David Becker Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“It’s never easy to do anything. But if you’re resilient enough and follow through then you can make things work. That’s all I’ve ever done and that’s all I will ever do.”

David Becker

I first heard David Becker on an early ’80’s cassette tape titled David Becker Tribune: Long Peter Madsen. I immediately dug his playing style and compositional approach and was quite excited that I would be talking with him 30 some years later! In this interview, David talks about his career, both past and present, his endorsement deal with Heritage and talks about his relationship with Joe Diorio and Atilla Zollar. A must read indeed!

This interview was conducted via email in 2016. You can find out more info on David by visiting his website at http://www.davidbeckertribune.com

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JGL: If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?

DB: No, I don’t mind at all. I was born October 1961, so that would make me 54.

JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

DB: Since  2013, I’ve been living back in Southern California where I basically grew up. Prior to that, I was living in Germany. I lived there and also in Belgium for about 20 years.

JGL: Before we begin, please give Jazz Guitar Life readers a quick “elevator pitch” of who David Becker is.

DB: Well, I would consider myself a Guitar player,  Composer and Producer. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to record and release Records  for the last 30 some odd years. I’ve had a trio with my brother Bruce on drums the David Becker Tribune and I’ve also released several solo recordings as well. I have had the opportunity to work with other great musicians including Ron Carter. I have performed pretty much all over the world. Have shared the bill with the likes of Miles Davis Chick Corea, Michael Brecker and more.

JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?

DB: I’ve been playing guitar for just about 40 years now. I got my first guitar when I was about 15. Prior to that, I played the trumpet. Before that, I was an aspiring drummer.

JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?

DB: Music was something that my brothers and I were exposed to at a very young age. My oldest brother Ed who is six years my senior, played classical piano from the time he was four or five. Both my parents were classical music lovers. My mother is Dutch and my father was an American who also liked big band music from the swing era.

The very first recording that I remember liking, was Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A minor”. I remember vividly at age 4 or 5 standing in front of my parents stereo conducting the entire piece with a Tinkertoy. What I remember mostly about the music was that I could see the major and minor passages. Now I knew nothing about major or minor at that time, however I would equate the major passages to a wide snowcapped mountain in a painting that my parents had. Next to that mountain was a very dark sharp peak and that was the minor passages.

When I was about 6 or 7, I became friends with Mark Schulman who is now a world renowned drummer. He has played with Pink ,Foreigner, Cher, Simple Minds and many more. We were best friends in second grade and we would listen to the Monkees together. My brothers and I would  also collect 45’s of the day. My father bought us a Four Seasons record and he also bought my brother Ed the very first Glen Campbell Album with Wichita Lineman.

When I was 9, my brother Ed started collecting albums which included Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, James Gang, and of course we we’re all fans of the Beatles. Listened to Abbey Road the summer of 1970 everyday! The very first LP that I bought at age 9, was from a Los Angeles-based band called El Chicano. They had an instrumental hit with the Gerald Wilson tune “Viva Tirado” . I didn’t know it then, but the guitar player was influenced by Wes Montgomery. I just like the sound of the instrument and the way he played which was in octaves.

When I began to play trumpet at age 12, I listened to a lot of big band music such as Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, as well as groups like Chicago. I also had a Dizzy Gillespie record. Trumpet was really the instrument where I began performing music. I played in the concert band as well as the jazz band. That’s where I learned how to swing.

JGL: When you first started out playing this music, what path(s) did you take to figure this music out (ie: private teachers, university programs etc…)?

DB: I was very fortunate like many young kids my age during the 60s and early 70s as there was a very fine music program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. My teacher was Ted Dechter. Ted was primarily a trombonist but could  also play several other instruments. He had worked with Harry James and the Stan Kenton orchestra. He also worked in classical ensembles and was very knowledgeable about the history of music, especially jazz. I learned so much from Ted Dechter at a young age about the importance of each individual musician to create the entire sum of the parts. He instilled in us at a very young age the importance of being a team player an understanding that each instrument has a function in each piece of music. No matter how small or how short that particular part was, without it, the peace would not be the same. I wrote a Blues for Ted on “Distance Traveled”. His son Brad is a renowned arranger in LA, his daughter Lesli is a fine saxophonist and his grandson is Jazz guitarist Graham Dechter.

JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!

DB: I do remember the exact moment that I got excited about jazz guitar. I heard Grant Green on the radio when I was about 16. I had switched to guitar from the trumpet to explore playing rock ‘n roll because the trumpet didn’t really cut it in a rock band. After about six months of that, I heard more complex types of music that were fusing jazz and rock such as Return to Forever, Billy Cobham, Weather Report, etc and that caught my ear. But I wasn’t able to really find my voice with distortion. When I heard Grant Greene, I knew what I wanted to do. Also, I remember Ted Dechter telling me once, “When I  heard that you had quit the trumpet David, I was very disappointed, but when I heard you play guitar I knew why”.

JGL: Similarly, was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?

DB: Honestly I realized when I began to play guitar, that I would play music for my living. It was never a conscience decision. My very first guitar teacher at the Music Stop in Canoga Park (owned by Drummer Mel Zelnick who played with Benny Goodman and his original partner Terry Gibbs), said in one of my  first lessons, “Well you know you’re going to play music for a living”. And I said without hesitation, “Yeah”.

I’ve always been interested in composing music. I actually started making up little songs on the piano as a kid. Later I was writing on the guitar, so as I became more aware of jazz, my writing started to go in that direction. I guess I had the idea early on that I wanted to form a trio with my brother Bruce on drums, compose the music, perform and eventually make records.

JGL: You are an endorser of Heritage Guitars and have your own signature model The Heritage “David Becker” Signature 575 which some affectionately call “the Million-Miles Guitar” because of all the traveling you have done and continue to do. Would you mind sharing the details of how this endorsement came to be and what makes this guitar stand out? But before you do…what was your first guitar?

DB: My very first guitar was a no name copy of a 335 with a Fender head-stock that I paid about 50 bucks for. I then got a Les Paul copy which I had for about a month or so and then at me teachers urging, I got a real  Gibson, Les Paul. Then when I heard Grant Green on the radio as I had said before, I realized that it was easier for me to express my voice on a guitar like that. So I traded my Les Paul in for a 175 and that was it. I had also seen a picture of a 175 in a Jazz magazine sometime earlier and I just knew that was the kind of guitar for me.

My affiliation with Heritage came about around 1988. Aside from playing my Gibson 175, I had also been playing a lot of Martin acoustic guitars. There came a point when I was looking for something that would encompass both instruments in one. I also knew that the 175 being laminated didn’t really offer more than the sound that it would produce but I was really interested in getting a handmade solid wood archtop. I looked at many different companies including Höfner. When I met the guys from Heritage, I visited the factory in Kalamazoo while on tour.

My 175 was built in 1968  at the Parsons Street factory in Kalamazoo, so I felt that if I were to get a new guitar from the same guys who had made the guitar I had been playing, that was good thing. I had them make the very first David Becker model which is now a signature model available to everyone. We call this one “The Million Miler”. It has a solid Spruce carved top, solid maple sides and back. It’s 3 inches deep which is a little deeper then the standard 575. I also had them make the pick-up configuration with one humbucker (Seymour Duncan) in the neck position and a piezo in the bridge. This gives the guitar a lot of versatility! I can get a very dark jazzy sound but can also incorporate the piezo and have a more acoustic sound which has become very useful for me in my music. The fact that this guitar has been in my hands for close to 28 years and we both have logged almost 1.5 million miles of travel together, I think I have a very good idea of what the guitar is capable of! So now the fact that it is a signature model available to the public, I can honestly say from experience what makes this particular instrument standout!

JGL: What other gear are you using?

DB: I have a Boss DD -7 Digital delay pedal as well as a TC electronics Ditto looper pedal. I usually use the looper when I perform solo, but I use the delay for both solo and trio gigs. I use Dean Markley Blue Steel strings and have been endorsing them for close to 28 years, and also Seymour Duncan pick-ups which I have been using also as long.

JGL: As an aside…any suggestions/recommendations for keeping your instruments safe and secure as you travel?

DB: That’s a very good question. I always travel with my Heritage in a very stable gig bag made by Levy in Canada. I always take my instrument on-board when I fly. I have had a few repairs necessary due to the different climate changes, but nothing major, knock on wood! I always keep my instrument with me and in the hotel room and never leave it out of my site!

JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?

DB: I remember  when I was 16, my brother Bruce bought the very first John Abercrombie record “Timeless”. Then I discovered  Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell, Jack Wilkins, Jimmy Raney. I also discovered some younger players of the day such as Pat Metheny, John Scofield.  When I enrolled at G. I. T. at age 18, I was the youngest guy there. I met Joe Diorio who’s playing really knocked me out! About six months before I started school, I had seen the original Pat Metheny Group. I knew that Joe was an influence to Pat and I also knew that Pat liked Wes Montgomery. Joe had also known Wes really well, so I was listening to a lot of Wes and a lot of Joe and a lot of Pat’s music while at school. It wasn’t his guitar playing so much, but I really dug the band. I also listened to the above-mentioned guitar players too. And of course I was listening to horn players especially John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, etc.

JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

DB: I don’t really listen to too many guitar players today. I will revisit some things but I tend to listen to just music and if there’s guitar great and if not okay as well. I hear a lot of guitar players in my travels and I’m always interested to hear what they have to say, but I’m not listening to anybody in particular, not because I don’t want to, but because I usually don’t have the time. If you ask me of guitar players that I’ve listened to recently or seen perform that I like, I would have to definitely mention two guitar players who really stand out. One is Vic Juris and the other is Scott Henderson.

JGL: Your band of more than 30 years – the David Becker Tribune – has been the musical vehicle where most of your time is spent it seems. How did this union come to be and have the members been the same since “back in the day” or has there been some shifts in personnel?

DB: Well the DBT was formed out of the idea to write music and play in a trio with Bruce on drums and has remained pretty much intact since its inception. It’s basically an extension of our musical relationship which formally began when I was about 12. I would come home from school and Bruce would be sitting on his drums in the living room and he would just look at me and I would pull out the horn and we would jam for 45 minutes or so. That continued on with guitar and at some point, we kind of made it official. We have had several bass player changes over the years. For about the last 12 years, we have had Bolle Diekmann from Germany in the band. We’ve augmented the trio from time to time on recordings with some guest musicians such as Russell Ferrante, T Lavitz, Richie “Gajate” Garcia, Aniela Perry, etc.

JGL: Alongside your role as a recording and touring performer, you are also an educator having done a slew of workshops and master classes. If this wasn’t enough you have also authored a few method books: GETTING YOUR IMPROVISING INTO SHAPE, PLAYING IN SHAPES and RHYTHMIC MOTIFS FOR COMPING AND SOLOING. What got you into the academic side of Jazz Guitar?

DB: Well, I’ve always been interested in music education mainly due to my experience with Ted Dechter. I did some teaching early on at the Music Stop when I was about 20. As the years have gone by, I have found it extremely important to share my experiences and the perspectives that I have learned through many hours of real time experience. I enjoy all aspects of my career. I look at performing, recording, teaching, producing or writing as the same thing. I don’t differentiate any of it.

JGL: Apart from your workshops, master classes and online tutoring, do you accept students privately? And if so, is there a certain type of student you are looking for?

DB: Yes. What’s most important for me in a new student is their willingness to learn and to expand their thinking.

JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when approaching this art form for study?

DB: The most important thing for a student whose is studying jazz guitar I believe is to first trace the history of not only the music, but also the evolution of the guitar itself. Trace back the history of individuals who have influenced the people that you like. Also understand that there are many guitarists that may not be as famous as some others but are just as important in the development of the language. And most importantly is to remember that it’s a language and a form of communication. That supersedes any scale, arpeggio or theoretical nonsense that you may encounter. Also try to find your own voice. There are 3 steps to doing this:

  1. Imitate: That doesn’t mean copy somebody else note for note and try to play like them. It means take the ideas you like and try to play them in your own way.
  2. Assimilate: Make the ideas a part of your own vocabulary.
  3. Innovate: The sky’s the limit!

JGL: What is the one big issue that you see beginning students repeat over and over again and what can be done to rectify this?

DB: The biggest issue I think for many students and not just beginners, but also some players that are fairly advanced is they negate time and feel. I think also another thing  that students do it is they tend to equate technical excellence with musicality. Technique can  and should support the music but music should not solely support technique. I hear a lot of guitar players who just want to shred on the instrument and don’t give thought to dynamics, narration, etc. Soloing is telling a story and you want to try to keep some continuity while playing. Also, be aware that the tune you’re  playing is the focal point, NOT just the solo! Be sure to LISTEN! Listen to what is going on around you and not just to yourself. When you do play, don’t try to play for the musician in you but rather play for the music FAN in you!

JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?

DB: My practice routine when I have time is to play. But I also work on certain things that may require specific passages to certain tunes or just looking at the overall instrument to find new perspectives.

JGL: As a Grammy nominated Guitarist, Composer and Producer with 14 or more albums under your belt alongside a hectic touring/teaching schedule, how the heck do you find time to sleep and/or eat? Your organizational skills must be “off the hook!” 

DB: Well first and foremost is you can only do one thing at a time. When you’re playing music you can only be on that one note that you’re on at that specific time. There are notes that precede and there are notes that follow, but you have to keep your eye on where you are. I’m very fortunate that I have been able to do what I do for so long and continue to be able to do this. I never take it for granted. I guess it’s in my DNA because I have been travelling since I was 2 years old. By the time I was 10, I had crossed the Atlantic 18 times. Also, a good internet connection really helps!

JGL: With all your success, is it still somewhat of a struggle to make a living as a performing jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy? Consequently, as an independent artist/performer/educator, how do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective and would like to share with Jazz Guitar Life readers?

DB: It’s never easy to do anything. But if you’re resilient enough and follow through then you can make things work. That’s all I’ve ever done and that’s all I will ever do. Some things come easier than others and other things come more difficulty, but I do believe that that’s the Ebb and flow of life. If I look back on my career, there are many things that I never thought would ever happen or even imagined happening such is being signed to a major record label and a very young age. But it did. That in itself is not the success, the success lies in the constant desire to continue to complete each project, each hurdle or each challenge that comes my way. Today it’s a much different world although those things I spoke of are still inherent in today’s  world for the successful recipe of finding your place. The Internet has made things much easier but because of that there is a lot more competition and nonsense to weed through. You must remain diligent, focused and you have to be consistent with your activities, but most of all you have to know what you want to do and you have to follow through. That’s the bottom line.

JGL: Looking over your touring information one can’t help but notice that you seem to play a lot more in Europe than in the US. Is this a strategic plan on your part, or just happens to be where the gigs are? And in relation to this, do you find a difference between European audiences and American audiences? Does one appreciate your music more than the other?

DB: The fact that I lived in Europe for a long time is one of the reasons that I still play there a lot. In the early years of the DBT although we began touring in Europe, we also played all over the USA and Mexico continually from about 1984-1992. We probably hit 44 of the 50 states and played many of the same cites multiple times. Things have shifted since then and as I said living Europe had a little to do with that. Now gigs are in Europe, Asia, South America. In fact we are slated to go to New Zealand and Australia this year. I’m cool with wherever the gigs are and, I’m  always up for going somewhere new. I enjoy the diverse cultures I get to visit and always take something new with me. There are still a few US gigs each year and I know a lot of long time DBT fans are still waiting for us to come  back around to places we haven’t been for a while. We will at some point!

Europe, Asia and South America for the most part has very appreciative audiences for Jazz. There is still a big audience in North America, but I think because Jazz is an American cultural export, it tends to fair better outside of its place of origin. Many of the Jazz festivals in the USA don’t really have a lot of real cutting edge Jazz. Not to say that there is none of that, but at the moment that’s just how it is. But, that said, there will be without a doubt a shift in the other direction at some point.

JGL: Over the years, there appears to be two outstanding guitar players who seem to have become intertwined in your musical and personal life more than others. I am referring to Joe Diorio and Attila Zoller. Could you talk a bit about their influence on you as a person and musician…and how important is it to seek out mentors in this day and age?

DB: Well, Joe is not only my dear friend and mentor, but he is like a musical father figure to me! His presence in my life at the time I was seeking a way to understand this music was so important. He recognized my strengths and weaknesses and helped me follow my passion. We never did one on one lessons per se, I just hung and watched, listened and learned. I also went to all of his gigs from about 1980-1982 and recorded everything on my little cassette player! Joe once said, “I know you have your influences, but you always sound like David Becker and that’s a good thing”. Attila I only met briefly and we hung out and played. He recognized some of the Joe influence and really dug that.  We definitely connected musically right away. He invited me to the Vermont Jazz Center and we talked a few times by phone, but since I was in Europe most of the time, I didn’t jump on that opportunity. He sadly got ill and passed away shortly thereafter.

JGL: Speaking of Attila, you have recently released a tribute album titled “Message to Attila” featuring Ron Carter, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Abercrombie, Peter Bernstein and others. This sounds like an exciting project indeed! How did it come about and what was it like scheduling all the players to appear on the CD?

DB: Again this was an example of what I said earlier about things just coming to you without thinking about it. A student of mine in Germany knows an old friend of Attila. Her daughter and Alicia (Attila’s daughter) are also good friends. Alicia expressed interest in getting her father’s music recorded by many of his friends and colleagues. My student then said he knew somebody(me) who could possibly produce and arrange it and really make it happen. When I got the call, I said yes immediately. First thing I did was contact all the guys I know personally including Peter Bernstein, John Abercrombie Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield, etc. I also got Attila’s phone book from Alicia and started calling Ron Carter and others I did not yet know personally. Ron called back immediately and said, “Absolutely!” I booked a session in NYC with Ron, myself, my brother and Gene Bertoncini who had called me after hearing about the project. That was the first of many sessions over a two and half year period. It was a great pleasure and honor to work on Attila’s music, because I had a lot of hats to wear, Producer, Arranger, Studio coordinator, etc. During this whole experience I realized how much in common musically Attila I had. I really got to know him deeply through his music!

JGL: You have also recorded a duo album with Joe Diorio titled “The Color of Sound”. Could you please talk a bit about that one and was there any “pressure” going from a mentor/student relationship to one that has you both playing together as peers?

DB: No pressure at all and I’ll tell you why. Early on in the recording career of the DBT, I had planned a duo piece with Joe. Long story short, we ran into budget issues with MCA and had to cut that session. I felt bad , but Joe said, “Don’t worry about it”. I had almost given up on the idea of recording a duo although we did do a tour together of Europe in 1999. In 2004, my label head Peter Finger asked if there was anyone that I wanted to do an album with and I said, “As a matter fact there is”. I wrote a couple of tunes with Joe in mind and we had two full days in the studio. We sat face to face and didn’t really speak about what we were going to do. It just happened and the musical gods were shining down on us that weekend! We had 6 hours of music the first day. I felt very comfortable. Joe and I played eye to eye. It was good that it took so many years to finally realize. The “Color of Sound” is one of Joe’s favorite recordings! I am very proud of that record. Joe always says, “Every guitar player needs to listen to this record and they can learn something”.

JGL: Somewhat of a departure, you recently recorded a solo guitar album titled “The Lonely Road”. How did this album come about and what – if any – were the differences in doing such an album as opposed to your usual band albums…apart from you being alone of course?

DB: I have been doing a lot of solo gigs in the past few years and I have never really documented any of it. So I thought it was  time to do that.  The recording process for every album is always a challenge , but I have learned through many years of experience how to use the studio effectively. It takes a lot more concentration to play solo because there are no other musicians to give input, but the goals are ultimately the same. To make good music! I began recording a few improvised ideas in summer 2014 on the high strung (Nashville Tuning) guitar. Two hours later I had some nice sketches. I wrote a few more things and in January 2015 flew to Minneapolis and recorded the rest  and then mixed everything with my engineer of choice these days, Eric Blomquist. We did everything in 3 days.  There are several solo guitar tracks and some looped layered pieces which is a good representation of what I do in a live solo setting.

JGL: Referring to the above three recordings – or any other of your projects for that matter – do you have any fun/interesting stories that you’d like to share with Jazz Guitar Life readers?

DB: One story comes to mind during the “Color of Sound” recordings. While Joe and I were recording “Stella by Starlight”, which was the one and only take, Richard Smith(USC) and Italian guitarist Francesco Buzzurro were in the control booth listening unbeknownst to Joe and me. When we finished the over nine minute version, we looked up and Richard and Francesco were jumping up and down applauding!

JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?

DB: When I started on this journey, I really had no specific expectations except for trying to get better at playing and writing music. I have had wonderful experiences and not so wonderful experiences, but like everything in life, you have to focus on the positive things. What I mean by that is even the negative things can turn into a positive if you really try to learn something valuable from them. That is what I know to be true and it has been and continues to be a very important life lesson!

JGL: Any near or far future news/projects/books that you would like to let us know about?

DB: Well I mentioned the tour down under and I would also like to record a live DBT album. I hope to make that happen this year.  There is also a few new projects in the works for True Fire and of course more touring!

JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?

DB: Honestly,  I’m just happy to be on the planet and take each day as it comes! I have been extremely fortunate in my life that I have been able to perform, record and release a very large catalogue of music. If I were to play my last chorus tomorrow, I would know that I did what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it!

JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would it be and why?

DB: We cannot change the past. As I said, things happen for a reason and we don’t always know why at the time. If  I were to say I should have or shouldn’t have, my life would have taken a different turn. For the better? For the worse? Neither! It just would have gone somewhere else. It is like playing a solo. You choose the notes as you are playing them. Of course when your done you say, “I should have played that or not played that”. But at the end of the day, it’s what you said or did in that particular moment and that is all we know. So to speculate doesn’t really apply!

JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

DB:  No, I have NEVER doubted or had second thoughts about my decision! When I was a little kid though, I wanted to be a pilot, but that changed quickly when I started playing music, so I guess I am getting my fill of flying as a touring musician!

JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?

DB: I love to travel so my work allows me to do that.

JGL: As we wrap this up David, do you have any parting advice for the younger guy or gal out there who might be considering a career as a jazz guitar player?

DB: First thing is to get a clear idea of what you want to do. Where do you see yourself in this world? I knew for myself at 18 and I could see it ,but I had to realize it. You have to follow that goal but it will always be ahead of you and that’s good. Once you reach something you have been striving for, the goal gets further away because it has to in order to keep growing. Play music from the heart and don’t worry about what other people say.  Also, be on time, be reliable, be flexible, be aware and most of all be humble!

JGL: Thank you so much David for taking the time to be on jazzguitarlife.com. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.

DB: Thank you, Lyle.  It was my pleasure!

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