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Formed amid the British Blues Revolution, The Yardbirds are among the bands that started it all. Almost single-handedly, in only half a decade, they set the bar for what British blues should sound like and set the foundation of rock.
The individual members, especially the guitarists, rose to such heights that you might consider The Yardbirds the greatest guitar band ever.
Their legacy and contribution to rock are so enormous that most Yardbirds Band History articles focus too much on that and leave out their music. I will go deeper and analyze their work at their peak.
The Yardbirds Band History, with its incredible lineups, is also the story of the electric guitar’s rise to greatness.
The stories of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck playing in the same band still sound like a fairytale. These names got me into the band, but the ingenious work of the whole group kept me.
Even though the band had star musicians at every period, I think the sum of the group members is bigger than the individual members. As you’ll read, each of them was equally important to the Yardbird’s sound.
The Yardbirds Quick Facts
- Band Members
- Current: Jim McCarty, John Idan, Kenny Aaronson, Myke Scavone, Godfrey Townsend
- Former: Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Paul Samwell-Smith, Anthony “Top” Topham, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page
- Genres: Blues, Psychedelic Rock, Rock
- Years Active:
- Origin: London
- Most Successful Album: Roger The Engineer released in 1966
- Website: The Yardbirds (dot) com
- Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992
- Included at number 89 in Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”
- Ranked number 37 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock.
- Last Updated: July 2022
The Yardbirds Members
The band has had many lineup changes, especially after their reunion in the 90s. Many session musicians and famous performers joined the band and contributed to live shows and a few studio recordings.
To keep true to The Yardbirds band history, I’ll detail only the original members of the 60s that contributed to the band/s enormous legacy.
William Keith Relf (March 22nd, 1943 – May 12th, 1976) was a founding member, lead vocalist, and harmonica player of the Yardbirds.
Keith was an essential part of the band, serving as the frontman and the lead instrument player along with the legendary guitar trio.
He was one of the primary songwriters whose merit is equal to that of any other band member in the legacy they left. His signature folk-inspired singing and writing, along with the blues harmonica are a signature of all Yardibirds’ records.
Unfortunately, he died at 33 years old after being electrocuted in his house while playing electric guitar. An abrupt end to his creative streak stopped what might have become one of the biggest names in classic rock.
James Stanley McCarty (born July 25th, 1943) is the original drummer and a founding band member.
McCarty is the only member of the Yardbirds to have played in all the different lineups. He is the most consistent band member and has a successful career with other projects.
After The Yardbirds disbanded, he formed the progressive rock band Renaissance, where he took up the role of drummer, singer, and principal songwriter. He continued playing for every new Yardbirds lineup while having his solo career as a songwriter.
Chris Dreja (born November 11th, 1945) is the original rhythm guitarist of the Yardbirds who served as the backbone of Clapton’s and Beck’s lead guitar.
Even though his name is often overshadowed by the great guitar trio of the band, his contribution is none but equal. The rhythm guitar’s role in early RnB and blues is crucial.
Dreja did an extraordinary job at it and even switched to playing bass after Smith left the band and Page joined as second lead guitarist.
In a world where everyone wanted to be the next guitar hero, Dreja’s decision to switch to bass for the sake of the group tells much about his commitment.
Paul Granville Samwell – Smith ( born May 8th, 1943) is a founding member and the bass player of the Yardbirds.
His contribution to the band extended well beyond the bass. Smith was one of the primary songwriters and co-produced and engineered most of the band’s music. The sound of The Yardbirds is due to his studio work as much as to the individual players.
Smith leaving the band after being tired of touring and wanting to focus on production work was a hard hit for The Yardbirds. Even though Jimmy Page took up his place as a member, having lost the brain behind the sound drastically changed their future records.
Eric Patrick Clapton (born March 30th, 1945) is the first of the magic guitar Trio of The Yardbirds. Clapton is undoubtedly one of the last century’s most influential guitarists and musicians.
Clapton joined the band in 1963 and immediately became the group’s superstar. His edgy bluesy guitar playing with elements of rock had never been heard before.
The blend of sweet melodic blues, some seldom-fast improvised runs, and stage accidents earned him the title “Slowhand” and even “God” from an Urban Culture myth fans built around him.
Among his many awards and being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame 3 times, what makes him unique among guitarists is his ability to evolve his style continuously while always keeping one foot on the blues.
As a massive fan of his playing, I dedicated an entire article to his playing and story.
James Patrick Page (born January 9th, 1944) is the latest addition to the Yardbird’s stellar lineup, which then evolved the band from the blues group to the father of hard rock, Led Zeppelin.
Page’s career is full of highlights and innovation. In his early 20s, he became one of London’s top session guitarists and accumulated a wealth of knowledge of studio techniques.
His eccentricity beyond the limits of blues guitar style, never heard of guitar tone and immense stage presence places him among the best to grace a guitar.
His skills as an engineer and producer make him stand out even beyond the other two great guitarists of the band. Page is the person beyond the sound of Led Zeppelin, and much of what he did, he invented.
Page is the receiver of countless honors, including induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Kennedy Center Honors.
Geoffrey Arnold Beck (born June 24th, 1944) came into the band as a replacement for Eric Clapton and proved to be much more than that.
Jeff Beck is an endless source of never heard before guitar sounds. He is widely considered the “guitar player’s guitarist” and is responsible for innovating the instruments continuously, one album at a time.
His groundbreaking album “Blow by Blow” is perhaps the one record defining guitar-centered instrumental music.
My dedication to learning Jeff Beck’s guitar style put me in the most difficult positions I have ever been in my playing. Everything Beck does is unique and sometimes the opposite of what every other player even considers doing.
Apart from his contribution to guitar, he collaborated with some of the best musicians of the century, like Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart.
He has earned multiple awards, including being inducted twice into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a Yardbird member and solo artist.
The Yardbirds Early Years
The Yardbirds started in the Suburbs of West London in 1963 as many bands of the time played Rhythm and Blues inspired by American blues greats.
The first two members of the band were Relf and Samwell-Smith, who went to the same school and started a band named “The Metropolitan Blues Quartet.”
Dreja, Maccarty, and the band’s original lead guitarist Top Topham later joined to form the Yardbirds’ original lineup. The name “Yardbirds” comes from the frontman Relf who got it from the Jack Kerouac novel ‘On The Road.”
Assisted by the vacancy the Rolling Stones left from the club scene, they became notorious in London with their repertoire of American blues.
The early musical style of the band is not recorded much. Yet, they added the first glimpse of what became the British Blues – inspired by the pure American style but executed differently.
Eric Clapton and Rise to Fame
After Clapton joined the Yardbirds in 1963, replacing the original guitarist, Topham, the band was just about to hit the big stage.
The band at that time became one of the biggest names in the club scene. This club gigging period is when Clapton earned his title “Slowhand” from manager Gomelsky after the audience started clapping slowly to him, often replacing a broken string on stage.
The band’s first serious musical endeavor was touring as the backup band for American blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson.
As Clapton describes the tour in the 90s Yardbirds documentary, it was a magical period. The band members had so far imitated the American blues style but never had a taste of it so close.
The end of the tour would also land them their first record deal with EMI’s Columbia label and their debut album.
Five Live Yardbirds (1964)
“Five Live Yardbirds” is a testimony of the band’s early days and of 60s British rock. It testifies the band’s live performances with extended jams, build-ups, and dynamic improvisations.
The tracks featured are all American Rhythm and Blues cover the band included in their setlist. The record is impressive and historically significant because it’s the first taste of what would later become psychedelic rock and the standard for most live bands.
The album’s recording quality is not the best, yet it was superior compared to other recordings of the time, and you can clearly tell the instruments apart.
Clapton’s lead moments on the album are my favorite as I can enjoy his blues beginning at the purest. Beyond his solos, the band feels very tight, with a powerful bass and drum duo keeping the rhythm locked in.
I believe the rhythm sections groove and swing to be the main reason the band successfully made the audience dance and go crazy.
Commercially the album didn’t; manage to hit the top 100 in the year of its release. However, the importance of the record grew over time to legendary status.
Jeff Beck and Psychedelia
The next record, “For Your Love,” would be the last Clapton would play on. The management decided, along with the band, to capitalize on a more commercial sound and drift slightly from the blues.
As a blues purist at the time, Clapton was displeased and decided to leave the band.
The band had just started going big, and now they lacked their lead guitar player. They needed to act fast, even though the options for replacing Clapton were few.
The first choice was the hottest session guitarist in London, Jimmy Page. Page was tempted but refused to join due to his intense session work. The band then got in touch with Jeff Beck, who immediately accepted.
Beck had to fill the shoes of Clapton and was constantly, at first, required to Emulate what Eric did. He proved to do much more than that and became the most prolific guitarist of the legendary trio.
Beck brought a new style, new sound, and techniques that neither Clapton nor Page felt the pressure to deliver.
For Your Love (1964)
The breakthrough record for the band featured both Clapton and Beck on different tracks. The album was a commercial success, yet it had its repercussions.
Clapton had already decided to leave the band yet recorded most of the songs, including the most successful “For Your Love” title track, despite thinking it was against what the band should be.
The track is my favorite from the album. Even though it might have been commercial for the time, it’s now a classic tune.
I place the previous album, “Fiver Live Yardbirds,” higher on my list than this record. Even though the tunes were more catchy, it felt like the band was doing it only to adapt to the audience.
It’s very easy to make the comparison between the two albums and feel the change in style.
Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds (1965)
Have a Rave Up is both a live and studio album featuring both Clapton’s live track and Beck’s studio work.
Recorded in between the successful American tour, the album featured covers, songs written for the band by other songwriters, and my favorite, the band’s original “Still I’m Sad.”
At the time, it was common for bands to play songs written by other people. The band’s efforts to create their hit material started with this record.
Beck’s innovative guitar style began to put the band on the Psychedelic side with the first ever British song featuring an Indian Sitar tone and the use of fuzz tone.
Beck’s take on the Sitar preceded even George Harrison’s famous tendency to use the instrument in many Beatle arrangements.
The album has had continuous reissues, with each new one featuring new tracks from live recordings from Clapton, Beck, and even Page.
The blend of genres and style, differently from “For Your Love,” feels more natural and purposeful from the band. For new Yardbird listeners, this is the first album I’d recommend you listen to.
Roger the Engineer (1966)
The Yardbirds left the most significant legacy with the “Roger the Engineer” album. It’s their first record to feature all original material and their most consistent work due to the band’s solid lineup.
Apart from marking the band’s maturity through the songwriting aspect, it’s the first record that detaches the group from blues into the world of psychedelic rock.
Being a studio-only album gave the band time to experiment with sounds, find new intricate arrangements, and leave space for each member to add their best.
I believe the album’s success was not only due to the band member’s experience but also the production duo made of the bass player Samwell-Smith and new manager Napier-Bell.
Smith’s talent for studio work was becoming his main contribution to music, and this record is one of his best works.
The first track for the album, “Lost Woman,” is my favorite and somehow a hidden gem. The engineering work on that track is splendid with the full bass and drum tone and the hard-panned Beck Guitars. Relf vocals are very prominent and sound much better than any previous record.
The album did commercially well, landing a spot in the top 50 on the UK and US charts. The Rolling Stones magazine would later put the labrum on their list of top 500 albums of all time.
Jimmy Page and Disbandment
After the success of “Roger the Engineer,’ bassist and producer, Samwell-Smith left the band to focus on his studio career, leaving the band once again without a core member.
Needing a new member and with a bigger leverage from their success, the band managed to recruit Jimmy Page. Page agreed to play bass with the band until Dreja got used to the instrument and finally switched to a guitar duo with Jeff Beck.
The duo only recorded a few songs together as Beck was fired from the band during a US tour after becoming ill and unable to continue playing shows. The band continued the tour and the last album with Page as the sole guitarist – a role in which Page excelled.
You can glimpse what’s perhaps the most legendary guitar duo in the song “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.”
The Yardbirds – Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (1966)
After Beck left the band, the band still was an accomplished live act. The group was tight musically with an incredible rock stage presence.
The Yardbirds (feat. Jimmy Page) – Happenings Ten Years Time Ago (1967)
Little Games (1967)
The band’s final studio album of the early years had two unique elements – Jimmy Page was the only guitarist in the band, and that legendary producer Mickie Most was involved.
Most’s involvement was a double-edged sword as he was not, according to Jimmy Page, in line with the new trends and the band’s vision.
This resulted in an album that sounded completely different from what the band sounded live, and neither produced any hit single. Most was focused only on having singles, and the recording process was rushed without considering the album as a whole.
The albums gave birth to some impressive tracks, such as an earlier version of “Dazed and Confused.” Commercially and musically, it didn’t deliver either what the public or band wanted. Typing errors on the cover and mistakes on the release didn’t help the albums either.
The instrumental “White Summer” from Jimmy Page is another impressive tune he would often play with Led Zeppelin. The track’s open tuning and oriental vibes make it a special listen even today.
Little Games would be the final studio album before they disbanded and went separate ways in 1968.
Why Did the Yardbirds Disband?
As drummer Jim McCarty recalls about the time, the band was tired of excessive touring and had no time to be creative. The desire of some of the members to form their own group was also a cause for the breakup.
The band played their last show on July 7th, 1968, at the College of Technology in Luton, Bedfordshire.
Keith Relf and McCarty went on to form the Prog Rock band Reinassance, while Jimmy Page started what he called “The New Yardbirds” with Chris Dreja.
After replacing Dreja with John Paul Jones and recruiting John Bonham and Robert Plant, Dreja stopped him from using the name, and Led Zeppelin was officially formed.
The story of the Yardbirds becoming Led Zeppelin is not entirely true, yet the Yardbird’s breakup was the catalyst for Jimmy Page to start the band.
The Yardbirds Now
The band has seen different reunion tours and lineups, the most recent one featuring only Drummer McCarty from the early days. Their live performances feature old-school pro musicians performing their classics.
The Yardbirds @The City Winery, NY 3/18/19 Intro’s/For Your Love/Happenings Ten Years Ago Time
The three performances I listed here show the band with the three different guitarists that defined each period. Even though the guitar might be the star, pay attention to all members and how different the band’s live performances are in different periods.
The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton- “Louise/I Wish You Would” Live 1964 [Reelin’ In The Years Archives]
Yes Jeff Goes Wild
Jimmy Page The Yardbirds (1968)
The Yardbirds Legacy
The contribution to the guitar world the Yardbirds left is undeniable. No band had and will likely ever have a finer lineup of legendary guitarists.
Each of the 3, Clapton, Beck, and Page, rank in every top 10 list of best players ever who have contributed to the world music legacy beyond the guitar as composers and songwriters. The trio heavily influences modern blues, Psychedelic rock, jazz fusion, hard rock, and heavy metal.
I vividly remember learning the solo from “Wonderful Tonight” by Clapton and being mesmerized by the beauty that lies in its simplicity.
Learning Led Zeppelin tunes by Jimmy Page opened a new world of possibilities, while Jeff Beck was and always is the odd one out. There’s just nothing that compares to him or whatever he plays live or in the studio.
Beyond guitars, my main focus on the Yardbirds Legacy topic is the band’s contribution as a whole to rock music.
Continuing what The Beatles started, The Yardbirds were one of the bands that held up the torch as Britain’s new generation.
The blend of traditional blues and RnB from America within British rock was still in its infant stages, and by the last Yardbird album, it had turned into something entirely different.
The Rolling Stones, who preceded the Yardbirds by a few years, went in another direction and left it to the bands who remained in Britain to innovate.
Even though the band didn’t claim commercial success on all its albums, primarily due to the period they were released, they still managed to set a bar for any new band that followed.
Question: What was The Yardbird’s Biggest Hit?
Answer: “For Your Love” is the band’s biggest single that put them into the mainstream.
Question: What does “Yardbird” Mean?
Answer: In English culture, the term refers to the ‘basic trainee’ in the army.
Question: Are the Yardbirds Touring?
Answer: Yes, the band is touring with the new lineup.
- The Yardbirds discography – Wikipedia
- The Yardbirds – Wikipedia
- The Yardbirds Albums and Discography | AllMusic
- The Yardbirds.com
- the Yardbirds | Members, Songs, & Facts | Britannica
- The Yardbirds Songs, Albums, Reviews, Bio & More | AllMusic
- The Yardbirds BBC Documentary 1996 (Pt 1 of 2)
- The Yardbirds BBC Documentary 1996 (Pt 2 of 2)
- Yardbirds Their Story
- The Yardbirds Story By Giorgio Gomelsky (2002, CD) – Discogs
- Yardbird Jim McCarty interview (September 9th, 2015).