Jason Becker’s creative force can’t be contained. Becker is widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, establishing himself through his work with his band Cacophony and later going on to work with David Lee Roth and embarking on a solo career. Becker eventually developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, making him immobile except for his eyes, only able to communicate through a system called “Vocal Eyes.” Yet Becker, the subject of the award-winning movie “Not Dead Yet,” continues to find new creative outlets, making innovative new music and writing for Guitar Player magazine. And what he’s done since he developed ALS is as impressive and inspirational as any of his stadium rock performances -- a testament not only to the healing power of music but also the enduring strength of the human spirit.
Jason’s journey in music began close to home at an early age. He told me: “My dad was my first influence. He played classical guitar and my uncle Ron played the blues. I also started loving Bob Dylan very early and then I saw The Last Waltz with The Band and Eric Clapton got me wanting to play lead guitar. From then I started discovering Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and all kinds of guitarists. I was also always interested in classical music and my dad taught me all about that.”
Jason found heavy metal music at an early age and became one of the leading practitioners of “neo-classical metal,” a sub-genre of heavy metal music that incorporates aspects of classical music with highly technical and skilled playing. Becker says: “I think my love for it started with Van Halen. They are still my favorite band ever. And for me the metal all came from the great guitar players in that genre.”
By the age of 16, Becker had become part of the duo Cacophony (Shrapnel Records) with Marty Friedman, who eventually became an original member of Megadeth. Cacophony released two albums: “Speed Metal Symphony” in 1987 and “Go Off!” in 1988. The guitar duels of Becker and Friedman are still the stuff of heavy metal legend. In 1988, Becker also began his solo career, releasing the album “Perpetual Burn.” After Cacophony broke up in 1989, Becker went to work with David Lee Roth, playing guitar and writing songs for Roth’s “A Little Ain’t Enough” album. Jason’s star was on the rise as he won Guitar Magazine’s Best New Guitarist Award in 1989.
For Becker, this was a time of great joy in which he was able to pursue his creative and professional dreams. He says: “I think mostly music just felt good because my parents gave me a real good childhood so I was rarely sad. In my first label Shrapnel Records I wasn’t expected to do anything except the creative music that I wanted to do. I was my own boss, which is great. With Roth it was just a full time job and it was easy to do what I loved.”
As Becker’s ALS developed, he lost the ability to play and was not able to compose music. He says: “There were a few years after I had gotten my trache when I didn’t compose. I wasn’t sure how to do that. It was difficult because I had ideas that I couldn’t get out.”
Becker’s not being able to play or compose actually was valuable to develop other areas of his life. He says, “This time period actually became a blessing; I found other passions like meditation and other simple things like chess, just watching football or getting into relationships with women so all of that helped keep my mind occupied.” In fact, a developing body of research demonstrates the positive physical and mental health effects of mindfulness meditation. A recent study showed that mindfulness meditation is as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy for treatment of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. But Jason acknowledges that meditation is not easy and can bring its own stress if not practiced correctly. He says: “It is great but it can be torture if you aren’t able to quiet your mind.”
And it was during the time when Becker was not playing or creating new music that his peers in the rock and heavy metal community stepped up to show support. He says: “I have gotten nothing but love since I was diagnosed from the whole metal community. I guess that is true about both David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen. David was very kind to me especially when I was limping and falling and when my hands started getting weak. I would make mistakes. He would be patient and understanding. And when I met Eddie Van Halen he cried from compassion and he still helps my family and me financially.”
This empathy and support may have been surprising to some, as heavy metal music and musicians have often been dismissed as amoral, aggressive and even dangerous. In 1985 the Parents Music Research Center (PMRC) accused heavy metal and its musicians of undermining family values and even encouraging suicide in children. This stereotype never made sense to Becker, whose succinct assessment of the heavy metal community is “Metal people are so sweet.” In fact, research shows that people who like intense and rebellious music such as heavy metal actually tend to be “gifted outsiders” demonstrate a high level of openness to new experiences, intelligence, and engagement in civic activism.
More, because of the combination of his influential guitar playing, engaging personality and effective coping with ALS, very few people in rock and heavy metal music command the universal and enduring respect and admiration that Becker has. In 2001, the album “Warmth in the Wilderness” was released, which was a series of Jason Becker songs covered by admiring artists. Becker says, “It was so much fun to hear different interpretations of my stuff. I sometimes listen to it and get a kick out of it. It is such an honor for me.” Becker’s life and career was then chronicled in 2012 by director/producer Jesse Vile in the movie “Not Dead Yet.” This movie focused on both Becker’s meteoric rise in the music world as well as the struggles of ALS. In typical style, Becker was succinct but glowing about the movie. He says: “I loved it! I think Jesse did a beautiful job.” It was at this time in 2012 that Becker was featured on the cover of Guitar Player magazine And as the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” took hold across the nation, Becker used it as an opportunity to call out a few of his friends such as John Mayer, who happily obliged. And most recently, he’s been asked to write a regular column in Guitar Player magazine on creativity.
And Becker still has romantic relationships. When talking of a recent ex-girlfriend, he says: “We were together for a couple of years and it was relatively great. I can still have sex. I think all guys with ALS can still and if you and your partner are open and fun it can be cool.”
Becker feels that it is his support from others that is in part the reason that he has defied the odds and lived well beyond his doctors’ expectations. He says: “I think my family would have crumbled without outside help from friends and girlfriends. I guess I think I am still alive because I have more help than most people. I bet more people would live longer with ALS if they got more help.”
And perhaps it is this support that allows Becker to maintain a realistic but forward-looking attitude about his life. He says: “I am not always positive or optimistic. I guess for me it is about accepting that different goals are ok. ‘Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.’”
And right now his focus is on creating new music. Becker eventually began to learn how to compose and play music again through the help of computers. He says, “I just wait until I have an idea and I get on Logic Pro. That is where I make all my music.” Becker also recognizes that as he has increased stress from ALS, he sees how music can be a coping strategy for him. He says, “Later on when I had ALS it got me through some hard times.” And the research backs up his perceptions. Music has positive physical effects. It can produce direct biological changes, such as reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. Further, music therapy has demonstrated efficacy as an independent treatment for reducing depression, anxiety and chronic pain.
Most recently, he and his former Cacophony partner Marty Friedman collaborated on a song, “Horrors.” He says, “I have been lucky in a way and not lucky in another way. I don’t make much from music because people don’t buy music any more. I don’t have that stress on my creative energy because that ain’t how I make money. I don’t force it. I don’t put undo stress on myself.”
And he’s working on his solo album. He says, “Main thing now is I am working on a new album. It will have modern classical soundtrack flavors and some old guitar stuff by me and some cool guest players. I admire people who take the risk and do most of it themselves. I think I will have to do that with my newest album.”
He talks about one song he’s writing: “Well the most recent one was when I told my girlfriend “I love you.” And when I said it in my head I heard a little melody with it that built in my head to a whole melody which I built into a new song.”
“Sometimes people focus on their musical inspirations. They forget to find inspiration in regular life which is really where most art comes from.”
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. His thoughts are his own. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl