Jason Becker: Guitar phenom, writer and ALS survivor

The world's next R&R great, he was just 19 when struck with ALS. Becker survives, perseveres and still writes music with his eyes. Photo: Jason Becker website

WASHINGTON, August 3, 2013By all accounts and sources, Jason Becker was at the proverbial tipping point to become the world’s next guitar phenom when the onset of ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) changed his life.

Becker is among the founders and fathers of what is known today as the Neo-classic metal style of rock and shred style playing, although Becker is not fond of the term “shred.”

Jason Becker and Cacophony. (All photos credit Jason Becker’s website)

Becker had grown up with Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman in Richmond California. Together, formed a band called Cacophony, which toured extensively. Becker went solo and produced his own album, “Perpetual Burn!” After that, Becker did an album with world famous Rock and Roll Hall of Famer David Lee Roth of Van Halen fame.

At this critical juncture in a very young artist’s life, Becker was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Around age 19, Becker was given three to five years to live. As his disease progressed, Becker’s ability on guitar, bass guitar and keyboard became increasingly diminished.

Becker released three albums after he was diagnosed with ALS: Perspective, Raspberry Jams and Blackberry Jams. Some of the tracks on the latter album were done with a computer program he operated with his head and eyes.

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Jason Becker. Colleague Michael Firkins, right. Photo taken when Jason was in the earlier stages of ALS.

Remarkably, Becker does not outwardly seem depressed, beaten, deprived or shaken by his predicament, In fact, when told of his prognosis, his first comment was to ask: “Can I go on tour?” Becker does not let ALS define him and lets his music speak for him instead.

Paul Mountjoy at “The Washington Times Communities Digital News” had a chance to catch up with Becker recently for an interview and update:

Paul Mountjoy: What interested you in guitar?

Jason Becker: My Dad played classical guitar, which was the main thing, plus my Uncle played blues and I loved Bob Dylan.

At an early age, young Jason Becker was already demonstrating his affinity for the guitar. (All photos credit Jason Becker’s website)

PM: At what age did you become interested in guitar?

JB: I heard it all my life. I got my first lesson at age five.

PM: Did it come naturally to you? Sort of innate to your senses?

JB: It sure didn’t feel natural for a while. I had to practice a lot.

PM: Why did Cacophony break up?

JB: I wanted to start doing my own thing. I had tons of ideas that I wouldn’t have been able to do with Cacophony. I wanted to dive deeper into guitar and melody. We were successful in Europe but never actually toured there.

PR photo of Jason Becker, prior to the onset of ALS.

PM: Mike Varney (music producer) claims you were destined to be a world class rock star. Do you share this opinion?

JB: I guess, sure. That was where I was headed. That was what I was preparing myself for. That is sweet of him.

PM: Your name is associated with some of the guitar greats yet the difference is you were so young when you took the industry by storm. How many hours did you commit yourself to your craft?

JB: Hmmmmm-quite a lot. I never had a practice schedule or anything like that. I just always had the guitar with me and spent lots of time writing and recording songs. I loved it but I also did other things. I lived a life, too. Music is in all things of life but if all you do is practice, then you are missing out on other sources of inspiration.

PM: Friedman moved to Japan saying he must evolve as a musician. Do you feel the same?

JB: Definitely. Marty and I always wanted to new things and evolve. It was always about having fun and exploring the infinite possibilities in music. We both have a deep passion for making music. I couldn’t imagine doing the same style of stuff over and over again.

PM: Your YouTube riff went viral with over one million, three hundred thousand hits. After being out of the so-called limelight for so long, do you feel this is a testament to your talent?

JB: Good question. I am not sure. There are many people with lots of talent who don’t get recognized. I feel grateful. Maybe it has to do with my honesty and passion. Also, my fans are the coolest ever!

PM: Are you evolving as a musician and if so, how?

JB: Yes but slowly because of my body limitations. It is all completely about the emotion and how to convey that. I almost never listen to metal anymore but not because I hate it. I just have to be in a different place now. My inspiration comes from inside myself more now. I’m inspired by what I hear in my noodle.

PM: Who are your favorite guitarists and bands now?

JB: I have so many. Gretchen Menn is a composer as well as a great guitarist; Aleks Sever has a brilliant funk and blues feel; my buddy Steve Hunter who played with Alice Cooper; Lou Reed and my favorite artist ever; Peter Gabriel has a new CD. His melodic blues gives me the goose bumps.

I could go on and on, of course: Eddie Van Halen, Uli Jon Roth, Jeff Beck, SRV, Jimi Morse, Michael Lee Firkins, Greg Howe, Richie Kotzen, Roy Buchanan, Albert King, Guthrie Govan, Marty (Friedman) Eric Johnson and one of my favorites, Trevor Rabin.

As for bands, my new favorite bands are Maragold and the Whiney Dogs. Of course I love old Van Halen, Yes, The Band, The Beatles, Zeppelin, P-Funk, Pink Floyd and all Prince.

PM: I am interviewing Lou Gramm of Foreigner and Lou Gramm Band fame. What do you think of his work?

JB: I think they are awesome! I think “I wanna know what love is” is one of the greatest songs ever.

PM: It seems heavy, complicated guitar riffs are not outstanding in today’s rock. Perhaps many musicians are a bit too lazy to devote their time and learn and get their chops. What are your thoughts?

JB: I certainly know what you mean. I don’t necessarily need something complicated but I would like to see something creative. A melody would be nice now and then. I don’t hate simple guitar playing as long as they don’t put down other players.

Jason Becker in a more recent photo.

PM: At what age were you when ALS came to the fore?

JB: I was 19 when I first felt it.

PM: You are not letting ALS define you. Steven Hawking has had it for 50 years and ALS does not define him. As a psychotherapist, I am amazed at your strength, and there is much more to you than your abilities on guitar. You have a sparkling, friendly and laid back personality that surely endeared you to folks as well as your talent. How do you maintain such a positive approach?

JB: Thank you so much, man! To be mentioned with Hawking is an honor. I met him once. I am jealous of him because he has been on Futurama and The Simpsons! Ha ha! I want to be on Family Guy and American Dad.

I am not always positive but I just like living. I have fun making music, joking around and hanging out with friends. I am not in any pain and I still get hot women. It is also the love and the care that I get and God’s grace. I guess my energy draws awesome people to me but I couldn’t do anything without lots of help form lots of people. I wish everyone in my situation had what I have.

PM: Any advice for young, aspiring guitarists?

JB: I guess my advice would be to be open to all kinds of music. Try to do something unique and with your soul. In today’s music, that isn’t always necessary but it will make you happy. If you love music, that’s the important thing.

PM: Any advice for those stricken with serious illnesses?

JB: Man, I don’t feel like I have any advice to give. Everyone has their own special situation. Maybe your life isn’t necessarily over. Even if your illness f**ks up your plans, there is still cool stuff to do. I would love to be playing guitar but maybe composing with my eyes is better.

PM: Which direction do you believe the genre of rock is heading?

JB: Man, I just don’t know!

PM: What kind of music are you currently composing?

JB:  I am writing kind of modern classical type of crap, soundtrack kinds of tunes.

PM: Do you think the days of super groups are gone and success lies in niche or solo acts?

JB: Boy, I don’t know. Would you consider Nsync a super group? Ha Ha!

PM: Your Mom and Dad seem very special. Do you attribute your uplifting personality to their love and support as well as your natural traits?

JB: Definitely! They taught me the magic in life. They surrounded me with love and art.

PM: Jason, I thank not only for your time, but also for the strength, perseverance and tenacity you demonstrate as a lesson to us all. I also thank you for showing the world what music can do for one’s soul.

JB: Thank you so much, Paul. You are really cool and kind. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this!


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