In 1987, Jason Becker was one of the fastest rising stars of the world of guitarists. Having joined Cacophony with Marty Friedman at just the age of 16 and played on Speed Metal Symphony and Go Off, his skills were on full display. Becker was a highly experienced neo-classical metal guitarist who would incorporate every manner of playing: sweep picking, alternate picking, arpeggios, tapping and inventive use of harmonics. But his amazing rise to the top was cut short as he was diagnosed with ALS, which eventually causes a loss of muscle control. But that hasn’t stopped Jason at all, in recent years he has been seen on the cover of Guitar Player, starred in a documentary, worked on a signature guitar, and finished a signature pickup with Seymour Duncan that had been started before ALS claimed his ability to play.
Who are your musical heroes? Man, I could go on and on. In no particular order: Peter Gabriel, Marty Friedman, Steve Hunter, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Debussy, SRV, Stevie Wonder, Philip Glass, Uli Jon Roth, Michael Lee Firkins, Greg Howe, Richie Kotzen, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Hiromi, Trevor Rabin, Morse, Alan Hovhaness, Morten Lauridsen, Dan Alvarez…
When were you first introduced to Seymour Duncan pickups? I think my Hurricane guitar, that I used on my Perpetual Burn album when I was 18, had one in it. At least it was similar to a Duncan. I compared it to other Duncans and I discovered that is the sound I preferred. I love how they have balls along with a sweet lead tone. It fit my style perfectly. I remember Bob Rock bringing in a Les Paul with a Duncan JB in it while I was recording the David Lee Roth song “A Little Ain’t Enough.” I absolutely loved it.
Where does the story of the Jason Becker signature pickup begin and how would you describe the tone of the final result? After playing with Bob Rock’s guitar, I contacted Seymour Duncan to potentially work on a Becker pickup. We talked about what I wanted and over the course of a few months, they sent about six test pickups. I was loving them, but trying them out was becoming extremely difficult due to my growing weakness from ALS. I could barely play. While I was talking on the phone to my friend at Duncan, my voice gave out. With my weak voice, I asked if I could call back later. He was very sweet. I freaked out, and in my fear and nervousness, I never called him back. Doh!
A couple years ago, my buddy Michael Lee Firkins came over to test a possible Becker signature amp. We tried tons of guitars, but didn’t find any that sounded very good, or at least that sounded like me. We finally plugged in the guitar with one of my test Duncans in it, and we were all floored! It was like magic. That made me write to Seymour Duncan and that got the ball rolling. When I sent them the old test pickup, they were surprised at how low the output was. I guess I had gotten into more of a PAF sound when I turned 20. We knew that people would expect something different from a Becker pickup. I loved the tone, though. My guitar buddy, Chris Barnett, tested the output of my original blue Carvin, which is what I used most back in the day. We had Duncan make a test pickup with that output, and voila! We still messed around to find the exact, perfect output and tone. They sent about seven different test pickups and the last one was perfect! I would say the final tone sounds like me, only way better! It has the thick beef and balls that we metal players and old Van Halen fans like, plus a sweet, clear and crisp, yet warm lead tone.
What is your relationship with Mary Friedman nowadays? Since he lives in Japan, we just email a lot. We are still best of friends. I sent him a few musical ideas, which he used to compose a new song for his latest album. It is way cool. Kind of like a new Cacophony instrumental, without my annoying ass getting in his way. Ha ha! I am working on a new album, too, and if I ever finish writing the song for him, Marty will play on it.
What advice would you offer aspiring guitar players on song and solo composition? Good question. I guess I would say try to come up with a nice melody. So many players have great technique, but they don’t do anything that is enjoyable to listen to. Have some nice chord changes that tug at people’s emotions. Listen to all different types of music. Don’t do stuff that others have already done. We all do that, but try to use different flavors. Don’t always think about what you can do on guitar, think about what you can make people feel.