Born in the summer of ’69, Jason Becker signed to the infamous Shrapnel label at the age of 16 and soon after released two albums alongside Marty Friedman, under the banner Cacophony. Speed Metal Symphony came in 1987 and Go Off! in 1988.
In ’88 Jason also released his debut solo record, Perpetual Burn. A few short years later he landed one of the most coveted gigs in rock when he played lead guitar on David Lee Roth’s A Little Ain’t Enough. Sadly, Lady Luck was not on Jason’s side as he was forced to retire from live playing due to the onset of ALS, or Motor Neurone Disease.
With the help of specialised computer equipment, Jason is still able to compose music, and players such as Michael Lee Firkins, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Richie Kotzen have assumed the role of Jason’s ‘hands’ over the years.
Jason achieved technical mastery at a very young age and was one of the pioneers of sweep picking, with tracks like Mabel’s Fatal Fable and Serrana demonstrating flawlessly clean and ferocious delivery of five and six-string arpeggios covering every fret the guitar has to offer. Tracks like Temple Of The Absurd and Eleven Blue Egyptians show off a quirkier side to Jason’s composition and playing.
Our first example is a single-note riff incorporating some standard rock ingredients, such as the Harmonic Minor scale, palm mutes and vibrato, but also some odd note groupings which lean into progressive territory.
Once your hands are warmed up with this one, we can ease into the sweep picking technique with Ex2. In this genre, the sweep picking technique usually comprises Major and Minor triads and Diminished 7th arpeggios, played across three or five strings, and sometimes across all six.
The three-string shapes are a good place to start as you will be able to hone the technique before applying it to larger string groups. The first thing to achieve is sweeping the pick from string to string, rather than playing each string with separate pick strokes; more like slow, controlled strumming than picking.
The pick should move at a constant speed to produce even subdivisions, and those subdivisions will naturally depend on how fast you move the pick.
The next challenge is with the fretting hand, which is largely responsible for how clean your sweeping sounds. The key word here is ‘muting’ and as such you should only fret one note at a time, while simultaneously preventing the other, unplayed strings from ringing out. Do this by using any spare fingers, or bits of fingers you have. Example 5 expands on the theme with a more ferocious and challenging lick.
Be sure to focus on playing the licks cleanly and in time, and don’t put all your energy into getting fast too quickly.
Get the tone
Jason used electric guitars from Carvin, Hurricane and Paradise, while his amp was a Marshall JCM800, driven by a Boss SD-1 distortion pedal. So it’s a classic metal sound we’re after. Use your guitar’s bridge pickup (humbucker, or drop the treble on a single-coil), with a British style amp tone via a high-gain distortion pedal. Use a minimum of reverb.
To go back to where it started, check out the Cacophony albums Speed Metal Symphony and Go Off! These show how ahead of his time the young Becker was.
His debut solo album, Perpetual Burn, showcases his incredible range, while his work with David Lee Roth on A Little Ain’t Enough is superb. Also check out the two Warmth In The Wilderness tribute albums featuring a host of guitar stars.
This single-note riff is based in A Harmonic Minor (A-B-C-D-E-F-G#). The phrase in bar 2 can be broken into groups of four, five then six notes, with a single note at the end to complete the bar.
Play these three-string arpeggios starting with two up strokes, with a pull-off in-between, followed by three downstrokes. The initial shape is an E Minor triad and just the highest note changes to add a top line melody. Finish with a semitone bend and resolution at the 19th fret.
Here we have three five-string positions of A Minor triads; starting on the 3rd, 5th, then root intervals with your first finger shifting up the fifth string for each shape. Pick each arpeggio with five smooth, connected down strokes, then five flowing up strokes; adding a hammer-on or a pull-off for the two-notes-per-string moments.
Play these E Phrygian Dominant (1-b2-3-4-5-b6-b7) fragments using alternate picking and listen to the harmony guitar part on the backing track, which will help you mimic the rhythmic phrasing accurately.
Play the E Minor, five-string sweeps in two positions; starting with your fourth finger at the 15th fret, then shifting up to 19th fret. Stay at 19th fret and descend with five-note Diminished 7th arpeggios phrased in quintuplets. Learn the licks slowly and perfect your sweeping technique before attempting to play up to speed.