IF YOU ARE A FAN OF INSTRUMENTAL ROCK, you’ll likely be hard-pressed to find any moment in the recorded history of the electric guitar more bittersweet than Jason Becker’s beautiful intro on “River of Longing.” That’s because while the piece is one of three new tracks on Becker’s recent Shrapnel release, Collection, its tender E major prologue was tracked by Becker way back in 1990. And if you’re at all familiar with Becker’s story, you know that means it was one of the guitar virtuoso’s swansong performances. At that point in time, Becker was lucky to still be able to even hold a guitar, let alone play one.
“I was definitely slowing down by then,” says Becker, who, five years prior to that session, was a 16-year-old wunderkind lighting up the shred scene alongside Marty Friedman in Cacophony. And just one year before that recording, Becker’s stunning Clapton-meets- Paganini lead guitar chops had landed him bona fide rock stardom as lead guitarist for David Lee Roth. “As I was recording that intro, my hands were shaking,” continues Becker. “They kept falling off the guitar.”
Becker’s physical challenges all started one night when he was kept awake by a leg cramp that wouldn’t fade away. “I spent months jogging and stretching, but that leg wouldn’t stop feeling lazy,” says Becker. “I was limping.” Poised to become one of the most dazzling and influential shredders since Steve Vai and Randy Rhoads (YouTube some old Becker clips for instant proof of his virtuosity), Becker soon began to suffer muscle atrophy in places, and it wasn’t long before he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the oft-fatal neurodegenerative disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The guitarist was told his career was over, and given three to five years to live.
That was 20 years ago.
“To survive this disease that long, you have to have a real life mission,” says Gary Becker, Jason’s father. “You have to still feel like you have something left to do, which Jason always has.”
Though Becker can now move only his eyes, he is, in many ways, as active a musician as ever. He doesn’t play guitar, though. He plays other guitar players. Just as he speaks sentences through those people closest to him (using an ingenious system of word spelling via simple eye movements he developed with his father), he expresses his music through producers such as Dan Alvarez and Mike Bemesderfer, and through guitarists such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Greg Howe, Dave Lopez, Steve Hunter, Marty Friedman, and Michael Lee Firkins, all of whom grace Becker’s new album.
“I’m on two songs on the record, and they were recorded 15 years apart,” says Firkins. The first of Firkins’ features is the 11-minute epic “End of the Beginning,” a challenging electric guitar concerto that Firkins, acting as Becker’s hands (just as he did in the studio when tracking it), subsequently performed with orchestras in Northern California.
“There’s a lot of emotion in that track, because when we recorded it, Jason could still talk, but he could no longer play, and none of us knew how long he’d be around,” says Firkins. “But Jason has more will to live than most people. Now, 15 years later, he’s out-surviving everybody, and even though it takes him longer to get his ideas across, he still knows exactly what he wants from a guitar performance, and he gets it.
“Fifteen years ago, we got deep into tone, stacked harmonies, and a lot of the classical approaches Jason wanted to hear employed on the piece’s guitar parts, which took us 12 days to record! For the new song, ‘Electric Prayer for Peace,’ things were looser and less detail-oriented, because Jason was speaking through his father using his eye language through the studio’s double glass window, but it didn’t matter. The music is still 100 percent Jason’s. The best part about working with Jason is that he does not slack. If there’s something he doesn’t like, he tells you. He’s always willing to go the extra mile to make things happen, which is a quality I always admire in a musician.”
While Becker wasn’t able to attend all the sessions with Collection’s guest guitarists, his pieces arrived in their studios fully realized, which helped shape their performances. “Hearing Jason’s music pour through the speakers for the first time was an awesome moment,” says Satriani, who also plays on “Electric Prayer for Peace.” “Jason had sent me Pro Tools files, but didn’t give me a hint as to what kind of music they held. What he had composed was so beautiful and full of emotion. He gave me no specific direction other than to be myself and take it where I thought it should go. It was a joy to be part of the music’s ebb and flow. I just plugged in and let the music take me for a ride.”
Indeed, while it certainly “takes a village” to record a modern Jason Becker album, the painstaking efforts are always worthwhile. “It starts with me working with my father, Gary, to compose, which takes some time,” says Becker. “I give him a few notes at a time, and then we go into a matrix where we can edit each part of each note—from attack to duration—and move them around. Next, we layer tracks until I have the tune written. Then, Dan Alvarez or Mike Bemesderfer comes in to do edits and adjustments and make it all pro and perfect. And they each record the live musicians with me. Making music this way is a lot of work, but it really is a fine substitute for guitar playing. It creates the same feeling inside me as playing did.”
“Jason is the producer/composer,” adds Bemesderfer. “Dan and I are just the hands. I find it really easy to do editing with Jason, because he understands exactly how platforms like Pro Tools and Logic work, and knows how to use them to massage parts, real or sequenced, until they’re perfect.”
Despite having hardly played any guitar in the past two decades, Becker remains active on the gear front, and has developed a signature solidbody with Paradise Guitars based on his famous custom Peavey—his distinctive ’80s ax with the colorful fretboard numerals— as well as a dual-mode ProTone Jason Becker Distortion pedal. Of course, of all his current market offerings, it is Collection Becker is most proud of.
“This record is for new and old fans alike,” says Becker, who says that if he had been playing guitar the past 20 years, there’d probably be a lot more Prince, George Clinton, and Indian music in his playing. “Whether the songs are from Cacophony, my solo albums, or David Lee Roth, the songs I chose are the ones that have proven to be the most moving to people—the ones that have gotten the best feedback from fans over the years.”
Bemesderfer points out that one of the many amazing things about the new album is that, compositionally speaking, it’s Becker’s newest pieces that are the most sophisticated. “When you go from the stuff recorded when Jason was at his complete technical best as a guitarist to the stuff recorded recently, it’s just incredible that there is no discontinuity. What you have is a record that spans an entire music career with no deviation in quality. That’s cool, because it means the music Jason is producing today is as good or better than any he’s ever done, and that sends a really powerful message—a message about the amazing things people can do if they really want to.”