This archived article was written by: Nathan Manley
This is the first article of my music column and I figured it was time to introduce myself. Until recently, I had no career in sight so I’m kind of a late bloomer in regards to higher education, not your typical sophomore. Finally I’ve declared a major in music and have aspirations to someday teach and perform any chance I get.
I have limited background in piano, trombone, and most recently voice. My passion lies with the six-stringed instrument that’s inspired every suburban boy to enter the world of rock and roll.
I’ve been playing the guitar for close to 16 years, and though having only three months of formal lessons, I never looked back. I can still remember how exhilarating it was to sit in my bedroom and plink out my first Weezer song note for note in time. Or showing up my dad by playing his favorite Beatles’ tune better than I’d heard him play it for the last ten years. Guitar became my life. I was ready to live a life obsessed.
Consumed by the guitarist lifestyle, I was constantly searching for what I deemed as a good guitar music. By definition, if I could play it than the guitarist obviously couldn’t have been good. I was like a ravenous wolf, constantly searching for the one true “guitar god,” but never satisfying my hunger. Subsequently moving from bands to solo artists.
A virtuoso is a consummate master of musical technique and dazzling skill. In my mind, this is somebody who has achieved perfection on a musical instrument. Niccolo Paganini is considered the greatest virtuoso violinists ever. After listening to his Caprices, you’d be a fool to disagree. In fact Paganini was so proficient, that many guitarists have been inspired to transcribe his works crossing them over from violin to guitar. Yngwie Malmsteen, a Swedish guitarist considered one of the great neo-classical artists of our time, being one of these.
Well after roughly 12 years of searching, I finally found my virtuoso, or rather, “my shredder.” After listening to his musical prowess, I couldn’t understand why I’d never heard of him. How come people don’t know of arguably the greatest guitarist to ever walk the Earth? This mystery began to unravel, and the more I studied his work, the more I began to realize his life was a great tragedy. But I vowed the world would know the name of Jason Becker.
Born in California, he was exposed to the guitar at a young age by his father, who was a guitarist. Early on Becker excelled at the guitar, and by his teenage years, he exploded onto the scene, taking the ‘80s by storm. Becker was doing things that far exceeded other guitarists technical skill, helping progress a technique called sweeping.
The ability to pick through arpeggios with great speed and precision, actually originated from harpists. Anyone who plays an instrument knows how difficult it is to crossover a technique to any other instrument. Since listening to Jason I have yet to hear or see for that matter, anyone who can play these sweeping arpeggios as fast or as smooth.
Forming a duet with longtime friend Marty Friedman, and calling themselves “Cacophony,” they wrote and recorded their debut album “Speed Metal Symphony.” When David Lee Roth, longtime front man of Van Halen, knew his search for a new guitarist to lead his solo group was over after listening to Becker’s unbelievable fretwork. The stage was set for domination, but the cruel world of fate was about to rob Jason of everything.
Before Roth’s band went on tour, Becker was diagnosed with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease utterly rapes the body, robbing it of every muscles function. In 1989 he was given three to five years to live. He knew he had limited time to still use his already weakening hands, and recorded some of the most inspiring, electrifying, blazingly fast, but beautiful guitar work ever. He ranges from metal to classical and everything in between.
His crowning piece is called “Altitudes,” and the title says it all. I can’t imagine the conditioning it took to sustain the wondrous art of sweep picking to achieve such heights.
In “Air,” his classical masterpiece, he uses a finger-tapping technique, utilizing both hands to play rhythm and melody simultaneously, in time. But the magic of Becker is his sharpness and attention to detail, mapping out every note so his speed doesn’t get lost in a jumbled mess of notes. He writes like the greats, composing symphonies of old for the guitar.
Now 2012, long past his expiration date, Becker is alive and well, and still composing. He now states, “I have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. It has crippled my body, my speech, but not my mind.” Regardless of having neither use of his body or speech, he composes with a computer using his eye patterns; a program developed by his father.
One piece composed this way “Higher,” is a beautiful four-part harmony, written accapella. Becker is an inspiration, and true master.
I’m going to use this column for reviews of all different types of music in hopes to expose and maybe inspire some to different genres, in fact, if you have any suggestions please let me know. But I wanted to start off with a bang, and one of my personal heroes. Becker is an inspiration to musicians everywhere, and to all humankind.