Born within 15 months of each other in 1944 and 1945, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were all steeped in American blues and the early guitar-driven rock’n’roll of Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.
All three rose to prominence with The Yardbirds and became the foundation for the British blues-rock guitar style. Through the years, all three guitarists have continued to expand the boundaries of their instrument.
The first to achieve fame was Eric Clapton. In September 1963, he joined the Yardbirds, which at the time was strictly a blues band. He played on the For Your Love album and four tracks of Having a Rave Up, quitting when the Yardbirds began moving toward pop-oriented psychedelic music.
Soon after leaving the Yardbirds, Clapton delved into his passion for the blues, joining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. To this day, his fire-breathing tracks on the 1966 Bluesbreakers album – especially his covers of Otis Rush’s All Your Love and Robert Johnson’s Ramblin’ On My Mind – are among the very best of his recordings.
Famously, Clapton achieved such cult status that the words ‘Clapton Is God’ were seen scrawled on building walls around London.
Later that year Clapton left Mayall’s band and soon formed the power trio Cream with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. With their huge volume, hard-driving blues-based songs, and extended jams, Cream epitomized the 1960s power trio.
With the break-up of Cream, Clapton and Baker formed Blind Faith with Stevie Winwood. Billed as the first ‘supergroup’, this line-up lasted just long enough to produce one album, 1969’s Blind Faith, highlighted by a 15-minute jam entitled Do What You Like and Clapton’s Presence Of The Lord.
Jeff Beck briefly backed British pop star Screaming Lord Sutch before getting the call to join the Yardbirds. Beck’s first major part with the band, the fuzzed-out, sitar-flavoured hook of Heart Full Of Soul, made him an instant sensation. During his 20 months with the band, Beck came to epitomize the British guitar hero, blistering audiences with his sheer volume and squealing feedback.
After abruptly quitting the Yardbirds in 1967, Beck launched his solo career and rapidly became the first British rock guitar superstar who owed his celebrity to his prowess as an instrumentalist. He released a few novelty singles, notably Hi Ho Silver Lining as well as a magnificent collaboration with Jimmy Page called Beck’s Bolero, which Beck has cited as his personal favourite among all his tunes.
Later in 1967 he organised the first line-up of the Jeff Beck Group, featuring Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood. While various drummers passed through the line-up, Beck, Stewart and Wood remained together for more than two years, releasing the classic albums Truth and Beck-Ola.
Many credit the first Jeff Beck group for laying the groundwork for heavy metal. In July 1969, the group came to an end due to internal conflicts. In the 1970s, he came to prominence as a pioneer of jazz rock.
Jimmy Page began playing at 14, learning bits of solos. “My first influences were Scotty Moore, James Burton, and Cliff Gallup, who was Gene Vincent’s guitarist. Then I began to hear blues guitarists like Elmore James and BB King. So for me it was a mixture of rock and blues.” Before joining the Yardbirds, Page was an in-demand session guitarist, playing on film tracks and folk and rock records.
When the original Yardbirds disbanded, Page was left with the name and concert obligations. He brought in John Paul Jones, drummer John Bonham, and singer Robert Plant, and the line-up briefly toured Scandinavia billed as the New Yardbirds.
Returning to England, they changed their name to Led Zeppelin and recorded their self-titled debut album in 30 hours. On this and the albums that followed, Jimmy Page made great contributions not only to the art of soloing, but also to producing, sculpting sound, and layering guitars.