Twenty-two years ago, Jason Becker, the new guitarist in David Lee Roth’s band, was ready to rocket to guitar stardom. The 21-year-old had already released two Cacophony albums with co-guitarist Marty Friedman, as well as his debut solo album, Perpetual Burn. Fans anxiously anticipated Roth’s new album and upcoming tour – after all, Dave’s previous 6-string collaborators were Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. A Little Ain’t Enough went gold after its release, but a tour with Jason Becker was not to be. A week before our December 13, 1990, phone interview, Jason was diagnosed with ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The Becker family was initially told Jason’s life expectancy was three to five years. By 1996, he’d lost the ability to speak. He and his father developed a method of communicating via eye movement, allowing him to communicate words and musical notes. As Jason wrote in the liners to his 1996 album Perspective, ALS has “crippled my body and speech, but not my mind.” Jason has released other albums during the ensuing years, outliving his prognosis and inspiring people from all walks of life. Today he’s the star of the film Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, now showing in theaters around the world.
The following interview was originally done for Guitar Player magazine, where I was a longtime staff editor. My thanks go to Jason and Guitar Player’s Mike Molenda for permission to run the audio version of this interview, and to Jason’s friend Gretchen Menn for writing “Jason Becker: An Appreciation” for this issue. Portions of my conversation with Jason were used as voiceovers in Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. Here is the entire conversation in print and audio.
Jason – Jas Obrecht.
Hey, Jas, how you doing?
I sure love your playing on the record.
Aw, thanks a lot, man.
You did a great job.
Thanks a lot, Jas! Good to hear.
Did you feel any special pressure knowing that you were following in the footsteps of Eddie and Steve Vai?
No, not really. You can’t think about that. When Dave listened to me and the guys heard me, you know, they don’t want another Eddie or another Steve. They want me for what I do. You know, there’s no way – I don’t play like Steve or Eddie, so there was no pressure. I just do what I do. Some people are gonna like it more, and some people aren’t gonna like it as much. So the only thing that you can do is play and make yourself happy. And making Dave happy is good too.
Yeah, I can imagine. I’ve known Dave since the band [Van Halen] did their first album. Given his passion for control, what kind of input did he have on what you played?
Well, you know, it was really cool. You hear a lot of stories about Dave and stuff, and when I was going in I didn’t know what to expect. I was very pleasantly surprised, especially as far as recording, because he had a lot of input and he wanted everything to be special and to fit. It wasn’t like he told me anything to do; it was like, “Why don’t you try this and this?” And I’d try it, and he’d think, “Well, cool. What about trying this and this?” He’d try to pull things out of me that I would do myself. It wasn’t like, “Do this!” It was more, “Just go for it, and we’ll see where to go from there.”
What was the road that led you into that gig?
Gosh, what was the road? Um . . .
I associate you with being with Cacophony and living up around Novato.
Right. I was in Cacophony, and I had just gotten out of the band – not even knowing about the Dave thing or anything.
When was this?
This was about a month before I started playing with Dave in late ’89, I guess. So I got out of that band just because I wanted a little more blues in there and a little more pop thing. I just kind of wanted to start fresh. Even though Marty [Friedman] is my best friend and we always play together all the time, I just wanted something new. So I started writing tunes that are more like Dave’s, for [Shrapnel Records producer] Mike Varney. So he really liked them. I think it was matter of Mike Varney and [Roth drummer] Gregg Bissonette talking. So I want down and auditioned for him.
Can you describe the audition for Dave?
Ah, it was great! I got there and I was expecting . . . .
That was at Dave’s dad’s house?
Yeah, Dave’s house, and they’re hanging out. Dave’s eating cereal. It was great because they were just like normal people. They are about the nicest guys I have ever met – you know, the guys in the band. They just really made it easy. It was really easy. It was just a matter of going and playing.
What kind of stuff did you play?
We played “Hot for Teacher,” “Gigolo” and “Panama,” and a couple of the new tunes.
Had you woodshedded and learned all this before you went down?
Oh, yeah. It wasn’t that hard to learn, so yeah, I definitely got it down. I learned the songs the way the songs were on the records. They’d heard a tape of me before, so they knew that I had ideas and stuff. So they just wanted to make sure I could cop the vibes.
Jason, did any of the songs that you were writing make it onto the record?
Two songs I wrote, the last two on the record – “Showtime” and “Drop in the Bucket.”
I wondered about “Drop in the Bucket,” because it’s so guitar-intensive. It seems like it’d come from a guitar player.
Yeah, definitely. You know, most of the songs were written when I got in the band.
Do you have songwriting credits on other songs?
Nope. Gosh, lots of different people wrote on the record. Steve Hunter wrote quite a few tunes with the keyboard player, Brett Tuggle. You know, Dave writes the lyrics for the tunes.
Did he write the lyrics to “Showtime” and “Drop in the Bucket”?
Yeah. See, when I went in there, they had all these tunes, and they said, “If you’ve got any tunes, by all means.” And they had so many great tunes, all I wanted to do was say, “Okay, what is it missing?” and write a tune in what it was missing. Because why write another “Tell the Truth” or “A Little Ain’t Enough” when there’s already one that’s really cool? So I kind of filled in the gaps.
Yeah, they had done little demo tapes.
Yeah, with guitar. They were using a guy – I think his name is Rocket Ritchotte. He’s a really good player. So they had some demos with him. I’m not sure, but I think he co-wrote maybe a couple of the tunes. I’m not sure which ones.
Why didn’t they use him in the band?
Um, I can’t really say, because I don’t know for sure. I have my ideas, but . . .
Okay, good enough. What were the sessions like when you went in to record?
It was really cool! It was really mellow, really easy. You know, Bob Rock’s a guitar player too. Bob Rock produced it.
“Bob Rock”? What’s his real name?
To be honest, they told me that’s his real name.
Bob Rock! [Laughs.] It’s an appropriate name. He’s a great guy, a good producer. There wasn’t really pressure. You know what’s funny? We did a demo of some of the songs before we went in, up to Vancouver to record. And a lot of the solos I did on that, I sort of winged them and made them up at the time. And I thought, “This is fine for now, but I can kick ’em up later.” But Dave fell in love with half of them, so I had to re-cop what I did. But that was cool, because they came out good. But the recording, it was just loads of fun.
Did Dave play any guitar?
No, he didn’t play any.
You mentioned that Hunter played on two cuts?
Yeah. He actually played on all the cuts but “Showtime.” Like he does the popping rhythms in “40 Below.”
The fingerstyle stuff?
It’s the popping, the snapping rhythms in that. He does a little slide in “Sensible Shoes,” and we trade off in “Hammerhead Shark.”
That’s a great little bit you do in there.
Yeah, yeah. That’s a fun one. I like trading off with him. It was a friendly thing.
Were you both set up in the studio at the same time?
No, we weren’t, actually. He did his parts first. But actually, I got lucky because I didn’t have to do it fresh. I got to hear what he did and come up with my part.
Did you get a chance to meet Steve Hunter?
Oh, we’re best friends! We hung out all the time in Vancouver. I’m actually gonna see him tonight.
I remember seeing him with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper when I was a kid. He must be an old guy now!
Yeah, he’s as old as my dad. We always joke about that.
But you related as two regular guys.
Oh, definitely! We definitely get along. He’s really one of my best friends. He’s a good guy.
What are your favorite tracks on the album?
My favorites change every day. You know – “A Little Ain’t Enough” one day, “Tell the Truth” the next day, “Drop in the Bucket” the next day. There are little parts in each song that I like. It depends on what mood I’m in.
You sure had a chance to do some fire-breathing solos on this record.
Yeah, I got a chance. I got a chance to blaze on the last couple.
Especially those. With “Drop in the Bucket,” it seems like you saved your best stuff for the last song.
Yeah, I’ve heard people tell me that. It’s kind of that way. My other records are pretty much blaze from start to finish, and I love doing that, but I wanted it to be a little more . . . . I didn’t want people to say, “Oh. Whatever.” But then again, it’s an exciting thing and I like to put it in there. But to be honest, I didn’t choose the sequence of the record, so maybe that’s what Dave wants.
How did those sessions compare to the sessions you did for Varney?
Oh, well, for Varney, me and Marty went in and Varney didn’t even show up. It was just like, “Go ahead, you guys. Record whatever you want.” So we got to do everything we wanted. It’d take a month, and the only worry was, like, “Uh, are you guys spending too much time, too much money?” Of course, the vocals were a little less of a concern in Cacophony [laughs]. Oh, it was just the most incredible experience in Vancouver. You know, I’d rather have a producer telling me how to change things and how to make it kind of cooler. Which is kind of cool for what it is, but I tend to want to jam cool licks in every second. I used to think, “I don’t want a second of boring parts – I want it all to be incredible.” I really like being – it wasn’t like I was stifled. It was just, “Why don’t you try this. And it would be more effective if you’d wait here, don’t do it here.” I consider it a learning thing, and I’m really into learning, so it was fun.
I was 18.
So you’re 20 now?
That’s amazing. That’s the same age when Eddie started out with Van Halen.
Oh, it is, huh? That’s right, that’s right.
In the song “Sensible Shoes,” is there an acoustic guitar?
Is there an acoustic guitar? You know, I don’t think so. That one and “Tell the Truth,” I left the scratch tracks that I did. When we were recording for the drums and the bass, we’d all play together and Dave would sing. And so we left the scratch tracks on those two tunes.
Did you play the reverb-drenched parts – the sort of swampy rhythm?
It’s almost like a Leslie [rotating speaker] on there, the little vibrato? No, Steve did that. That’s a hip part, huh?
It sure is.
Yeah. He’s good at, like, that old kind of blues stuff.
And he did a little bit of slide in there, it sounds like.
Yeah, he did a little bit of slide, yeah. It’s funny, because we’d take turns doing that little lick, that [sings the part] – sometimes it’s him doing slide, and sometimes it’s me with the bar. It’s hard to tell.
“Baby’s on Fire” is a cool combination of vibe and attitude.
Yeah, yeah. I like that one. That one – I think that’s Dave’s best singing, like, in a long time. He really sounds really tough on that one. For that solo, it was kind of a weird thing I did. I took a melody and played it forwards, and then I flipped the tape and learned how to play it backwards and then played it on the tape and turned it over. So it’s the same melody, only it’s backwards.
So the pick attack is at the end of the note instead of at the beginning.
Exactly. Right, right. It kind of almost doesn’t sound like a guitar, in a way.
It has a nice thick buildup of guitars, almost a Houses of the Holy type of sound.
Yeah. It’s kind of a thick one, yeah.
Did Dave ever tell you, “More guitar, more guitar”? Did that come from him?
No, I don’t think he ever had to say that! [Laughs.] I think that was the least of his concerns!
Were you asked to abridge your parts?
What do you mean “abridge”?
Edit them down, remove stuff.
Yeah. You know, we’d go over solos. Sometimes he’d say, “That lick there isn’t necessary” or “Why don’t we stick it over here.” Yeah, we worked on the solos.
Were solos pieced together?
No. We’d figure out the vibe, and sometimes some of the parts, we wanted them to be in there. I’d punch some, but I never got into doing a bunch of tracks and piecing them together. Although, you know, Bob Rock could have done that when I wasn’t there, so maybe.
But listening back you could probably tell.
Was it recording digitally?
Yeah, we did that. That’s very cool.
The whole record?
Yeah, I believe so.
What did you learn anything about getting a good guitar sound by working on that record? Any new tricks or ideas, suggestions?
I’ll tell you what I learned about getting a good guitar sound: I learned that it’s not an easy thing! You’re not gonna go in there, just because you’re in an expensive studio, and get good tone. It kind of made me learn that it has to come out of the playing. I think tone has a lot to do with your playing. You know, that’s a good one. It’s just a matter of having a cool head, I guess. [Laughs.]
Did you have to change your gear?
Yeah. I kind of wanted different tones on each of the tunes. Basically we had about eight Marshalls in there that we went back and forth from. I used about a million different guitars too. I used, like, Peaveys, Carvins, Ibanez, ESPs, Valley Arts – just any guitar you can think of. Hamers.
Just for a different feel.
Did any of them tend to show up in more prominent places?
To be honest, it’s quite even. It’s quite even. Like, I’d pick a guitar for a certain tune.
Would it be for that guitar’s tone, or just for something different?
Yeah, mainly the tone. Like, I used the Les Paul on “A Little Ain’t Enough,” an ESP on “Lady Luck,” and a Valley Arts on – gosh, I forget which one. See, I kind of forget too. I just want to go for something different.
Why not use eight different brands of amps too?
Well, because Marshall is the coolest amp! [Laughs.]
What do you look for in a Marshall? Like if you’re going to check one out, what’s your road test?
Well, even that, I haven’t been much of a searcher. I just find the cool Marshall. Mainly some beef. It would have to have a lot of meat. Sometimes they have this tinky high-end thing happening. But just a lot of meat, and then you can always add stuff.
Did you have a lot of processing gear there?
No. It kind of bothered me at first. It was just Marshall and nothing else – no reverb, no nothing.
Guitar into amplifier?
Yep. And see ya. It’s not very inspiring to play, so you have to really pull it out of you, which was a challenge. And that was really fun. It got to be fun. At first it was, “What’s the deal? C’mon, let’s juice that puppy up!” But it was really fun.
Did they tend to add sound processing once you had it on tape?
Yeah, once it was on tape. In the mix, they’d slap that stuff on there.
Do you have special requirements for your guitars?
Yeah, I use .008s to .046s [string gauges]. That’s the only requirement.
What about the whammy setup?
Nah, not really. Whatever. As long as I can yank back a little bit, that’s enough.
So it doesn’t matter if it’s a Kahler or Floyd Rose.
Yeah, actually it has to be Floyd or Ibanez or whatever. I used Kahler for a while, but they don’t stay in tune, really – or at least mine didn’t.
I detect a lot of blues influence in your playing, Jason.
Yeah. You know, that’s from early on. My uncle plays blues guitar.
What’s his name?
His name is Ron Becker. He’s into Roy Buchanan and Clapton and all those guys. So I kind of got it from him.
How old were you?
I was five when I started. My dad plays classical, so that’s kind of why I go back and forth from doing those things. But yeah, a lot of Clapton, a lot of . . . . My first influence was Dylan.
At which period? The acoustic folksinger Dylan?
That, as well as “Like a Rolling Stone” and all those things up to Desire and Blood on the Tracks.
So you must be very song-oriented.
Well, kind of. It’s funny because my guitar playing, if you listen to it, it doesn’t really seem like it’s influenced by Dylan. I don’t know what it is, but when I was into it, I was five and six and seven.
Were you practicing a lot back then?
Yeah. I learned like every Dylan tune, and I sang and played the harmonica in front of my school.
With an acoustic guitar?
Yeah, the full-on Mr. Tambourine Man.
Do you have a photo of that?
I think I do.
It’d be great to run with the article.
I’m tellin’ ya. I’ll look for it because it’s really funny.
We’re doing a cover story with Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan, and we’re running a picture of the two of them as kids, so it would be in the spirit of the issue.
Great! There you go – sounds good. Yeah, I’ll have to look for it.
Did you take lessons?
Not really – not until I was 14. I took lessons from Dave Creamer then. I guess he did a record with Miles Davis [1972’s On the Corner]. Incredible player! I’ve got to go take another lesson sometime.
When did you break away from imitation and branch into innovation?
Whoo. that’s a good question. I guess right before I met Marty, and especially when I met Marty, because he was doing stuff that I had never heard. I was like, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I . . .”
Was this in junior high?
No, that was in high school – I guess my junior year. So yeah, that’s about when I started.
Where were you guys going to school?
Well, he’s actually is older than I am, so he wasn’t in school. I went to school in Richmond [California], a school called Kennedy High.
Was Marty a local guitar hero?
Marty? On, no. He just gave lessons and stuff. He was kind of a local hero with Hawaii. He had a band called Hawaii quite a few years before that. But he moved to San Francisco because I guess he was gonna work with Mike Varney.
Would he be one of the major influences on your development?
Yeah, I think so. Definitely.
What do you perceive as the differences in your styles?
Me and Marty?
Yeah. Does he have strengths that you admire?
Oh, yeah. I think he has weirder bends. He’s more into, like, the Uli [Jon Roth] thing. He’s got great phrasing and bending, and he really digs deep into that, whereas I might – well, actually, at this point I’m more into that too. That’s a good question! I don’t know the differences. It’s just a matter of listening. I never really think about it. A lot of people ask me that, so I guess I should think about it. It’s kind of like he’s more of just a regular guy playing cool guitar, because he likes the full-on heavy, like the heaviest, like Megadeth. He’s in the heaviest thing, but he’s like an incredible guitar player. That’s a good question.
Did you do any backup singing on Dave’s album?
No, I didn’t.
Were any of the tracks nearly completed or well developed when you joined Dave?
Oh, yeah. Which ones were? “Last Call” was pretty much in there. “A Little Ain’t Enough” was a complete tune, but it was more of a keyboard tune, so I had to make it into a guitar tune.
What was finished with “Last Call” when you got there?
It was pretty much right in there. I just had to stick a solo into it.
Were the opening riffs already done?
It was already all there.
So that was Steve Hunter who played that?
Oh, no – you mean as far as the final recording? No, we both played rhythm on that, and I did the solo. And I did that little breakdown.
That’s a pretty flamboyant solo, with the growls and the chord parts.
That one is one of those where we had just done a couple of solos. It took a long time figuring out what the vibe should be and how long it should be and what notes it should be. We were kind of getting tired of that, so he said, “Okay.” And it’s funny, because Angus Young was recording right next door.
One of my favorites!
Yeah, definitely! The greatest vibrato. So we heard that his producer gave him like three takes and just pieced it together. So they said, “C’mon now. You can do that.” I said, “Okay. Two takes, and I’ll let you piece it together.” Usually I was like, “C’mon, let me do it again, let me do it again.” But this time it was, “Alright. If Angus can do it, I’ll try it.” So it worked out, so they pieced together two.
Did you do all your solos in two weeks, or was it song-by-song?
It was song-by song. I was there for three months. And it wasn’t done instrument by instrument. They finished all the drums, and then me and Dave and Steve would kind of trade off days – whenever Dave felt like singing and whenever we felt like playing. So it was funny – we’d have quite a few days off now and then to hang around in Vancouver.
Tell me about why you’re not touring with Dave.
That’s because I have this illness. They say it’s called ALS, which is a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease. That just got into my leg – actually, both of my legs – so much to where I can just barely walk now. So I kind of have to take care of it and go through some programs.
Can it be reversed?
Well, technically, no. It’s just a matter of trying everything. It’s actually doing okay.
Are you able to ambulate on your own – walk around?
Yeah. I need a cane, though.
What are your plans for the near future?
Well, I’m working on a solo album. That should be quite different, quite new, and quite cool. So I’m not sure when that’s gonna be out.
Is it for Varney?
It’ll probably be with Varney, yeah. And I’m sure me and Dave will work together again.
What’s Dave going to do about touring?
He’s got another guy. His name is Joe Holmes. I haven’t even heard him play, but he’s a really nice guy.
Yeah, I was actually there. We were auditioning for rhythm guys, and he came and played rhythm. And then I told Dave about my thing, that it probably wasn’t going to work out, so he just used him.
So Dave was planning a two-guitar band at that time?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It’s a new thing, a nice full thing. It’s a new thing for Dave. Yeah.
Are you going to be moving back up here [to the San Francisco Bay Area]?
I think so. Probably January or February.
Is there anything you’d like to add to the story, Jason? Something we haven’t covered that you might want to put in there?
Gosh, not really. I’m not the great interview guy. I never know what to say – I just play.
You’ve done a great job, man.
Well, the only thing I ever think about is just playing. I never really think about what I felt at the time, so I always kind of feel sorry for the guy interviewing me because I just answer the questions and don’t elaborate. But yeah!
Photos courtesy of Jason Becker.
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.