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Q&A: Inspirational Guitarist/Composer Jason Becker Discusses His Musical Heroes and Journey Along the Way
Jason Becker, the guitarist who has maintained a prolific career despite being dealt a tough hand — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — is an inspiration to many. Becker celebrated his 51st birthday in July of 2020, and continues to be the picture of resilience and hope.
Enjoy an exclusive Rock Cellar interview with Jason Becker below, with the assistance of his parents. Visit his official ALS research fundraising website here.
Rock Cellar: How did you get started playing music? Was guitar your first instrument?
Jason Becker: My dad and my uncle played guitar so I was exposed to music and guitar playing for as long as I remember. They would show me how to play chords and notes and make melodies when I was as young as five years old. I don’t remember not being interested in guitar playing. My dad played mostly classical guitar, my uncle mostly blues. They both listened to and loved Bob Dylan, The Band, and played their music as well. Sometimes they would jam, and I was there. It got more serious for me around the time I was eight years old and my dad tried to teach me the fundamentals of chords, but that was boring to me at the time.
I wanted to play a song, so he taught me a Dylan song, “As I Went Out One Morning,” and that was it for me. I became sort of obsessed with learning more and more songs by Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Band, and so on.
Yes, the guitar was my first instrument.
Rock Cellar: How (and when) did you know that playing music was what you wanted to do professionally?
Jason Becker: I think I was around 12 years old when I thought I had to decide what I wanted to do professionally. I loved music, and I also loved football. I was athletic and played a lot with my dad and my friends, and I remember going back and forth between thinking, should I be a quarterback or a guitar player? Guitar playing was more fun, and I was able to do it more often, and it became my choice. It’s funny that I thought I had to make a serious decision/commitment at such a young age, but it seemed that I had to do that in order to concentrate on music and learn as much as I could if I was going to make it big time. HA HA!
Rock Cellar: Who were your greatest influences (musically or otherwise)?
Jason Becker: Well, after my dad and my uncle, it was Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan, and Jeff Beck in the beginning. The list grew as I learned more. I took lessons from a jazz guitarist named Dave Creamer who played with Miles Davis, and I was so inspired by him. Then came Steve Morse, Peter Gabriel, Albert King, Steve Hunter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Marty Friedman, and Uli Jon Roth. The list goes on.
Rock Cellar: How do you best describe your music?
Jason Becker: I guess I would describe my music as the language I speak to reflect what I am thinking or going through at the time, so in the early days, it was fast, wild, crazy, and had lots of youthful energy. My life was fun, and I think my music reflected that. I wanted it to be my own thing and not sound like I was just copying someone else’s playing.
As I got more mature, I think my music also grew. I would say it was passionate, but with the aggression of rock, but a gentle feel at the same time. I had a fantasy of playing guitar with an orchestra and that is what “End of the Beginning” is about.
I didn’t get to play it myself (with an orchestra), but Michael Lee Firkins did exactly what I wanted for that song. I think my songs took on a kind of storytelling vibe, probably inspired by Peter Gabriel, who I love. I have always loved classical music, and that comes through, even in the beginning.
I was thrilled that my album Triumphant Hearts had so many orchestra pieces. “Once Upon a Melody” is sort of a story about my life. I used my favorite guitar solo from [Cacophany’s 1988 album] Go Off! and rewrote it so it reflects my world more now, but I’m still me, so it makes sense.
Rock Cellar: Talk about when you first got signed by Shrapnel Records and how the band Cacaphony came about.
Jason Becker: I sent a demo tape to Mike Varney of Shrapnel Records, who was looking for “the greatest guitar players in the country,” and he reached out to me saying the tape was a bit rough, but he heard something in my playing and wanted to meet me. We met when I was about 16, and once I graduated (early) from high school, I was off to Prairie Sun, the studio for the Shrapnel Records label.
Mike Varney suggested I meet with another Shrapnel guitarist named Marty Friedman, who was going to make an album. Marty wasn’t so sure about me joining his “band,” but once we met and played, we both loved each other and fed off each other’s music and our friendship just grew. We had respect for each other, and we both wanted to do music that hadn’t been done, using our own ideas and writing to make the kind of music we wanted to hear on the guitar and didn’t think was out there. We were lucky because we both knew the most important thing was the music, and there really was no ego involved.
We wanted each other to succeed. We had a blast. Cacophony was Mike Varney’s idea. He was so right.
Rock Cellar: How did the relationship between Cacaphony and Carvin Guitars start, and what did that mean for you in terms of custom guitars?
Jason Becker: Carvin came along after [his 1988 album] Perpetual Burn. We used them on Cacophony’s Go Off! album, and on tour. Bluey was exactly what I wanted in a guitar; perfect neck, look and feel. They sent me one that my dad painted (the one-eyed cat in the desert). I never got to play that one though, because Carvin put it together many years later when I asked them to.
Rock Cellar: When Carvin’s guitars were renamed under the name Kiesel, did that effect you and your custom guitars?
Jason Becker: Not at all. I remember Jeff Kiesel gave me the story about why they were doing it. It was fine with me since the quality wouldn’t change. They kept offering the Carvin logo for awhile, on my Blueys. They still might, I’m not sure.
Rock Cellar: Who were your favorite musicians to play with?
Jason Becker: I started out playing with the vinyl of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and Roy Buchanan. Then, of course, Van Halen, Steve Morse and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I loved jamming with my friends in the Jazz Ensemble in high school. Nate Fox, Shawn Patrick, and Ramon Gooden, who later joined Digital Underground. I also jammed with my friends John Miller and Kevin Stamps.
Rock Cellar: What was it like working with David Lee Roth?
Jason Becker: It was really awesome. I learned so much from him, and he treated me great. I got hurt when he said, on a national radio station, that I couldn’t tour because some people are better in the studio than live, without mentioning ALS. I later said some unkind things, which I regret. I haven’t heard from him since 1990.
I wish I could send him my love and gratitude.
Rock Cellar: How did you get into creating more orchestral/compositional pieces, and how did you know how to do it?
Jason Becker: I think I was about 15 years old and my grandfather was getting divorced, which made me very sad. I had the chicken pox and was bored. I sat down at my keyboard and wrote the beginning part of my song “Air.” That was the first time I remember creating a song from a feeling.
I didn’t take any classical lessons or anything like that, I just liked classical music, and I knew how to get the sounds I wanted. You have to know stuff about music; what I learned from Dave Creamer, and from playing with Marty Friedman, gave me the knowledge and creativity to do what I wanted. My song “Air,” from Perpetual Burn, when I was 18, was my first stab at counterpoint.
That song was arranged by Konstantin Kokourov and performed by the Scoring Berlin Symphony Orchestra. It is on YouTube, and I am very proud of it.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about your 2012 documentary, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. Whose idea was it and how did it come to life?
Jason Becker: The director, Jesse Vile, emailed us, and my mom brought his message to my attention. She was impressed, and we asked him for more details. He had been a fan for several years and, as a student of film, he had this idea for a long time before it all came together, so it was his vision.
He sent us a rough video sketch of his idea, and I was so impressed I gave him the go-ahead.
We had been approached before and nothing ever came of it, so I was skeptical, but Jesse went through all the steps with me brilliantly, and we became good friends. I don’t think anyone could have done better. My uncle Ron and my dad had taken photos and movies of me and our family consistently through the years so we had a lot of material to give to him to work with.
Rock Cellar: Who are some of your special musician friends?
Jason Becker: Oh man, there are so many. Marty Friedman, of course. He was my inspiration and mentor into the world of professional guitar playing. He shared my passion for the guitar and my wish to play things we weren’t hearing. And we had a blast hanging around, jamming and just being great friends.
The Shrapnel label made it possible for me to meet, play, and work with the great Richie Kotzen, Gregg Howe, and Michael Lee Firkins. Matt and Gregg Bissonette, Brett Tuggle, the great blues man Steve Hunter. Uli Jon Roth, Matt Blackett, Mike Bemesderfer. All the musicians on my song, “Valley of Fire.”
What a thrill to receive solos from Steve Vai, Neal Schon, Joe Bonamassa, Gus G., Ben Woods, Paul Gilbert, Jeff Loomis, Chris Broderick, Mattias Eklundh, and the one and only Jake Shimabukuro. To listen to my music played by an orchestra was a highlight, and to hear my vocal songs come to life with Codany Holiday and Steve Knight. I was so grateful to Matt Easton for the demo of “Hold On To Love,” and Chuck Zwicky’s remix of that song as well. It brought me to tears. Daniele Gottardo and Andrew Jay.
What a trip to hear Trevor Rabin’s version of “River of Longing,” and the solo of Aleks Sever and Steve Morse, or my love for Dylan with vocals by Gary Rosenberg and guitar by the great Jude Gold. Eddie Van Halen got “Perspective” on the Warner Bros. label, David Lee Roth, Steve Perry.
Then, there are all the engineers, drummers, (Atma Anur) mixers, (Reto Peter) and producers (Mike Varney, Dan Alvarez) through the years. I couldn’t possible name everyone, but I have been blessed to have worked with some of the best.
Rock Cellar: What is your best memory from a show?
Jason Becker: My best memories are just hanging with my friends and having fun together.
Rock Cellar: I heard you meditate a lot. What does that do for you?
Jason Becker: Meditation calms me, but I am really trying to heal my body.
Thank you so much, Jason, for sharing all these great stories and information about you and your career. I know how much our readers are going to enjoy reading this.
For more about Jason Becker, his music and his career:
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October 6, 2021