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Boston guitarists pay homage to an idol, Jeff Beck

FILE Ñ Jeff Beck performs at Madison Square Garden in New York on April 13, 2013. Beck, one of the most skilled, admired, and influential guitarists in rock history, died on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2022, at a hospital near his home in Surrey, England. He was 78. (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)KARSTEN MORAN/NYT

When Gary Hoey was a 14-year-old kid from Lowell who’d just picked up a guitar, he heard Jeff Beck’s 1975 jazz-rock fusion album, “Blow by Blow,” for the first time.

“It literally stopped me in my tracks,” he says.

He scraped together all the money he had and bought a black Les Paul guitar, just like the one Beck was playing on the album cover. A dozen years later, Hoey met his idol while in Los Angeles, where he was auditioning for Ozzy Osbourne. And in 2010, Beck hand-picked him to serve as his opening act on tour.

“One time he came backstage, joking,” Hoey says. “I remember he said, ‘Gary, you definitely sound like you’ve been stealing from the best. I can tell, because you stole from me.’ I laughed so loud.”

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Gary Hoey (right) with his idol, Jeff Beck.Courtesy Gary Hoey

Countless technically proficient electric guitar players like Hoey have learned by listening closely to Jeff Beck — who died earlier this week at age 78 — if, that is, they can decipher what he’s doing on the instrument.

“The priority he places on nuance, expression, space, phrasing — these are my priorities as well,” says Julien Kasper, who has been teaching the Jeff Beck Lab to guitar students at the Berklee College of Music for 25 years. “His ability to utterly destroy you with the simplest phrase or melody is something we all aspire to. His fearlessness, too.”

Twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — first as a member of the Yardbirds, a band he joined to take the place of the departing Eric Clapton, then as a solo act — Beck’s 50-year career ranged from the ambitious early solo instrumental “Beck’s Bolero” (which featured Jimmy Page on second guitar and Keith Moon on drums) to a Grammy-winning performance of “Nessun Dorma” on his 2010 album “Emotion & Commotion.”

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Along the way, Beck collaborated with a who’s who of the rock ‘n’ roll elite, including Rod Stewart (who got his first widespread recognition as the singer in the Jeff Beck Group), Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger (on his two mid-’80s solo albums), and many more.

Unlike many of the great guitarists of his generation, who grew up on the blues, the young Beck was inclined toward stylists — Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent’s rockabilly group, the Blue Caps. But he quickly developed a style all his own, typically playing without a pick, using every finger on his strumming hand.

“He created sounds out of the guitar that no one had ever created before,” says Hoey. “And he made it look so easy.”

“Jeff Beck was the Salvador Dali of guitar,” tweeted Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry (who once called Beck “the best guitar player on the planet”). “[T]o see him play was to hear the ultimate 6 string] alchemist create magic in a world of its own.”

Longtime New England headliner Jon Butcher has often been compared with Jimi Hendrix, but he says Jeff Beck was much more of a guiding light for him. Butcher appeared in a 1985 video for Beck’s era-specific pop song “Ambitious” (written by Nile Rodgers), and they remained in touch over the years.

“The night I shot that, we went to a production house, and I found myself in the company of him and Eddie Van Halen,” Butcher recalls. “I had to pinch myself.”

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Jon Butcher (left) and Jeff Beck.Courtesy Jon Butcher

Even considering Van Halen’s virtuosity, Butcher says, “The only guitar player who could share a sentence with Jimi is Jeff Beck. But with Jimi, there might be a clam or two mixed into the stew. He played with reckless abandon. Beck had technique, and that’s something I wanted for myself.”

With each Beck album that arrived beginning in the mid-1970s, Butcher says, he felt challenged to elevate his own craft. To him, Beck’s creative run from “Blow by Blow” to 1980′s “There and Back,” with “Wired” in between, was astonishing.

“As a guitarist, I can mark my evolution by the release of those three records,” he says. “When I first heard ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers’ (from “Blow by Blow,” written by Wonder), I’m going, ‘Oh, dude, you gotta practice. There’s levels of the guitar you’ve only scratched.’

“He was always light years ahead. We all thought that.”

But Beck’s mastery began a lot earlier than that, Butcher adds. On the Yardbirds’ raga-inspired “Shapes of Things,” which came out in 1966, his playing was like nothing else at the time: “There was nothing that aggressive, that acidic. You felt this guy was dangerous. It was a portent of things to come.”

Aspiring guitar students who elect to take Kasper’s class in Beck-ology are usually familiar with his work by the time they arrive, the professor says.

“On the rare occasion, somebody will come in and be less familiar with the entire repertoire,” he says. “But they’ve heard ‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers’ or ‘Freeway Jam.’”

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During one week in 2006, Kasper caught three separate gigs by his guitar hero, including one at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom. That show, he says, “was the best thing I’ve ever seen as a guitarist. It was the most humbling. He was on fire, in an extremely refined way. Every phrase had a breadth and a commitment to it.”

When Beck was scheduled to play the MGM Music Hall with his friend Johnny Depp last October, Kasper hesitated to go.

“I’m glad I did,” he says. “His playing was amazing — absolutely on point.”

Over the years, he could always count on seeing many of his fellow guitar fanatics at Beck’s shows. At MGM, he bumped into two of his friends from Berklee’s guitar department.

“We saw each other and started laughing — ‘Of course you’re here.’”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.