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He wrote and recorded the DLR album A Little Ain’t Enough and was poised to take over the rock guitar world when a nagging pain in his leg was diagnosed as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a debilitating and fatal condition with a life expectancy of maybe five years. Maybe. That was 29 years ago.
Jason Becker’s story is truly one of brilliance, talent, determination, adversity, and ultimately...triumph. With the release of his long-awaited new album 'Triumphant Hearts' set for December 7th, Jason takes some time out to chat with Guitar Interactive Magazine about the inception and culmination of this tremendous project, as well as giving us some insight into his unique process for visualising and notating music, and even how he manages to keep his hair looking so great.
A child prodigy on guitar, Jason rose to prominence as a teenager when he was one half of the legendary rock guitar duo Cacophony (with his great friend Marty Friedman). After wowing audiences all over the world with his amazing guitar chops and deep compositions, Jason auditioned for—and got—the gig with David Lee Roth, following in the enormous footsteps of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. He wrote and recorded the DLR album A Little Ain’t Enough and was poised to take over the rock guitar world when a nagging pain in his leg was diagnosed as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a debilitating and fatal condition with a life expectancy of maybe five years. Maybe. That was 29 years ago.
Jason did indeed lose the ability to play the guitar, walk, talk, and even breathe on his own. However, he never lost his will to live or his desire to create music. Communicating through a series of eye movements with a system developed by his father, Jason spells out words as well as musical notes and chords. He imparts his musical vision to his team who then can input the notes into a computer, edit the parts to his exacting standards, and then generate charts for session musicians. It is through this amazing process that Jason composes his profoundly beautiful music, rich in melody and counterpoint, brimming with emotion. His inspiring music and life story have been the subject of countless news articles, magazine cover stories, and an award-winning documentary, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet.
Not only is Jason not dead yet, but he’s also busier and more prolific than ever, as evidenced by his latest release, 'Triumphant Hearts.' The album’s 14 tracks showcase Jason’s gift for melody and his in-depth knowledge of classical composition and orchestral arrangement. Many of the guitar parts are performed by a who's-who of 6-string gods including Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Neal Schon, Steve Morse, Paul Gilbert, Joe Bonamassa, and many others. Also, in what will absolutely surprise and delight fans, Jason’s amazing guitar playing—recorded in the ’80s and ’90s—graces several tunes.
Gi: Congratulations on the new record Jason. Where did the idea for 'Triumphant Hearts' originate?
JB: Well, I just had music I wanted to make. That is really all it was. After a while, it became more apparent that I couldn’t do it all without so much help and love from other people. That is when I started thinking about the whole "Triumphant Hearts" theme, and how much most of us really need each other. Actually, I was going to call the album 'Triumphant Heart,' but in our Friday meeting, Serrana thought that it didn't quite convey the full value of everyone involved. I thought that she was right and decided on 'Triumphant Hearts.' Genius; HA HA! Serrana is the real genius.
The cover of the album was painted by my dad, Gary Becker. I told him what I wanted, and that I wanted it in his style, only a little more realistic. In the past, he has done many different sketches and studies before the final version of what I was looking for, but this heart world was his first take. To me, he painted what my music feels like. All of us in the world should remember our connection through love. He also nailed what I asked for with my name in one try.
Gi: This project has no shortage of phenomenal guitarists on board. When you compose guitar parts for other players to perform do you visualise the fretboard as you write, or does it manifest itself in a different way?
JB: Good question. I almost always look at a fretboard of the nearest guitar hanging on my wall. Not just for guitar parts, but for every instrument I am writing for. You know, I didn’t write every guitar part though. I wrote the parts in "Hold On To Love," "Magic Woman" and "Triumphant Heart," but I asked the players in "Valley of Fire" and "River of Longing" to play what they felt.
Gi: Every track on 'Triumphant Hearts' has been created with the utmost attention to detail so I’m almost certain it would be hard to choose, however, is there one or two tracks that you are the most excited for audiences to finally hear?
JB: Thank you, yes that is true. I put all I had into this album and I couldn't pick one thing, but I am excited about writing lyrics and telling my story and feelings from my perspective. I am excited about audiences hearing that, and especially audiences who may not know about me. I would like to think that "Hold On To Love" is a universal song/sentiment and can touch everyone in some way. “We Are One” as well. I'm also excited for folks to hear the orchestral pieces. It is such a thrill to hear my music come alive with brilliant string and horn musicians putting their own touch and feeling into it. I'm hoping it will touch others like it touched me.
Gi: You’ve created some of the most incredible instrumental compositions over the years. What is your process for developing an idea from start to finish, and how do you know when you’re on to something good?
JB: Man, thank you so much; that means a lot to me. An idea usually starts in my head while I am lying in bed around 3 AM. I wake up and something is rolling around in my noodle. I go through it and try to think of good ways for the song to go. The next day when I get on the computer, I put those thoughts down. It is actually pretty simple, in a way. None of the eye computer systems work well for me, so I tell my caregiver exactly what to do. It starts with me picking a sound, like maybe a harp sample, and putting down one note. It isn’t done with a keyboard, so no one has to know about music. I slowly instruct where to put each note, and how long to make them. Or I might start with the chords, pencilling in each note of each chord. Then I layer on other instruments and tracks, always messing with the rhythms and velocities. It is really quite cool how soon it sounds awesome.
I usually think I am on to something good, and I am often right, but I have given up on some ideas. I have quite a few demos that I have never finished.
Gi: When you compose a song, how important do you think it is to write for an intended audience? Does that influence your decisions at all?
JB: For me, it isn’t important at all. I don’t think about that once. I write what I want to, and I think that is what people want to hear. I wouldn’t push any boundaries if I thought like that. Maybe if I made a lot of money from music, I might consider it, but no one really wants something forced from me.
Gi: How do you know when your song is complete and time to stop revising it?
JB: It’s time to stop revising it when I feel everything I want to feel from it. I have usually tried many different instruments, gone through timing, performances, quality and all that, so once I am satisfied with that, it's mostly about feeling. Funny, I am usually done way sooner than my co-producer, Dan Alvarez. He has a tendency to pick everything to death. I have to keep him in check. HA HA!
Gi: What was is it that first inspired you to learn to play the guitar or write music?
JB: I grew up seeing my dad and my uncle, who both played guitar. I listened to Bob Dylan music and saw classical, rock and blues guitarists playing. I have always thought it was cool. When I saw the movie The Last Waltz, and saw Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson play, I knew that was what I wanted to do. It was so much fun to play and to learn about music; it is just the language I speak.
You know, when I was 14, I made a little demo tape of myself playing other peoples’ songs. I gave it to my grandfather, Wayne Heffley, who was a Hollywood character actor. He was in things like The Twilight Zone, Superman, My Three Sons, Little House on the Prairie, and Days of Our Lives. He told me it was great, but he was looking forward to when I started writing my own songs. That got me thinking.
Gi: In those early days when you were developing your skills, what did your average guitar playing day look like? Did you have a specific practice schedule?
JB: I didn't really have a specific practice schedule, I just picked up the guitar when I got home from school and pretty much played it until I went to bed, sometimes serious practice and sometimes playing around with TV and cartoon theme songs, sometimes jamming. I definitely had marathon practice sessions, playing scales and arpeggios too. I learned a lot of Paganini and Bach pieces. I practiced everything my guitar teacher, Dave Creamer, taught me that month. I learned a lot of songs by Jeff Beck, Van Halen, Steve Morse and Yngwie. It was all just fun. The guitar was my main entertainment and something I did every day. Weekends were usually spent at my uncles’ house jamming with him, my dad, my mom, my brother, my friends, all of us hanging around, playing, partying, eating, and having fun.
Gi: Do you remember any specific techniques or songs that were the most challenging for you to master?
JB: Hmm…you got me thinking…the first lead guitar thing that I worked on was “Further Up The Road,” the version from The Last Waltz with Clapton and Robbie Robertson. My Uncle Ron taught me the blues scale, and with that, I learned songs by ear, trial and error. I also remember playing along with Hendrix’s Smash Hits and Roy Buchanan’s Second Album. As my ear got better, I remember playing along with a bunch of Jeff Beck’s albums. I especially liked Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, Led Boots, and Star Cycle. Then came all of Van Halen, and Eruption of course. I had a hard time learning speed picking ala Al Dimeola and Yngwie.
Gi: Reflecting on those early Shrapnel Records days, how was it to be part of that scene? Did you envision at the time that so many of those artists would have such impact and influence on electric guitar players even to this day?
JB: It was so much fun! Mike Varney had created this place where it was all about creativity and encouraging new ideas. Marty and I took full advantage of that. Man, Firkins, Howe, Kotzen, Gilbert, Marty…the musicianship was insane. I knew it, but it seemed like much of the world couldn’t see past the speed. Those players had it all.
Fun little fact: When I first got to Prairie Sun Studios, for recording Speed Metal Symphony, Marty and I had the tiny cabin room, and I found one of Yngwie’s very used picks.
Gi: Do you have any advice for young guitar players and musicians looking to make that same kind of impact?
JB: I guess just really love music and what you do. Be open to all kinds of music. Even if you only love metal and rock, you can take things from all kinds of music. That is what could make you stand out.
Gi: Do you think that today’s generation of upcoming guitarists are any different in their approach to the instrument from the guitarists around you when you were growing up?
JB: Good question. I wish I had an answer. Since I haven’t been able to play in so many years, I haven’t followed the guitar playing trends or tendencies. I guess there are a lot more 8-string players now. That is a very cool sound, although I can only take so much. Maybe I am just an old man. HA HA!
Gi: What is the best piece of advice you ever received regarding your playing development or songwriting?
JB: Excellent question. After I sent my demo tape to Mike Varney, he called me and told me that I had some great ideas and techniques, but that my playing and recordings were sloppy. He said I should record the songs again, and take more time and care with the whole thing. I took the time to do that, and it really made a big difference. I had to think more about the music and what I was playing. Mike Varney is extremely knowledgeable as a producer and musician. I didn’t have as much on my demo as many of his other artists, but he heard something in there.
Gi: And what about the worst piece of advice?
JB: This is just funny; I still tease my parents about these things. It’s not really bad advice, just funny memories. After seeing The Last Waltz, I told my dad I wanted to be a lead guitarist like Clapton. He said, “okay, but that is way too hard.” My mom said I should try to get a job right when Cacophony was starting. I spent an afternoon going to music stores and filling out applications. I even did an interview at a video rental store. The guy asked me why I wanted to work there. I said, “well, I like movies.” HA HA! My dad said to give Cacophony a year to see if it works out. I just did extra chores and gave guitar lessons.
Gi: Do you have any musical guilty pleasures? Would you share some with us, please?
JB: You ask some great questions! A while ago I listened to a lot of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. I even watched many seasons of American Idol. Don’t kick me. HA HA! At least I never voted. I really dug Tupac and Eminem, but I don’t feel guilty about them because they often had something to say. I think Lady Gaga is great. I absolutely love Dean Martin’s voice and songs. I really like that Celine Dion Titanic song. I love, love, love Shania Twain! I love the Bruno Mars song, “Uptown Funk.” My new song, “We Are One” is a mix between “Uptown Funk” and “Voodoo Child.”
Gi: You have a big birthday coming up next year. What will you be doing to celebrate? Oh, and how have you managed to keep your hair looking incredible? What’s the secret?
JB: I would like to do something special. I haven’t thought about it yet. I’ll probably just have a big party. Any good ideas?
My hair – only wash it once a week.
Gi: When people finally get to hear 'Triumphant Hearts' in December, there will quickly be calls for the follow-up record. Who would you like to work with that didn’t make it onto this one?
JB: I can’t even fathom making another album right now. Maybe just one song at a time. Definitely Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan of course, Stevie Wonder, David Gilmour, Hiromi, Tony Bennett, Yo Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, Randy Newman, Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, Seal, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, and Shania Twain!
'Triumphant Hearts' opens powerfully with the title track, featuring Jason’s old bandmate Marty Friedman and an astounding violin performance.
“I wrote ‘Triumphant Heart’ and it made me feel triumphant,” says Becker. “When Marty found out I was making this album, he told me he would play anything I needed. I sent him this, and his wife, Hiyori, who is a cellist, also offered to play on it. The great violinist, Glauco Bertagnin, recorded my violin parts in Italy. That fast solo section I wrote is way too hard; I don’t know how Glauco pulled it off. He put so much soul in the whole song.”
“Hold on to Love” is the first vocal tune on the record, although it didn’t start out that way. “It was going to be an instrumental,” explains Jason, “but after I wrote the chorus with lyrics, I knew I had to tell my story, to explain how I can continue living without feeling hate. I hadn’t written many lyrics before.” In addition to its beautiful, gospel-tinged choir, the heartfelt song features Bay Area singer Codany Holiday on lead vocals. “Codany came to my house, and Dan [Alvarez, producer] and I recorded him in my living room. He did it in five straight hours with no break. We were blown away by his emotional and soulful take on the message of the song. He really brought it to life.”
“Fantasy Weaver” is the odd Jason Becker tune that doesn’t showcase incredible 6-string work, displaying instead the 4-string magic of world-renown ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro. “I actually wrote the harp arpeggios back in the Cacophony days. Not long ago, I decided I wanted to use that piece… it reminds me of Debussy, who I love. I had recently talked to the ukulele great, Jake Shimabukuro, and he agreed to play on this piece. His touch and feel are so soothing. I think it has something to do with his awesome sense of intonation, but more than that, I really think it comes from his beautiful and humble heart.”
The gorgeous “Once Upon a Melody” not only features two outstanding Jason Becker guitar solos from his Cacophony era, but also audio of him as a three-year-old kid. The full-circle nature of having little boy Jason, guitar virtuoso Jason, and modern-day composer Jason all on the same song is a breathtaking accomplishment.
“This piece sort of goes backwards in time,” states Becker. “It starts with new music, goes back to my teen years with the guitar solo, then goes to elementary school with the sounds of children playing, and then back to me when I was three.
“I found the first solo on an old 4-track recording I did from the Cacophony Go Off! days. I wrote it for the intro to “Black Cat,” but we didn’t end up using it. I put the solo into Logic Pro, and wrote a different chord under each note. I loved the sound, so I had the woodwinds play the same guitar melody, only with a slightly different rhythm.
“My second guitar solo was taken from the song ‘Go Off!’ It’s my favourite solo that I ever did. I wrote more stuff around that solo, and like with the first melody, I had woodwinds play it first.”
Another standout vocal tune on 'Triumphant Hearts' is “We Are One,” a grooving, funky song that features soulful Flipsyde vocalist Steve Knight. It also has more great Jason Becker guitar, recorded on a 4-track back in the day. Even though the parts were tracked decades apart, they mesh seamlessly, both rhythmically and tonally.
“The tones were good to begin with, but Chuck Zwicky, who worked with Prince in the late ’80s, really made them huge with his mixing. I remember I used a ’69 Plexi Marshall amp and my blue Carvin guitar.
“Dan made a click track that matched my guitar part exactly so that everything I added worked perfectly. My original timing was pretty good, but Dan made it swing more to match the parts I had written around the guitar.”
Uli Jon Roth is a guitar legend who influenced many melodic metal and shred guitarists. He appears on the tune “Magic Woman,” along with ex-Megadeth guitarist Chris Broderick who counts both Uli and Jason as big influences.
“Chris is a great classical guitarist,” says Jason. “I told him to pretty much play what I put down, but to add anything that he would naturally do on classical guitar. I wanted all of my notes, but I also wanted his take and feel on it. As for Uli, I think his playing is divine, like it comes from heaven. He is one of the greats, and it’s almost like a dream that we are good friends.”
Fans of Jason’s work with David Lee Roth will be thrilled by the inclusion of two previously unreleased outtakes from the A Little Ain’t Enough sessions, the hard rocking “Taking Me Back” and the blues-infused “Tell Me No Lies.”
“Dave asked me, Brett Tuggle, and Gregg and Matt Bissonette to write a bluesy song for A Little Ain’t Enough. We all went to Brett’s home, and this is what we did that day. It wasn’t quite what Dave was looking for, but it brings back good memories.”
The song that will probably get the most immediate attention, thanks to the gaudy collection of talent on it, is “Valley of Fire.” It’s a tune of sweeping grandeur, populated by fantastic guitar performances. Although it’s not easy to encapsulate succinctly, Jason describes the amazing players on his song like this:
Michael Lee Firkins: I remember when Mike Varney first played me his demo. I said I have to meet this guy! We have been close friends ever since.
Steve Vai: One of my big influences. Such a creative mind and heart. He is so encouraging. We sometimes talk about deeper things.
Joe Bonamassa: A master of tone. We both started young and we are similar kinds of people. He offered to record out of the blue. I didn’t even ask him. Such a sweetheart and the next killer bluesman.
Paul Gilbert: I have been a fan of his aggressive style for so long. He is such a sweet dude.
Neal Schon: It made me so happy to find out that Neal was a fan, because I have always gotten emotional at his guitar playing. He was happy to play on this song.
Mattias IA Eklundh: Ever since I heard his version of Django’s “Minor Swing,” I have been a big fan. I always want him on my stuff.
Marty Friedman: Loser. I was just doing him a favour. Ha ha!
Greg Howe: Such a naturally brilliant player, and one of my dearest friends.
Jeff Loomis: Another brilliant musician. I influenced him, which is a big deal to me because he took things a lot further.
Richie Kotzen: My brother! He is multi-talented, like Prince, with so much soul in everything he does.
Gus G: Such a sweet whippersnapper!
Steve Hunter: The man!
Ben Woods: I wish he was on this more.
In addition to all this, there are also performances by Joe Satriani, Guthrie Govan, Trevor Rabin, and many others. These amazing musicians help Jason realize his vision on the best material of his career. While Jason Becker is unquestionably the sexiest man alive, he’s also the most positive, upbeat, and inspiring man alive, as he concedes:
“Some people feel sorry for me and I understand that. I really feel lucky though. I don’t miss playing guitar anymore. I’m sure that’s out of necessity, but I am grateful for so much more. I am surrounded by loving people, and I can still make music.”
Jason Becker – 'Triumphant Hearts' Track List
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