Rolling Stone magazine's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists. Beck also has the rare distinction of being a two-time inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Beck discussed his lifelong love affair with hot rods, the intersection of music and cars and his impending Petersen Automotive Museum honor.
You're an English rock star. How'd you get into American muscle cars and hot rods?
My uncle, my father's brother, taught me all the stuff about the car. He had a little workshop, a tiny room in the back of his flat, and the smell of it, to a kid, it was just the best thing ever. I couldn’t get over the chrome. Why would you chrome an engine? That fascinated me. Why would you chrome an oily engine? It opened up my eyes to a whole different culture.
What was it like when you got your first car?
I wouldn't join any gangs, so I was either playing guitar or messing around in the garage. When I got my first car, I was king of the road. I ran out of gas all the time because the fuel gauge never worked, and I thought, "I better fix this stupid fuel gauge." Then when you fix the first thing about your car and you've got it running, you're amazed — you fixed it!
How many cars do you own?
Let me see … I've got 14 hot rods and three Corvettes. And I just got another car yesterday, a '32 five-window coupe.
You don't just collect cars, but you maintain a lot of your collection and even build them from scratch. You take sort of the same approach with guitars and effects. Are there similarities between the two and what they satisfy in you?
I think there's a similarity, because it's about OCD in both cases. Musicians are mathematicians and they're dealing with notes being in a certain order, and cars only work if they're done right. You make one mistake and the whole lots gone. Same with music. We're thinking people.
How do music and cars intersect for you?
Music and fast cars and hot rods both seemed to marry beautifully together. It's about disobedience, and it's about pushing the boundaries of the law.
One of the cars you own that's well known is a replica of the 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe featured in American Graffiti. Why did you choose to replicate this Hollywood icon? What was the most difficult part to reproduce?
I saw the movie, but I didn't want to go. I didn't go to movies that often. But that was me up on screen! I smelled the air of that film, you know what I mean? It was just a little, humble '32 five-window coupe. I even wrote to Lucasfilm about it and they said, "You're welcome to put a bid in for it," and I bid like four grand for it. I knew I wasn't going to get that car.
I had the best time building the replica. It was an ongoing quest to build it running properly. The hardest part about reproducing it was making it look that good. The rear fenders, the chop, the glamour of the camera and all the color and all that — everything about that car was spot-on to make it look good in the movie. And I'm still trying to get it right. But it's pretty damn close.
Once you finish building a car, what do you do with it? Drive it, race it, or sell it and start another project?
I get them to the point where the paint and the interior are done. And inevitably if you've got 15, 14 are going to get flat batteries if you drive one too much, or the tires are going to go down. So, it's just a museum really, and it's a bit over the top in terms of practicality. It's an investment. Yet it's difficult to let them go when you've spent much time and energy in building them and you have to sell them for half of what you paid and what you've got in it. It's heartbreaking to watch somebody drive it away on a trailer. So I keep them up as best I can. They're all my favorite.
What's your daily driver?
An upgraded C2 split-window '63 Corvette. It's great. It's got a custom chassis, a five-speed, and rack and pinion. It's a Corvette hot rod.
As a rock and roll legend, you're a hero to many. Who are your heroes in the hot rod world?
[San Francisco-based hot rod legend] Andy Brizio was. I was trying to get friendly or chummy or have a contact in America because I was just a kid from the country here with no hot rod ability at all, so being in San Francisco and being only five miles from south San Francisco, it seemed natural to go see Andy. To see the guy over the counter and know you already know him from magazines was mind-blowing. It felt like I'd joined a really great club where you're welcome. But I've never met a nasty hot rodder. You're not just seeing cars. You're seeing people have a lovely time.
If you could have only one car to drive for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
That's a tough one. I don't know — a '32 three-window that was set up to drive, with proper gearing. It would have to be comfortable. Or a '63 split-window Vette.
What's your favorite car song?
"Little Deuce Coupe"! And there's another [Beach Boys song] … what is it? Betsy! Of course, Betsy. "Ballad Of Ole' Betsy." "She may be rusted iron, but to me she's solid gold." I thought the guy was talking about a woman.
You're being honored this month by the Petersen Automotive Museum. As a car guy, what does that mean to you?
It's amazing. It's quite emotional for me. When I was about six, my mom bought me Hot Rod magazine, and I was blown away by these cars. They grabbed me then, and here I am in 2013 involved with Petersen. When I arrived in L.A. in March or April of 1965, it was like being in the movies almost. Most people would be looking for movie stars. I was looking for hot rods.
(Tori Tellem is a writer based in Los Angeles.)
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