Jason Becker: Hanging with Marty, Pt. 1

When I was 16, I sent a demo cassette tape to Mike Varney of Shrapnel Records, hoping to be featured in Guitar Player’s Spotlight column.
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When I was 16, I sent a demo cassette tape to Mike Varney of Shrapnel Records, hoping to be featured in Guitar Player’s Spotlight column. (He never did put me in, that punk!) He told me that the recording quality was sloppy and that I should re-record it with more care, and in the meantime, I should go meet Marty Friedman. I had no attitude at all. I was so happy and grateful to get specific instructions from someone who knew about great guitarists.

My dad drove me to downtown San Francisco to meet Marty. I took the rickety old elevator up to the third floor on Taylor Street, holding my hardshell Strat case and Fender Champ practice amp. I walked down a narrow, dingy hallway to his door. He was very polite and we liked each other immediately. Varney had sent him my demo, which he complimented. He asked me how I had done one of the techniques (a Van Halen “Cathedral”-style delay thing). I showed him and I was feeling pretty good about myself.

He then took out his zebra Jackson Kelly and we started to jam without amps. (All throughout our Cacophony days, we almost never practiced with amps. I highly recommend practicing that way, because you can hear what you really sound like, without relying on distortion or sustain.) Because I was a Strat snob, I thought, “He can’t be that good!” But when Marty started to play, his bending, phrasing, and Japanese-music note choices were brand new to me. I started to sweat, knowing that he was better than I was, already having his own distinctive style. All my life I had been the best around on guitar. I had to instantly change my whole outlook. I decided I wanted to learn from this guy.

We fast became best friends. We had as much fun just hanging out as we did jamming. He would come over to my place and I would record his songs on my 4-track. He would show me the harmonies and counterpoint parts so we could play together. I never thought about recording with him until he asked me to be on his album, and by that time I had gotten a lot better. Without giving me lessons, he had made me more creative.

We would listen to weird music that guitar players usually don’t listen to. Stravinsky and Philip Glass were our main inspirations for a while. I didn’t start playing arpeggios from listening to Yngwie, although he was a big influence. Besides jamming with Marty, a lot of my arpeggio knowledge came from listening to Philip Glass, and that’s why I didn’t play them like any other guitarist. He used beautiful and uncommon chord progressions.

I would constantly record classical radio, hoping to discover something out of the ordinary. I was so excited to find fascinating pieces by Debussy, Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Alan Hovhaness, Hector Berlioz, and Schoenberg. If you really want to develop your own style, it is very helpful to listen to unfamiliar music without guitar. That’s all part of keeping an open mind. If I hadn’t been open to learning from Marty, my life would be totally different today. You can learn from anyone.

Jason Becker is a composer and guitarist whose work can be heard on his solo albums, and with Cacophony and David Lee Roth. Check out this sexy man’s story in the award-winning documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet.