What comes to mind when you think of the term Guitar Hero? Is it the video game? Is it your favorite guitar player? For me, it was the obvious guitar icons like Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, etc. It wasn’t until recently I learned the true definition of a Guitar Hero. Two words: Jason Becker.
Jason Eli Becker was born and raised in Richmond, CA in 1969. From an early age, he showed quite an interest in music and since his father and uncle both played the guitar, it was only a matter of time before his interest in learning to play began as well. Jason got his first guitar as a Christmas gift from his parents and soon started strumming around on chords and scales his dad showed him, but as all guitar icon stories go, the student soon became the teacher. From 3-chord Bob Dylan songs to full Eric Clapton solos to playing Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Black Star” at his high school talent show, Jason exhibited a natural ability to make a guitar cater to his every demand. It wasn’t long before Becker’s playing caught the attention of some new ears and ultimately landed him alongside Marty Friedman who was immediately impressed by Becker’s ability, leading the two to form the speed metal duo Cacophony. Although they never became a national sensation in the United States, Cacophony proved popular enough to sell out almost every European date of the tour until 1989 when Friedman left to join Megadeth, leaving Jason to focus more on a solo career, having put out his solo debut album ‘Perpetual Burn’ in 1988.
At just 20 years old, Jason was offered the role of the lead guitar player in David Lee Roth’s band. At the time, the position was one of the most coveted and surely couldn’t be handed to just anyone; the new guy would have to fill the shoes of guitar giants Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. One listen to Jason’s playing was all it took to seal the deal, however. Jason recorded one album with Roth, ‘A Little Ain’t Enough’, and won himself the Best New Guitarist award from Guitar Magazine in 1990. During preparation for the album, Jason began to develop what he described as a “lazy limp” in his leg, but figured it was something along the lines of a pinched nerve and it would maybe straighten itself out. Unfortunately, the “lazy limp” Jason described was the early onset of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and was told he would have between 3 and 5 years to live. As the ALS progressed, Jason’s ability to play worsened with the weakening of his hands, causing him to use lighter gauge strings to finish the ‘A Little Ain’t Enough’ recordings, and although Jason did manage to finish the album, he did not join the supporting tour due to his inability to perform. As his condition grew worse, Jason lost his ability to play guitar, walk, and eventually his ability to speak.
With Jason’s condition being as it was, the ideas and musical compositions in his head never stopped flowing. By using a system developed by his father, Gary, Jason was and still is able to communicate quite well through eye movements – “eye sign language” it’s been called. This system enables Jason to continue composing by spelling out exactly what he wants his father to put into Logic Pro, note by note, and listens back to it several times until he is satisfied. The trailer for the highly recommended Jason Becker documentary ‘Not Dead Yet’ shows a little about this. Check it out below:
Earlier this month, Jason released his newest album ‘Triumphant Hearts’ and taking into account the time, effort, and musical ability that went into creating this masterpiece, this isn’t any ordinary album – as it displays some of the most genius material I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. It includes a little something for everyone; blues, shredding, classical, orchestral, and pure rock and roll.
The album opens with the track “Triumphant Heart” – a soulful, calming orchestral piece that features guitarist Marty Friedman, violinist Glauco Bertagnin, and cellist Hiyori Okuda, and was composed by Jason. The track is aptly named because, to me personally, it conveys a sense of triumph during the swells as the song builds that contrasts with the “vulnerable” sense I get during the lone violin parts in the beginning. The second track, “Hold on to Love” is probably the most personal song on the album. Jason says the song was originally “going to be an instrumental, 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.” “Hold on to Love” features Codany Holiday taking the vocal reigns and delivering Jason’s words with grace as well as emotion.
Now the past is over
I was cut down much too soon
I can’t speak, I can’t play
But this flesh has much more to say
I wave goodbye
To yesterday’s highs
Life has other plans
The third installment on the album, “Fantasy Weaver”, is a spacey, dream-like auditory journey featuring Jake Shimabukuro on ukulele. It contains several builds into perfectly-placed, melodic breaks that really bring about the feeling of being inside a fantasy or dream. “Once Upon a Melody” is the fourth track on ‘Triumphant Hearts’ and this is where we first hear Jason himself playing guitar on the album. All guitar parts were written and recorded by Jason previous to his diagnosis. In the liner notes of the album, he explains: “The first guitar solo is from a 4-track cassette. I recorded it as an idea for an intro to a Cacophony song. I was 18. We didn’t use it, so I recently wrote everything around that solo. The end guitar solo was taken from the Shrapnel/The Orchard Cacophony CD, ‘Go Off!’ (the title track), which was produced by Marty Friedman, Jason Becker & Steve Fontano.” At the end of the song as the music fades out, we hear a child saying “You do it!”. Jason also mentions this in the liner notes as well – “The child’s voice at the end is mine when I was around 3 years old. Uncle Ron recorded it. He was trying to get to play his Fender bass. I said, “You do it.” He then asked me to sing the alphabet, and I happily obliged.”
My personal favorite on the album is the fifth track “We Are One”. This track also features Jason on guitars via tracks that were taken from “2 different 4-track cassettes.” The song begins with an a capella declaration “We are one/Like fire and the Sun/And like rain drops in the sea/We’re gone in one, two, three.” The horn section really “beefs up” the song, accenting Jason’s guitars with Steve Knight’s vocals, driving the song to even further heights. Next on the album is “Magic Woman”. This track features Uli Jon Roth and Chris Broderick taking over electric and classical guitar, respectively. Jason states, “A few years ago, I told my girlfriend at the time “I love you.” I then repeated those words inside my head, but I heard a melody as well. I later went to my computer, opened Logic Pro, got a nylon string guitar sound, and laid down the notes. Over the next few months, I wrote everything in the order that you hear it here.”
‘Triumphant Hearts’ also features a Bob Dylan cover, “Blowin’ in the Wind” that features Gary Rosenberg on vocals and acoustic guitar and Jude Gold playing the guitar solo. About this track, Jason says, “A few years ago, my friend, Gary Rosenberg, asked me to write a guitar solo for this song. I fell in love with his and Dan (Alvarez)’s version of this piece, and I begged him to let me put it on my album. Gary put his heart into this…Gary and I are huge Bob Dylan fans. Dylan is the person who made me want to become a musician, along with my dad and uncle. His music is so deep and beautiful to me in every way. Dylan’s songs are just timeless. This masterpiece was written in the early 60’s, but it is just as profound and relevant today…On the guitar solo, we wound up keeping what I did with the harmonic guitar sound, but Dan and I wanted a real guitarist to do the other part. Jude Gold from Jefferson Starship was the perfect choice. He loves Dylan like we do, and we are all close friends. He even played in a band with Mike Bemesderfer when they were teenagers. Jude nailed it, and added his own tasteful and soulful touches.”
One of, if not THE most notable track, “Valley of Fire”, is a monster of a song. It’s jam-packed with solos from some of the biggest names in the guitar world including Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa, Paul Gilbert, Gus G., Marty Friedman, Greg Howe, Jeff Loomis, Richie Kotzen, and Neal Schon. “I know many brilliant guitarists. I thought it would be so much fun to write a piece for guitar players to do their thing on. I didn’t tell any of them what to play…When I was a child, my family liked to vacation in the desert. Our favorite place was Valley of Fire, which is about an hour away from Las Vegas. This music reminds me of that vibe and feeling. Also, of course, Ennio Morricone’s music from spaghetti westerns. Thus, the gunshot and horses. He was a big influence on this piece.”
Jason also included some tracks that were written for the David Lee Roth album ‘A Little Ain’t Enough’ – “Taking Me Back” and “Tell Me No Lies”. “Tell Me No Lies” is definitely one of my favorites on the album. I’m a blues guy and always have been, so when I first heard this song, the blues-ridden bass line and guitar riff immediately caught my attention. “David Lee Roth asked me, Brett Tuggle, Gregg & 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 isn’t quite what Dave was looking for, but it brings back good memories.”
Listening to this album really puts you in the mind and emotions of Jason Becker. I honestly believe it was his intention to put his feelings, frustration, gratitude, and love into this album and, if you ask me, he succeeded tenfold. One listen and you’ll not only hear the song, you’ll feel it. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what a masterpiece sounds like. A true work of art. An overwhelming inspiration. Just like the man behind the music. Thank you, Jason, for giving us this gift.
Be sure to pick up your copy of ‘Triumphant Hearts’ and check it out for yourself!
‘Triumphant Hearts’ Track List
1. Triumphant Heart (ft. Marty Friedman, Gluaco Bertagnin, Hiyori Okuda)
2. Hold On To Love (ft. Codany Holiday)
3. Fantasy Weaver (ft. Jake Shimabukuro)
4. Once Upon A Melody
5. We Are One (ft. Steve Knight)
6. Magic Woman (ft. Uli Jon Roth, Chris Broderick)
7. Blowin’ In The Wind
8. River Of Longing (ft. Jon Satiriani, Aleks Sever, Guthrie Govan, Steve Morse)
9. Valley Of Fire (ft. The Magnificent 13)
0. River Of Longing (ft. Trevor Rabin)
11. Taking Me Back
12. Tell Me No Lies
13. Hold On To Love (ft. Codany Holiday) [Chuck Zwicky Remix]
14. You Do It