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Remembering Red Hot Chili Peppers Founding Guitarist Hillel Slovak

Portrait of the members of American Rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers as they pose together before a sold-out performance at the Ritz, New York, New York, December 12, 1986. Pictured are, from left, Jack Irons, Hillel Slovak (1962 - 1988), Flea (born Michael Balzary), and Anthony Kiedis.
The original Red Hot Chili Peppers lineup pictured in 1986 (L-R): drummer Jack Irons, guitarist Hillel Slovak, bassist Flea, and vocalist Anthony Kiedis (Image credit: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)

60 years ago today, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ founding guitarist Hillel Slovak (1962-1988) was born in Israel. When he was four years old, his family moved to the U.S. where he later became immersed in L.A.’s thriving music scene.

In 1983, Slovak formed the Red Hot Chili Peppers along with drummer Jack Irons, bassist Flea and vocalist Anthony Kiedis. Establishing the band’s unique funk-infused alt-rock sound, Slovak’s legacy in the guitar world is far-reaching and continues to inspire today.

While John Frusciante helped expand the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sonic palette as they shot to worldwide fame with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik (opens in new tab), their signature guitar style is rooted in Slovak’s vision. 

Indeed, it’s fair to say that countless electric guitar players have been influenced by Slovak’s pioneering technique and approach, even though they may not be aware of it.

Hillel Slovak (1962 - 1988), of the group Red Hot Chili Peppers, plays guitar during a soundcheck before a sold-out performance at the Ritz, New York, New York, December 12, 1986

Hillel Slovak, founding guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was born on this day in 1962. He would have turned 60 today. (Image credit: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)

Frusciante wasn’t the only guitarist to quit and re-join the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When the band formed, Slovak was also a member of L.A. art-rockers What Is This, playing alongside the immensely talented Alain Johannes (Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal.)

With commitments piling up either side, Slovak was forced to make a decision: Red Hot Chili Peppers or What Is This. Subsequently, guitar duties of the former were handed over to Jack Sherman (1956-2020) with whom Flea, Kiedis and newly-recruited Captain Beefheart drummer Cliff Martinez recorded the band’s eponymous 1984 debut album (opens in new tab).

Whether or not Slovak backed the wrong horse by choosing the latter is a moot point as he soon returned to the Chili Peppers fold to record their sophomore album with funk legend George Clinton, 1985’s Freaky Styley (opens in new tab).

In this rare 1984 interview with Johannes and Slovak filmed just a few months after the Red Hot Chili Peppers dropped their first album, the guitarist explains his predicament.

“It got too hard to be in both bands at the same time,” says Slovak. “We were both being approached by [record] companies at exactly the same time. So you had to make a choice.”

With Slovak back onboard, the Red Hot Chili Peppers continued to gain a steady following of fans during the mid-‘80s, entering the studio once again to record their third album, 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (opens in new tab).

Produced by Michael Beinhorn (Soundgarden, Ozzy Osbourne, Hole) The Uplift Mofo Party Plan sees Irons’ return to the band. Thus, this is the only Red Hot Chili Peppers studio album to feature all four founding members throughout.

Early the following year, the band embarked on a European tour – their first major run of dates outside the U.S. Filmed during a snowy January/February in 1988, this unique time in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ history was captured in the VPRO documentary Europe by Storm (opens in new tab).

In this clip, Slovak gives us a rundown of his effects chain which is firmly secured to the deck using good, old-fashioned duct tape (in the days when the stage itself served as a pedalboard!) 

Keeping things relatively straightforward, his pedals comprise a Univox Super-Fuzz (opens in new tab), Cry Baby wah (opens in new tab), Boss OD-1 Over Drive (opens in new tab), and Boss CE-2 Chorus (opens in new tab).

The Red Hot Chili Peppers continued to spread their fanbase far and wide, revisiting Europe in Spring 1988 to play a series of dates that included the Netherlands’ Pinkpop Festival (opens in new tab).

However, all was not well in the Chili Peppers camp at this time. Writing in his 2004 biography, Scar Tissue (opens in new tab), Kiedis notes, “I think we were sitting in the midst of a dark spirit... We both realized that we were at a point in our life when it was do or die.”

Having played what would ultimately be their last gig together on June 2 in Oslo, Norway, the original lineup of the Red Hot Chili Peppers flew back to L.A.

Sadly, just a fortnight or so later, Slovak passed away aged 26, a victim of untreated opiate addiction.

Hillel Slovak (1962 - 1988) (left), on guitar, and American musician Flea (born Michael Balzary), on bass guitar, both of the Rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers, rehearse during a soundcheck before a sold-out performance at the Ritz, New York, New York, December 12, 1986

Hillel Slovak (left) and Flea, 1986. (Image credit: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)

Next year will see the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 40th anniversary. And with their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the band have come a long way from their days on the L.A. club circuit.

But none of it would have been possible without Hillel Slovak – a very special guitar player whose music has inspired generations, something the band regularly acknowledges in fond memory.

“The energy of Hillel Slovak has never truly faded,” Kiedis told NME in a recent interview. “Hillel’s still there in our hearts, whether it’s 30, 40, 50, 60 or even 100 [years].”

Red Hot Chili Peppers 'Unlimited Love' album artwork

(Image credit: Warner)

Browse the Red Hot Chili Peppers catalog here (opens in new tab) or buy their latest studio album, Unlimited Love, here (opens in new tab).

Rod Brakes is a music writer with an expertise in all things guitar-related. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a journalist covering artists, industry pros and gear includes writing hundreds of articles and features for the likes of Guitarist, Total Guitar, Guitar World, Guitar Player and MusicRadar, as well as contributions for specialist books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.