Josh Klinghoffer talks to Total Guitar Magazine about his amazing career to date, from dropping out of high school to joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He also talks about how he’s adapted to being in the the band, as well as the instruments and equipment he’s been using during the I’m With You Tour. Total Guitar Magazine / MusicRadar.com Interview – Published July 2012
WHEN ‘IRREPLACEABLE’ GUITAR GOD JOHN FRUSCIANTE GOT THE FUNK OUT IN 2009, THE RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS WERE ON THE ROPES. NOW THEY’RE BACK IN BRITAIN FOR TWO MEGA GIGS, POWERED BY THE BLOOD, SUGAR, SEX AND MAGIC OF JOSH KLINGHOFFER
Words: Henry Yates | Interview: Greg Prato | Portraits: Travis Shinn
This issue of Total Guitar Magazine also includes ‘Monarchy Of Roses’ tabbed in full, plus a feature on how to play like the Red Hot Chili Peppers! Purchase a copy here…
So here’s the problem. It’s 17 December 2009, and the biggest band on the planet has lost a limb. John Frusciante – the guitar visionary present at the birth of all the Chilis’ greatest moments – has quit for the second time, and suddenly the hiatus following the Stadium Arcadium tour looks like a full-stop. In a diplomatic MySpace statement, Frusciante’s solo aspirations make more sense than in 1992, when he left to focus on smack, painting and losing his teeth, but thanks to the internet, the world goes even more berserk this time around.
Fans rage. Forums buzz. MTV pitches in with a list of possible replacements, from the just-about-feasible (previous Chilis player Dave Navarro) to the downright-daft (Nick Zinner). Josh Klinghoffer didn’t even make the shortlist. As such, when the 30 year old was unveiled as Frusciante’s official successor in early 2010, the world took a moment before it clicked. He was perfect. Adept on multiple instruments from his A-list session years, but fizzing with original ideas, he’d been the Chilis backup man in 2007, was a close friend and collaborator of John Frusciante, and had even inherited his ’67 Custom Telecaster. With last year’s I’m With You, cynicism evaporated, and you sense this month’s British mega-shows at Knebworth and Sunderland will be final vindication.
“I promised myself I would never read the internet pages,” says the ever-modest guitarist when we ask about early fanbase backlash. “All I can go on is what I see at the shows [and] it seems like everyone is really positive. I have a low self-opinion a lot of the time, and if I sat there and thought about the fact I’m not John, I might be equally quick to beat myself up…”
During an interview with Josh Klinghoffer. You may find yourself thinking: ‘lucky bastard.’ In reality, luck is less of a factor than talent and halls. “I dropped out of high school when I was 15 and sorta devoted myself to becoming a guitarist,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any plans about what I was going to do with my life. I just knew that I wanted to play music… so I started playing guitar, mainly by figuring out other people’s music. Which I was pretty good at. So I became, in my mind, a guitarist pretty quickly, although then to now even, I feel like I missed out on bits of proper guitar education. I feel like I’ve been playing catch up ever since.”
Aged 17, Josh Klinghoffer met a “newly sober” Bob Forrest (the almost-famous frontman of LA post-punks Thclonious Monster) and in 2000, their band The Bicycle Thief opened on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication tour. That’s when Josh’s phone started ringing: “I just started getting all these incredible invitations to join tours. Like, the Butthole Surfers was my first one, and after that, Beck, PJ Harvey… then in the summer of2006, I was probably-drunkenly at a Gnarls Barkley show – and I had been friends with Danger Mouse through working on a record with him and Martina Topley-Bird, where I played all the instruments pretty much – and I’d heard the keyboard player wasquitting, so I said, ‘I think I can do it’. I woke up the next day going, ‘What did you say you would do?!’ So I became the keyboardist of Gnarls Barkley, and that band also opened for the Chili Peppers.”
Even this plum session work didn’t scratch the itch. It wasn’t my music I was playing,” explains Josh. “I started feeling like I was hiding, and not allowing myself to develop as a writer. I was on tour with these amazing people, and these incredible situations, but I was pretty unhappy at times, because I wasn’t letting myself develop. So I finally tried to give up being a touring musician for other people in2008… and focused on putting my own band (Dot Hacker] together.”
When Josh’s gold -plated CV landed under the noses ot Chilis triumvirate Anthony Kiedis (vocals). Flea (bass) and Chad Smith (drums), his hiring was apparently a no-brainer, even for the bass legend who has occasionally given a Caesar-style thumbs-down to guitarists in the past. “I love Flea’s style,” says Josh. “I love his approach, his ability to go from basically a lead bass player to a more subdued bass player, and back and forth in the same song, in the same 30-second span. I much prefer being less of a lead guitarist, and not being the one in the forefront. So I think my style and preference is suitable to Flea’s approach.”
Then came the real graft. As a touring member, Josh realised, he’d only scratched the surface of the band’s 28-year catalogue.
“There’s such a wealth of songs. When I went on tour with them as the son of ‘backup guy’, they sent me a list of what they were playing to learn, and that’s what I focused on. The problem is that sometimes with a band that has this much music… certain songs don’t get as much rime in the rotation. You’ve got to keep up on them. I’ve really got to do some reviewing, because it can be a month since I’ve played a song, and it’s on the setlist. I get up onstage, and I’m like. ‘Oh shit – what’s the chorus?!”
It’s testament to Josh’s chops that he mastered the slippery riffs of his forebears with minimal fuss. “None of [the songs] were too hard; the ones that are hardest for me, we haven’t been playing,” he says. “It’s songs like Snow [Hey Oh ], and it’s not so much the guitar pan… but for me, doing that pan and the backup vocals along with it, which are very syncopated, that’s been difficult. I’m still getting comfortable with it. I don’t like playing songs when it’s not second nature. So Snow is one, and I know it’s a big hit, so we have to get it going. Doing the background vocals and the guitar part of The Zephyr Song is something I’ve been working on lately.”
If scepticism remains that Josh was a hired gun, it’s worth noting the four-way credit split on I’m With You. “There’s no real rules or anything,” he says of the writing process. “We did lots of jamming to write songs and we came up with tons of things. But we were trying to acquaint ourselves with each other musically. John, Flea and Chad had 10-plus years of musical language together that they spoke with each other, which I had to come in and start building. And no matter what, I would never have as much time as those three had together.
“For me,” he continues, “some of the new songs are difficult compared to some of theold Chili Rippers songs, because even though I wrote them with the band, I’ve had nearly 20 years of listening to Under The Bridge, whereas I’ve only had a year-and-a-half listening to Police Station or something off I’m With You. So even the fact that I was involved with the writing doesn’t mean I’m as familiar with the song. Which is a funny thing. Doing some of these I’m With You songs [Live] has presented a challenge, because trying to achieve all the sounds and tones that I’ve overdubbed, I wind up doing a bit of tap-dancing on the pedals. And I happen to be the world’s worst “pedal-aimer’. I can be looking directly at where I’m supposed to put my foot, and I’ll still miss!”
Talking gear, then, and live sightings suggest that Josh is running with Frusciante’s baton of a 60s Strat. “Yeah, I think the vintage fender is the perfect starting point to achieve some of the tones that are familiar with some of these songs,” he says. “Hillel and John both made use of vintage Fender Strats… I like old guitars [too]. For the Chili Peppers, I’ve been mostly using three Strats onstage. One is Chad’s that I found when we were making the album.
It’s a ’63, and has a really thick neck, which I usually don’t like. The other two I have on tour happen to be black-and-white Strats. One’s kind of a wacky Frankenstein Strat that played well and sounded good, and then I got one along the way in Stockholm. It’s from the 70s and it happens to have the thinnest neck I’ve ever seen on a Strat, and I really like thin necks – kinda like Jimmy Page’s sanded-down neck on his Ies Paul. I have a ’67 Tele Custom that I sorta inherited from John somehow; it was his hack-up Tele. I’ve got a 335 out with us, and a new reissue Gretsch White Penguin, which is sort of a homage to John’s White Falcon.
“On I’m With You,” he continues. “I used mostly the “67 Tele, Chad’s ’63 Strat, and here and there, there were a couple of junker guitars, like weird Airlines or Harmonys. The song Did I Let You Know was tracked with a 60s Magnatone Tornado. Amp-wise, we usually ran seven amplifiers going through this radial splitter. We were always able to pull up a combination of different amplifiers when I was doing overdubs. We’d sort of throw them all on, then track and see which one sounded good. It’s rare there’s a single amp; it’s usually a combination of a couple. The tracking amps usually area Marshall Major, which I have on tour: the 200-watt, which John also used.
That’s the bulk of the tone. I was also using Silvertones. On tour, I have the six-speaker Silvertone. In the studio, I was using the two-speaker version. I used Fender Super Sixes, Super Reverts. Those are the main ones.”
Live, it’s another tonal cocktail. “My setup is three different amplifiers running all at the same time. It’s a Fender Super Six, a Silvertone six-speaker, and then a Marshall Major through a Marshall 8xl0cabinet. I’ve kind of expunged with the 412 [cab] for the moment, so it’s a Marshall 810, and we’re driving it pretty hard with the 200-wan Major head. They’re all on at the same time, and depending on the room, my guitar tech dials a nice blend of the three of them using the John Frusciante amp theory- that you get it as loud as you can without breaking up. Like, right on the verge of breakingup, that’s where you get that crunchy tone.”
Josh seems less sure about his distortion requirements. ‘I’m mixing and matching, and I’m not totally settled with what I’m using. But I’m using the DOD – the old yellow [preamp overdrive] that Yngwie Malmsteen used – and I’m using the Pigtronix PolySaturator. Andthen fuzz, I’ve been using for solos mostly, [is from] this custom guy out of Qncinnati called Wilson Effects. With my wah pedal, it’s the same one that Frusciante used: it’s the Ibanez WH10, made in a shittyy plastic case, but it’s the greatest wah I’ve ever heard. I’ve got tons of other effects – probably too many – and I’m trying to get rid of as many as I can. We started big and are trying to scale down.”
Josh’s profile, by contrast, is getting bigger all the time. Did your session years prepare you for such a stadium-sized gig? “Yeah, to a degree,” he replies. “Probably positively and negatively. I think of sessions as more of a ‘studio thing’, but touring with other people prepared me for stepping into a situation live that wasn’t necessarily my band.
Stepping out onstage with the Chili Peppers for the first time was a crazy thing, but it was pretty crazy to step out on stage with PJ Harvey. Or Beck. Being in other people’s bands showed me the most important thing is to be yourself… if the people you’re playing with will allow it.”
The Chilis have. Kiedis has described I’m With You as “a beginning”, and whatever you think of this 1Oth album, you can’t deny the veterans have let their new brother stamp his mark rather than ape his predecessors. “How would I compare my playing to John’s?” Josh ponders.
“I think he’s more of a guitarist first than I am. He started playing guitar when he was a kid and devoted himself to guitac At an early age, he familiarised himself with songwriting, the culture of music, and theory through the guitar. Whereas I didn’t. I was a drummer first. When I became a guitar player, I wasn’t interested in lead guitar playing at all. So John is more steeped in that tradition and more comfortable doing it. I was never interested in being a lead guitar player and taking solos and doing that kind of stuff. I haw to in this band, and it’s not something I really enjoy doing!”
Do you think your multi instrumental skills impact on your guitar work?
“It affects the way I play guitar in the sense that it allows me to think of all the different space a song either needs filling or doesn’t need filling.” he considers. “So the fact I can play other instruments or hear synthesizer sounds allows me to approach the guitar in an architectural or sonic way, rather than simply the techniques. I’m more conscious of other sounds and other people’s rhythms. My goal is to always be ‘at one’ with the song and ‘at one’ with the people that I’m playing the song with.”
On I’m With You, he’s done exactly that. Josh Klinghoffer has brought a unity to the Chilis that they’d never have achieved with a faceless session drone or ego-ridden trophy guitarist. The biggest band in the world has sprouted a new limb, and after pulling off the long shot of replacing Fmsciante, it’s a safe bet he’ll have a stormer at this month’s enormo gigs.
“I can’t believe that I’m going to be playing at Knebworth,” smiles the Anglophile guitarist. ”
I’ve always been a huge fan of anything English, even gone so embarrassingly far as sometimes putting an accent on and trying to lie to people that I’m from there! The only thing I can say to expect is a full, completely committed, rocking Chili Peppers show…” •