Red Hot Chili Peppers' John Frusciante

Those given to cosmic speculation might easily conclude that John Frusciante was born to play guitar in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Having followed the band from its inception, and having mastered all the songs in the Peppers’ repertoire, Frusciante was a de facto understudy for guitarist Hillel Slovak, and the natural choice for Slovak’s successor when he succumbed to heroin addiction in 1988. Following the runaway success of 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Frusciante became disillusioned with the rock star life, leading to a six-year hiatus from the band—but he returned just prior to the new millennium, and his guitar playing and songwriting are currently more inspired and compelling than ever.

THOSE GIVEN TO COSMIC SPECULATION might easily conclude that John Frusciante was born to play guitar in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Having followed the band from its inception, and having mastered all the songs in the Peppers’ repertoire, Frusciante was a de facto understudy for guitarist Hillel Slovak, and the natural choice for Slovak’s successor when he succumbed to heroin addiction in 1988. Following the runaway success of 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Frusciante became disillusioned with the rock star life, leading to a six-year hiatus from the band—but he returned just prior to the new millennium, and his guitar playing and songwriting are currently more inspired and compelling than ever.

Frusciante has a voracious musical appetite. One moment he’s spinning vintage vinyl by John Lee Hooker and Cecil Taylor, the next he’s extolling the virtues of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, and the next he’s name checking artists as diverse as Funkadelic, Black Sabbath, Brian Eno, John McLaughlin, and Squarepusher—not to mention perennial favorites such as Hendrix, Clapton, and Beck. His living room walls and much of its floor are home to thousands of CDs and LPs.

Complementing Frusciante’s passion for music are his love of recording and his fascination with pure sound. “As a person whose job it is to make sounds, it’s important for me not to overlook any of the various properties that sound possesses,” he explains. “Studying modular synthesis has taught me how to approach music in a completely different way, and now I think in terms of giving sound width and dimension, rather than just in terms of what my fingers are doing. You don’t have a chance to think that way when you’re caught up in the actual playing. It’s only in the studio that you can really explore that.”

Although showcasing the vocal was producer Rick Rubin and the band’s prime directive when recording and mixing the Chili Peppers’ new double-disc, Stadium Arcadium [Warner Bros.], Frusciante’s sonic watermark is evident throughout. “A big part of my concept for the record was to have the music be constantly revealing itself from the beginning to the end of the song,” he explains. “Some songs build more than others, but they all have various elements that get added as the track goes on.” Here, Frusciante reveals those elements in exhaustive detail.

Why did you call the two discs on Stadium Arcadium Jupiter and Mars?

As we wrote more and more songs, we started toying with the idea of doing two separately released albums, but we ended up putting everything that we felt super good about on a double CD. Then it just seemed like a good idea to give each disc a name, so that people would think of the 28 songs as two 14-song albums, each with its own vibe, and not get overwhelmed. As far as Jupiter and Mars, we liked the idea of the planet of creative intelligence, Jupiter, having the force and the drive of Mars, the warrior, which is the planet of manifestation of what you feel is right from inside. Any creative person has to struggle against all the forces in the world, and inside themselves, especially, that are working against them. You've got to be kind of a warrior to be an artist, and to stand up and be the best you can be in the face of criticism and adversity.

Where and how was the album recorded?

The album was recorded at The Mansion in Laurel Canyon, though a few overdubs were done at the band members’ home studios, and at Rick Rubin’s studio. We recorded to three synchronized 2-inch, 24-track machines, running at 30ips, and mixed to analog tape as well. [Engineer Ryan Hewitt notes that the console was a Neve 8068 with 31102 mic preamps, and that Neve 1057 and 1073 mic preamps were also used for some tracks.] The basic tracks, including most solos, were cut “live” in the studio, with everyone playing together in the same room. For a lot of it we even had our amps in the same room with the drums, and we allowed for bleed, as I was really into trying to capture some of the atmosphere of ’60s recordings, and also have that extra push you get when you know you’ve got to nail the take because you’re all in the same room.

What’s your philosophy regarding perfection vs. imperfection when recording?

There’s a fine line between good imperfections and bad imperfections. You might have played on the wrong fret, or played an open string you didn’t mean to play, and if you’re a really self-critical person, you might immediately want to fix that. But, it’s important to listen to those things a second time, and get other people’s opinions. For example, during the solo on “She’s Only 18,” I was on the wrong fret for a second, but I just kept the flow going, and the solo was awesome. Once you stop fighting with mistakes, you actually roll with them, wait for them, and welcome them. They’re one of those things that the spirit of music likes. If there are no mistakes, a record has no vibe.

What microphones did you use to record your guitars?

I use a Shure SM57 positioned on axis a couple of inches from the cone. On some tracks the engineer, Ryan Hewitt, added a Royer R-121 ribbon mic, positioned about 15 feet away, in order to capture some of the room sound. We used a Telefunken Ela M 250 tube condenser mic on the acoustic guitars.

Take us through the album track by track.

“Dani California” I used a straight Strat tone on the first section of the first verse, and on the second section the guitar signal is split and panned in stereo, with the original part on the left, and a part processed using my Doepfer modular synth on the right. Basically, the signal from the tape is used to trigger an envelope generator (or ADSR), which responds to playing dynamics, and uses that information to dynamically control a low-pass filter. Unlike a typical envelope filter pedal, this setup allows me to create many more sounds than mere wah effects. Then, those two sections are repeated, and as I’m hanging on the sustained chord which transitions into the chorus, a Mellotron string part slowly rises behind the guitar. You can hardly hear the Mellotron, but it’s what makes it feel like something really big is about to happen. On the chorus, I doubled the guitar parts, which were played using a Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion pedal.

The second verse begins with a couple of guitars playing in harmony. After they were recorded, I ran them through a Moog MF-105 MuRF (Multiple Resonance Filter Array) pedal six times, and recorded the results on individual tracks. The MuRF is very unpredictable, and sounded different on each pass. I kept going until I got a take that I really liked, though we actually wound up using all six takes in combination. Otherwise, the processing is the same as on the first verse.

For the bridge, the rhythm guitar is processed with the Doepfer’s LFO (Low-Frequency Oscillator) controlling its high-pass filter, so that the filter opens and closes rhythmically. The drums are also filtered, so that they are small and panned to one side at the beginning, then gradually get bigger and pan out across the full stereo spectrum, which lets you hear the guitar treatment more clearly.

On the third verse I overdubbed an additional rhythm guitar track. Then, on the buildup to the chorus, I added some diminished chords along with several harmony parts. To get the highest harmonies, we slowed the tape down and recorded them at a slower speed, so that they would be pitched above the range of the guitar when the tape was sped back up.

There are lots of additional harmony guitar parts on the second half of the third chorus, positioned in two groups panned to either side. Also, Eddie Kramer came in and showed our engineer how to do ’60s-style tape phasing, which we used on an early mix, and we wound up splicing a section of that mix into the part transitioning out of the chorus.

I played the original solo when we recorded the basic tracks, and then doubled it later, except for the super-fast wah part at the end, which was too difficult to double perfectly, so I put that section through a Delta Labs Effectron II digital delay set to a quick delay with just a touch of slow modulation.

“Snow (Hey Oh)” During the outro section I used an Electro-Harmonix POG, which adds multiple octaves and makes the guitar sound like an organ. Towards the very end of the song I created an articulated arpeggio using three distorted guitar parts, each playing one note of the arpeggio recorded onto a separate track. Normally if you tried to play that sort of line with a distortion pedal, you’d get frequency beating and the notes would be indistinct. But this way each note is clear, while giving the impression of being a single guitar. I also played the same parts on a synthesizer, tucked so low in the mix that you can’t really hear them, but you can hear them, and it sounds really different without them there.

“Charlie” The lead guitars are on the left with a slap-back delay on the right.

“Stadium Arcadium” On the solo, we flipped the tape over and ran the sound through a vintage EMT 250 digital reverb, recording the reverb onto a separate track, so that when the tape was flipped back over the reverb would be reversed and begin just ahead of the guitar. Then, we ran the reverb sound through a low-pass filter—which lets you nail any sound down to the tiniest little sliver of a frequency—so that you not only hear the notes coming up ahead of the unprocessed guitar, they are swirling around, and the sound seemingly comes out of nothingness. Also, on the second verse, we slowed down the tape and I picked some triads really fast, then we ran that sound through the EMT 250, which made them sound like futuristic mandolins from outer space.

“Hump de Bump” There were no overdubs.

“She's Only 18” The delay effect on the verses and solo were inspired by Hendrix’s “If 6 Were 9.” They were processed with the Effectron II, set to a quick delay with a little bit of modulation to provide movement. The engineer also created a really good backwards reverb for the vocals on the choruses.

“Slow Cheetah” On the instrumental bridge section, I created swells with the guitar’s volume control, which we ran through the EMT 250 set on its largest and longest setting, creating a sound like stars shooting through space.

“Torture Me” A few harmony parts were overdubbed.

“Strip My Mind” The melodies in the second verse are two guitars playing in harmony, processed through an Analogue Systems Phase Shifter, which unlike a typical phase shifter has a really wide range, as well as a Resonance control. When you run two or more harmony lines through it, and adjust the resonance really slowly by hand, at one frequency it will favor one note and its harmonics, and at another frequency it will favor another, with the whole thing moving in a circular fashion. And, sometimes when three notes are playing together, a fourth “note” is created out of the combined frequencies and harmonics. I did the same thing on “She Looks to Me,” but there it was with chords rather than single notes. On the solo I used Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi fuzz and Holy Grail reverb pedals. Rick Rubin really cranked the first note of the solo to give it a thunderous quality when it comes in.

“Especially in Michigan” For the harmony guitars that come in halfway through the second chorus, I used an Electro-Harmonix English Muff’n distortion pedal, which I really love. It has an incredible amount of upper midrange and highs, and it can be obnoxiously bright, so I turned my tone knob all the way down and used the middle pickup to have the deadest and blandest sound possible coming out of the guitar, which produced a sweet, Cream-era Clapton-like sound. It’s one of my favorite tones that I’ve ever gotten. Omar Rodriguez from the Mars Volta played the solo. [Frusciante appears on the new album by the Mars Volta as well.]

“Warlocks” There’s a cycle of two bars at the top of the second verse where I used a technique inspired by David Byrne and Brian Eno. You put notes in little spaces where you think, rhythmically, that there’s a hole for a note, on four or five separate tracks. And though there is no conscious intent, all the notes taken together create a pattern. Then, I ran those parts through the MuRF, which randomly emphasized certain notes, making them sound as if they are just breathing out, and not being picked. I really love that moment.

“C'mon Girl” I used basically the same English Muff’n sound as on “Especially in Michigan,” and the same reverse reverb/filter effect as on “Stadium Arcadium.” The solo at the end was cut live.

“Wet Sand” I played through a Leslie in the A section. The engineer also used a technique, having to do with putting the signal slightly out of phase with itself, to make the guitars seem to project out in front of the speakers. At the end of the song there’s an arpeggiated guitar part created by slowing the tape down and playing harmonies a third up, on the treble pickup, which made it sound exactly like a harpsichord. I’m convinced that’s what Hendrix did on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.”

“Hey” No overdubs. I probably had the Holy Grail reverb pedal on throughout the song.

“Desecration Smile” The harmony guitars are treated with the same phasing effect used on “Strip My Mind.”

“Tell Me Baby” Although there’s only a single rhythm guitar part, the processing varies continually throughout the song, which changes the over-all atmosphere and provides development. For example, on the first verse there’s a super-fast, light filter thing going on that makes the guitar sound kind of outer-spacey. Later, there’s a slap-back echo, then a reverb where there wasn’t one before, etc. The solo was run through the MuRF.

“Hard to Concentrate” The basic guitar part uses simple volume swells, but there are high harmony parts outside the range of the guitar created by slowing the tape down when recording, and then speeding it back up. I used an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress Flanger on the bridge.

“21st Century” The solos were overdubbed, with a main solo and two harmony parts on the outro.

“She Looks to Me” The three harmony guitars at the end were done using the English Muff’n, and then run through the Analogue Systems phaser and mixed to two tracks panned hard right and left. Normally when sounds are moving from speaker to speaker you hear exactly where they are at any given moment, but with this process certain notes come out on the left that might or might not come out on the right. Because the frequency of the phasing is moving so slowly, it creates a calming effect. Also, the two-note phrases on the verses were done by recording each note on its own track, then flipping the tape and adding reversed reverb to just the first note of each phrase. There’s also an organ-like sound on the second chorus that’s done with the POG.

“Readymade��� The harmony guitar parts were overdubbed, with layered feedback at some points. I also treated Chad’s drums with a comb filter during the bridge, and placed reverb on certain snare hits, which made them sound like gunshots.

“If” Flea’s bass line was sufficient and really didn’t need a guitar, so I just added a simple slide part.

“Make You Feel Better” The overdubs on the final verse and chorus were played on a Les Paul, with the original panned left and a slightly out-of-time echo on the right. This was one of the last overdubs on the record, but I felt that it took the ending up to another level.

“Animal Bar” The main part is done with volume-knob swells, a wah, and a chorus pedal—but I used the wah pedal exactly the opposite of how it’s normally used. I raise the volume while the wah is in the full treble position, and then close the wah to its full bass position. Then I lower the volume and repeat the move on the next chord. It’s unusual for a guitarist to use a wah that way, but it is the way a synthesist would think. The chorus effect is maxed at some points, as is the Holy Grail, which is set to the Spring sound. The solo is processed with the stereo phasing effect from the Analogue Systems Phaser.

“So Much I” The harmony guitars were overdubbed.

“Storm in a Teacup” We used the same envelope-filtering effect as on “Dani California” for the rhythm parts.

“We Believe” We used the Doepfer’s LFO controlling its filter on the main guitar part, and there are also some harmony feedback tracks run through the MuRF on the opening to the second verse. I doubled Flea’s bass line at the end with a Les Paul. The solo at the end was done using the English Muff’n, and treated afterwards with a DOD Analog Delay, the feedback knob of which I turned manually to get a controlled echo feedback thing.

“Turn It Again” I recorded a lot of guitar tracks towards the end and mixed them all myself. I just creatively organized them in my brain and mixed them, having one guitar come in here and another guitar come in over there.

“Death of a Martian” We were rehearsing at the studio for about a week before we actually started recording, but they were just letting tape roll, and we wound up using a few of those takes, including this one, and they have a more relaxed feeling to them than the other songs. The main guitar part was played through a Leslie, and the “Martian” sounds were made with a filter that was modulated super-fast. There are three lead guitars on the outro, but they are mixed very quietly. On early Funkadelic albums, George Clinton would mess around with the volume of things, and not just have the parts fit into a perfectly balanced unity the way most producers do. On one track there would be really loud lead guitars, and on another super-loud bass, or quiet lead vocals, etc. The band and our producer were not into that as a general direction for the album, but this is one of the few spots where I'm doing that sort of thing.