By the age of 20, Jason Becker was already a guitar legend—but after being diagnosed with ALS, he lost his mobility and was told he would have just several years to live. 20 years after that awful diagnosis, this inspiring man is still going strong and creating beautiful music.
At the age of 20, Jason Becker was the envy of every rock guitarist in the world. Though barely out of his teens, the young musician had already been performing to huge crowds for four years, and had gained worldwide acclaim for his unique shredding style. At concerts, he showed off his skills by playing a guitar solo with one hand while yo-yoing with the other. The fans ate it up.
Becker was such a promising young talent that he caught the eye of singer David Lee Roth, who invited Becker to join his band in 1989. Becker’s contributions helped Roth’s album, A Little Ain’t Enough, achieve gold record status. Becker was planning to go on tour with Roth after the album’s release, and partake in all the typical rock star indulgences—but life had other plans for him.
During the album’s recording, Becker noticed something strange going on with his body. He developed a “lazy limp” in one of his legs, which soon progressed to his other leg and his arms, making it impossible for him to pull off his virtuoso guitar moves. Though Becker managed to finish recording the album, he knew touring in his condition was out of the question. While the rest of Roth’s band drove off to begin the tour, Becker stayed at home with his family, who took him to endless doctors’ examinations to find out what was causing his problems.
Becker soon learned that he had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which causes the gradual degeneration of all motor functions. Doctors told him he would have just three to five years left to live.
As the doctors had predicted, Becker’s health soon got worse. First, he lost all motor function in his legs, and had to begin using a wheelchair. Not long after that, he lost the use of his arms as well. Eventually, the disease robbed him of his ability to speak. But despite the toll that ALS has taken on his body, Becker is still very much alive more than 20 years after his diagnosis—and, incredibly, he’s still composing brilliant music for his fans.
Even though Becker is unable to hold a guitar or even talk, he has an active, fulfilling life. He communicates with friends and family by blinking his eyes according to a communication chart that his father invented for him. Though he needs a translator to verbalize his thoughts to people who don’t know his blinking system, Becker is able to hold conversations and joke around—as well as create innovative new music pieces that are even better than his earlier work.
For Becker, writing a song is a little bit more complicated than experimenting on his guitar and writing down the tablature.
“I have the program called LogicPro and thousands of sound samples,” he told Guitar World in a recent interview. “I am with whoever is my caregiver at the time. I tell them what tempo and sound I want (I direct everything by spelling with my eyes using the communication system my father invented. It is way faster than any computer could be). Then I try to teach my caregiver the notes I want.”
The process may be time-consuming, but the results are astonishing. When Becker has finished writing a song, he hires a band to perform the piece for him. Since becoming ill, he has released several albums that include rare outtakes from his early performing days, as well as some of his inspiring new music played by other musicians, including guitar legends like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. His newest album, Collection, was released in 2008, and includes three beautiful instrumental songs that Becker has composed in recent years.
Now, Becker is hard at work writing an autobiography with the assistance of a translator. But composing music will always be a part of his life as well. For Becker, the creative impulse is “part of what keeps me alive,” he said.
Although Becker still has extremely limited motor function, he has long since surpassed his estimated death date, and plans to keep on going for many years to come. His positive spirit, relationship with his friends and family, his spirituality, and his love of music all keep him from giving up on his life. “I guess I still have a point or a purpose for being here,” he said. “I don’t really know why, but I am grateful.”
Becker knows that even though it’s become far more difficult for him to express himself, he can still send messages through his music, and is determined to make a difference in the world.
“Not being able to play guitar anymore has made me focus more on beautiful melodies and soul stirring stuff,” he told Guitar World. “Now I want people to feel something so deep that they can’t help but reflect and make positive changes in themselves.”
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Learn more in this video interview with Jason Becker, or check out his albums on Amazon.