In the beginning (1963) they were simply the best versed and the most faithful disciples of Chicago blues. They were the ones to replace the Rolling Stones in the blues clubs in the London neighborhood of Richmond when Jagger and Co. became stars. But the Yardbirds, unlike the Stones, had a clean sound and a more serious attitude, both professionally and personally. Nor were they like The Animals, whose sound centered around the singer and the organ. The Yardbirds' focus on the guitar was an exquisitely technical contribution to the evolution of rock style.
Prodigy Eric Clapton was at the guitar, and around his sound the rhythm guitar of Chris Dreja, the drums of Jim McCarty and the harmonica of the singer Keith Relf served as able collaborators. The structure of the band and their choice of repertoire got them close to black musicians. They secured a friendship with American bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), with whom they toured. After booking a long engagement at George Gomelsky's Crawdaddy Club, the band made their first recordings there, as Williamson's backup band, although those tracks were released some years later.
Their first record on their own was Five Live Yardbirds (1964), full of hyper-kinetic blues, which yielded them a discreet following in the United States. Most memorable are the skillful jams graced by Clapton's solos, in particular the one in Smokestack Lightning, with a spectacular call-and-response between guitar and harmonica.
In march 1965 they reached the charts with For Your Love, written by Graham Gouldman and produced by Gomelsky, a piece full of special effects: bongo tapping, ringing guitars, and Brian Auger's crackling harpsichord. It was backed with the instrumental Got To Hurry, recorded in the summer of 1964, that boasted one of the first guitar feedbacks of rock music (Johnny Watson had pioneered feedback in the 1950s). The follow-up album, For Your Love (1965), exploited the success of the 45, presenting a much more watered down blues, as in I Wish You Would.
The band abandoned that rigid imitative vision of the blues when Jeff Beck and his guitar distortions succeeded Clapton. Beck conceived the guitar not only as an electric instrument but as an electronic one as well. With him the band developed a more creative and exciting sound, taking inspiration from Gregorian chants and all sorts of sound effects. Producers Gouldman and Gomelsky are the brains behind Heart Full Of Soul and Evil Hearted You (June and October of 1965), with yet another passionate guitar solo and ethereal vocalization. Having A Rave Up, released in November 1965 (no January 1966 like some sources say, my source is an eyewitness, Allan Peters), also features Still I'm Sad, a dark depressive vortex accompanied by a Gregorian chant of low voices, and a reved-up classic blues, I'm A Man.
In August they released their second studio album Yardbirds '65 (Epic, 1966), one of the best of the year. Also known as Roger The Engineer, this record is full of feedback and tribalism, as in Hot House Of Omagarashid, swinging instrumentals, such as Jeff's Boogie, acid and oriental sound, as in Over Under Sideways Down, dreamy melodies such as Turn Into Earth, Chuck Berry style rock and roll such as What Do You Want, and old style blues as in Lost Woman. This eclectic range of experiments culminates with Happening Ten Years Time Ago (the 45 of the fall of 1966), an historic duet between Beck and then veteran session-man Jimmy Page that transcends itself, becoming a piece of chamber music a la Edgar Varese. Few albums of 1966 are so imbued with psychedelic and Indian music. Beck's guitar is a solid emulation of the sitar.
Their last hit was the psychedelic Shapes Of Things (written by Mike Hugg, Manfred Mann's drummer) with a rhythmic and melodic crescendo built distortion by distortion. Their last fabulous blues is New York City Blues (May 1966).
In 1967, after rearranging the lineup, with Page in place of Beck, the Yardbirds recorded mediocre cuts. The year after they disbanded.
That was the year of Dazed And Confused, characterized by a sound effect obtained by drawing a violin bow across the strings of the guitar. The song, and the special effect, appeared two years later on the first album by Led Zeppelin.
The three guitarists continued to be celebrated in their respective bands: the Jeff Beck Group, Cream and Led Zeppelin. Singer Keith Relf died in 1976.