The Real Jason Becker: An Appreciation
Guitarist Gretchen Menn looks beyond the “shredder” clichés to celebrate the composer and his transcendental music.
Virtually boundless technical ability sometimes seems to work at cross purposes with compositional sensibility. What showcases the virtuoso may not be what is most compelling about a composition. This can create a conflict of interest, as the performer may desperately want to take over the creative process when the composer should be driving. Even with the ability to glide between two somewhat dualistic musical roles, there are still only so many hours in a day in which to become masterful at anything. Becoming an adept virtuoso or a skillful composer is a lifelong pursuit, even with absolute focus.
Jason Becker is an anomaly.
I had first heard of Jason through his reputation as a shredder – a child prodigy the likes of which the world rarely sees, the adolescent guitarist who was turning heads and unhinging jaws, and yet was struck with ALS at age 20, thereby leaving him unable to play guitar.
As moving as the story was, I didn’t immediately try to seek out The World’s Greatest Shredder for the simple reason that I am not generally drawn toward shred guitar as a genre. Fretboard pyrotechnics can be impressive and often delightful when used artfully, and technical facility is certainly requisite for the clean execution of difficult musical phrases. But the term “shred” sometimes implies an element of self-indulgence and gratuitous use of technique. Of course, many of my favorite guitarists do “shred” at times, in that they have the ability to play blistering phrases when the music calls for it, but I think none of them would identify themselves or their music that way. Shred is a component of music, but not music in itself.
Last year a friend gave me Jason Becker’s Collection album. I listened to it with an initial tinge of obligation, anticipating a megalomaniacal barrage of endless arpeggios, taps, sweeps, and scales, all at superhuman velocities, of course. I was immediately taken aback as the opening track, “Rain,” unfolded – melodic, spacious, heartfelt, with interesting harmonic movement and not a superfluous note. My ears recalibrated as it became apparent that Jason was far more than a shredder – that the term was absolutely insufficient, as it reduced his music to a tiny aspect of his mechanical proficiency.
The pieces that followed confirmed that what I was hearing was a composer, a creative force with deep musical sophistication, extensive harmonic vocabulary, natural melodicism, nuanced counterpoint, beautifully moving expressiveness, and broad emotional spectrum, all supported by absolutely fluent virtuosity. Jason burned alongside David Lee Roth in “It’s Showtime,” with a bravado that is playful rather than self-aggrandizing. “End of the Beginning” is a tour de force – epic, expansive, orchestral. “Higher” hit me particularly hard. It is a choral piece with harmonic movement reminiscent of baroque, a haunting melody sung by a solo soprano, at times almost a lullaby, at others a sigh of heartache. Philosophically, “Higher” conveyed a strong message, and I don’t know that there would have been a clearer way for Jason to affirm his identity as a composer than to write a transcendental piece that is completely without the instrument he had mastered.
Listening to Jason’s music made me realize how easy it can be for people to become identified by their most obvious features – a tendency that can be limiting and misleading. Yes, his raw technical abilities were staggering. Yes, the fact that he has survived more 20 years with a disease that is almost invariably fatal is remarkable. But both are just components of a wonderful person and a profoundly brilliant artist.
Calling Jason Becker a shredder is like calling a Porsche fast. Well, yes … admittedly. Obviously. But that’s not what makes either of them wonderful. One need only to listen to his music to realize that Jason’s mind led, and his eminently able fingers followed. He was and is a composer, worthy of adulation as such, who happened at the start of his career to have been one of the greatest virtuosi of the guitar. And though ALS may have impeded the movement of his fingers on the fretboard, the mind that commanded those astounding hands is alive and thriving, continuing to create great music. As you hear beyond the shred, move past the ALS, you will experience the real treasure – Jason Becker’s music, what history will remember.