"I try not to put pressure on myself and the instrument": John Frusciante talks soloing, theory and the benefits of home recording in 2009 GW interview

John Frusciante performs with Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 3rd Annual Hullabaloo to benefit the Silverlake Conservatory at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theater on May 5, 2007 in Los Angeles, California
(Image credit: Chad Buchanan/Getty Images)

The following is a Dear Guitar Hero piece that was first published in Guitar World in 2009.

He’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist and has just released his new solo album, The Empyrean. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…

Your new solo album is called The Empyrean, which means “the highest point in heaven.” Are you particularly religious? – Dave Rimond

"My religious point of view is something I can’t talk about. It goes against my belief system to talk publicly about my own spiritual beliefs. 

"In the case of the record, I was using the 'highest point in heaven' as a symbol for those things in life we’re all reaching for – those things that are out of our grasp, yet some spark inside us makes us want to reach for them. I’ve always tried to reach new heights."

It seems like you’re constantly evolving, going from one style to another, as a guitarist and a singer. How do you go about that process? – Chris Pip

"I just like to switch things up all the time. Like when it comes to singing, I try to find a different character for each song. What really helps me is being able to record my albums at home – I have more fun experimenting that way, as opposed to working with an engineer, in which case I have to deal with the humiliation of doing take after take, and that can get frustrating.

"As far as guitar playing and soloing go, I usually try to have a concept in my head: a sound or an approach. I think music should be alive and free, and I don’t like to repeat myself. When I was making this record, my main goal was to have something I could play at home late at night and trip out to, where you listen to it and go, 'Whoa, how did that happen?'"

I’ve admired your playing for a long time. In your opinion, is a knowledge of music theory important to a person’s playing, or is playing emotionally enough? – Porcelana

"I definitely think it’s enough to use your emotions – a lot of brilliant music was created that way. It just depends on what you want to do, you know? I don’t think somebody should learn theory just because I say it’s a good idea, but for me, it’s been very helpful. It’s given me tremendous insight into music – I don’t think of each note as something that came out of thin air. 

"I remember when I used to listen to Kiss as a kid, and I thought what they did was magical and came out of nowhere. I had no idea how it all happened and what the tonal relationships to music were. As I got older, I had to progress. My brain had to find a way of making mental symbols that equaled intervallic relationships. Some people can do that without knowing theory, but it’s really helped me."

When you pick up the guitar, do you ever have times when nothing seems to come out right? – Steve Koles

"That doesn’t happen to me, because I care more about studying music and exploring possibilities than about doing something 'right.' When I pick up a guitar, if there’s not an idea there, I’ll just start learning things off of records or studying a chord book. 

"I try not to put pressure on myself and the instrument. I don’t walk up to a guitar and think that I’m going to play something brilliant. I practice so much and study so much... eventually, ideas happen. Take hip-hop, for example: they take little bits of music and put them together and slice ’em up and re-organize them, and there you go – there’s your ideas. 

"Remember, there’s an endless supply of creativity in the universe; it’s never going to run out. Explore the possibilities and don’t make too much of an agenda about blowing people away."

John Frusciante performs with Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 2007 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival – Day 2 at Empire Polo Field in Indio, California

(Image credit: John Shearer/WireImage)

You recorded The Empyrean at home. Do you miss working in big-time recording studios? – Carl Boland

"Well, the studio I have is still a 'big-time studio,' but I do think it’s a myth that you need a 15-foot ceiling to get a good drum sound. My drum room is pretty small and oddly shaped, but I get some amazing sounds, even in the dining room! 

"I think for a long time I had the misconception that in order to make a 'real record' it had to be done in a commercial recording studio with highly paid engineers.

"Anybody at home, just by collecting gear piece by piece, can make an album that sounds good. And if you’re playing a part in the mixing and the miking and the twiddling of the knobs, it’s your opportunity to put more of your own expression in the music."

What was it like working with Johnny Marr on your new record? – Wayne Christie

"Johnny understands my music and where I’m coming from, so I just let him go and do what he wants. I didn’t give him any kind of direction or anything; I’d just watch him do his thing and come up with stuff, which was real educational. 

"He has really complex chord progressions, but he goes by his instinct and his own mental pictures. The theoretical symbols for things are very prominent in my mind, but I think he just learned from playing along to old records, so to see him come up with his own mental symbols was great."

Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith has formed Chickenfoot with Joe Satriani, Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony. Would you ever consider putting together a “supergroup” of this nature? – Barbara Hockey

"No, no. I like making music by myself. First of all, I’ve never heard of Chickenfoot. I didn’t even know Chad was doing that, so I don’t know who that is or why he’s doing it. I’m not comparing myself to him; I’m just saying that if I play with people, it’s 100 percent about the musical relationship. 

"I wouldn’t play with people because they were also stars and we could go onstage and be stars together or anything. [laughs] That’s not me. I don’t relate to people who think that way. I mean, there have been supergroups that were awesome – I love Blind Faith – but I don’t like to think in those terms. You know: 'This band will be huge!' [laughs]"

You seem to love all kinds of music: funk, rock, dance, hip-hop... Is there any genre you’ve never warmed up to? – Cradle 88

"See, I don’t think of music that way, as 'genres,' per se. I hear the spirit of music more than I hear the formula. Mainly, I don’t like it when music is made solely to impress people or in order to please business people; it doesn’t sound good to me. 

"If you’re making music in order to become famous or loved by the masses, that’s not what I’m about. When somebody’s making music for the wrong reasons, I hear it right away."

What’s the status of the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Are you still on hiatus, or are there plans to reconvene soon? – The Dude5

"There’s no plan. No plan at all. The official news is that there are no plans to do anything, and we’re on a hiatus of indefinite length. That’s it. You know, we worked really hard for 10 years and there’s other things in life."

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