By Andrew Catania
I remember when I first heard of Jason Becker. It was a Cacophony tape that I ordered through the Columbia Record and Tape Club (showing my age here). I didn’t think Becker was human. That started it from there.
Becker was born and raised in Richmond, California, by his parents, Gary and Patricia (Heffley) Becker. He was born in Richmond Hospital on 23rd Street in 1969. His maternal grandfather was actor Wayne Heffley. Becker graduated from Kennedy High School where he performed Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Black Star” with his band at a talent show. While still in high school, Becker was introduced to Marty Friedman. He was exposed to the guitar at an early age because both his father and his uncle were guitar players. He absorbed all kinds of music from around the world and melded different aspects of each style into his playing. He cited Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen as early influences.
Becker started out playing alongside Marty Friedman in the Mike Varney-produced duo, Cacophony. Together, they put out an album, and toured Japan and the U.S. While they never went mainstream in the U.S., Europeans embraced their music and they sold out almost everywhere they went. In 1989 Becker left to pursue a solo career, having released his first solo album titled ‘Perpetual Burn’ in 1988, and has since released Perspective and Collection, as well as two albums of demos, entitled The Raspberry Jams and The Blackberry Jams.
At the age of 20, he joined David Lee Roth’s band to work on Roth’s album A Little Ain’t Enough, replacing Steve Vai, who had joined Whitesnake. In 1990 Becker won the coveted Best New Guitarist award from Guitar Magazine. While preparing for the album, Becker began to feel what he called a “lazy limp” in his left leg. He was soon diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS; Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and was given three to five years to live. He finished the recording using light gauge (thin) guitar strings and other techniques, which made it easier for him to play with his weakening hands. Although he managed to finish the album, which was released in 1991, he did not join the supporting tour due to his inability to perform on stage; former Lizzy Borden guitarist Joe Holmes took Becker’s place on tour.
Due to his illness, he eventually lost the ability to speak and now communicates with his eyes via a system developed by his father. Although his ALS gradually robbed him of his ability to play guitar, to walk, and eventually even to speak, he still remains mentally sharp and, with the aid of a computer, continues composing. In the back of the Perspective CD case, Becker states “I have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. It has crippled my body and speech, but not my mind.” His medical condition has remained stable since 1997. In 2003, Becker posted on his website that he was feeling better and had gained some weight, while the folder for his 2008 album Collection also mentions an upcoming book.
In 1996, Becker released an album entitled Perspective, an instrumental album composed by him (with the exception of Bob Dylan’s song “Meet Me in the Morning”). The writing of the music had been started before ALS completely crippled his abilities. By using guitar, and, later, when he was unable to use both hands, a keyboard, he continued to compose while his disease worsened. However, when Becker could no longer physically play even a keyboard, his friend and music producer Mike Bemesderfer helped him with a music-composing computer program that reads movements of his head and eyes, enabling Becker to continue to compose after he lost control of the rest of his body.
Several years later, Becker released Raspberry Jams (1999) and Blackberry Jams (2003); the first contained various unreleased demo-tracks, and the latter contained demo-tracks and alternate versions of songs that were later reworked and published into other albums.
Two tribute albums to Jason Becker have been issued. Respectively entitled Warmth in the Wilderness I and Warmth in the Wilderness II, they feature guitarists such as Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, Marty Friedman, Joe Becker, Rusty Cooley, and Mattias Eklundh. The album profits were sent to Becker to help him with his medical finances.
On November 4, 2008, Shrapnel Records released a new Jason Becker album entitled Collection. The album includes three new songs in addition to some older recordings (some never before released) and features Marty Friedman, Greg Howe, Joe Satriani, Michael Lee Firkins, Steve Vai, and Steve Hunter.
On August 20, 2010, Becker declared that he was considering releasing an album of music he recorded when he was in his teenage years. He has since released this album, titled ‘Boy Meets Guitar’, which was published in 2012.
Considered a virtuoso guitarist and one of the top players of his time, Jason Becker studied the works of violinist Niccolò Paganini and was a playing partner with Marty Friedman. He later arranged Paganini’s 5th Caprice, performing it during an instructional guitar video. Becker’s compositions often include high speed scalar and arpeggio passages—trademarks of his ‘shred’ style of guitar playing. Often incorporating advanced techniques such as sweep picking, alternate picking, artificial harmonic accenting, and tapping; he was among the leaders of the field during the technical ‘shred’ guitar and Neo-Classical Metal trend of the mid to late eighties and is still respected and honored by his musician peers today. The song Serrana appearing in the album Perspective, is an example of his sweep-picking skills. He demonstrated the arpeggio sequence during a clinic at the Atlanta Institute of Music. A video of this performance first appeared on his Hot Licks guitar instructional video.
Becker’s first guitar was a Franciscan acoustic. Prior to joining Cacophony in 1987, Becker worked his way through the Franciscan, a Takamine acoustic, a Fender Musicmaster, and finally, a black Fender Stratocaster “Dan Smith” model (likely a 1982 or 1983 model) with a DiMarzio Steve Morse humbucker in the bridge (seen in the “Black Star” video, circa 1986). On his message board, Becker said “I recorded SMS [Speed Metal Symphony] with my Strat.”
For his next guitar, Becker said on his message board “Mike Varney got Hurricane to endorse us after we recorded Speed Metal Symphony. I liked how they were like Strats, only beefier.”
On Perpetual Burn, Becker said on his message board: “I used my white and black Hurricane guitar for everything. For clean tone I went direct. For dirty tone I used a 100 Watt Marshall with a Boss Super Overdrive pedal.”
The Moridira Hurricane guitar he used is called a Limited Edition LTD.2 model, believed to be made in Japan. (It is not a Hurricane EX series, which appears to be lower quality.) His LTD.2 was a “strat copy”, but with a HSS pickup setup, a 22-fret rosewood fingerboard, and unique Floyd Rose where you don’t have to cut the strings. For pickups, Becker said on his message board: “I just used the stock pickups it came with.” The pickups were Japanese-made pickups.
On the cover of Perpetual Burn, he is pictured with a blue Hurricane guitar. He did not use this blue guitar on Perpetual Burn. Differences on this guitar from his first Hurricane include DiMarzio pickups, a maple fretboard, and 24 frets. (Interestingly Marty Friedman recorded the whammy parts of his song “Dragon Mistress” using this blue Hurricane, one of the rare times Marty has recorded whammy work.)
For the second Cacophony album, Becker switched over to Carvin gear, utilizing 2 DC Series models, one in a trans blue finish with flamed maple top, and another one in a solid burgundy finish (This is the guitar seen in the famous “Yo Yo” video from the 1989 Japan tour with Cacophony). Both have double cutaway bodies, Kahlerlocking tremolo systems, 6 in line machine heads and 2 Carvin humbucker pickups. He used these up until he was diagnosed with ALS in 1989.
During the sessions for A Little Ain’t Enough, Becker used various Carvin, Ibanez, ESP and Valley Arts guitars, as well as a Les Paul on some tracks and a Gibson acoustic for select things. Becker has also been pictured with a few Hamer superstrats as well. From 1989–1991, Becker used various guitars, most notably a Peavey custom model with the numbered fretboard markers. Also used were an Ibanez Custom Shop guitar (probably based on an RG), a custom from Performance Guitars, a couple of various unknown Strat style guitars and a black Hurricane with 3 single coil pickups.
As of very recently, Becker has allowed Paradise Guitars USA to release a Jason Becker signature guitar. It is similar in appearance to the numbered Peavey but with a different headstock shape. Becker used various types of amplifiers in his music. Before joining Cacophony, he used a small Peavey Studio Pro 40 with the older style Peavey vertical silver stripes on the grille cloth. During his early days Becker was also seen with a red Marshall JCM800 head and 4×12 cabinet.
For the first Cacophony album, Becker used an ADAMP1 preamp. Perpetual Burn was a borrowed ’70s Marshall half stack and a BOSS Super Overdrive and Cacophony second album was a Carvin X100B stack.
For the David Lee Roth album A Little Ain’t Enough, Becker used “eight different Marshall amps.” He also used the SX300H head at some point during that era. After Cacophony Becker used various amps, including a “Fender M80″, an unknown Marshall amp, an ADA Preamp and possibly the aforementioned Peavey combo.
Becker typically used Dean Markley and SIT strings. In 2008 Paradise Guitars worked with Becker to design a Jason Becker signature guitar. The design is based on the Peavey with colored number fret inlays. Features include an alder body, maple neck with steel 2-way truss rod, maple 16” radius fingerboard, 24 jumbo thin frets with colored number fret marker inlays, black Floyd Rose Pro Style floating Tremolo with Floyd Rose Tremolo stop, Sperzel red satin tuners, 14-degree tilt-back headstock with black Paradise logo and matching tremolo and electronics plates. The pickups are DiMarzio pickups; a PAF Pro-Custom in the neck colored yellow and red, a DP116 HS-2 in the middle colored green, and a Tone Zone-Custom in the bridge colored pink and blue. These colored pickups complement the colored inlays and seem to give the guitar a rainbow effect. There is also a red 5-way switch and purple 1–11 volume knob.
In 2012 Carvin worked with Becker to design the JB200C Jason Becker Tribute, a guitar that is modeled after the original DC200 guitar he used toward the latter part of his career. The guitar features an Alder body with flamed maple top, maple neck with a flamed maple fingerboard, a Floyd Rose tremolo, jumbo frets, 2 humbuckers, active electronics, and comes standard in a transparent blue finish.
In 2015, Kiesel Guitars, which took over Carvin’s guitar manufacturing, worked with Becker to release a second tribute model, called the JB24 “Numbers” guitar. It is the third incarnation of his “Numbers” guitar, previously released by Peavey and Paradise guitars, and is also one of the first Carvin guitars to feature a 24-fret bolt-on neck, alongside the GH24 Greg Howe signature model released in the same year. It features a tung-oiled ash body, maple neck and fingerboard, colored number inlays, stainless steel frets, and 3 custom-colored Seymour Duncan pickups (Perpetual Burn in the bridge, Vintage Hot Stack in the middle, and Jazz in the neck)
A feature-length documentary film about the life of Jason Becker entitled Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, was released in 2012. The film includes interviews with Becker, his family and friends, and the various musicians he’s worked with, including Marty Friedman, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Richie Kotzen, and Steve Hunter. The film was generally well received by fans and critics and won many awards.
To this day, Jason inspires me and thousands of his fans. When I feel like giving up on something, I think about Jason and his resilience, continuing to make music and communicating with us. A big shout out to the Becker family, for taking such good care of Jason!
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