"He seems kind of all over the place but this thing is spot on": Brendan O'Brien on his first encounter with John Frusciante and how they recorded the Under The Bridge intro

Blood Sugar Sex Magik cover
(Image credit: Red Hot Chili Peppers / Warner Bros)

Brendan O'Brien's CV as a producer, engineer and mixer reads as a who's-who of rock in the last 30 years. He's a crucial figure in the discographies of Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Stone Temple Pilots and Red Hot Chili Peppers especially, and engineered the latter's masterpiece, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Until now he's rarely spoken about any of his work. But Rick Beato has put that right. 

In a rare in-depth three-hour interview with the YouTuber, O'Brien dug into his remarkable history working with artists in studios around the US. And we got some revelations; including what is really going on in the iconic John Frusciante intro for RHCP's Under The Bridge

Rick Rubin is credited as the producer of the 1991 album, and requested O'Brien as engineer for the sessions with Frusciante, Anthony Kiedis, Flea and Chad Smith.  "This is the way I've always worked," explains O'Brien of his role. "When you're in a studio making records, and things are different in different situations, but when you're a producer with an engineer, in my mind the engineer kind of runs the sessions. They handle the assistants, they handle the organisation and everything… I've got to deal with the artist, and sometimes be the dream crusher – that's part of your job sometimes."

They kind of hated me right away – not Flea and Chad, but John and Anthony didn't like me right away

O'Brien had worked on the Black Crowes' Shake Your Money Maker but wasn't yet a big name in engineer circles when he walked into The Mansion in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles that was formerly rented by Harry Houdini (and is now owned by Rubin). In fact, Rubin had neglected to even introduce O'Brien to the Chili Peppers beforehand.

As a results, in addition to the undertaking of bringing a working studio setup into a house, there were personal challenges to overcome. 

"It started off a little nervous because Rick was not always great at introducing people," O'Brien remembers. "I literally showed up on the first day and [they're asking], 'Where's Rick?' – 'He'll be here when it's ready, we've got to get this all working first.'

"An intro would have been nice. So they kind of hated me right away – not Flea and Chad, but John and Anthony didn't like me right away. I won them over soon, but it took a minute."

I would tell anybody that great guitar tones are the player.

Things soon turned around, and the sessions ended up being "fun". They worked with the layout of the house; cabs were mic'd downstairs with amps upstairs, but when it came to adding an intro onto Under The Bridge after it had been recorded, Frusiante's tone was different enough that it had players wondering for years. It turns out it was an acoustic guitar compression setup, but for the guitarist's 1966 Jaguar.

 "I think his rig was maybe a 57 and maybe a mic a little further away," O'Brien says of the setup for most of the Blood Sugar sessions. "It wasn't anything complicated. I would tell anybody that great guitar tones are the player. You can have a great rig and everything miked up a special way… if the guitar player's got no tone, it's not going to sound very good. 

"You can just throw a 57 or any kind of mic that works in front of a good amp, with a good player and a little EQ – it's going to sound great."

It became clear to O'Brien early on that he was dealing with a gifted guitarist with John Frusciante, but the Under The Bridge intro required a different setup. 

"We'd done the song already, that intro was done later," explains O'Brien. "And there's an edit there, and I can't remember how I did the edit. But I remember it was John or one of the other guys said, 'We've got this intro we want to put on this song'. We'd already done the song, and he wants to play it free hand – there's no time code."

The workaround was O'Brien had Frusciante play and let the first chord of the song's verse ring out to sustain at the end of the intro and join the new and existing track. "Then we went back on the original tape, on the same track we did it on and I said, 'Play the last two chords into it so the cut works', and it worked.

The notable compression on this clean intro came about for a very specific reason - it was something being used elsewhere, but setup for acoustic guitar at the time. "We had this little setup that ended up working for everything – I don't know why, and it became kind of a thing," recalls O'Brien. "It was a [Neumann U] 87 and it went through one of the Neves and an LA-2A [Teletronix compressor] and I would rarely touch it. He had, it might have been a little Music Man amp or a little Fender that he played it on and we put that in front of it.

"It's overcompressed because it had been set up for an acoustic guitar."

: American musician John Frusciante, of the American rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, performs on stage during the Blood Sugar Sex Magik Tour on November 11, 1991 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, New York

Frusciante onstage with RHCP  tage during the Blood Sugar Sex Magik Tour on 11 November, 1991 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York (Image credit: Bob Berg/Getty Images)

The core is Frusciante's performance though. "I remember being super-impressed with him," says O'Brien. "I didn't really know anything about them beforehand… I didn't have any history with them. But one of the first things we did, the first couple of days we worked [I thought], that guy knows his parts, they sound great. He seems kind of all over the place but this thing [his guitar] is spot on. He was eight them with Flea. Those three guys together – and Anthony too. That was one of the first times he was really singing more than rapping, and he's fearless."

Check out the full interview above where Brendan O'Brien talks producing Pearl Jam, Springsteen, engineering The Black Crowes and mixing Soundgarden's Superunknown.

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.