John Frusciante couldn’t care less about fame—much
less the attention, ego gratification, and other less-substantial rewards
that typically accompany it. Even while a member of one of the most
successful rock bands in history, he mostly avoided the trappings of
celebrity, instead spending up to ten hours a day playing the guitar or
otherwise working on music, in service to his muse. And since parting
ways with the Red Hot Chili Peppers six years ago, he has not
only largely reinvented his approach to guitar playing, but also mastered
the art of sample manipulation and digital editing, and delved
deeper into the world of modular synthesis, culminating in the establishment
of a mostly one-man, composer-centric musical universe.
“It seemed to me that AFX, Venetian Snares, and other people who
were adventurous with electronics had created a new musical vocabulary,
a new way of conceiving music,” says Frusciante. “They could
make music without conventional theory or any of the technical prerequisites
that we used to think were necessary, using nothing but
sound. I spent five years learning that language—about the same time
it took me to learn how to play guitar—because I felt that it could
have many applications besides the way it was already being used.”
Those applications are evidenced on Frusciante’s three most recent
solo releases, PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone (2012), Outsides (2013), and
2014’s Enclosure—all released on the Record Collection label. The music
on these diverse discs ranges from adventurous but relatively accessible
avant-pop songs to a sort of progressive electonica to largely atonal
sonic constructions inspired by experimental jazz and 20th Century
classical music. Amidst this cornucopia of aural delights there’s lots
of inspired guitar playing, not least of all the ten-minute guitar solo
on “Same” [from Outsides], which brilliantly crisscrosses continual
Frusciante has also recorded three hip-hop albums with rappers
Rugged Monk and Crisis, a.k.a. Black Knights, the first of which, Medieval
Chamber [Record Collection] was released earlier this year. Besides
producing the albums, Frusciante wrote and recorded all the music,
drawing on the same skills displayed on his solo recordings. “As long
as the beat is hard and something that rappers will respond to creatively,
the music can be literally any style you want,” he enthuses.
“I’ve felt freer doing this album than I have doing anything else.”
Why did you decide to leave the Chili Peppers at a time that the band
was massively successful?
At the time we started our last tour, I thought that I would probably
be happy to do it for another few years, but no longer. I had no interest in being a rock star for the rest of
my life. But during the tour, mostly as a
result of listening to people like Autechre,
Venetian Snares, and AFX, I gradually realized
that I wanted to be able to translate
my ideas directly from my imagination into
complete musical works, without filtering
them through an engineer or other musicians.
The technology is there to liberate artists
that already have a complete vision, and
I’ve always been one of those people. I can
trust my own creative instincts, and what I
hear in my head.
When you are in a band, everybody thinks
they know the best way to do things, and
you can encounter opposition when you
are trying to realize your creative ideas. And
when you are in a popular band, it is particularly
difficult to go beyond the parameters
that you’ve established, and what it is that
people like about you. You don’t even know
you’re doing it. You think you’re being really
different from one record to the next, but
then you realize, well, not really, because
you’re tightly constrained within what the
concept of the band is.
For example, I was in Japan for one of
our last shows and I was practicing in my
room, playing along with all these acid house
songs. I was trying to play guitar in the way
that people programmed the Roland TB-303,
and I realized, “Wow, this is a lot like Robert
Fripp’s style of jumping octaves and wide
intervals.” After a while I started getting a
feel for it, so when I went to sound check I
played that way while jamming with Flea and
the drum roadie, and it was awesome. But
then I got onstage with the band and started
playing that way, and spiritually it just could
not happen. When you are in front of 15,000
people, and have that reciprocal connection
with the audience, if they’re familiar with
you playing like, say, Jimi Hendrix, and you
don’t play like that, it isn’t going to work.
Like, Eddie Van Halen is always going to go
onstage and be Eddie Van Halen—he can’t be
anybody else, even if he really wanted to be.
It’s almost like your creativity is restricted
within those expectations, and I didn’t want
to live the rest of my life with my creativity
restricted. I wanted to explore new things.
Was there a specific experience that led
to your getting more deeply involved in electronic
I had a dream in which I was sitting in
my house listening to a 20-minute-long piece of music that I’d made out of nothing
but samples. It was one band followed
by another, with sort of segueing elements
between them. There was a Beatles section,
a Pink Floyd section, a Talking Heads section,
etc. So, I listened to the whole thing
in my dream and the last thing I thought
before waking was, “Once you’ve done this,
you’ll be able to do anything.”
Throughout the next year I worked on
recreating that piece, little by little. It was
intimidating at first, but by the time I had
completed the entire 20 minutes, about
eight months later, I had come to feel that
sitting down with a bunch of samples was
the same thing as sitting down with my
guitar. You can stream the piece online. It’s
called “Sect In Sgt,” released under the name
TrickFinger [see More Online].
Briefly describe the ways in which you
use technology to realize the music that
you are hearing in your head.
Renoise is my main DAW, and I also
use some drum machines, sequencers,
and other hardware, along with my Doepfer,
Arp, and other modular synthesizers. A
lot of the pieces on PBX and Enclosure began
as guitar ideas, and I developed them from there—but some began with me just sitting
in the studio with a computer and various
devices. In those cases, there are all sorts of
ways that I might get started, and they may
not involve composition in the usual sense
at all. For example, I might begin by finding
two things that can be placed in opposition,
like two samples that really don’t
have anything to do with each other, and
then I’ll try to find some common ground
between them, some way of sitting them
together. When working with Renoise, I
tend to think in terms of the sonic spaces
that I’m portraying, and that has as much
to do with the intervals between one sound
and another, or one rhythmic location and
another, as it does the actual sounds. And
instead of being so concerned about having
a performance be in time, like a guitarist or
other instrumentalist might, I’ve become
more interested in finding interesting ways
for things to be off time, because that’s really
where the music is.
Elaborate on that.
Once I started thinking this way, I went
back and studied the old music by bands
like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles from a
different angle, and I was able to see that
they weren’t concerned about playing off
time. They could play in time easily, but the
object was more to find grooves, and grooves
involve the instruments being slightly off
time with one another. I can hear this with
my ears now, but if I load a sample of their
music into Renoise I can also see it visually.
For example, on “The Song Remains
the Same,” you can hear that the guitar is
really pushing, and the bass and drums are
more relaxed. It’s that contrast that creates
the tension that makes the music so exciting.
And there’s also an order that the musicians
play in, based on who is listening to
whom. For instance, in Black Sabbath the
bass is generally first, the drums are generally
second, and the guitar is generally third.
They may all play a note at the same time,
but it isn’t actually at the same time—and
that is the sound of the band. Every group
has a distinct sound because of this order,
though they aren’t necessarily conscious
of it, and, of course, there are exceptions
when the order will change momentarily.
I found that grooves are comprised of
this and traditional music theory gave me
no means of examining this part of music.
Growing up, learning from records and CDs, I think I was aware of it on a subconscious
level, and I did notice that when I was in a
band that I would try to switch what I felt
was our general order of groove, but you
have no words for this when you’re a musician.
It’s just a sense of things that you have
when you are in a band that has that chemistry.
I’ve never looked at a sample of the Chili
Peppers, but my guess is that Flea’s first
and Chad’s second and I’m third. I remember
trying to be first, but I just couldn’t do
it. That’s not how the other guys were listening,
and you’re just kind of stuck with
how you are.
How does composing for Black Knights
differ from composing your other music?
The primary difference, at least for my
last few records, is that when working on my
own music generally the ideas start as traditional
musical ideas, whereas with Black
Knights everything starts with samples.
“Never Let Go” was an early Black
Knights single release. What are a few of the techniques you used to create that piece?
That was the third piece we ever did
together, when we were just getting started,
and it is a really simple one. It’s basically the
drum break from “When the Levee Breaks,”
a Synton Fenix synthesizer, the guys’ voices,
and the full chorus from Anne Murray’s cover
of “Danny’s Song.” The first step was probably
to run the Anne Murray part out to an
analog equalizer and an analog compressor
to remove as much of the drums and bass as
possible, and bring out her vocals. Then, I
calculated the general tempo of the vocal part
and manipulated the drum sample so that it
was in the same general vicinity time-wise,
before putting it through the EQ to fatten up
the snare and tighten up the kick. I was also
able to emphasize the unconventional drum
miking they used and add more of the room
sound by boosting the room’s resonant frequency,
which brought out that little swirly
thing that’s going on with the staircase that
they recorded the drums through. Without going into a lot of detail, the next step was to
chop up the two parts and work with them
in various ways to get them to flow together
and groove correctly, which wasn’t easy, not
least of all because of the way the drums
were recorded. On most drum recordings,
the loudest point is right at the beginning
of the drum hit, but in that case the loudest
point is fairly far into it because he’s far
away from the microphones and they have
the room sounds really loud. So, it starts
soft and gets louder, swelling into the loudest
part for each drum hit. Then, I repeated
the process so that I had three distinct versions
of the chorus, added the synth bass
line, and added the voices and processed
them in a lot of different ways using the
synth modules, the room, and other stuff.
There’s much more to it, but that’s a quick
overview of the process.
How did you use the room to process
I have a room in my studio that was professionally built to be great for recording
guitar amps, but it ended up being a
place where I have two big speakers and a
tile wall, a curved wooden wall, and a linoleum
floor. I can press a couple of buttons
and any sound that’s in my computer will be
blasting through the speakers, where it will
be picked up by microphones placed in various
positions in the room, and the sounds
fed back into my Neve 8088 console. It’s kind
of like an acoustic echo chamber, but more
elaborate, and I use subtractive EQ and other
techniques to further control the sound. On
“Never Let Go,” I think I sent Monk’s voice
into the room backwards, recorded it, and
then reversed that recording and placed it
slightly ahead of his main vocal track, so
there are certain portions of the rap where
it sounds like the room is swelling into his
voice. The year that I recorded Outsides,
Enclosure, and the first Black Knights album
was my first year of working with the room
a lot, and it gradually became just another
instrument for me. I’m just focusing my engineering
skills on the creative act. We tend
to think of professional engineers as these
people hired by the record label. The artist
gets to boss them around and they’re not
actually generating creative ideas, they’re
just responding to other people’s wishes.
You’re adopting the Les Paul model.
Exactly. For Les Paul, engineering and
electronics and playing guitar were all one
thing. I think that’s a wonderful model. And
you can see that no one followed in his footsteps.
He was doing that stuff in 1948, but
who was doing it even a decade later?
Joe Meek, who greatly admired Les
Paul, is the only person I can think of.
Yeah, Joe Meek was kind of like that.
Returning to guitar playing, describe a
little more fully how you adapted the synthprogramming
concept to your approach.
The first time I used the technique on a
recording was for the solo on “Enough of
Me.” At that point I wasn’t hearing what
the notes were going to sound like, I was
just seeing the positions of the scales and
hoping that it sounded good, and comping
the solo together afterwards to give it a more
cohesive flow. But as I worked on it I began
to develop my ear so that if I played a note
on the A string at the 5th fret, followed by
a note on the high-E string at the 7th fret, I
could hear the interval in my mind before I
played it. Another result of this is that the tone of high and low notes that are far apart
is so different that if you’re alternating high
note-low note-high note-low note, what it
ends up sounding like to the ear is two separate
melodies coexisting. By the time I got
to PBX, I had pretty much fully developed
When evolving your guitar playing, how
do you find the right balance between honoring
your roots and tradition, and playing
new things in new ways?
Everything I do has its roots in other
things that have been done before, and one
thing that I do specifically is to look at musical
styles from the past to see where certain
trends, certain evolutions, just ended because they were no longer fashionable. I then try to
pick up where those lines left off—whether
the foundation was some aspect of synthpop
or progressive rock or jazz or whatever.
I try to use that as a basic starting point and
continue the same thought process.
At the same time, I’m continually trying
to break down my habits and conditioning,
both as a composer and a guitarist. One of
the most important things about getting into
electronic music was rearranging the hierarchy
of musical elements so that the drums were
at the top instead of melody. I was born with
a really strong sense of melody, and melody
has been primary in most music nearly forever—
but in forms like hip-hop, house, and
techno you don’t even need melody to create
music. So, even when I would start a piece
with just drums, I would hear melodies in
my head, and I had to use them. For the first
two or three years of making electronic music
it was difficult for me to force my sense of
melody into that compositional framework.
It wasn’t until I did the last ten minutes of
“Sect In Sgt” that I felt like I could make a
complete-sounding piece of music without
And it’s the same with my guitar playing.
There were the theoretical and physical
parts of learning to play, but I knew that once
I had those things under my control it was
my natural sense of melody that was going
to be coming through. We all have our own
way of bending notes, and our own vibrato,
etc., and we can get very comfortable with
those things. But I wanted to break down
my habits and conditioning as a fun exercise.
A lot of musicians tend to rely on their
conditioning, especially if they want to fit in
with what’s popular or cool—but I had no
reason to do that.
Switching from a Strat to a Yamaha SG
while recording PBX was part of that process.
You can’t bend strings in the same way
on the SG, or use the same sort of vibrato,
or use some of your other go-to moves. I’ve
always liked creating difficulties and surmounting
them, and playing the SG is definitely
more difficult than playing a Strat.
Challenges aside, there must be something
that you really like about Yamaha SGs
for them to have become your primary guitars
on the albums.
I do like them, and I have six or seven.
Besides forcing me to play differently, though,
they also gave me a lot of insight into how
many other guitarists play. One thing I have
done constantly throughout my life is to play
along with CDs, or LPs, or whatever I have. I
think that’s the best form of musical education,
because you aren’t just studying written
notes on a page—you’re studying the subtleties
of interpretation and expression, and the
actual sounds. We take living in the recording
age for granted, but it provides amazing
opportunities. You see that in artists like Jimi
Hendrix and the Beatles. I remember when
I was a kid thinking, “Jimi Hendrix doesn’t
even know how to read music, and he plays guitar like that!” Or for Paul McCartney to
have as much mastery over harmony as he
did, without knowing about intervals. He
got that from imitating records.
With the Yamaha SG, I could play along
with guitar players who were playing, say,
Les Pauls, and feel like the sound matched
what I was hearing on the record. For example,
if you learn Robert Fripp’s solos on a
Strat, the sound and feel just don’t match,
and things like vibrato and bends are completely
different. You know that you would
have never played those things on a Strat.
The tones don’t match, whereas if you play a
Strat along with Adrian Belew or Jimi Hendrix
they do. So, there were all these guitarists
whose playing had been a little mysterious to
me, and I suddenly found it easier to incorporate
aspects of their styles into my style
through imitation. People like Robert Fripp,
Mick Ronson, Tony Iommi, and particularly
John McGeoch from Siouxsie and the Banshees,
who played a Yamaha SG, which is
why I bought one in the first place. It was
an approach to the guitar that I’d been blind
to my whole life because I had always played
Do you think it has as much to do with the
scale length and just the feel of the neck as
it does the pickups and the sound?
When I play along with CDs, I don’t ever
plug my guitar in. I’m only talking about the
acoustical properties of the guitar itself. The
SG is made from very thick, heavy wood.
One reason having the right type of guitar
is so important is that when I learn how
to play something, I get every single note,
and I make sure that my hands are moving
exactly like that player’s hands moved. For
example, when I woke up the other morning,
Jeff Beck’s “Star Cycle” was in my head.
I had learned the solo before at some point,
so I memorized it quickly—but I probably
played along with the song 30 more times
throughout the day and night, and by the end
of the night I was positive that I was moving
my hands exactly like he had moved his. I’m
always on the right fret, and the right string,
and every vibrato is at exactly the same speed
as his, every bend is exactly the same, etc. I
can do that because there’s some similarity
between the guitar that I was playing—a Performance
guitar—and the guitar he played.
When learning things by listening to
recordings, you are actually traveling back
in time to the exact moment that the part was played, and you get to reflect on that
moment. You get to be a mirror to their experience
of that moment. And you also get to
analyze the relationship between the notes
that they chose and the notes played by the
other instruments, which provides insight
into their thought processes, because harmonic
context can explain a lot. Those sorts
of things are endlessly fascinating for me.
But it takes a lot of time to learn in that way.
I’ve been doing it consistently for 30
years. In fact, the only time in my life that
I’ve spent more time actually making music
rather than playing along with recordings
was during the past five years—and even
then I spent nearly half my time doing it. Usually when people are rock stars they’re
not spending ten hours a day learning stuff
off CDs, but that’s how I lived while I was on
tour with the Chili Peppers, and that’s how
I lived when we were writing for records. It
was the main thing I spent my time doing.
As far as staying rooted in tradition, that’s
where my inspiration comes from. I can’t
go from just watching TV to making music.
I have to sit down and play along with Vol.
4 or something and then I feel like, “Okay,
I’m in the zone now.” But what have I done
when I’ve done that? I’ve gone back in time.
I’ve aligned my spirit and my mind with
Does the music that you play along with
influence the music that you are composing
at the time?
I don’t normally make music in response
to the music I’m listening to. It really works
the other way around. I listen to particular
music because it’s along the lines of what
I’m already doing. For example, these days,
professional engineers tend to want each
and every sound to be recorded with lots of
high frequencies, so you get a bright overall
sound. But if you listen to old recordings by
bands like the Velvet Underground or Black
Sabbath, the sounds are often very muted,
which I find pleasant. And it was the same
with a lot of early electronic music, though
that was usually just because they were at
a primitive stage, and the recordings got
brighter as the artists became better engineers
with better gear. But I really like that
muted sound, so when I was working on PBX
and the first Black Knights album, I made
a point of listening to a lot of records that
had that warm sound.
There are lots of fantastic guitar sounds
on your recent records, including some great
distortion tones. Did you get those with an
amp, multiple amps, or pedals?
That’s another thing that’s different
about playing the Yamaha SG. With a Strat,
I couldn’t get distortion just going straight
into my Marshall Jubilee, but with the SG
I can, so I don’t think I used any pedals for
distortion on those recordings. One of the
things I did do a lot was to process the guitar
sounds using my modular synths. Something
in particular that I do is use the Roland
TR-606 drum machine, which is synched to
the computer, to send rhythmic pulses to the
various synth modules so that they transform
sounds in time with the music. I’ll typically
record these parts one bar at a time, so that
specific effects are in perfect alignment with
a guitar part, or even a particular note. There are all these options. In the end, it sounds as
if the module is being triggered by the guitarist’s
mind in real time.
There’s a great reversed guitar solo on
“Fanfare,” but it isn’t just reversed, there are
some other things going on, too.
As I recall, I listened to the music backwards
while playing the solo, then flipped
the solo track. To get it to play exactly in time
with the music I set the recorder to begin
recording automatically at the beginning of
a bar, and then stopped it exactly where the
last bar ended. Then, I probably reversed that
recording and played the forward version into
the room, which added extra backwardness
because the room sound on that track comes
up backwards before the original backwards
guitar sound on the other track. I probably
also sent the original backwards sound into
the room to get the room sound to come in
after the guitar notes, as well.
Was the Yamaha SG the only guitar you
played on the last few records, or were
I played a white Roland G-303 guitar
along with a GR-300 synth on some pieces.
For example, on “Cinch” I combined it with
the SG parts on the arpeggio thing toward
the beginning when the drums speed up,
and I edited it back and forth with a Carvin
nylon-string acoustic throughout the solo
on “Breathiac,” so they appear to be continuations
of the same train of thought. I also
have a Roland GR-500 synth, and I played
it on “Scratch,” but then I mostly switched
back to the GR-300 when I got into an ’80s
King Crimson phase. The solo on “Shelf” was
played on an Ibanez Artist, and the solo on
“Same” was played on a Carvin Allan Holdsworth
I also have a Performance guitar, made
by a guy named Kunio Sugai in North Hollywood.
I played it on a ten-minute solo on
a song called “Wayne” that I recorded a few
months ago when a friend of mine died. It’s
kind of like a Strat, and has a great whammy
bar system that stays in tune really well.
After three years of mostly playing the SG,
I’ve found myself playing that guitar more
What is creativity?
Creativity is everywhere, all the time.
It’s the nature of who we are. As for artistic
creativity, I think a lot of people put it on a
pedestal, and imagine it is something they
can’t quite grasp—but it’s the most natural thing in the world. Of course, there are lots
of ways that you can work against it, and
that aren’t helpful, like if you look at your
art as something that you want to get something
back from the world for. Then you’re
not in creativity mode anymore—you’re in
attention-receiving mode or something like
that. Having been in this business for a long
time, I’ve noticed that typically guitar players
will practice a lot and search a lot before
they become famous, and then when they
become famous they will stop searching and
just freeze. They’ll say, “Okay, this is what
everybody likes me for, so this is what I’ll
be.” To me, that’s when the relationship to
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