Jason Becker is not your typical guitar hero. His ability to inspire goes well beyond the fretboard.
From his time spent composing with fellow Shrapnel alum Marty Friedman to his being chosen as Steve Vai's replacement in David Lee Roth’s band in 1989, Becker was a star on the rise.
Guitar World even chose Becker's 1988 instrumental masterpiece, “Perpetual Burn,” to kick off its first transcription challenge, where readers submitted videos of themselves performing the challenging song and Becker himself choosing a winner.
Shortly after hooking up with Roth, Becker was given the grim diagnosis of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and given only three to five years to live. Although the disease would eventually take away his ability to play guitar, walk and even speak, Becker’s spirit and determination has enabled him to continue living and composing amazing music.
The 2102 documentary, Not Dead Yet tells the incredible story of Becker, a guitar legend who refuses to give up on his dream of being a musician, despite the most incredible odds. It’s a story of dreams, love and the strength of the human spirit.
Guitar World recently caught up with Becker via email and asked him about the film and his music. In this interview, Becker offers advice on how to play — and how to live.
GUITAR WORLD: How has the public reaction been to Not Dead Yet?
The reaction has been great! I hear from people all over the world, saying it's a great movie and they got a lot out of it. People like to know that, in spite of being diagnosed with a "terminal" disease, you can still have a fun life filled with love and productivity if you have people around who help make that happen, and care about you. Even non-musicians are digging it. I heard that Alec Baldwin loved it.
What satisfies you the most about Not Dead Yet?
It's all about getting my music out to the world, first of all. That is cool, although being a picky musician; I would have liked a bit more music in the film. I want everyone to hear my music and want to buy it. It is just satisfying to think that, somehow, my music and my story could touch someone and make them want to make their own life better. I am happy that my peeps got to get some of the credit they deserve. I am extremely happy that there was a lot of humor, too. I was worried that wouldn’t show, but Jesse [Vile, director] did an absolutely brilliant job!
You're a positive, creative inspiration to many people. What is it that keeps you moving forward?
I guess there is just so much I want to do; music to write, fun to have, nasty ass jokes to make, women to love, football to watch, friends and family to hang out with. I just like life and I love so many people. I would miss that. I have had the experience of dying, and it was really nice, but I would miss this life. I couldn't keep moving forward without a lot of help though. I am grateful and lucky to be surrounded by love and generosity.
What message would you like viewers to take away after watching the documentary?
Well, of course, I would like people to want to make their own lives better and to feel grateful and happy. But I am a musician, and I would like them to also be overcome with emotion by the brilliance of the music they hear [laughs]! Really, I just want people to take whatever they need from it. I am not one who gives lessons in life. I am not a perfect saint, by any means. Who am I to tell anyone how to see things?
Let’s discuss your song “Perpetual Burn." What inspired it and were there musical pieces that you put together, or did you hear it all as one big composition?
Man, it has been so long. I remember it was in the middle of Marty and me writing and creating like fiends. We were so inspired by the infinite possibilities of music. We kept inspiring each other to do things that we normally wouldn’t do. So I would say that Marty unintentionally inspired it. I wrote it on my Tascam four-track cassette recorder. I often wrote parts separately and later stuck them together, but this tune came out as one piece.
You know, I love that time in my life, and most of the music I made, but remember I was only 18 years old and I don’t feel like that was my crowning achievement. I was young and experimenting. I was still developing my style and feel.
What was your audition like for David Lee Roth?
It was a blast! I was young and all the guys in the band were so nice to me, and took me under their wings. Dave was cool and liked what I did. The guys told me they were stoked to have me because I brought "youth" and they had to keep on their toes. I had equipment trouble from the flight to LA, so I didn’t have great tone, but it didn’t matter. Dave and Bob Ezrin put me in a hotel for the night and gave me a bunch of new songs to learn for the following day.
I called Marty Friedman and my folks to let them know how it was going. The next day we jammed a lot. Then Dave wanted to hear “Hot for Teacher." We played it, and although my guitar went way out of tune, Dave was happy and asked me to be in the band. My guitar tuning problem made us laugh!
What do you find so appealing about classical music that many guitarists may overlook?
I had been exposed to classical music my whole life; even before I was born. My folks played it, and my dad was a classical guitar player and had studied with a student of Andres Segovia. Some of it can be boring and generic, but man, when it has a beautiful melody, or plays with interesting and unusual harmonies, or has a fascinating counterpoint, it moves me so much. It can bring tears to my eyes. I guess I just love all kinds of music. Classical is just one type of cool music.
Who are some of your favorite guitarists today?
There are so many great ones. I am still in love with old cats like Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Lee Firkins, Greg Howe, Richie Kotzen, Joe Satriani, Roy Buchanan, Neal Schon, Brian Setzer, Brian May, Uli Jon Roth, Trevor Rabin, Eric Johnson, Marty [Friedman], Steve Vai, Steve Morse, Paul Gilbert, Albert King ... I could go on and on. Steve Hunter’s newest CD, The Manhattan Blues Project, is an absolutely beautiful album.
Some of the newer players are Gretchen Menn, who never forgets about the composition; the funky and soulful Aleks Sever. There's also Guthrie Govan, who takes it to another level. Hmmm, Jeff Loomis, Chris Broderick, Daniele Gottardo, Jess Lewis. I'm sure I’m forgetting some people!
Of all of your musical compositions to date, is there one that stands out for you as a personal favorite?
- Good question. Not one, but maybe a few. “Opus Pocus” and “Images” are two of my favorites from when I could still play because they are far different from any “neoclassical” crap [laughs]. Cool and different sounding with interesting harmonies and melodies.
- The most obvious ones are “End of the Beginning” and “Higher." They are the most divinely inspired.
What projects are you currently working on?
I'm working on a new CD. I have some cool new pieces. I will have some of the greatest guest guitarists on it. I am so excited!
What advice would you give to people who are trying to overcome obstacles in their own lives — like. maybe trying to figure out a Jason Becker solo?
Well first, don’t bother learning my solos! Put your own new sauce on your noodling.
I know life can be tough. I don’t feel qualified to give people advice. I am not perfect. We are all at different stages in life. I think my story alone, without me saying a word, might have more of an impact on people rather than me trying to give advice.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.