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THE YARDBIRDS

One Band. Three Greatest Guitars in Rock History.

The Yardbirds, 1963-68  
The Yardbirds, 1963-68
By Andrew Goutman

(November 5, 2014) Among true rock fans, the designation “greatest guitar player ever” is almost a core belief. It is born, bred and nurtured in teen garages, dorm rooms, bars, concerts and gatherings of every type.

So therefore, fans of Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, The Edge, Alvin Lee, Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Eddie van Halen, shredders such as Joe Satriani and the rest, might disagree with what I’m about to say:

The Yardbirds, a sixties English rock band, had in its ranks the three greatest guitar players in rock music, ever. Partisans of Jimi Hendrix would point out that Jimi was ranked #1 guitar player of all time by Rolling Stone. The magazine ranked the Yardbirds guitarists as follows: #2 – Eric Clapton, #3 – Jimmy Page and #5 – Jeff Beck. Not bad for one band that lasted five years. (Keith Richards was #4, by the way.)

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Keith Relf’s Yardbirds

The band was founded in 1963 by singer and harmonica player Keith Relf who, along with bassist Paul Samuel-Smith, wrote most of the Yardbirds’ most popular songs. Relf fronted the band through its entire history. He was the one who gave the band its flavor: a combination of American blues and R&B, plus “high speed and increased volume, dubbed ‘the rave-up,’ the group’s distinguishing feature.”

The Yardbirds were Relf’s band. And so it was a supreme and bitter irony that the leader of a band with such a roster of guitar greats died in 1976 when he was electrocuted while playing an improperly-grounded electric guitar.

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That’s Eric Clapton on the left. The Yardbird’s first guitar player wanted to play the blues.

Eric Clapton came along in October 1963. A sampling of the band’s set list during Clapton’s tenure revealed his love for the blues: “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” Sonny Boy Williamson; “Smokestack Lightning,” Howling Wolf; “I’m a Man,” Bo Diddley; and “Boom Boom,” John Lee Hooker. But when the Yardbirds scored a commercial hit with “For Your Love,” blues-purist Clapton abruptly left the band to join John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.

Clapton recommended studio guitarist and session producer Jimmy Page to take his place. But Page, unwilling to give up his lucrative session work and wary of touring, passed the torch to his friend Jeff Beck. Page would be back very soon.

Keith Relf and Jeff Beck

With Jeff Beck on guitar, the Yardbirds thrived and reeled off a succession of hits, including “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shapes of Things,” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” Beck, a guitar virtuoso (he’s won the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance six times) did “experiments with fuzz tone, feedback and distortion” that added a psychedelic quality to the Yardbirds’ recordings. “The electronic equipment just wasn’t up to the sounds that I had in my head,” Beck said at the time.

But Beck was fired in the middle of the band’s 1966 American tour for his temper and perfectionism–some of the same qualities that made him a guitar great. Beck went on to found the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart on vocals. Their first album, Truth, contained the blues standard, “You Shook Me.” Jimmy Page’s Led Zeppelin covered that same song on their first album.

Jimmy Page takes over

Jimmy Page takes over

Jimmy Page, named “the pontiff of power-riffing” by Rolling Stone, was actually a Yardbird before Beck departed. In June 1966 bassist Samuel-Smith left the band, and Page agreed the play bass until another band member learned the instrument. The Beck-Page partnership created the song, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” a counter-culture psychedelic delight.

Page took over lead guitar when Jeff Beck was sacked. The band released a song, “Dazed and Confused,” which went nowhere until Led Zeppelin made it an arena power rocker.On July 7, 1968 the Yardbirds played their final gig at the College of Technology, somewhere in England.

So anyway, who is my choice for greatest guitar player ever? The initials: E. C. There was never any doubt.

 

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