Against All Odds, Jason Becker Is Still Creating, Composing, and Kicking Ass
“What do you think he’d be doing if he were playing today?”
This is a question guitarists love to ponder when discussing heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or any other player whose career was cut short by a premature, untimely death. But what if the guitar hero didn’t die? What if, through no fault of his own, a brilliant guitarist was simply no longer able to play guitar? That doesn’t come up in conversation nearly as often, unless the guitarist in question is one Jason Eli Becker.
Becker’s story has been told many times and, in a nutshell, goes something like this: Child prodigy develops astounding technique and musicality in an astoundingly short period of time. As a teenager, he records genre-defining instrumental music. Just out of his teens, he auditions for—and gets—the gig with David Lee Roth, following in the footsteps of two of his heroes, Steve Vai and Edward Van Halen. THEN, just as he is poised to take over the world of guitar, a sore, lazy feeling in his left leg that caused him to walk with a limp was diagnosed as ALS. In no time at all, he lost some, then all of his chops. Then he couldn’t even hold a guitar. Soon enough he couldn’t walk, talk, or breathe on his own. He wasted away to virtually nothing in the three-to-five-year period that doctors gave him to live. Anyone who knows anything about ALS knows that that is where this story would most likely end. That’s when he was supposed to give up. That’s about the time that he should have become a footnote in rock history, a tragic tale of what might have been.
But Jason Becker has always been able to do things that seem impossible. There’s no way he should have developed the superhuman chops that he showed on his early recordings. It doesn’t make sense that he could not only play Bach and Paganini pieces but also assimilate the harmony, melody, and counterpoint of those composers into his own writing, while he was still a kid. And there is absolutely no earthly explanation as to why he should still be alive 23 years after receiving a death sentence— still making brilliant music, imparting the chords, lines, and arpeggios that he hears in his head with nothing more than eye movements that are read by his caregivers and translated into musical notes.
|Take a number: Jason with his custom Peavey.|
Much has been written about Becker’s recent compositions, and with good reason. They would stand on their own as deep, soulful works even if they were written and performed by an “able-bodied” musician using normal means. But before there was that part of the Jason Becker Saga, there was the guitar story.
Becker’s guitar talents are multifaceted, with him being able to cover a huge variety of styles and techniques and somehow make each one sound easy and natural. You’ve got the angular riffing of “Eleven Blue Egyptians,” the liquid lines of “Air,” the sexy vibrato and hummable melodies on “Altitudes,” and blinding shred on “Mabel’s Fatal Fable.” If you weren’t lucky enough to see a gig of his back in the day, you’ll find watching footage of his clinic at the Atlanta Institute of Music to be very eye opening. Most of the clinic is in his instructional DVD, The Legendary Guitar of Jason Becker, and you can also see snippets on YouTube. A good place to start might be the clip entitled “Jason Becker Arpeggios.” This shows a 19-year-old Becker—in ripped jeans playing his blue Carvin—demonstrating techniques and answering questions. After slowly explaining his style of executing Amaj arpeggios, he gradually builds up speed to an amazing, jaw-dropping rate. His precision, even in this informal setting, is positively uncanny. Then, at the 6:44 mark, he plays “Improvised Solo #2.” This is one of the greatest post-Van Halen bits of riffery ever, with ungodly chops, intricate, nuanced bends, killer hybrid picking, and a gorgeous sense of melody, humor, blues feeling, and pop smarts. If anyone ever needed confirmation that he was the guy to pick up the Van Halen/Vai torch and run with it, this bit is it.
But he’s not done. He then plays his tune “Serrana,” demonstrating the intricate clean-toned counterpoint of the intro, and in the process showing himself to be a guy with serious classical chops (or at least as much as anyone can on a Carvin with a Kahler). It’s the next part, however, “Serrana Arpeggios” at 9:25, that is the freaking showstopper. Going from zero to 600 in one note, Becker seemingly covers every note on the fretboard with unbelievable accuracy, a perfect touch, and an unbelievable evenness of attack. If anyone could out-Yngwie Yngwie, Jason Becker is that dude.
|Becker’s Strat with the striped pickguard that he played in the high school talent show video.|
But if all he could do was play fast, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him. Lots of guys can shred. What sets Becker apart is the pop, blues, soul, and crazy/goofy humor that are evident in everything he plays. You can hear it, like in his slinky lines in “A Little Ain’t Enough,” but when you watch him play, it’s unavoidable. The mugging, the rolling of the eyes when he thinks he might have missed a note, the burning with the left hand while he plays with a yo-yo with his right hand. It’s all fun and games and you have to laugh—partly because it’s so good and partly because you know that, outwardly or inwardly, he’s laughing too. Plenty of players can play amazing stuff, but most of them look like they’re struggling, at least a little, to perform those extraordinary musical feats. Not Becker. And maybe it’s that effortlessness that allows so much of his soul, humor, and personality to come through—even when there are so many notes flying at you that nothing should be able to come through. Maybe it’s that effortlessness that has allowed him to exert more effort over the last 23 years than all of us combined will in our entire lives.
The past couple of years have been good ones for Becker. There have been benefit shows in San Francisco and the Netherlands, with monster players like Joe Satriani, Guthrie Govan, Steve Lukather, Richie Kotzen, Marty Friedman, and many others. A documentary on his life, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, is winning awards at film festivals everywhere. Carvin is releasing the JB200C, based on the guitar Becker is kissing in the famous Ross Pelton shot. Jason is currently readying a release of early recordings as well as working on new material and he remains, by his own admission, the sexiest man alive.
Your dad talks about you being able to play Clapton stuff note-for-note early on. How did you get his solos under your fingers?
My uncle Ron taught me the pentatonic scale. We would often jam the blues together at his house across the street. His favorite players were Roy Buchanan, Mark Knopfler, and Clapton. I loved them too. He told me I could play along with pretty much any Clapton tune with this scale. I went home and tried to learn all of his songs and licks. Knowing that scale, and seeing Ron play blues, allowed me to figure his stuff out by ear. The notes were the easy part, but figuring out his feel—now that was the hard part. I don’t know if I ever did. I had to find my own feel.
How did his playing shape your style?
I think his playing was a great building block for me. You definitely wouldn’t hear his influence on my style in my earlier recordings, like Perpetual Burn, unless you dig deep. People always ask me how I can play fast with feeling and soul at the same time, and I think that goes back to my early influences: Dylan, Segovia, Bach, Mozart, Clapton, Hendrix, Buchanan, Knopfler, and later on, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eddie Van Halen. I mean those guys oozed soul. How could that not somehow be in my playing? Making music and moving people to feel something is the real point of it all. I see so many great players on YouTube, but most of them aren’t writing songs or melodies, or breaking hearts with feeling. On the Roth album and as my hands got weaker, you can hear a little more Clapton in my notes.
When did you start going after speed and technique? Who were the first technical players you were drawn to?
When I first heard Eddie Van Halen, I was blown away like everyone else. I came late to Van Halen, though. Kids in junior high would ask me if I could do two-hand tapping, and I didn’t know what that was. This was in 1982 or ’83. Shortly after that, my dad found the first Van Halen album on cassette lying in the gutter by his work at Safeway. He brought it to me and I freaked out. I immediately started trying to learn “Eruption.” I spent the whole weekend figuring it out.
Was that your introduction to shred?
I don’t know if you would call Eddie a shredder. Maybe I don’t know the exact definition of the term. Isn’t it just someone who sometimes plays fast? When people call me a shredder, and then I hear other so-called shredders, I am often baffled. I think, “Is that what people hear when they listen to me?” But now I think people understand that fast playing was just a tool I used to make good music, along with slow playing, counterpoint, vibrato, bending, and composition.
So, if Eddie ain’t a shredder, then the first thing I heard was on the Paul Simon song “Allergies.” Al Di Meola did the solo. I loved it and got a couple of his albums. His own music didn’t really hit me emotionally, although I did learn “Race with Devil on Spanish Highway.” Then this guy named Steve Morse kept winning Guitar Player magazine’s Best Overall Guitarist award. I bought his album The Introduction and that hit me hard. I would try to play along with that whole album. Again, I could nail the notes, but not his feel. We are friends now and I am really honored by that. What a sweet guy!
Now for the obvious one that I was drawn to. My dad’s friend brought me a tape of “a 14-year-old.” Some kid had fooled the friend into thinking it was him playing on it. Really, it was Yngwie’s intro solo to the Steeler song “Hot on Your Heels.” Not only that, but he had sped it up to 45 rpm. I was depressed. Not until I started taking lessons from the former Miles Davis guitarist, Dave Creamer, did I even try to attempt it. I also didn’t find out who it really was for months. When I learned it was Yngwie, I got his Rising Force album and I fell in love. I tried to learn every note. His fast stuff was great, but he also had emotion. His version of that Albinoni piece [“Adagio in G Minor”] was wonderful. For two years in high school I was Yngwie’s Mini-Me. It wasn’t just his playing, but his cocky attitude. I had been shy and lacked self confidence. I needed a little attitude myself. He gave me just enough.
When you started chasing after technical chops, did it come easily? When did you think you could really shred?
It sure didn’t feel like it came easily. I guess time-wise, it didn’t take long—maybe a year or two to get pretty good at it—but it felt like I sucked forever! People told me I was great, but I didn’t want to just be a great player for my age. I wanted to become one of the best players, musicians, and composers ever. I was never totally satisfied. I wouldn’t concentrate on the compliments or praise. It was all about learning to be a better musician. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was trying to become one with music. I think I have had moments where I have been one with music, and that makes me feel so grateful.
So to answer your second question, I don’t know if I ever consciously thought, “Man, I am a kick-ass shredder!” It helps to be surrounded by players who are better than you, like Marty Friedman and Dave Creamer.
Your practice regimen used to include playing at the dinner table and in your car. How else would you practice? Break down a normal day as a teenager and tell me what you would work on.
I never set out a practice schedule. Guitar should be fun. I can’t imagine forcing yourself to practice scales or alternate picking for one or two hours each day, then one hour of arpeggios, etc. In all of my spare moments I would practice. I would practice what Dave Creamer taught me that month. At first it was scales, jazz chords, and theory. Then we got into intervallic arpeggios, 12-tone rows, and all kinds of fascinating advanced musical concepts. At the same time, I was learning about polyrhythms and Japanese music from Marty and our drummer, Atma Anur. I was also learning some of the Paganini Caprices, just for the hell of it. I was a sponge.
I practiced exercises like everyone else, but the goal was to write cool songs, with no limitations from inadequate technique. Learning and practicing these things would mean nothing though, if I hadn’t been able to make wonderful compositions, with some beautiful melodies. Funny—for all the wild, weird, amazing, humorous, interesting s**t I did, it’s the sweet melodies that I am most proud of. When I listen to something I wrote and played and I can think that Mozart would be happy if he wrote it, and Jeff Beck would be happy if he had played it, I am stoked!
I heard Marty say that you guys would harmonize lines in Cacophony in unusual ways. Instead of voicing everything in thirds, say, you would harmonize one note in thirds, the next one in fifths, maybe the next one in tritones, etc. Can you think of an example where you guys played lines like that?
Hmm…I remember harmonizing different phrases like that, but I can’t recall each note being a different harmony. Possibly in “Savage.” Marty got me into interesting harmonies. Everyone did thirds and fifths. We got into fourths, octaves, minor seconds, and sometimes funky nonsense that would wake you up out of your expectations. We loved how Beethoven and Stravinsky would do the unexpected. It was beautiful and refreshing.
Which Cacophony tunes do you think best illustrate what you two were capable of?
“Images” was the most brilliant Cacophony tune ever! That was inspired by Debussy and it was the only one I wrote and mostly played myself. Ha ha! Honestly, maybe the title tracks from each album, Speed Metal Symphony and Go Off! The first one is an epic journey of counterpoint, melody, and crazy, wild guitar, which ends in literal cacophony. “Go Off!” starts in a flurry of fast, odd-time harmonies— kind of prog metal—then it moves to a wonderful slow melody by Marty, and finishes with one of my favorite slow melodies by me. My end melody and playing gives me goosebumps. The “Ninja” intro is pretty nice, too. The clean Japanese-sounding counterpoint is very sweet.
How did you develop such accuracy with your arpeggios?
I guess it helped to have a wide stretch. Also I started doing those less as a solo and more as parts of songs, so I wasn’t trying to play them fast. I was trying to match the tempo of the song.
On your instructional DVD, there’s footage of you in 1987 playing Paganini. The AIM clinic footage is from two years later and yet you sound like you had gotten a lot smoother and more fluid in your playing in that short time. Did you feel that your playing was progressing rapidly in those days?
Definitely. I constantly played guitar. It didn’t feel like practicing. I just loved playing and always tried to get better. I guess I am one of those guys who didn’t start out fully developed in my style. I think my high point was at 19.
When you were making the David Lee Roth record, you would be in the studio all day and then, when you got back to your room, you would bust out your 4-track and do more recording. “Jasin Street,” off The Raspberry Jams, was one of those tunes. You said that Steve Hunter had showed you some jazz chords before you tracked it. What sort of things did he show you?
I was getting way into Louis Armstrong at that time and Hunter’s jazz chords kind of connected me more to Louis. “Jasin Street” is a take-off on Louis’ song “Basin Street.” I don’t think I was quite great at jazz yet. I think I faked my way through the middle like SRV sometimes did, but he’s Stevie so he could do it better than I could!
You could hear classical harmony and understand it from a young age. Can you also hear jazz harmony in your head? Do those kinds of changes make sense to you?
Not yet. I was getting there, but ALS interrupted that. I have so much respect for guys who know jazz.
Your demo recording of “Hot for Teacher” features a terrifying intro, where you do one track of tapping and one track where you pick all the notes. Why did you do that and how did you do that?
That recording was something I did to send to David Lee Roth, and I knew he had heard a million kids tap it. I was a different kid, so doing it was natural because I just converted it to my familiar arpeggio picking thing. Since Eddie’s intro is basically arpeggios, I thought I would use my strength to play it.
You also recorded “Skyscraper” and “Yankee Rose” for that same audition tape. I was blown away by how natural and comfortable you sound on those songs. How difficult was it to learn all those parts and get them recorded? How long did you spend on it?
I had to learn them and record them in one night because they were chomping at the bit. I had loved those tunes already, so it was natural to play them with my style.
Dave’s career kind of hit the skids after A Little Ain’t Enough. A lot of people think that if you had been able to do the tour that might not have been the case. Did you ever think about that?
That is so cool that people think that! I just don’t know, myself. Although I would have brought some youthful exuberance, heaviness, and some fun, new tricks, I don’t know if it would have helped his career. It was still his band and vision, and he was the main attraction. But hey—maybe I would have changed the musical direction of the ’90s. Maybe guitar still would have been cool. Maybe my happiness, innocence, and goofiness would have become the trend, rather than depression and angst. Actually, I don’t blame people for getting depressed. It can be a sad world sometimes, but a man can dream, can’t he?
It was around that time that you realized that your muscles were failing you and that was affecting your ability to play guitar. How freaky was it when you first had to admit that?
I think I didn’t cop to it until I was in the studio with Roth. It had been harder to play for a few months but I finally had to admit it when I was recording the intro to “Drop in the Bucket.” It’s a fairly easy part but I was sucking. After struggling through it and feeling like a dork, I went into the bathroom and looked between my first finger and thumb and the muscle was concave. I cried. Even though I thought it would come back, I started recording as many demos as I could because I knew I could lose it all soon. It was scary but I had work to do, so I plugged along. I waited to get depressed until later.
Your famous Peavey guitar had super-light strings on it, like an .008 for the E and a .009 for the B. What other steps did you take to try to keep your chops up during that time?
|Cacophony and Hurricanes: Marty Friedman and Jason Becker back in the day.|
I had the lowest action possible. You can hear strings buzzing on my tune “Amma” from The Raspberry Jams
. I also tried to use pickups with lots of sustain.
When you were finally unable to play guitar, how long was it before you started composing with the computer? How emotionally tough was it to try to get back into music?
I went right into it happily, and that actually kept me from deep depression. I could still make music. I guess I found out it wasn’t just about guitar. It was about music.
When you’re composing, do you hear the whole arrangement in your head or does it come to you more line by line?
Usually line by line and layer by layer.There are a couple of exceptions, like “End of the Beginning.” I first heard it full in my head while sleeping in the van on a Cacophony tour. I told Marty about it and he said, “Don’t forget it.” But I totally forgot it. Then, a year later, I heard it again while getting a massage in LA, so I went home and recorded what I could on guitar. I didn’t write the minor section until later.
When you’re writing, do you think in guitar terms? Say, if a tune has a series of arpeggios played on trumpet, will you envision those shapes on the fretboard?
I envision almost everything on guitar. The tune you are referring to is “Serrana.” That trumpet section is something that I used to play during my guitar solo in Cacophony shows. I definitely pictured doing my solo when putting that in the computer. When writing “Life and Death” and “Electric Prayer for Peace,” I didn’t think about the guitar. I guess it depends on whether it starts in my head as a guitar lick. If I need to figure something out, I will always look at a guitar neck, though.
Which scenes in the movie were your favorites and why?
I liked the funny scenes, like my uncle Ron and me singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” My uncle is the funniest person I know. Ron’s personality is one of the reasons I rarely took myself seriously on stage or in the studio. He was a fearless goof, and that rubbed off on me. It also keeps me happy these days. I loved my high school buddy, Nate. He told stories no one else could and cracked everyone up. I love the touching scenes with Marty, Hunter, and my folks. My brother Ehren was the best story teller. Jesse [Vile, director] made a beautiful, hilarious, and moving film. I am honored and grateful.
Which scenes were difficult for you to watch?
It is always tough to see myself right before I got my trache. I had gotten down to 80 pounds from my normal 150. I could hardly breathe, and you can see on my face how much I was struggling. It was also hard to watch myself cry. These scenes were tough, but they needed to be in the movie. I’m able to let go of my vanity about that now, but it took me back to those difficult times.
There’s a scene in the movie when you’re working on a tune with your dad and you create this beautiful line and then tell him to take out all of it except for the first two notes. Will you use that discarded line somewhere else or is it gone forever?
Funny—I hate to admit it but I was joking. I put the part right back.
What are you working on now?
I’m going to put out the first of three CDs of demos I did before getting with Shrapnel. I like the stuff and it is fun to hear where I came from. The songs are simpler than what I got into with Shrapnel. Some people who hear it say I was better then. Bastards better be kidding! I am also thinking of releasing one of the newer songs from the movie as a single. It is called “Magic Woman” and it’s kind of classical, kind of soundtracky.
How young were you on the earliest recording you’re going to release?
On the first volume I’m 15 at my youngest. I play a Villa Lobos piece. I got lucky on that recording. I played it for Vai who thought I was lying about my age. He thought it was world class. He was being kind!
What will your next record of original compositions sound like?
I think probably on the classical side with maybe a little Spanish flavor.
Is there a guitarist whose playing you really like these days?
I think Guthrie Govan has a sweet sound and style. It’s very natural. He came to visit and he reminded my friends and parents of me back in the day because he was very playful with music and he was happy and nutty. He played something haunting and my mom said it made her cry so he looked her in the eye and played something really happy, goofy, and cute. I like Gretchen Menn. She’s a guitarist who can also compose. Ben Woods kicks ass on flamenco guitar with his band Flametal. I want to take lessons from him.
Does it ever get tiresome being an inspiration?
It used to. When I was sitting at home, not doing much, I would cringe when people told me I inspired them. Not that I didn’t want to help people, but I didn’t feel like I was doing anything besides staying alive. What was so inspiring about that? Perspective hadn’t sold very much. If I was so inspirational, why weren’t people buying my music? Making records was my job, but I wasn’t getting paid. I never wanted to be known for surviving ALS.
Now I like being an inspiration. I embrace it. People need to be inspired, and if my life helps with that, great. I get inspiration from other people too, like Amma and other saints, my family, friends, and fans. When I met Stephen Hawking, just being in his presence was energizing, so I get what people feel around me. It also helps that more people are understanding my music.
I know you’ve never been big on regrets, but do you regret at all wearing the spandex pants in the famous yo-yo video?
God yes! And that scene in the movie with my zebra spandex. Kill me now!
When you compose now, the notes obviously come much more slowly than they did back in the day, and yet you say you get the same feeling inside. That suggests that even when you were blazing away at the speed of light, every note was still important.
I think that is accurate. I sure felt like each note mattered.
Here Becker details some of what went into the making of his 2008 Shrapnel release, Collection, which contains old and new tracks and a host of great musicians. For more of Becker’s track notes, go to guitarplayer.com.
“River of Longing”
(feat. Steve Hunter and Greg Howe)
I wrote the basic structure of this piece in 1990, while I was quickly losing my ability to play guitar. My hands were shaking and I had trouble keeping them from falling off the strings. The subconscious emotions I was feeling from this came out in the cassette tape recording. Dan Alvarez and Mike Bemesderfer digitally cleaned up the recording. I think this is the first piece of mine where you might be able to hear my Dylan influence. It just feels so good. Some people have compared this piece to Pink Floyd.
It starts with my clean guitar, alone. It then goes into a more elaborate arrangement, featuring a slide guitar solo by Steve Hunter, which sounds a little reminiscent of David Gilmour. Steve is a legend. He has played on lots of classic stuff, including the acoustic guitar in Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.”
It then climbs into a funk/hip-hop-type groove with rock organ and bass by Matt Bissonette. This section features guitar by Greg Howe. He does some of his trademark beautiful, tasty, funky rippage. He has such a wonderful and unique feel. The piece climaxes with a full choir. It starts off with a gospel feel, and ends with a classical vocal arrangement.
I wrote the music and then David Lee Roth wrote the lyrics. I had just been diagnosed with ALS in late 1989. Generally, my energy and creativity were a little down, but I wouldn’t admit it to myself at the time. I got inspired to write this fast boogie because I was thinking that there wasn’t enough good guitar material for the CD yet. I had only written one other piece for the album, “Drop in the Bucket.” I was following Dave’s two former brilliant guitarists, so even with ALS I had to have something amazing and jawdropping. Dave was very happy to get this piece. He called me a genius when I played it for him. It was sweet. I didn’t feel like a genius. Eddie and Steve had written awesome, fast, swingy boogies before I did.
Dave was wonderful to me. He knew I was having health problems, and tried to help all he could. He offered his doctor dad’s services. He was very positive and hopeful when talking to me about it. We spent alone time together talking about lots of things: music, health, the world, and Van Halen.
When we got back from recording A Little Ain’t Enough, we were trying out some new musicians for the tour. When I stood up playing, my legs would shake uncontrollably. I was struggling playing the tunes, too. After the day of auditions, we both decided that I couldn’t tour. The next day there was a big party in a fancy restaurant. Dave was depressed. I tried to cheer him up by talking about football. I wasn’t as sad as he was. He is a wild, crazy character, but also a feeling person.
This is a favorite among guitar fans. It is a dramatic piece. There is a unique blend of intense emotion, soaring melody, and blazing speed. I liked writing a simple, passionate melody, and then sticking fast, extended arpeggios, following the chords over that. I often did that. I also did it in “Temple of the Absurd” and “Images.” I feel like I was just starting to create my own musical sound, and my guitar was like the lead vocalist. I hope that my guitar playing makes people not miss a lead singer.
“End of the Beginning”
(feat. Michael Lee Firkins)
This is a 12-minute guitar concerto with a full orchestra and electric guitar as the solo instrument. This piece was written differently from most other pieces. It just came into my mind fully composed while I was in the state between awake and asleep. I feel like it was a gift. By the time the orchestra was down on tape I couldn’t play the guitar part, so I got Michael Lee Firkins to play it. He made me not sad that I couldn’t do it myself. In addition to a few real musicians, Dan Alvarez and I created the orchestra from instrument samples on keyboard. Mike B set me up with a computer, keyboard, and music software so I could continue composing with my one weak hand. It allowed me to slow the music down while recording, so I could keep up with it despite my growing paralysis. This piece, as well as others from my CD Perspective, has been performed live by orchestras and as ballet. A video for this song is on my DVD.
“Meet Me in the Morning”
This was recorded in January 1991 for a compilation album on Guitar for the Practicing Musician label. My buddy John Stix talked me into doing this, because he knew I loved Dylan. I didn’t want to, because my playing was noticeably weaker. My left hand would stiffen if I tried to play too fast, and my right hand would shake. I couldn’t really do finger vibrato, so I had to use the tremolo bar. Even so, I am happy with it. Many times in music, if you are given limitations, it expands the creativity. A perfect example of this is a 12-bar blues progression. It is incredibly simple and seemingly limited, but there are infinite ways to play it. For this song, all of my control and speed were taken away, and that made me think and feel different and fresh.
I had to come up with a new style due to my weak hands, but I was still inspired by some of my favorite blues players, such as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Roy Buchanan, Albert King, and Michael Lee Firkins. David Lee Roth’s keyboard player, Brett Tuggle, sings the extremely soulful blues vocals. I like to think of this tune as my own “Red House.”
Weight On Jason Becker
Jason Becker is the ultimate shredder in my opinion. He took the whole neo-classical rock guitar style to another level and his technical proficiency was outlandish. His playing was extreme, but musical, meaningful, and passionate. I’m a big fan of his work with Cacophony and his debut solo album Perpetual Burn, is definitely up there with the classics of instrumental guitar music. I always loved how Jason’s playing incorporated big, dramatic melodies and combined them perfectly with super-technical licks. And of course his battle with ALS and the fact that he continues to create great music is just a big inspiration and goes to show you that nothing is impossible.
It was the late ’80s, and I was still a teenager when I first heard Jason Becker. A mutual friend played me some recordings of him, starting with some simple 4-track cassette mixes, and I was stunned. In Jason’s playing, I heard a level of natural virtuosity, speed, and grace that I associated only with classical violinists, Yngwie Malmsteen, and the like, yet I also heard the playful swagger and dangerous mojo of Eddie Van Halen-style hot-rodded hard rock. Those are the two qualities every shredder dreams of having, but so far, it’s only in Jason Becker that I’ve heard both attributes fully present in one guitar player.
Jason’s remarkable technical facility on the instrument was evident even on his earliest recordings. The stuff he was doing as a teenager is still one of the main benchmarks for any modern day guitarist with an interest in that style of playing. There’s way more to Jason’s playing than sheer technique, however. He always managed to convey so much humor and individuality, even when playing at warp speeds, and I think that’s hugely important. Shred for shred’s sake tends to be a cold, emotionless endeavor, so it’s always refreshing to hear a player who can infuse his or her fretboard pyrotechnics with a real sense of personality.
When I met Jason for the recording of the David Lee Roth album, I had heard the Cacophony albums, which were incredible. He and Marty did some really remarkable things together. It was a blast working with him in the studio. We had a lot of fun and it was very powerful stuff—one of those sessions where you’re sorry when it’s over.
Jason had an undeniable, brilliant moment in the history of guitar. His guitar playing future was changed forever, but he adapted and simply kept on and is still making beautiful, powerful music. The beauty is, the Jason I knew is still there. Nothing has changed. He has the same sense of humor, of wonder, and of passion for guitar and music. The only thing that has changed is merely the way he expresses those things.
Every so often a guitar player will come along that makes you incredibly inspired, and Jason is that person to me. His playing has been a part of my life since I was 16 years old. The first time I heard Perpetual Burn, I was blown away with his amazing talent. I think anyone can learn many, many things from Jason Becker. I’ve always been inspired by watching the guitar clinic he did at the Atlanta Institute of Music. This is now available on DVD and I highly recommend every guitar player watch it. Besides the mind-blowing guitar playing, you get the feeling of what a great person he is because he cracks jokes and always has a smile on his face— definitely a guy that loves life and playing music.
I don’t know Jason as well as I would like, but I feel a deep kinship with him that I cannot quite understand but am honored to have. My god, Jason plays so well I am finding it hard to put it into words. So slippery yet so precise. Soul—his music has soul. It’s timeless. He was way ahead of the guitar community and his rising star lives today. I am honored to have been touched by his kindness and his huge heart, and I’m also so thankful for the smile I get when I hear him play and hear his musical compositions. I send a big-ass hug to him. God bless Jason.
Jason brought drop-jaw technique to the table with an upbeat attitude. As he was sweeping arpeggios at the speed of sound he would find time to give us a wink and a smile. That combination of virtuoso and entertainer made him one of my favorite players. Over time, as his illness took hold of his fingers, he started to direct his talent towards composition. Today, his music shows a deeper understanding of melody, harmony, and structure. It’s a testament to who he is as a person that he has been successful at moving his musicianship forward while fighting a debilitating disease.
In the ’80s, playing your guitar like a virtuoso madman was the goal for many, and many learned how to “shred.” But there were always those that made it sound exceptionally musical and Jason was part of that elite group. And he made it look so easy too! But I feel that his greatest contribution is his later work where he employed a greater use of his mind and imagination to create varied and colorful compositions. His tireless work ethic, determination, and realization of visualized goals in the face of devastating circumstances is the stuff that heroes are made of. He has kept his great attitude and amazing sense of humor through perhaps the most debilitating of situations, and has risen as a shining example of the power of positive thinking and will power. The unconditional support of his parents is truly inspiring too. His story is one the world would benefit to study.
I believe it was 1986 when Jason first sent me a demo tape. It was made on a 4-track cassette and showed even then that he was developing his own voice. That early demo, as rough as it was, showed promise for what Jason could be, and with Perpetual Burn he more than fulfilled that promise. He was growing every month in his playing, and Marty Friedman was a catalyst that helped Jason progress even faster. Between the time he recorded those demos at age 16 and Perpetual Burn a year later, quite a metamorphosis took place.
I think had Jason not gotten ill, he would have made a few more records that would have put him at the top of the guitar instrumentalist field, but ultimately he would have become somewhat bored with shredding and focused more on his abilities as a composer and orchestrator.