Jason Becker – The Gleason of Guitar

What happens when a gifted guitarist’s promising career is brought to its knees by an incurable degenerative disease? Does he succumb to his vegetative fate of confinement to a wheelchair? Or does he go on to write music that becomes a beacon of hope for a new generation?

It was Sept 25, 2006. Bono, Billy Joe Armstrong, and the Edge were singing The Saints are Coming with Green Day playing in the background. A thousand maudlin but hopeful N’Orleanians were chanting in tandem at the Superdome.

This electric half-time concert marked the repatriation of the New Orleans Saints who had been on the road for an entire season after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the state. Monday Night Football had ceremoniously hosted the “welcome home” game in the newly rebuilt stadium for this displaced team (and state).

This was Steve Gleason’s historic moment –  scratch that – this was a historical moment for NFL and New Orleans. This is the day when Gleason’s punt changed the course of the game when the emotions were high and the cameras were rolling. A moment that culminated in a statue of him being founded outside the stadium that you can see today. You can soak in the electric vibe of that moment in this video clip.      

Gleason’s rise to fame as a defensive back for the New Orleans Saints was evanescent – a fleeting moment of bliss before an unending struggle with enervation and disintegration. In 2011, Gleason was at the peak of his NFL career, which screeched to a halt when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The Gleason documentary/movie walks you through a five-year slice of the life of Steve Gleason, the NFL player diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gherig’s Disease).

If you’ve witnessed the ups and downs of the Gleason journey, either as a sports fan or through the movie, you might find another tale of valor in a never-to-be-forgotten musician’s battle with ALS – Jason Becker. 

Jason Becker – A spirit that cannot be silenced

Becker picked up the guitar at the age of five and it was only a matter of months before everyone around him knew he has prodigious talent. His father and uncle were musicians and art was an important part of his childhood. He grew up listening to Dylan, Andres Segovia, Eric Clapton, and Robbie Robertson.

In 1986, he met Marty Friedman (Megadeth) through Mike Varney, the founder of Shrapnel Records. The two guitar virtuosos hit it off and formed Cacophony – a genre-defining act of the “shred era” of highly technical metal music. They released two albums: Speed Metal Symphony (’87) and Go Off! (’88) – before they disbanded in 1989 to pursue solo careers. Marty, as we all know, went on to join Megadeth, one of the “big four” acts of American thrash metal.

In 1990, Jason Becker was a 20 year old guitar prodigy raring to take the world by storm. High on the success of Cacophony, he began working with David Lee Roth and produced Bob Rock to record the guitar parts for A Little Ain’t Enough – Roth’s third studio album.

For those of you who are unaware, David Lee Roth played for Van Halen and he was the biggest name in rock music in the 80s and 90s. In fact, Becker replaced Steve Vai, who was slated to record for the album. Vai dropped out and went on to join Whitesnake that year.  

Becker’s playing was venerated even among the elite guitarists and producers of that era. He was famous for precision, technique, blitzkrieg speed, and a freakishly inconceivable “pinky stretch” in one the few videos that prove he was the G.O.A.T.

We live thinking we’ll never die. We die thinking we’ve never lived.

Jason Becker

This was the zenith of his career as he went on to win Guitar Magazines prestigious Best New Guitarist Award. However, it was also a dark time on a personal front as he started feeling a limp in his left foot and was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) that same year. The doctors told him he would be lucky to live past five years, most of which would be riddled with incapacity and pain.  

As is the case with stalwarts through history, Becker wasn’t going to let death or disease beat him down. He powered through his declining health and weakening hands to finish the Roth album. It was an act of sheer determination and gear modified in any way possible – like lighter string gauge and modified bridges. Unfortunately, he couldn’t join Roth on tour because of his fast-declining health.

Why did Jason Becker stop performing live?

ALS is a disease that atrophies muscles and causes debility and degeneration in the entire body. Even today, there is no way to cure or prevent the onset of the disease. There’s no medical treatment or procedure that can reverse the degeneration either. Some patients may survive for a few years but for most people, it is that final toll of the bell.

Within a few months, ALS had completed dismantled Becker’s health and he had trouble performing the most menial daily tasks like walking or speaking. Playing the guitar was out of the question. On his 21st birthday, he was undergoing experimental medication in hopes that it could ameliorate the severity of his condition.

How does Jason Becker write music? Software + A Never-say-die Outlook:

Miraculously, Becker’s family and friends banded together to help him in every way possible. His father, Gary Becker, built a special device that enabled Jason Becker to communicate with his eyes. His friends also got together to create a special hardware and software system which allowed Jason to write music using his chin.

The Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet documentary is a truly inspirational and uplifting tale of a musician’s will to thrive in the unimaginably adverse circumstances. The Jesse Vile film was nominated for more than a dozen awards and won the Special Jury Prize for the Hamptons International Film Festival.

In his piece called “Perseverance Reigns When Incurable Disease Strikes”, Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times called it “a tribute to a squadron of caregivers that has enabled Mr. Becker not only to survive for an extraordinarily long time but also to continue to compose music, usually virtually the only part of him that still moves, his eyes.”

Thanks to an incredible support system, Becker continues to compose and release music even today. He managed to outlive the medical predictions and uses eye-gaze computers with a letter-grid to spell words by aiming his eyes. Through the aid of this computer technology, we have been able to witness his compositions and arrangements. Unfortunately, the biopic barely scratches the surface of the frustratingly financial aspects of his story, but it depicts the perseverance and passion beautifully.

What guitar did Jason Becker use?

In his early days, Becker played a Franciscan acoustic, Takamine, Fender Musicmaster, and a Stratocaster with DiMarzio Steve Morse humbucker bridge pickup. After Speed Metal Symphony, he shifted to a white and black Japan-made Moridira Hurricane LTD 2. The HSS strat-style guitar had 24 frets with a unique Floyd rose design that didn’t require cutting the strings. You can see a similar guitar (blue finish) on the Perpetual Burn cover.

By 1986 – in his Cacophony days – Becker shifted completely to Carvin guitars. In one of Becker’s interviews, his father narrates his thoughts about his late 80’s Carvin DC series guitars. He played two separate double-cutaway models with Kahler locking tremolo systems and stock Carvin humbuckers in the neck and bridge position. You can see him using a DC 2 with a trans-blue finish in this video (alongside Marty Freidman) from the 1989 Cacophony tour. 

The Jason Becker Signature Guitar (JB200C) was released by Kiesel Guitars (USA) to pay homage to this neoclassical virtuoso. It has a sapphire blue on flamed maple body with a matching headstock, mahogany body, Tung-oiled maple neck, and black hardware. Becker even has a paperback called The Legendary Guitar of Jason Becker: From the Classic Hot Licks Video Series that is available on Amazon.

Parallel fields but an unparalleled passion

These two analogous tales of talent and tribulation – with the common malaise of ALS – reveal that passion and drive are dyed-in-the-wool, undeterred by impediments, and the hallmark of true legends.

There is a statue today outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. It doesn’t merely celebrate Gleason’s punt that changed the course of a historic NFL game. It is, instead, a representation of a resounding moment in history – a moment that emphatically affirms that the human spirit is indomitable and everlasting. 

On the other hand, Jason Becker is a testimony to the same perpetual human spirit that engenders his still-strong legions of fans across the globe. After three decades of ALS, Jason is going strong with the same poignant interjections of life like all of us that all of us face. However, in his case, he is doing so with a spirit, a smile, and a flick of the eye.

“I am sure my survival is a combination of everything. I suppose it starts with my strength, or more accurately my stubbornness, and my belief in the impossible. I sort of feel like everything good stems from love.” – Jason Becker

The next time you feel rusted strings, a warped next or a ‘pedal you can’t afford yet’ is holding you back; you can watch the award-winning documentary on both these virtuosos on Amazon. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite tracks: Jason Becker – Triumphant Heart (feat. Marty Friedman, Glauco Bertagnin, Hiyori Okuda).

  • Martin Holland

    Growing up in rural Australia, there wasn't much to do but play guitar and stare at the red dirt. When things broke, the only person to fix them was fifty miles away, and eventually fixing gave way to building, giving me my career as a luthier. I wouldn't have it any other way.

    View all posts