Twenty-nine years ago, Jason Becker was diagnosed with ALS and given five years to live. Now he’s 49 and has a new record out. How can that be? Anyone who has heard Becker’s astounding feats of six-string musicianship in Cacophony or with David Lee Roth knows that he’s always been good at making the impossible possible. And he’s done it again with Triumphant Hearts (Music Theories Recordings), an album of deep compositions and sweeping orchestral arrangements. It’s also full of amazing guitar playing, with monsters such as Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa, Neal Schon, Joe Satriani and many others helping Becker realize his musical vision. Best of all, Becker’s own playing, from sessions he did back in the day, fuels several tracks.
Triumphant Hearts would be a great listen and a profound accomplishment no matter who created it, but the fact that it was done by a guy who long ago lost the ability to walk, talk and breathe on his own is mind boggling. Communicating through a system of eye movements developed by his father, Becker imparts words and phrases as well as musical notes and chords to his caregivers, who input those ideas into a recording program and give life to the music he hears in his head.
The first cut is the title track, on which Becker’s old Cacophony compatriot, Marty Friedman, lends his guitar chops. The stunning violin arpeggios, played by Glauco Bertagnin, recall Becker’s past work. “That fast part was the easiest and quickest thing I wrote in this piece,” Becker says, “probably because it was so similar to what I would have played on guitar. I had my caregiver put down the notes in Logic Pro, with a violin sample sound. After the notes were done, I would mess with the velocity, so it would get more intense when it went up, like a real violinist would do. Then Dan [Alvarez, co-producer] charted it out for Glauco to play. It isn’t easy to make rock guitar and orchestra mesh. We mixed it quite a few times and got it to where we were both happy.”
The dreamy “River of Longing” appears in two versions on the record. The first spotlights brilliant performances from Satriani, Aleks Sever, Guthrie Govan, Steve Morse and Steve Hunter, each of whom does a great job of playing for the song and picking up where the others left off. “It’s amazing for me to have these players on my song,” Becker admits. “I remember going to Tower Records and buying Satriani’s first album and Steve Morse’s The Introduction on vinyl when I was in high school. Guthrie is a phenomenon. He has sort of become one with the guitar, and it’s breathtaking. My favorite new guitarist is Aleks Sever. Her funk and feel is all I want to hear lately. Steve Hunter is one of my best friends. I have learned so much from him over the years since we played with David Lee Roth. His part on this piece was left over from what he did on my  album, Collection.”
Morse recalls his session for the tune. “It was kind of overwhelming, because I think Jason is such an amazing musician and human being.” Morse cut an additional solo when Becker told him the first one wasn’t “Morse-y” enough. “When I’m trying to fit into a piece of music, I’m hesitant to inject too much of my own style. But I really wanted Jason to like what I played, maybe more than any project I’ve ever done.”
The other interpretation of “River of Longing” features Trevor Rabin on electric guitar, acoustic guitar, Dobro and piano. “I am such a huge fan of Trevor’s Yes stuff, as well as his solo work and soundtracks,” Becker says. “I asked him for one guitar solo, and he did the whole song with all of those instruments. It is just surreal.”
“Jason said I could play whatever I felt,” Rabin explains. “It was a well-constructed track, and I had fun doing it. Jason and I have developed a warm and deep friendship. He was an incredible player, and he’s a true gentleman and a very large talent.”
But the song generating the biggest buzz, due to its assemblage of guitar heroes, is “Valley of Fire.” In addition to performances by Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa, Greg Howe, Richie Kotzen and many others, it includes beautiful solos by Paul Gilbert and Neal Schon. “I was consciously trying to play as melodically and with as much emotion as possible,” Schon says, “as I knew how many great guitar players would also be on the track. I plugged into a Fractal Axe-Fx II and went direct. Jason is an amazing human being on top of being an outstanding guitarist and composer. I’m honored to have been a part of his album.”
Gilbert recalls getting a feel for the song’s changes and then writing out a chart before going for a take. “When I do a session with music that I’ve never heard before, I have to get the basic structure in order, otherwise I’ll play very emotionally, but with the wrong notes. Once I become comfortable with the intellectual and technical elements, then I can mentally push those aside and start listening and playing from more of an emotional standpoint. I got a sound that worked with my Kemper Profiler and went for it. And of course, I wanted to burn up the fretboard a bit, so I woke up some of my teenage licks and put them to work.”
Vai, for his part, says he approached the song as he would any other. “I listen to the track and let it tell me what it needs that is within my capabilities to perform,” he says. “I try to keep Steve Vai out of the way, meaning I listen carefully and just let whatever the track needs flow into it through my fingers from my instincts, without judging it as being good or bad, but shaping it as my inner intention dictates. Then it usually ends up with the right balance of elements for me.
“But the track in and of itself is the real marvel in the fact that it was manifested from a person with such physical limitations,” Vai adds. “The real miracle is in seeing how such unimaginable limitations cannot stop an inspired soul from being creative. As a matter of fact, the deep creativity that can come through a person may not necessarily be based in their physical skills. Those skills can be an aid, but they can also be a distraction from the depth of the melody. I feel that Jason’s limitations may actually give him a clearer shot to his musical imagination.”
Without question, some of the greatest guitar parts on Triumphant Hearts come from Becker himself. Tracked during the sessions for David Lee Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough, the bluesy “Tell Me No Lies” casts Becker’s rock chops in a grooving, swinging light, with a great sense of space and hip note choices. “My first influences were bluesy — Clapton, Beck, Hendrix, Roy Buchanan, Stevie Ray Vaughan,” Becker says, explaining the song’s vibe. “I had sort of gotten away from that for a while, and Dave and the guys in the band like Brett Tuggle and Steve Hunter had to reawaken the blues in me. It’s funny, though. Even in this tune, you can hear one of my riffs from Perpetual Burn.”
“Taking Me Back” is another outtake from Becker’s sessions for Roth’s album. The tune rocks so hard, it’s a wonder the track didn’t make it onto the original record. In it, Becker bounces effortlessly between chords, double-stops and blazing arpeggios seamlessly and in perfect time.
“This is mostly my Eddie Van Halen influence,” Becker says. “I seem to remember using an Ibanez guitar and a Marshall amp. It was a little more difficult than past recordings, because the ALS was starting to affect my hands. I love the tune, but I understand why Dave passed on it.”
Every person associated with the making of Triumphant Hearts has expressed what a moving and humbling experience it was to work with Becker, who, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, remains impossibly upbeat and inspiring. “I don’t miss playing guitar anymore,” he says. “I still get to make music, and I’m surrounded by people who love me. I get to hear players who are heroes of mine play on my songs. It’s surreal and overwhelming, and I’m so grateful.”