“I looked up Tosin Abasi and Tim Henson, and I was so inspired. I had to stop watching their videos because I wanted to pick up a guitar and try playing their stuff”: Jason Becker opens up on his heroes old and new, career regrets and unreleased music

“I looked up Tosin Abasi and Tim Henson, and I was so inspired. I had to stop watching their videos because I wanted to pick up a guitar and try playing their stuff”: Jason Becker opens up on his heroes old and new, career regrets and unreleased music

Jason Becker

(Image credit: Ross Pelton)

With technically daring sweeps and tapping as torrential as anything Edward Van Halen could muster, a teenaged Jason Becker took the world by storm in the heart of the ’80s shred era.

Of course, Becker was often labeled a ‘shredder,’ which these days Becker himself sees as a term of endearment rather than a slight. And although he could tear up the fretboard like no other, Becker’s inherent musicality and immersive compositional prowess set him apart.

While a harrowing Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) diagnosis may have robbed Becker of his ability to physically play, his musical genius is still at work, as evidenced by his 2018 record to remember, Triumphant Heartsas well as the next installment in his ‘Jams’ series, Strawberry Jams.

All of this is to say that, yes, Jason Becker was and still is a guitar hero of the highest order. But beyond that, Jason Becker is a true hero in life, not just in the studio and on stage. Few people can lay claim to both, but Jason Becker, who is still fighting harder than ever, can.

What follows is a rare and unedited interview with Jason Becker. As many within the guitar community know, Jason’s struggle is ongoing. As such, he rarely does interviews, and he asked that this hard-fought piece with Guitar World be released in full as he intended, and that he’s said all that he wishes to say at this time.

From a compositional standpoint, describe the approach that you use in the modern day.

First, thank you for this interview. Hmmm… modern day. I am working on a new album called The Strawberry Jamsbut it is all from my old unreleased songs and ideas from when I could still play. I have so many guitar recordings on four-track and eight-track cassettes. The Strawberry Jams will be the third volume after my Raspberry Jams and Blackberry Jams albums. It is exciting, but the thing is, I have not written new music since Triumphant Hearts. I am so happy with and proud of Triumphant Heartsbut it took a big toll on my health. I have been spending the time since then working on staying alive and trying to get better.

The week before filming the Hold on to Love video, I was in ICU with a collapsed lung due to trauma from emergency ventilation by ambu-bag when my routine tracheostomy change went way wrong, causing blood and air to be forced deep into my lungs at high pressure off and on for an hour. This also caused an abscess to form in that lung, which took months of antibiotics to heal.

That is why I, my parents, Serrana and Marilyn looked so wiped out in the video. This incident caused a lot of other problems, so I dove deep into healing, meditations, practices, and studying about healings.

I know from my experience 26 years ago when I almost died that if you can connect to the Divine, that the impossible is possible. I was leaving my body, and I could see myself lying in the hospital bed below. I thought, ‘I’m not ready.’ I heard the OM or word of God, and it was bliss. It was an orgasmic rush of love, compassion, power, and beauty that I hadn’t experienced before, yet it was somehow familiar. I went through a door with an eye on it, and I experienced what some may call heaven. Beautiful, Divine music, too.

I continued having miraculous experiences over the next few days, and my body was getting stronger after weighing 80 pounds. I started feeling joy and kindness instead of anger and sadness. Through the years, I have gone to see the hugging saint, Amma, in San Ramon on her tours. She hugs people all day, every day, without taking breaks. She also has tons of charities. To me, she is that love and compassion that I felt in the hospital in a body. She is so fun and kind to me. After COVID, she hasn’t toured, but I write to her, and she always responds.

We pencil notes in the track, and I direct them on what to do with each note: louder/softer, longer/shorter, etc. I have them do this with every note, harmony, and track. It gets quite fun as it comes together

I stopped getting on the computer and was not very good at keeping in touch with most people. The pandemic helped me live like a hermit mostly. I meditated up to six hours a day and did Zoom healings with Dr. Joe Dispenza’s students and with Rob Wergin. My body had almost shut down, so it took a lot of work. I know that eventually, people age and pass on, but I felt like I was wasting my purpose or opportunity or something like that.

But the last time I composed, I wrote in Logic Pro. My caregivers don’t necessarily have to know anything about music. I don’t write with music notation. We pencil notes in the track, and I direct them on what to do with each note: louder/softer, longer/shorter, etc. I have them do this with every note, harmony, and track. It gets quite fun as it comes together. My samples are really nice-sounding, so it really sounds like the real thing. Then my co-producer, Dan Alvarez, has suggestions, and we get some real musicians on it.

Being unable to physically play, how do you relay what’s in your mind and work to make it a reality?

I do most of that in the composing part of the process. I use my communication system that my dad invented, which is quite fast. You can see me and my dad explaining it on YouTube. I simply explain what to do with each note.

After making my computer tracks, it is just like regular producing. How we produce it depends on the track. In Valley of Fire and both River of Longing tracks, I wanted the players to do their own thing. In Triumphant Heart and Magic WomanI wrote the parts but wanted Marty [Friedman] and Uli [Jon Roth] to play it like it was their own song. Players like that don’t really need to be told what to do. Just give them the notes, and they do their magic.

My co-producer, Dan Alvarez, is a musical genius, so he usually hears what I am going for.

Can you still envision the movements required on guitar? If so, how does that aid in your overall process?

Oh yes, definitely. It is a little more simplified in my head since I haven’t played in almost three decades, but I figure out and write every instrument’s part by looking at the guitar’s neck.

Do you feel your limitations have, in some ways, made you more educated as a composer as it pertains to the guitar? If so, how do you apply that knowledge?

Not more educated, but different. Playing and writing on guitar felt pretty free and easy, but most of my guitar playing was done when I was a teenager. As I grew up, my tastes got different and more varied. I now compose for many different instruments. Since I can’t put my personality into the playing, I need to make every part interesting and passionate.

In some instances, I use old recordings of myself playing guitar and write around that. We Are One started with two unreleased demos I had recorded when I could still play. I wrote everything else around those demos. Once Upon a Melody started with a melody I played on the Cacophony Go Off! album. I also added a four-track guitar recording of an idea I recorded during the Go Off! time. It was an improvised thing that was going to go in the song Black Cat during the water breakdown.

Having to compose and create in different and more inventive ways now, what were some of the biggest differences and challenges in creating a record such as Triumphant Hearts as opposed to Perpetual Burn?

Well, Perpetual Burn was just a lot of fun. I was 18 and full of energy. After Speed Metal Symphony came out, I was very happy, but I was so inspired by Marty, and I was getting a lot better at guitar and discovering my own style.

I wrote like crazy and sent everything to Mike Varney. He suggested Marty and I each do a solo album. Writing it took a few months. Then rehearsing with [drummer] Atma Anur, recording, and mixing it took about a month.

Triumphant Hearts was completely different. It took years to complete. Writing it was fun, and a lot of the process was a blast. The slowness got tedious, though. My great producer will tell you himself that he is even slower than I am [laughs]. He just wanted to do a great job for me, but I think he overdoes fixing things that don’t need fixing sometimes.

It is just tough having ALS. It took a lot. I also must compose without relying on my guitar playing to make it interesting. I wrote lyrics and worked with a real orchestra for the first time. Being in charge of everything took a toll on my body.

What did the completion and subsequent success of Triumphant Hearts mean to you? What lessons did it learn, and what were your takeaways now that you’re a few years removed from it?

Completing it was a huge relief. I didn’t think it would ever happen for a while. There were so many obstacles. I wanted to celebrate, but I had so much more work to do, and my body was breaking down. I hired a bunch of PR people who tried really hard to get TV shows interested, but not one was interested. Even the big guitar magazines didn’t seem to care much.[GuitarWorld[GuitarWorld published an in-depth interview on Triumphant Hearts with Becker in 2019 – Ed]

I was baffled. Did no-one believe I made this incredible album with my fucking eyes? I see so many ‘inspirational’ stories everywhere. Was this not ‘inspirational’ enough? You say ‘subsequent success’. I felt it was a total failure, and I fucked up my body for nothing. Of course, I don’t see it that way anymore. So many people loved it and were moved by the music. I am very happy it is out there. I just won’t work myself to death anymore. I have so many guitar demos that will be fun for people to hear.

Do you feel more creative now than in past years?

My friend, Dave Lopez, is helping me go through my hundreds of old guitar recordings and pick some to add real drums and bass to. Listening to my old demos reminds me how fun it was to play guitar. I can’t wait to share them

I have been way less creative these past four years. I have just been meditating and praying. I am not worried about music, though. After I got my trach 26 years ago, there were a few years of not writing music, too. It will come back. When I don’t feel good, I don’t feel inspired.

My friend, Dave Lopez, is helping me go through my hundreds of old guitar recordings and pick some to add real drums and bass to. I am not going to write new stuff around them. Listening to my old demos reminds me how fun it was to play guitar. I can’t wait to share them.

I’m sure many people in your situation would have given up on the dream of making music, but you’ve succeeded. What drove you most to want to continue, and what continues to drive you?

I guess the biggest motivation is I am still inspired. I have so much music to put out. I have so many talented friends who help me make it possible. And, of course, there are the people who spend their lives simply keeping me alive and comfortable; Serrana, Mom, Dad, Marilyn, Elizabeth, Tenoch, Jamie, Stephen, Dave, Ehren, Amy, and Mike.

Jason Becker

Jason Becker with his parents, Gary and Pat (Image credit: Paul Haggard)

Do current trends influence you? Are there any modern or alternative styles of music that interest or influence you most?

I don’t know what the current trends are. I know that new styles would totally influence me, but I haven’t been listening to any music. When Herman Li and other fantastic artists helped me auction off three of my gu itars, and some donated their guitars, I looked up Tosin Abasi and Tim Henson, and I was so inspired. I had to stop watching their videos after about three because I wanted to pick up a guitar and try playing their stuff. It hurt too much. They are so fantastic.

Who are some of your current favorite virtuosos, and why?

This is a bad question for me only because I don’t keep up at all. I know there are many new fantastic players, and I should know them, but I don’t. I know a little about Polyphia and Animals As Leaders, and I think they are fantastic. Does Guthrie Govan count as a ‘current virtuoso’? His playing is just divine.

I still love my favorite players, who everyone probably knows; Beck, Uli, Eddie, Morse, Hendrix, SRV, Marty, Hunter, Firkins, Kotzen, Greg Howe, Vai, Satriani, Trevor Rabin, Bonamassa, Roy Buchanan, Nili Brosh, Nita Strauss, John Scofield, Yngwie, Herman Li, Al Di Meola, Nuno, Schon, Gilbert, Lukather, Gottardo, Menn, May, Broderick, Loomis, Batten, Eric Johnson, Mayer, Gilmour, Albert, and B.B. King – the list goes on and on.

Does the idea of being labeled a ‘shredder’ bother you? That is to say, do you feel it’s a derogatory term or a positive?

I felt that my music was so much more than ‘shred’, but I have grown to appreciate that label because of all the young guitarists who have been influenced by what I did

It used to bother me because I felt that my music was so much more than ‘shred’, but I have grown to appreciate that label because of all the young guitarists who have been influenced by what I did, and it feels good to hear that I may have had something to do with their talent and inspiration; so, it’s definitely a positive to me now.

In your opinion, what is the ultimate ‘shred’ guitar, pedal, amp, and why?

I am sure they have made killer new stuff in the last 30 years. What I used back when I was a teenager was a Marshall 100-watt [JCM]800 with a Boss Super Overdrive pedal.

Of course, I love my old Carvin guitars and my Kiesel signature guitars. Ibanez made me three killer guitars back in the David Lee Roth days. Man, they were great. Seymour Duncan and I are working on a second Becker pickup. I remember a tan Fender practice amp that my friend Kurt James had that had a beautiful, perfect tone. I wish I knew what model it was. Dunlop and I are talking about making a Becker pedal.

Is there anything musically that you regret not being able to accomplish? How do you keep a positive mindset, and how does that outlook affect you musically?

I guess I don’t have any musical regrets. I did so much before and after ALS. Of course, I would have played a few things differently, and I wish my hands had been stronger for Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough album, but I did my best.

David Lee Roth asked me if I could do a guitar solo ala Eruption for the album. I played him my Serrana arpeggios, but since my hands were so weak, he wasn’t quite into it

David Lee Roth asked me if I could do a guitar solo ala Eruption for the album. I played him my Serrana arpeggios, but since my hands were so weak, he wasn’t quite into it.

You know, I do have a regret about something, though. David Lee Roth was so good to me: always very encouraging, positive, and supportive, both musically and otherwise. He tried to help with my physical problems with doctors and insurance during my time with him. When I had to leave, he was sad. We were kind of pals. He wrote some wonderful stuff about me in his autobiography, Crazy from the Heat.

When he did an international radio interview for the album, when he was asked why all the album musicians were not touring with him, he said, ‘Some people are better in the studio smoking cigarettes than on stage.’ Yeah, that was hurtful. And he never called me, but years later, in an interview, someone asked me who should give up playing music, and in my hurt feelings, I said, ‘David Lee Roth.’

I just regret going low on a mostly positive experience. Dave, if you are reading this, I love and appreciate you, and I cherish our time together.

Jason Becker making music at home

(Image credit: Paul Haggard)

Another minor regret is in Jesse Vile’s documentary, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yetwhen I said, ‘Being deep is boring.’ I hope people know that I was just trying to explain how I cope with things. I try to stay light and not too serious. Being deep is necessary as an aging, evolving, thinking, feeling person.

Oh yeah, with the deadlines for Triumphant Heartswe ran out of time for two important things. The jazz great, John Scofield, gave me a couple of wonderful solos on River of Longing. I will put them on The Strawberry Jams.

My dear friend, Ben Woods, did a lot of soloing for Valley of Fire. We didn’t have time to edit it, so he didn’t get a solo on the song; however, his playing is throughout the song and gives it a beautiful rhythmic flavor. He said he didn’t mind, but I still feel bad. He made a great video of himself soloing on it before he passed. You can see it on YouTube.

Oh, and about staying positive, it is possible with love from the community of family, friends, caregivers, lovers, fans big time, and the whole amazing guitar and rock community. I am continually amazed by how beautiful the world can be with love.

What are your recollections of the time Marty Friedman covered Jeff Beck for you – in front of Eddie Van Halen?

This is such a great story! Marty tells the best stories. I don’t remember it, though, because the technology back then didn’t allow me to see it live, plus my breathing was very difficult, which you can see in the video when Eddie [Van Halen] visited me in 1996.

Man, I have to say I was the luckiest guitar player ever. I got to learn from and play with one of the most unique and brilliant guitarists and musicians of all time in Marty Friedman. He is also the coolest dude. Before most people knew about him, I got to study at the feet of a master, my brother, and develop my own style.

Considering what you’ve overcome, what are you most proud of in your career, be it past, present, or future?

I guess I am most proud of my whole overall career. I have a hard time talking about being proud because I have so much help. My mom asked to answer this question for me.

Pat Becker: “Yes, Jason has help and many people who care for him, and I’m sure that I speak for all of us when I say that not one of us had a dream, at the age of around 12, to become a great guitar player. Not one of us set about a dedicated practice with the goal of mastering all he heard and loved from the great guitarists of the time.

“We didn’t decide to limit our social lives and party time to pursue the dream until we almost became one with the guitar, playing night and day, always challenging ourselves and wanting to learn.

“We didn’t sit down at the keyboard and create a most beautiful, heartful melody, exposing our heartbreak and sorrow over a divorce for our grandfather, who we loved.

“We didn’t have the guts to play and sing Dylan songs in the sixth-grade talent show or send in a demo tape of playing to Mike Varney, who heard something unique and referred Jason to Marty Friedman, who brought out the best in Jason and encouraged him in every way and helped him develop his own style. We didn’t put our egos aside to make the magic of Cacophony happen (as Jason and Marty did).

“We didn’t make the decision to move on from Cacophony because we felt we needed to explore our own playing and composing skills more. We didn’t create some of the most beautiful melodies, music, and compositions ever written and performed at the age of 17, 18, or 19.

“We didn’t have the guts to fly to L.A. to audition for David Lee Roth, with a pesky limp, lugging heavy guitars and equipment through the airport, or practicing day and night for the album A Little Ain’t Enoughall while going to doctor appointments and getting tests, sometimes painful, to see what was going on.

“We didn’t limp off to practice, guitar in hand, to those rehearsals. Once the diagnosis of ALS came, his first question was, ‘Will I be able to tour?’ Then, we didn’t fly off to Vancouver, determined to beat the disease and continue the dream.

“We didn’t write and perform two of the most beautiful guitar songs/solos on that album (It’s Showtime! and Drop in the Bucket.) And when that dream had to end, we didn’t come home to create a beautiful masterpiece of an album (Perspective).

“We didn’t have the foresight to record our playing as we were losing the ability and calling various demos Weak Hand Blues and Blood on the Trachesstill putting our very lives and sorrows into our music.

“And, after years of trying to breathe, figure out a proper diet, and what to do about all the physical issues that came up, we didn’t decide to make another CD, this time with lyrics describing what our life has been, with the highs and lows, and writing completely new pieces for old guitar solos and ideas which now fit the present circumstances of our lives.

Triumphant Hearts was a seven-year project (that he accomplished WITH HIS EYES!!!) that took a major health toll on Jason, both mentally and physically. But he did it. He wrote the lyrics, he directed a 32-piece orchestra from Bulgaria, and he created some of the most beautiful music ever written straight from his heart and soul. He gave his all.

“He is still working on music. He is still taking care of himself and the rest of us as best he can. He never stops thinking about and worrying about us. He is so grateful for all he has and all he is given by his peers, his fans, his family, and his friends.

“Yes, he has had help, but none of us did what he has done. I hope he is proud of all he has done in his career and all he has done in his life. I know we all could not be prouder.”

What’s next for you? Are you working on new music?

Well, as I mentioned, The Strawberry Jams will be done soon. It will be so much fun for fans to hear. I recorded tons of stuff constantly until I couldn’t play anymore. The first ‘single’ is going to be such a fun, big surprise for guitar players.

We are putting together a non-profit called The Jason Becker Creative Care Project. It is kind of Serrana’s idea. Of course, we all want ALS research to find a cure, but in the meantime, what about people like me who want to live and be productive? We hope to focus on those folks who need proper and consistent care.

Catahoula Coffee is making a Jason Becker coffee with a percentage of the proceeds going to the Jason Becker Special Needs Trust. Thank you, Timber. When the coffee is out, I will post a link.

A while ago, I was looking at the guitar Eddie Van Halen gave to me, hanging on the wall, covered in dust, and I thought, ‘That’s a shame. It should be with someone who would love to have it and can give it the attention it deserves.’ I can’t play it, and the best part of it for me now is the memory of his kindness.

I wanted to thank everyone who sent prayers and thoughts to my dad. He is doing better now. We all appreciate the love.

  • For more information on Jason Becker, and to donate to the Jason Becker Special Needs Trust, visit jasonbecker.com.

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Andrew Daly is a contributing writer at Guitar World, a staff writer for Copp er and Rock Candy Magazine, and a steady contributor for Goldmine Magazine. In 2019, Andrew founded VWMusic, a successful outlet that covers music in all its forms. A guitar junkie at heart, Andrew is proud to have interviewed favorites including Joe Perry, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Steve Vai, Richie Ranno, Brian May, and many more. Some of his favorite bands are KISS, Oasis, Spread Eagle, and Starz.

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