"I played a blues scale as fast as I could and he said, 'That's not fast, you're not a good guitarist'" – John Frusciante on his depressing encounter with a guitar teacher, and his teenage heroes Steve Vai and Adrian Belew

John Frusciante
(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Flea's latest guest on his podcast is none other than his Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmate John Frusciante. And he digs deeper into the guitarist's formative pre-RHCP years as a player than any interview we've seen before. 

At one point Frusciante explains that he had one goal after moving to California as a teenager; to become the best guitar he could be by the age of 18. This leads Flea to ask what players were inspiring the young 13-year-old Frusciante and why. His answers explain a lot about his mature mindset as a player back then… 

"For me, a real big one was Adrian Belew," explains Frusciante. "I read an article about him in Guitar World magazine when I was 12 and he'd come out with his first solo album, Lone Rhino. The article about him was so interesting because he was describing these different hand techniques and these ways of using effects. He was into sound. I'd read all these interviews with different people and he talked differently than other people talked because his primary concern was to make the guitar sound in these different ways. He could imitate the sound of elephants, he could imitate the sound of seagulls; he could imitate the sound of a rhinosaurus. He could make the sound of a whale. I never heard someone talk about the guitar like this. And he was into the guitar synthesizer that Roland had out at that time – the GR-300.  

He really knew how to make a note mean something

"He had a very unorthodox approach to the instrument and I got very excited about that and then just proceeded to learn everything there was of him; buy every record. He played with David Bowie, he played with Talking Heads, he played with Frank Zappa, and King Crimson too. So they became my favourite band and he was my favourite guitarist and it was that way for quite a while. I'd had the initial period of learning about the progressive guitarists; Steve Howe and the '60s guitarists like Jeff Beck, Cream and Jimi Hendrix, but Adrian Belew was somebody current who really seemed to be taking the guitar in new directions that those people had. So I just wanted to be exactly like him. I would buy effects that he'd bought and I would learn how to make the kind of sounds that he made.

"He really knew how to make a note mean something," Frusciante adds. "He was a big one for me, definitely at the ages of 13 / 14."

Inevitably, the teenager would also pitch Belew's bandmate against him in his mind for the coveted top spot. 

"I'd change my perspective sometimes because [Adrian Belew] and Robert Fripp were the two guitarists in King Crimson at that time," explains Frusciante. So I had a couple of friends who I turned on to music and we would talk about who was a better guitar player than who and so forth. And at one point I remember saying to one of these kids, 'I decided that Robert Fripp is better than Adrian Belew'… I started to see Robert Fripp could do all these things Adrian Belew couldn't do.  

"Robert Fripp is an amazing guitar player – those ideas of one person being better than another, they were just in the air for me at that time. I think I saw through it to some degree. They were really big for me and when they broke up that was a hard thing for me. I was really depressed about King Crimson breaking up in '84."

I felt like I'd come to a crossroads

Things also took a bleak turn for the young Frusciante's guitar lessons around that time. "I was trying to figure out what kind of guitar player I was supposed to be," he remembers. "I had this feeling that I am going to be a guitar player one day, in a band and all that stuff, but when you're 14/15 years old there's the question in your mind of, what do I have to say? Steve Vai says this, Jeff Beck says this and Robert Fripp says this, Pat Smear says this… what is going to be the thing that I have to say to people? At that time in the '80s it seemed there were two schools of guitar, the way I looked at it. There were what I called textural guitar players and either flashy or speed guitar players. There was Eddie Van Halen who I love and Steve Vai who I'd started to get into, but basically there were people who played fast and there were people who did more interesting things with sound; Adrian Belew,  Warren Cuccurullo, Andy Summers from The Police. 

"I'd kind of lost track of what was going on in LA music. I didn't know the Minutemen – I didn't know some of the great guitar playing that was going on in LA at that point.. I was more looking at the big picture of guitar players. So I was trying to find out, do I want to be one of these flashy players or do I want to concentrate on being a textural guitar player. It was on my mind a lot of the time and I don't know how long it went on, maybe a few months. But I felt like I'd come to a crossroads and I had to figure this out."

This crossroads lead to a new guitar teacher for the teenage Frusciante.

"My mom met a guy at a health food store and she told him what a great guitar player her son was. And he said, 'I'll try to teach him and maybe he should be teaching me if he's as good as you say he is. But I'll see him.' So I went to this guy's house and I had these great recordings of me, very Adrian Belew / Robert Fripp-inspired four-track recordings I'd made. I played him a couple of these recordings I'd made… I was playing in the way I should have been, I was on the right path. This guy said, 'Let me see you play a blues scale as fast as you can.'  And I played a blues scale as fast as I could and he said, 'That's not fast, you're not a good guitarist. That noise you're making on your recordings is ok but if you can't play a fast blues scale, you can't go around telling people you're a good guitarist.'

Somewhere out there there's a (probably former) guitar teacher who must feel pretty silly. But for Frusciante, this negative experience became a crucial moment. 

"I asked him, 'Who do you think is a good guitarist?' He said, 'Tommy Bolin and Steve Vai'. I'd read about Steve Vai but hadn't heard him and this guy gave me the album Flex-Able, which is Steve Vai's first solo record that he put out himself, and I took the record home with me. He said I could borrow it. But I never went to this guy again. The feeling of being told I wasn't a good guitar player was about the worst feeling I could imagine and I was just going to make sure no one was going to say that to me again. There's always going to be people that don't like your guitar playing so you have to get used to it and be alright with people not liking you, but the fact that he said it so matter of factly, he wasn't trying to insult me, I made up my mind that nobody was going to be able to say that to me again."

I got live tapes of Steve Vai that nobody had ever heard

Frusciante also enjoyed the Steve Vai album he got out of the experience and it lead him down a rabbit hole. "It was a very strange album with all kinds of variety – every song was different from the next," he reflects on Vai's debut. "The guitar approach was completely different from song to song. So that became my benchmark. I'd already started to get into some of Frank Zappa's music but I knew that steve Vai had been in his band playing guitar, and it was around that time that Frank Zappa and Steve Vai became my favourite thing. 

"I think I'm about 16 at this point and I just started learning every complicated Frank Zappa piece of instrumental music that he'd written. Learning everything from Steve Vai – I got live tapes of Steve Vai that nobody had ever heard, I had friends and we all traded Frank Zappa live tapes and I probably had six or seven live tapes of Steve Vai with the little club band he had back then. I would spend all my time memorising this stuff and learning how to play it."

Check out the full interview above. 

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.