A Lesson in John Frusciante’s Red Hot Rhythms and Riffs

Take a look at Frusciante’s rhythm guitar work, with a focus on Red Hot Chili Peppers classics.
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Now celebrating their 35th year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have become one of rock’s most enduring acts. This has happened despite numerous changes in their guitar position, which has included founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, Jane’s Addiction axman Dave Navarro and current guitarist Josh Klinghoffer.

To date, the guitarist to have logged the most time in the band is John Frusciante, a fluid, versatile and tasteful guitarist who defined the group’s sound on albums like Mother’s Milk, Blood Sugar Sex Magik and By the Way. Safe to say, the group’s success is due in no small part to Frusciante’s infectious, funky style, which you can also hear on his numerous solo albums, soundtrack work and assorted sideman outings with everyone from the Mars Volta to Glenn Hughes.

In this lesson, though, we’ll focus on Fruciante’s rhythm guitar work, with a focus on RHCP classics, including cuts from Stadium Arcadium, their first chart-topping album.


The Chili Peppers use plenty of interlock­ing rhythmic parts. For instance, the verses of “Dani California” are propelled by a clean-toned riff that mimics Chad Smith’s drums (FIGURE 1). Played with a downstroke, each root note (thumb-fretted on string 6) is synced to Smith’s bass drum; on beats 2 and 4, the four-string chord stabs are coordinated with the snare. FIGURE 2, mean­while, approximates the chorus’s grinding power-chord riff.


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In songs like “Especially in Michigan,” Frusciante uses power chords in a slightly unconventional fashion. Instead of placing these root-5th shapes on the guitar’s lower strings, as most rock players do, he slides them along strings 3-4 (FIGURE 3), doubling bassist Flea’s lines while staying out of his register. Strum these chords with downstrokes throughout, for even­ness. For another example of Frusciante using upper-register power chords, check out the title track to the classic Blood Sugar Sex Magik.


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In the Chili Peppers’ heaviest funk offerings, such as “Readymade,” you’ll often hear Frusciante and Flea bust out a groove with single-note unison riffs. FIGURE 4, for instance, is derived from the E blues scale (E-G-A-A#/Bb-B) and E Dorian mode (E­ F#-G-A-B-C#-D), with the major 3rd (G#) and major 7th (D#) thrown in for inter­est. This approach can also be heard in older songs like “Mellowship Slinky in B Major” (Blood Sugar Sex Magik) and “Good Time Boys” (Mother’s Milk).


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“Hump de Bump,” which informs FIGURE 5, features another single-note funk pat­tern: a steady stream of 16th notes that outlines a D7 chord (D-F#-A-C), offset by muted notes (Xs in notation and tab). For each mute, relax your fret hand’s grip while maintaining contact with the string, producing a percussive attack. So that the muted notes aren’t overpowering, be mindful of the accent marks throughout.


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Frusciante sometimes decorates sin­gle-note riffs with slides, muted scratches, and chord stabs. See FIGURE 6, based on “Turn It Again.” Each chord tone–based fretted note is preceded by a muted 16th. For a slightly different sound, try a pull­-and-snap fingerstyle technique—pull and release the strings with your pick hand’s index finger so that they snap against the fretboard. For other examples of this approach, check out the Blood Sugar Sex Magik tracks “If You Have to Ask” (chorus) and “Mellowship Slinky” (verse).


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Frusciante often uses hemiola—a three-against-four rhythmic feel. In “Charlie” [FIGURE 7], he plays a part against the overall 4/4 groove that, when isolated, falls into 3/4. This creates a polyrhythmic effect­—two different meters heard simultaneously.


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FIGURE 8 shows another hemiola, in which a chord is struck every three 16th notes. To get the proper swing feel, think “long­-short-long-short” throughout.


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FIGURE 9 is a mixed bag, containing funky chords (E7#9, E9), scratchy rhythms, and chord partials—a sliding triple-stop (barred with the 3rd finger) and a station­ary double-stop (barred with the 4th finger). Keep your 3rd finger barred on strings 1–3 throughout the E9-E7#9 change, add­ing your 4th finger (8th-fret G) to create the E7#9 chord. These sounds also surface in the manic “Subway to Venus” (Mother’s Milk) and the psychedelic freakout “Sir Psycho Sexy” (Blood Sugar Sex Magik).


In the Chili Peppers’ more introspective offerings, instead of using garden-variety open chords like C (C-E-G), Am (A-C-E), and F (F-A-C), Frusciante might use 7th chords like Cmaj7 (C-E-G-B), Am7 (A-C­-E-G), and Fmaj7 (F-A-C-E) (FIGURE 10). These chords can be heard in “Strip My Mind” as well as in Blood Sugar Sex Magik’s “Breaking the Girl,” which informs FIGURE 11.


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With its arpeggios, partial strums and ornaments, “Wet Sand” (FIGURE 12) sounds a bit like Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Keep each chord shape anchored as long as possible, moving your fingers as need­ed to add the hammer-ons and pull-offs.


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Frusciante also uses ornamentation within fully fretted shapes, like in the chorus riff of “Snow (Hey Oh)” (FIGURE 13). Fret the 6th string with your thumb throughout, so that your fingers are free to play the pentatonic notes above: G# minor (G#-B-C#-D#-F#), E major (E-F#-G#-B-C#), B major (B-C#-D#­-F#-G#), and F# major (F#-G#-A#-C#-D#) over the G#m, E, B, and F# chords.


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In “Hey,” Frusciante places 3rds atop Flea’s bass line, etching out a Cm-Gm­-Fm-Bb progression. Similarly, in FIGURE 14 a series of 3rds is repeated in each bar, while a different root is played on the downbeat and allowed to ring throughout. “So Much I” features a similar harmonic pattern.


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Inspired by live versions of “Sir Psycho Sexy,” FIGURE 15 uses 10ths to outline an Em (E-G-B) Eb (Eb-G-Bb) Bb (Bb-D-F) D (D­-F#-A) progression. Each measure begins with the chord’s root and 3rd (displaced by an octave). This spacing is then applied to each chord’s remaining tones, as found up the neck on the same string set. For more 10ths work, check out “Scar Tissue” (Californication).


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