John Frusciante was just 18 when guitarist Hillel Slovak, his rock idol and eventual friend, died of a heroin overdose in 1988.
It was no doubt a shock for the young guitar player from Queens, N.Y. But it also opened the way for Frusciante to replace Hillel in the Red Hot Chili Peppers – and launch his career as one of rock’s most impressive guitarists.
Frusciante grew up idolizing Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and the other icons of his craft. Years later, when he joined the Chili Peppers, it was his raunchy guitar style that transformed the hit band into something new and unique – a remarkable blend of metal and funk.
Unconformable fully mimicking Hillel’s funkier style, Frusciante was urged to be himself. It worked.
His entry into the band actually began with is friendship with drummer D.H. Peligro, formerly of the Dead Kennedys. Peligro had befriended other musicians, including an energetic bass player named Michael Balzary, who became better known as Flea.
So it was that Hillel’s death, and Flea’s recommendation, landed Frusciante the gig with the Chili Peppers, who had essentially disbanded after Hillel’s death. Now they moved forward.
Coming of age as a rock idol took its toll, and Frusciante admittedly delved increasingly deeper into drug addiction while he continued playing and touring with the band. In 1992, just one year after riding to the top of the charts, Frusciante walked away.
He released the first of his solo albums, Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt, in 1994. While his solo work would come to win critical acclaim, he fell deeper into depression and drug addiction.
Determined to regain his health, Frusciante finally checked into a rehabilitation clinic and emerged free of drugs in 1998, one year after completing his impressive, yet disjointed, second solo album.
Meanwhile, the Peppers were in disarray. The band fired guitarist Dave Navarro and were ready to call it quits. It was Flea who suggested a reunion with Frisciante, insisting it was the only way to safe the band. Frusciante quickly accepted.
It paid off immediately. The release of Californication in 1999 put the band back on top, with a rejuvenated Frusciante guiding the way. His second run with the Chili Peppers also saw him as a more mature guitar player, drawing on a wider array of influences.
The band ultimately went on hiatus in recent years – but this time Frusciante has made good use of his time. He continues to record and perform, releasing his latest solo album, the Empyrean, this year.
And he’s also earned the acclaim of both fans and colleagues, coming in at number 18 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists.
Not bad for a kid from Queens who wanted to be a rock star.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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