interviews

this page was updated on 2014.08.14 @ 23:51:13 CDT

Pleasure Spiked with Pain
Dave Navarro Braves the Darkness and Finds the Light
by James Rotondi
Guitar Player August 1996

"If you mess around long enough in this tuning, you'll get into a trance, which is what I like," says Dave Navarro, picking out Eastern-sounding melodies in a modal-D tuning on a Sigma acoustic. Watching Navarro toss off respectable versions of Jimmy Page's "White Summer" and Eddie Van Halen's "Spanish Fly," it's easy to see the 29-year-old L.A. native as one of the many rock guitarists who came of age during the '80s, smitten by Page and Hendrix's blues rock and caught by the spell of Van Halen's double-coil growl and flashy tricks. But from the dominatrix tattoo that adorns his lower right leg to his nipple rings to the black coffin that doubles as his living room coffee table, there's something undeniably different about the former Jane's Addiction guitarist who now works out--literally and figuratively--with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Navarro's aura is calm and straightforward, with a deadpan sense of humor that can be hard to read, but his energy seems tightly coiled behind a pair of dark eyes that look through you as much as at you, as if beamed forth from the haunting, spectacular past that he wears like a shadow.

A few weeks after we talked at his Laural Canyon home--where he maintains a modest ADAT-with-a-Mackie-studio--Dave is tearing through a solo onstage with the Chili Peppers at the Seattle Center Arena, while bassist Flea and singer Anthony Kiedis aerobicize across the stage like bass-thumping, mike-huffing NBA point guards. Groove drummer Chad Smith ricochets across his snare like a mad fusion of Art Blakey, Ziggy Modeliste and Lenny White, and when Navarro's solo is over, a woman attired in dominatrix gear walks out to light his cigarette. Without missing a beat, Dave snarls into the opening chords of "Warped," the first single from the Peppers' latest album, One Hot Minute.

The cathartic, heavily physical show concludes with an inspired cover of David Bowie's "Suffragette City" that sends the capacity crowd into fits of mosh-minded revelry. After the show, in a backstage area peppered by alternarock royalty--R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, Nirvana's Chris Novoselic, Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament and Soundgarden's Matt Cameron are all in the house--Navarro graciously accepts compliments on his superb performance, then quietly slips out to visit an ailing friend in a local hospital. For someone who's pushed the limits as much as he has, Navarro is surprisingly cool and focused, gifted with the night vision that comes from staring into the void.

The Peppers show is like a basketball game. How do you stay focused on the playing?

If I could rock harder I probably would, but between playing as well as I can and getting to my pedals...man. I'll be playing and rocking over by Anthony or Flea, and I'll have to run back and hit some switch. It's like juggling, I have so many things to worry about, and at the same time I can't worry about them. I just have to hope that they fall into place. Sometimes I have to literally pray that I'm standing in the right place at the right time. I usually hope for the best. I never get into a situation where I feel I can't handle something. I always feel like I can pull everything off or at least fake it. Like I made this instructional video...

What?!

It's really funny. It's on Star Licks, and it primarily focuses on how to play certain songs and how I use effects. I don't sit there and talk about the minor pentatonic scale or anything. It's more like a theory of approach than a music lesson, which is basically the only thing of interest that I can articulate. When other guitarists show me stuff, I can usually play what they're showing me, with the exception of really complex stuff. But I've always been frustrated trying to show people my own stuff because I can't articulate what I'm trying to tell them. If they can't pick it up from watching me and hearing it, I get frustrated. So in one sense I'm the worst choice for an instructional video, but I guess it's mostly targeted to kids who are just getting going and people who want to learn the tunes. I wouldn't recommend it for someone who's been playing for a long time. But if you get a chance, you should buy one...or 15. Actually, everybody you now should own one! At the end of it, the interviewer asks me, "Any final thoughts for the people at home?" And my final thought was, "You should never buy a home instructional videotape."

When did you first pick up the guitar?

I started playing piano when I was seven years old. I played for a couple years and really wasn't taking to it very well. I wasn't very enthusiastic about it. My dad bought me a miniature acoustic guitar at a garage sale. I started playing around on that. My cousin Dan showed me a few chords and I began dabbling. One day I went to a skateboard park when I was 11 years old, and I heard a Jimi Hendrix song through the P.A. It totally grabbed me. It was like, "Whatever he's doing, that's what I want to do." I didn't really understand that he was basically playing the same instrument that I was, but I was very happy to find out. I just went from there. I'm basically self-taught, but when I first started playing I had a teacher that showed me the basic open chords, barre chords and a couple of jazz chords. But that's about the extent of my training.

Did someone show you basic scales?

I was shown those things by other guitarists, and I learned them through playing with other people and listening to a lot of records and trying to pick stuff out. Those piano lessons really helped me develop an ear for picking out the notes I wanted. So I spent a lot of time trying to learn songs from records or the radio. I was always able to do that fairly easily.

Your phrasing and sense of time are great. Where does that come from?

I guess it's been trial and error more than anything else. But I think a lot of my approach came from my years with Jane's. There were times when I'd play something kind of mediocre or something you'd heard before, and Perry would say, "Try that again--but backwards." I would never be able to literally do it backwards, but what I would come up with through thinking that way would be cool. I also went through the phase where I was trying to learn all the Eddie stuff and all the Yngwie stuff, and I think that definitely helped my chops. But then I went through a phase where I had to try to unlearn some of it, to almost de-program myself. I got into effects a lot too, so I started toying with those, trying to find a middle ground between effected stuff and technical stuff. I don't really want to be too technical and I don't want to be too effected; even still, a lot of people would say that I am. But that combination of things is what I try to accomplish.

I obviously went through that phase where I was hanging out in guitar stores. By the times Eddie was king, it was exciting for me, I had always listened to more blues-oriented rock guitarists, and the idea of guitar "tricks" was simply fun for me. I don't think I ever put any of that type of playing into anything I did, but I certainly sat around a lot and did it. Like on "Spanish Fly" [duplicates the last several bars]. He's got the pointer finger of his right hand barring behind his left hand, which is hammering. That shit was just really fun for me, but I was fortunate enough that every time I heard it coming from someone other than Van Halen, I scoffed at it. "God, I can't believe that guy's doing that. That's Ed's thing." But going through those years where I was playing like that helped me develop some technical finger-work.

When I was growing up, it was all about Jimi Hendrix because of his ability to perform on the neck, and all about Jimmy Page because of his studio work, his layering and texturing. When I got a little older it was all about Daniel Ash and Robert Smith, who were really effected, minimal players. What happens now is a combination of all those influences. I try to focus on a little bit of the technical, a little bit of the studio, and a little bit of the ethereal.

Do your solos go where your ears want to go, or just where your fingers want to take you?

Sometimes I get cross-eyed and can't do what I'm thinking, or I'm thinking faster than I'm playing and I get caught up in it. But other times it's like a weird Zen thing kicks in, where I'm not thinking at all but it's happening. When I hear one of our shows back on tape, I'll hear stuff that I can never recall playing or that I never imagined that I would have played. It's a cool therapeutic thing.

You're known for playing Fender Strats lately, but at the Seattle show you leaned heavily on a Modulus Graphite strat, as well as a Parker Fly.

I only use the Parker for the acoustic-sounding tunes, so I really haven't played more than a song at a time with that guitar. But the Modulus is pretty cool. It feels like a combination of a Strat body and the neck of an Ibanez.

Do you mean a thin neck that's easy to get around on?

Yeah. That's good for me because I have small hands. I played on the Modulus for most of the set with the exception of "Under the Bridge." [Modulus' Rich Lasner reports that Navarro's strat has a black alder body, bolt-on graphite neck, Sperzel locking tuners, Bartolini booster preamp and a sing/hum/sing Duncan pickup configuration.]

You got some great sound effects by tweaking the knobs on a delay pedal.

That's just a regular Boss digital delay, and the repeats are set so that they go forever. You can set the delay time three different ways, and then there's another knob that controls the speed of that particular position. I'll turn the position knob and the speed knob...

...which changes both the speed and pitch of the delayed notes.

Exactly. I have two Boss Digital Delays in my pedalboard; one is for my regular delay settings. I turn it on in the chorus and in the solo of "Warped." I have one setting that's an average delay time that seems to work in all the songs. In the studio I'll tweak the delay until I get the exact delay time that fits the track, but live I just try to find one setting that fits everything. And I usually prefer it if the time setting of the delay is nowhere near the time signature or tempo of the song. Since it doesn't really "work," it seems to make it a little more surreal, like your head doesn't know which thing to listen too. I also like to print the delay to tape; I don't like to add it in the mix. So one delay is for rhythm and solos, and one is just for that one special effect. There's no skill whatsoever involved in that, of course. I've likened it to my version of that Van Halen thing just before "Pretty Woman" on Fair Warning. Chad and I always laugh about that being my interpretation--good guitarist making a noise that isn't a guitar. Fair Warning is one of my favorite Van Halen albums. I also liked Women and Children First. I really like how dry that guy's sound is.

It's really big, though.

It's huge. It's incredible. It's one guitar and it's usually panned hard left with the reverb hard right. Have you ever fucked with the balance when you're listening to those records? It's really strange how big his sound is.

From shocking magazine covers to racy videos, your career has always contained a fair amount of homerotic imagery. Are you just curious?

Y'know, when you get a job at a psychotherapy magazine we can get into that. The answer to that is so huge and would take so much time. I'll give you the answer that human sexuality is interesting to me. Whether it pushes the envelope or whether it makes people uncomfortable, all aspects of it are fascinating to me. I am personally a heterosexual male. However, I think it's kind of cool when we can make people uncomfortable with non-resistance or the willingness to investigate other areas. I don't think I'd be the person I am today if I didn't try everything that was interesting to me. That's not to say that I'm completely happy with who I am. Everybody's got something about themselves, some character defect, that they're working on. But for the most part I'm fairly happy with who I am. And I wouldn't be happy if I hadn't looked into certain sides of sexuality, experimented with drugs, or picked up a guitar for that matter.