Forgotten Heroes: Hillel Slovak
The first guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers helped pioneer a punk-funk-rock movement in ’80s L.A.
The 1980s were a time of bad hair, oppressive synth patches, preprogrammed hand claps, and the dawn of pop metal. But it wasn’t all bad—great music was made then, too. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a young band that spent most of the decade underground—playing clubs, on college radio, and out of the limelight—were one of the era’s most influential.
The early RHCP ate testosterone for breakfast. They were wild, aggressive, outlandish, bursting with energy, and often naked. Their live shows were legendary. Their music was an organic mixture of funk and punk and every young band wanted to be them—that “Chili-Peppers-punk-funk-thing” was ubiquitous and in demand. The local musicians classifieds were filled with bands looking for thumb-thumping, slap-happy bass players, rap-friendly frontmen, and guitarists well-versed in funk, but possessing punk attitude.
The epicenter of that original lineup was founding guitarist, Hillel Slovak. Slovak was an exceptional talent, steeped in the traditions of Jimi Hendrix and the funk stylings of Parliament-Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone. His playing paired the seemingly incongruous sounds of funk and punk and made it seem obvious and natural. His sense of groove was metronome-tight, his note choices were well placed and tasteful, his tone was fully developed, and his phrasing was mature beyond his years.
Slovak didn’t live to see his band’s breakthrough and mainstream acceptance, but his influence was dominant. It was essential to the development of his extraordinary successor, John Frusciante. It defined the sound of his band and the music they made. And it inspired a generation of rockers to dig deep into funk, purchase a wah wah, and get into the groove.
Hillel Slovak was born in Haifa, Israel, on April 13, 1962. His parents were Holocaust survivors who settled in Israel after World War II. They moved to New York when Slovak was 4 and then to Fairfax, a neighborhood just south of the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, two years later.
Slovak’s parents divorced when he was in high school. His mother kept the house in Fairfax and he continued to share a room with James, his younger brother. By that point, he was already serious about music.
Slovak started playing the guitar at 13. He listened to bands like Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, War, Sweet, Earth, Wind & Fire, and others that were popular at the time. According to Jack Irons, Slovak’s childhood friend and future bandmate (and drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eleven, Pearl Jam, and many others), “We talked about playing music when we were in 7th grade and started [playing instruments] later that year.”
Alain Johannes (Eleven, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures) met Slovak and Irons in 8th grade. “Jack and Hillel attended a local music school on Fairfax Avenue,” Johannes says. “I went there for a few guitar lessons too and studied with Robert Wolin, the same guy [as Hillel].” (Wolin was a popular teacher at that time—he also taught Slash.)
Slovak’s first guitar was a cheap, cream-colored Telecaster knockoff. He ran that through a Silvertone amp. “He liked to smack the top of the Silvertone to get the reverb vibrating loudly,” Irons says. At some point Slovak acquired an MXR Distortion+ as well.
Slovak, Irons, and Johannes jammed and wrote music together. They added a bass player in high school. Their band went through a number of names before settling on Anthym (changed from Anthem when they discovered another band from the Valley was using the same name). Slovak also was given a better guitar. “I had a Musicraft Messenger, which was kind of rare,” Johannes says. “Mark Farner [from Grand Funk Railroad] used to play one. It had an aluminum neck going all the way through the body. It was red, with a Bigsby on it, and I gave it to Hillel. That’s what he played in those early years, until he got his Strat.”
In the 11th grade, their bass player decided to focus on schoolwork and quit the band. They recruited another friend, Michael Balzary (better known as Flea), to play bass. At that time, Flea didn’t play bass—he played trumpet—but he knew music and played in the school band. It didn’t take much to get him up to speed. Slovak taught him the basics and got him started. Anthony Kiedis, another high school friend, MC-ed their shows and they were off.
“We graduated high school in 1980,” Johannes says. “In late 1980 or early ’81 we changed the name to What Is This. Our first batch of originals was very much in the classic rock style of the time. Hillel and I were doing dual lead solos and a lot of feedback and heavy playing. Then we started listening to some of the music that was coming up—post punk, new wave. We started to write a little bit more in that vein. We cut our hair and started wearing suits.”
Some of those early influences included the Talking Heads, Gang of Four, and David Bowie. Slovak also gained a deepening appreciation for Jimi Hendrix. “If I would have to pick, Hendrix and [Gang of Four guitarist] Andy Gill are my two biggest influences,” Slovak said about his formative years in a short video interview on Miami Beach in 1987.
Another important influence was ’80s-era King Crimson. “They played the Roxy for three nights,” Johannes says. “We got tickets for all three nights, both shows. We sat right up front and just soaked it in. Hillel definitely got a lot of the Strat manhandling—strumming behind the nut and all that kind of stuff—from watching Adrian [Belew] at that time. Our music became a little bit more unusual. A punk element started to show up, a bit of a psychedelic bluesy thing, more angular, a little more dissonant.”
The L.A. hardcore punk scene was peaking at that time as well, with bands like the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and Fear in their prime. In 1982, Flea left What Is This to join Fear and Chris Hutchinson replaced him. According to Johannes, Slovak was disappointed that Flea left the band and didn’t speak to him for a while. But it didn’t last.
Slovak lived in a loft space near the intersection of Heliotrope Drive and Melrose Avenue, a commercial/non-residential part of L.A. It was a perfect rehearsal studio—far from private homes and uptight neighbors—and rehearsals were often extended jam sessions that lasted hours. “We were always pushing ourselves, playing things that we couldn’t quite get,” Johannes recalls. “But I think the big secret was the insane amount of hours we spent jamming. We would often turn off the lights and just jam in the dark. We became really good at sensing each other.”
In 1983, while What Is This were still working the local music scene opening for bands like the Minutemen and X, and trying to land a record deal, a local performance artist named Gary Allen invited Kiedis and Flea to perform at the Rhythm Lounge. Slovak and Irons joined them and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were born. Although intended as a one-off performance, the Red Hot Chili Peppers evolved into something much more. “They were pretty amazing straight away and they got a good reaction,” Johannes says. “We would schedule our shows so that we would play the same dates or share the same bill. Both bands were sharing Jack and Hillel.”
Within eight months, both bands landed deals with major labels. What Is This signed with MCA. The Red Hot Chili Peppers signed with EMI. Slovak and Irons opted to stay with What Is This. “We had been playing with Alain since 1976 and we were dedicated to What Is This,” Irons remembers. “The Chili’s were new at the time.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers replaced Slovak and Irons—with Jack Sherman on guitar and Cliff Martinez on drums—and released their first album, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, in 1984.
Photo by Frank White
Red Hot Return
That same year, What Is This went into the studio and recorded Squeezed, a five-song EP, with producer/engineer David Jerden (Jane’s Addiction, Alice in Chains) and shot a video for the song “My Mind Have Still I” with then up-and-coming video director Wayne Isham.
Squeezed is a showcase for the twin-guitar lineup of Johannes and Slovak, who share rhythm and lead duties with complementary individual styles. The songs sound like early-’80s new wave and include funk, ska, and other groove influences. Discipline-era King Crimson is an obvious influence as well. The EP documents a new band on the rise, though in hindsight the production values sound dated. “Unfortunately it does sound a bit ’80s,” Johannes says. “But that’s what everything sounded like back then—we were pretty mental-sounding live—but it was just the aesthetic of the time.”
Slovak’s playing oozes Hendrix—subtle psychedelic-blues riffage, modal inflections, tasteful whammy manipulations, clean single-coil tones via a cranked amp with infinite headroom—it’s all there on those first recordings and remained dominant throughout his career. Slovak played a Strat throughout his career too: a ’60s sunburst with a white pickguard and rosewood fretboard. Slovak kept the tremolo floating so he could raise and lower the pitch.
What Is This toured the U.S., continued to gig locally, and went back into the studio with Todd Rundgren to record What Is This?, their first full-length album. But Slovak was ready to move on. “I think Hillel grew less interested in What Is This,” Irons says. “He left while we were recording our second record in 1985.”
“I noticed that Hillel really started to focus on his songs in a hurry,” Johannes says. “He’d already made up his mind to go back to the Peppers and he wanted to get them done. Once he’d gotten all the overdubs to the songs the way he wanted them, that was when he sat us all down and told us he was leaving.”
Slovak rejoined the Red Hot Chili Peppers in time for their second album, Freaky Styley. Veteran funkmaster George Clinton produced the album. “That was a good time,” James Slovak recalls about his brother’s excitement working with Clinton. “That was when he was his happiest. It was his dream come true.”
Clinton’s personality is dominant on Freaky Styley. The album’s slower tempos, horn arrangements, and unbridled funk stand out as an anomaly in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ catalog—a tempered variation on their supercharged, hyper-sexual, energetic live shows.
Freaky Styley establishes Slovak as a mature, articulate guitarist, and from his exceptional wah work on “Yertle the Turtle” to the infectious rhythm guitar of “Hollywood (Africa)” and “Nevermind,” his tasteful playing shines on the album. Not every song was medium-tempo funk, either. The brazen “Catholic School Girls Rule” served as an outstanding platform for Slovak’s Belew-inspired Strat mangling, harmonics, and picking behind the nut. In his October 1985 review for Rolling Stone, Ira Robbins singled out Slovak’s guitar playing as: “A mix of crazed solos, nostalgic wah-wah, and rhythmic scratching.”
In his book, Scar Tissue, Kiedis noted that Slovak’s playing had changed during his time with What Is This, though Johannes isn’t convinced. “His playing had been slowly evolving over a period of time,” he says. “He became more groove-oriented—he got the wah wah, he had that great Marshall—and he started to develop and find his voice. But that had been happening anyway. He always kept moving forward and getting better.”
Slovak’s amp was a Marshall Super Bass head. He ran that through a handpainted, straight-front 4x12 cabinet. “It was very open sounding and had this great clarity in the midrange,” Johannes says. The Strat plus the Marshall was the foundation of Slovak’s sound. “He knew. It was like one big instrument to him, the way that Marshall was.” Slovak used a number of pedals, including a Univox Super-Fuzz, a Dunlop Cry Baby Wah, an MXR Distortion+, and a Boss CE-2 Chorus. He usually strung his guitars with .010 sets and used gray 1.00 mm Dunlop picks.
Uplift Mofo Party Plan
Irons rejoined the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1986. The band—in their original lineup for the first time since signing with EMI—continued touring in support of Freaky Styley before going to work on their 1987 release, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, with producer Michael Beinhorn. “That record was probably the peak of the original lineup,” Irons says. “We were well-oiled and played together a lot. We had a long preproduction and recorded at Capitol Records studios. Michael Beinhorn was very important in getting The Uplift Mofo Party Plan recorded. There was some turmoil at the time. He stayed the course with us from the start of preproduction and was an important influence.”
The Uplift Mofo Party Plan is a punk-funk tour de force—a definitive record in that genre—and it established the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the darlings of the alternative underground. They sold out small venues, played major festivals, and were a fixture on college campuses and radio.
And in contrast to the understated guitar tones on Freaky Styley, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan spewed fuzz with abandon. From the opening notes of “Fight Like a Brave” to the dramatic call-and-response overdubs of “Walkin’ Down the Road,” Slovak’s tone is dripping in dirt. He pulled out a talk box, too—an effect he experimented with previously—for an obvious funk nod on “Funky Crime,” but also to add subtle color to the album’s Bob Dylan cover, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “I remember him fucking around with a talk box,” says James Slovak. “He liked that.”
Slovak’s funk comping climaxed on The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. On many tracks, it consisted of just one repeated note or chord—a bold, barebones approach. One particular highlight is the ’70s-style soul slickness he conjured up on the “Special Secret Song Inside.” Slovak’s solos and single-note fills were superb throughout the album as well—they scream bluesy psychedelics and reach a Hendrix-inspired peak with what sounds like record scratching or tape-machine manipulations on “Organic Anti-Beat Box Band.”
But the album’s standout was “Behind the Sun,” a track that foreshadowed what the Red Hot Chili Peppers were to become. Combined with Slovak’s melodic playing and colorful sitar textures, the song’s mellow vibe made it a notable exception to the band’s aggressive early catalog.
The Final Tour
The tour for The Uplift Mofo Party Plan was long and successful, but drug use—something Kiedis and Slovak struggled with—was taking its toll. Slovak was fired at one point (P-Funk guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight filled in) and given time to dry out. He made a failed attempt at drug counseling as well.
Following the final European leg of the tour, the band returned to L.A. The plan was to take a three-week break and regroup to work on the next album. But on June 27, 1988, Slovak was found dead in his apartment from a heroin overdose. The coroner’s report indicated he probably died two days earlier. He was buried in L.A., and his brother James made sure he was interred with his Stratocaster.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers had a strong underground following when Slovak died, but their breakthrough into the mainstream was yet to happen. As the Los Angeles Times noted in Slovak’s obituary, “The Chili Peppers, which have released three albums on EMI-Manhattan Records since forming in 1983, have not gained national stardom. But the foursome’s wild antics onstage have given the group a strong following in the Los Angeles area.”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers went on to become one of the biggest rock bands of all time. They found mainstream success, placed hits on the charts, and their albums sold in the millions. Even so, many fans consider the Slovak period to be RHCP’s golden years—and maybe they were, as their influence was never the same as it was in the late 1980s when every young band wanted to be them.
At Slovak’s 2012 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, James Slovak, accepting the honor on his brother’s behalf, said: “[Hillel] was much more than a musician, he was also an innovator.” That heartfelt statement couldn’t have been more accurate: Slovak’s guitar playing impacted the musical landscape forever.
Slovak played a ’60s-era sunburst Stratocaster with a white pickguard and rosewood fretboard throughout his career. He kept the tremolo floating so he could raise and lower the pitch. Photo by Debra Trebitz / Frank White Photo Agency.
Hallmarks of Hillel Slovak's Style
Hillel Slovak’s funk comping was sparse and simple, and became even more so later in his career. No-frills rhythm guitar playing allows room for the music to breathe while driving the groove forward. A great example of Slovak’s minimal-yet-effective rhythm guitar parts are the repeated figures he lays down during the verses of the “Special Secret Song Inside” from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1987 release, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.
Slovak sits on just two notes, C and F (technically E-sharp in this context), the top two notes of a D7#9. If felt as eighth-notes, Slovak plays that chord fragment on the downbeat and “and-of-2” in each measure.
And that’s it.
That super-simple rhythmic pattern leaves ample space for colorful guitar overdubs and Flea’s extra-groovy bass line. And because Slovak’s figure is constant and repetitive, it creates a sense of tension that drives the verse forward until its ultimate release at the top of the chorus.
This approach is a common funk device and a tool Slovak applied with precision. Other examples include the funkier sections of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the verses of “Skinny Sweaty Man” from The Uplift Mofo Party Plan and “Nevermind” off the 1985 release, Freaky Styley.
This is the closest you’ll get to a Hillel Slovak Rig Rundown.
This live clip of “Fight Like a Brave” at the Pinkpop Festival in 1988 features Slovak on a Les Paul about a month before his death.