Growing up, I never had a cool older sibling or cousin to tell me what bands to check out. I never had that Almost Famous moment when someone told me to “listen to Tommy with a candle burning.” I’d love to brag and talk about how I discovered Radiohead (in reality, I saw the music video for “Fake Plastic Trees” on TV when I was really young and avoided them for almost a decade because I thought Thom Yorke looked creepy) or Dr. Dre (my friend’s mom would sometimes have 2001 on when carpooling to school) while my friends were into Top 40 pop. But growing up in a Bay Area suburb on the wrong side of the Caldecott Tunnel, I didn’t have any sort of local music scene to brag about, and wasn’t exposed to the sort of music I love now until Arctic Monkeys played SNL in 2006.
So for quite awhile in my early teenage years, I solely listened to what was on the radio whenever my parents weren’t listening to a Counting Crows record or the Concert for New York City CDs in the car. And being in California, what was on the radio was a lot of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this period since the news broke on Sunday that John Frusciante was rejoining Red Hot Chili Peppers after leaving the legendary group in July 2009, about a month after I graduated high school. To me, Frusciante was the Chili Peppers, the spark that elevated the L.A. band from musical and lyrical gibberish (even though there was still quite a bit of this with Frusciante) to something transcendent, full of wailing guitars and delicate instrumentals.
They were seemingly everywhere back then, and we ate it up. I particularly remember a bunch of my friends wearing hoodies to school that day freshman year when Stadium Arcadium came out, if only to sneakily listen to it on our iPods during class without our teachers noticing our white earbuds (which, somehow, they didn’t). Learning “Snow (Hey Oh)” on guitar was just as important as being able to play “Through the Fire and Flames” by DragonForce on Guitar Hero. Kiedis’ autobiography Scar Tissue, co-written by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, was required reading. Frusciante’s Rolling Stone cover alongside John Mayer was one of the first issues I remember receiving in the mail.
I haven’t listened to Red Hot Chili Peppers much since Frusciante left the band and I left for college, but their music recalls a more innocent time in my life, even if their music in hindsight was anything but. The guitar legend’s reemergence is as good of a reason as any to revisit his work with Kiedis, Flea and Chad Smith—as well as his incredible and out-there solo discography from the mid-’90s and 2000s. So in honor of the group getting their best guitarist back (sorry Josh Klinghoffer!), we’re counting down John Frusciante’s finest moments as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, featuring all the best solos and guitar riffs across his four albums with the band.
Yes, you know this because Crazy Town sampled part of this Mother’s Milk instrumental track for their Worst Song of All Time nominee, “Butterfly,” (a single I incidentally tried to download on Kazaa K++ when I was 13 only to get “Pretty Little Ditty” on a wrongly-named file). But it also shows where the band’s head was on John Frusciante’s first release with the band following the death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak. They weren’t quite sure what to do with him at that point, but they gave Frusciante his own track, a slow jam session for him and Flea, to essentially allow him to strut his stuff. The end result is a frequently gorgeous, sometimes funky song that showcases virtually every playing style in Frusciante’s arsenal, from heavy, upbeat rock to the slower, majestic solos that would later elevate the Chili Peppers’ material to otherworldly heights. —Steven Edelstone
While Frusciante could—and frequently did—shred with the best of them, he was well aware that technically-proficient solos weren’t always necessary (see “Can’t Stop” and its huge four-note solo out of the bridge). “Don’t Forget Me,” a slow-building track with some of Kiedis’ best-ever vocals, is the guitarist’s masterclass in restraint. It’s perhaps his simplest solo to date, not much more than a single arpeggiated chord, but it feels massive here, a continuation of Kiedis’ soaring chorus. —Steven Edelstone
As one of the most quintessential dad rock bands, it’s only fitting that I was first introduced to Red Hot Chilli Peppers by my dad. Growing up, I travelled a lot for sports and spent countless hours in the car with him, and throughout the years, he never bothered to swap out Stadium Arcadium from his CD player. I listened to that RHCP double album relentlessly, regardless of whether it was a two-hour road trip or five-minute ride to the grocery store, so the album’s first three to five songs were especially ingrained in my brain. Track two, “Snow (Hey Oh),” is already an earworm of a track thanks to John Frusciante’s snaking guitar riff, but blast that song for five consecutive years of anyone’s childhood, and they’d kneel with reverence if Frusciante ever entered the room. To me, Frusciante’s nimble jam band riff induces the same satisfying epiphany of rock ‘n’ roll’s power that you experience from all your first favorite bands. —Lizzie Manno
This eight-minute, 17-second hyper-sexual romp hasn’t aged well whatsoever (like many of the Chili Peppers’ songs, to be fair), but Frusciante’s deceptively pretty solo that closes out the last few minutes of the track is a bit puzzling, but totally welcome. Resembling a hypothetically-rejected solo from Blood Sugar Sex Magik single “Under the Bridge,” Frusciante transforms “Sir Psycho Sexy” from a snot-nosed Beastie Boys-indebted track into something entirely different, something much closer to where the band would go when Frusciante rejoined on 1999’s Californication. It’s quite stunning, actually, how he was able to seamlessly transition the song away from bratty funk-rock to its Mellotron-backed destination without the listener even realizing what happened until it’s over. —Steven Edelstone
At 122 minutes, Stadium Arcadium is longer than most movies, and most of that lengthy run time is due to Frusciante showing off his guitar chops on nearly every track. Lead single “Dani California” gave us a little hint of the album’s direction, pairing a punishing solo with one of the band’s catchiest melodies to date. And when was the last time this big of a rock song had this great of a guitar solo? Probably in a bygone era—like the decades referenced in the music video—when guitar heroes ruled the charts. Frusciante’s outro no doubt prompted kids all over the world to pick up a guitar and learn the solo for themselves. —Steven Edelstone
Sometimes, Frusciante needed to flat-out shred just to prove he could. He could create gorgeous soundscapes with simple guitar melodies, but every now and then, he’d allow himself to bust out a Hendrix-esque solo for the hell of it. “Readymade,” buried midway through the second disc on Stadium Arcadium, is a dumb-as-hell rock song that isn’t trying to be anything more than a balls-to-the-wall banger. It’s essentially a vehicle for Frusciante to unleash his guitar wizardry—he goes nuts here, playing an insane blues-rock solo to stake his claim as his generation’s best guitarist. The second you hear Kiedis whisper “Oh, clean it up Johnny,” it’s clear something special is coming. Solos like these were and are still rare for good reason, but it’s always fun to be blindsided by one like this every now and then. —Steven Edelstone
An ultra-clean solo chock full of guitar neck slides, Frusciante’s turn on “Scar Tissue,” one of their biggest hits to date, showcases his ability to take a melody into an instrumental break without losing any steam. Like others on this list, Frusciante’s parts in the spotlight are deceptively simple, but can absolutely wail when necessary. “Scar Tissue” is no exception, particularly on the outro, where Frusciante does a ton with a little, resulting in the perfect spot to expand it live. And judging by some of the Chili Peppers’ best live albums, he took that spotlight and ran with it every night, building on his soaring guitar lines on “Scar Tissue” and turning them into a highlight show after show. —Steven Edelstone
Though it wasn’t a single, there’s a reason why this Stadium Arcadium deep cut quickly became a fan favorite. Emotional and cathartic, “Wet Sand” builds to its sublime guitar outro just for Frusciante to knock it out of the park. Slotted in a more downtempo, contemplative section of the marathon double album, “Wet Sand” is easily the best track on the 2007 Grammy Best Album-nominated release (and perhaps throughout their whole discography), a song that showcases how good the Chili Peppers can be as a collaborative unit when they’re not striving for any shock value via childish, horny-as-fuck lyrics. That final guitar solo elevates “Wet Sand” to a different place entirely as Frusciante just goes for it here, letting his instrument sing to the heavens. —Steven Edelstone
Opening with one of the most iconic guitar riffs over the past two decades, it’s no wonder why the title track from perhaps their most celebrated album is their biggest song to date. A tale about Hollywood’s dark underbelly where Anthony Kiedis & co. have spent more time than most, “Californication” is a different kind of song than we’re accustomed to hearing from the Red Hot Chili Peppers—slower and more introspective than anything they’d done before. Frusciante’s solo here is understated, capturing the song’s essence: a bit strung-out, but still cohesive enough to create some magic. —Steven Edelstone
Smushed between the upbeat, bass-heavy and funky “Suck My Kiss” and “Mellowship Slinky in B Major” lies Blood Sugar Sex Magik’s true highlight, the stunning acoustic “I Could Have Lied.” Slightly bluesy, slightly folky, “I Could Have Lied” is Red Hot Chili Peppers trying something they’d never tried before: using the sum of their parts to write a reflective breakup song, in which Kiedis plays the part of singer/songwriter more than that of the oversexed, funky pseudo-rapper he was known as. But rather than leave it as an acoustic stunner, Frusciante enters with the solo of his life. He drops in with a technical, jaw-dropping bridge that just as quickly cedes centerstage to Kiedis once again. They’ve only sparingly played the song live since its release 28 years ago—only on a few tours even featuring Frusciante—but it would unquestionably be a live tour de force, a melancholic moment in a bevy of the biggest hits in the history of alternative rock. Frusciante’s solo is about as expressive as an instrumental can be, bidding the song farewell with an encore in the track’s outro that’s just as impressive as the first one. —Steven Edelstone
Revisit Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Woodstock ’99 performance: