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How to play the guitar like John Frusciante

Red Hot Chili Peppers are masters of funk-rock, there can be no denying it. A dynamic quartet, with each member a vital cog in the blaring funk machine, since the early 1990s the California band have been one of the most unique and best-selling artists out there. 

Although in their early days, the band were more concerned with abrasive funk-metal, after the death of their original guitarist Hillel Slovak in 1988, and lineup changes, the band began to find their actual creative footing with the addition of the young guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith who first featured on their 1989 album Mother’s Milk. Featuring tracks such as ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘Knock Me Down’, the band started to cultivate the unrelenting funk-rock that we love them for today.

It was the band’s next release, Blood Sugar Sex Magick, in 1991 that really catapulted them into the major leagues. Spawning the massive crossover hit ‘Under the Bridge’ as well as ‘Give It Away’ and ‘Suck My Kiss’, the band cut a starkly different figure to all the grunge and dance that was ubiquitous at the time. They were iconoclastic, and people loved it. Frontman Antony Kiedis, bassist Flea, Frusciante and Smith had hit on a winning formula. However, it wasn’t meant to be.

Battling personal demons and the trappings of fame, Frusciante abruptly quit the band in 1992, leading them to hire a replacement, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction. They released their polarising sixth album One Hot Minute in 1995, and Navarro left in 1998, citing creative differences. Kicking his drug addiction, Frusciante rejoined the band, and fans were delighted. They released their biggest commercial hit, Californication, in 1999 and continued on a hit-making run, delivering 2002’s By the Way and 2006’s Stadium Arcadium

Wanting something new, Frusciante left for the second time in 2009 to focus on his solo career and was replaced by Josh Klinghoffer, who played on the band’s subsequent two albums. Finally, to the delight of fans again, Frusciante was welcomed back into the fold in 2019, and the classic lineup of the band are set to release their new album Unlimited Love in April 2022. 

Although Slovak, Navarro and Klinghoffer are all incredible guitarists, one thing is clear. John Frusciante is the guitarist of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and without him, they are not the same, regardless of the fact the band have a handful of brilliant songs in the pre and post-Frusciante years. A stellar guitarist with a knack for a riff like no other, he fuses the post-punk of John McGeoch, the clean technical proficiency of Johnny Marr and the raw power of Jimi Hendrix into his own unique style.

A total sponge when it comes to soaking up the influence of guitarists, there’s no surprise that Frusciante, who is perhaps the most dextrous modern guitarist, cites a whole range of players as his heroes. Something of an anti-guitar hero, in 2012 he explained: “I like all kinds of guitar players, but it’s people like the ones I just mentioned [Matthew Ashman of Bow Wow Wow and Bernard Sumner of Joy Division] whose playing really amazes me, and it’s because of their ideas, it’s because of what they thought.” 

He continued: “It’s because they approached the instrument differently than anybody else. It’s people like Keith Levene from Public Image and Daniel Ash in Bauhaus who are exploring the possibilities of what you can do with the guitar, whereas other people seem like they’re just exploring what you can physically do, and that serves no interest to me anymore.”

A real prodigy when it comes to the guitar, we’ve seen his chameleonic ability manifest in the many different styles he employs across his work. This ranges from the psychedelic funk of ‘Give It Away’ to the sliding beauty of ‘Scar Tissue’, and then the post-rock of his 2009 album The Empyrean. A legend in guitar playing, many have tried and failed to imitate Frusciante’s style. 

In order to play like Frusciante, the first thing you need to do is spend hours practising your finger dexterity. He plays searingly fast at points, tearing through a mix of scales, employing both melodic and dissonant phrases. An expert in the guitar, his knowledge of it is outstanding, and you can tell this by the way that on record, he always manages to find the right note. Reflecting this, watching any live performance of Frusciante’s, and particularly the live jams that Red Hot Chili Peppers love, you see his technical proficiency really come to the fore, bouncing of Flea and Smith’s rhythmic work. 

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Hammer-ons and pull-offs are second nature to Frusciante, so in order to even attempt to emulate his work, you need to have these key techniques laid down. His right and left hands work in unison, and that’s something that doesn’t come overnight, and not without practising over and over again. 

Understandably for a player so dextrous, Frusciante employs a whole host of tools to get the right sound. In the early days of Red Hot Chili Peppers, he was known to use a Fender Jaguar; however, his most iconic axe in the band is the Fender Stratocaster, a fluid model in itself, allowing for numerous different tones, given the three pickups and switch configuration. 

For ‘Californication’ and ‘Otherside’, he utilised the warmth of a Gretsch White Falcon. At other points in his career, he’s also used a Fender Toronado, Telecaster and a Gibson SG. Regardless, if you want to sound closest to Frusciante’s best-known work, a Fender Stratocaster is a must. 

Luckily for you, Frusciante relies on only a couple of amps. Since Californication, he has mainly relied on a combination of a Marshall Major 200w head and a Marshall Silver Jubilee for live performances. In the studio, Frusciante sticks with Marshall but runs the Major through a vintage 100-watt Marshall Super Bass. Although Fruusciante is such a staunch supporter of vintage tube Marshalls, your best bet is any Marshall modelling amp, such as the Code 25, as groundguitar point out. 

When it comes to effects, Frusciante has used them all. Across his career, we’ve heard him use everything from phase to overdrive and echo. However, there are two pedals you need to acquire the sound you’re looking for. 

The first is an Ibanez WH10V2 Wah Wah, which you can hear in ‘By The Way’ and ‘Dani Californication’. The older version that Frusciante now uses is no longer available, but more modern renditions will do the trick. The other is a Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion, the bright orange stompbox that he has used across his career, and to be honest, it’s a great pedal to have even if you’re not looking to emulate Frusciante’s sound. 

In terms of strings, the Red Hot Chili Peppers man uses D’Addario EXL110s, giving him the right balance of bend and restraint, allowing him to get across the fretboard when shredding, but also giving him a chug when needed. Aiding his dexterity, he uses Dunlop Tortex .60mm picks, again, to provide him with just the right amount of bend required to shred properly. So if you’ve currently got a pack of Tortex .88mm, it’s time to cast them aside. 

Perhaps the most crucial part of Frusciante’s playing is the philosophical element. Whilst we know that he is an eminent scholar of the guitar and music, it’s the way he approaches it, emulating his idols, which really gives his music that emotive power that well all love so much. In Rolling Stone in 2007, he explained: “When the intellectual part of guitar playing overrides the spiritual, you don’t get to extreme heights.” 

This sentiment is indicative of Frusciante‘s testament as a human being, it’s all about feeling. There’s a reason people love his work so much. Yes it’s technically incredible, but it’s also imbued with soul, something that many modern guitarists forget. In many ways, he is the modern Jimi Hendrix, straddling technical proficiency and heart, creating a dazzling style that we’ll be talking about for a very long time.

Watch Frusciante show you how to do it below.