Why Chris Shiflett spends his Foo Fighters downtime talking to other guitar players about guitar

The guitarist’s Shred With Shifty podcast might be a working holiday for some but for Shiflett it’s part of his mission to help guitarists feel better about their playing journey, and encourage them to get comfortable with the fear of falling on your face.

Chris Shiflett 2023 Foo Fighters

Image: Joey Martinez

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When our Zoom call sparks into life Chris Shiflett has a partly-strung guitar across his lap, with flight cases scattered across the floor of his small studio. He is about to trade the enormodomes of his day job with Foo Fighters for a short solo tour of clubs and bars, from California to Illinois, building up to the release of his new record Lost at Sea later this year. “I’m about to pack my van up and get things going,” he says, like he’s just some dude.

Shiflett auditioned for the Foos back in 1999, eventually joining them in time to tour There is Nothing Left to Lose, and he was an outside bet for the gig. But his history in California’s burgeoning punk rock scene — as guitarist for No Use For a Name, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and, more tangentially, as the brother of Face to Face bassist Scott — gave him a sort of no-frills grounding that has defined his role in the band, with muscular, characterful leads to the front and anything too showy shoved all the way to the back.

Chris Shiflett 2023 Foo Fighters
Image: Joey Martinez

Over the past 24 years Shiflett has made eight records with Foo Fighters, including this year’s tribute to the late Taylor Hawkins But Here We Are, and toured almost relentlessly. He has seen a million faces, and rocked them all. But he’s done so in a low-stakes, graft-first manner that makes him an oddly aspirational sort of rock star. The sort of rock star who packs up a van and gets things going, for example.

Talking Tone

Shiflett has carried some of this energy over into a new podcast called Shred With Shifty, where he interviews guitar heroes and asks them to play through one of their most important solos or licks with him. Among the famous faces, so far, are Rush’s Alex Lifeson, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, country star Lindsey Ell, and disco pioneer Nile Rodgers.

Each episode opens with a string of flubs and mistakes as the host tries to get a handle on one of his guest’s signature moves. It’s fun, and welcoming. It’s a little bit punk rock, maybe, in the way it suggests it’s okay for us to join in and drop the ball as many times as we need to. “I try to encourage people,” Shiflett says.

“It’s not just when you’re sitting at home woodshedding either, you gotta fall on your face on stage here and there if you want to go out and do it,” he adds. “In my mind when I’m playing live I’m thinking about that old sticker that says ‘skateboarders never pull their tricks.’ I just apply that theory to guitar playing. You have to have that same willingness to not stick it. You do that a few times and then eventually you do land it. That’s the beauty of it.”

Shiflett observes that certain episodes — particularly those with country players Brad Paisley and Brent Mason — pushed him way beyond his limits. “Oh boy, that shit is hard,” he says. But the fun for him comes from working out new muscles. As he noodles on a Strat at the start of his talk with Ell, we see a guitar nerd who’s stretching out in a way that he doesn’t get to very often.

“Nile Rodgers taught me to play I’m Coming Out,” he says. “I’ve loved Nile Rodgers’ guitar playing since before I knew who Nile Rodgers was. His music has been part of my entire life. That one was so fun because that’s way out of my wheelhouse. It’s such an enjoyable way to play, too, with all those cool chord inversions. I’ve never been in a disco band, or an R&B band, or a pop band. That’s the stuff I love, getting their chords and their licks into my hands.”

Chris Shiflett 2023 Foo Fighters
Image: Joey Martinez

Once he’s able to do that, dominos start falling elsewhere. “He showed me this cool chord, it’s like a D11 or something, everything’s a fourth, and he does way up the neck,” he continues. “There’s a part in a song of mine called Black Top White Lines where it does a chuckin’ thing real quick between the first chorus and the second verse. It never really sounded right, the way I played it. After Nile showed me, I was like, ‘Wait a minute!’”

Shiflett’s solo work has often bled beyond the borders of the genres he’s most closely associated with, taking in swatches from country, Americana and old-fashioned west coast rock ‘n’ roll, with his latest LP co-produced and written alongside the Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston. The podcast’s eye is similarly roving, with guests bringing completely different skill sets, life experiences and philosophies to the table, pulling apart the false equivalence that guitar music is rock music.

“I think most guitar players, most musicians, are just big music fans,” Shiflett says. “I think if there’s a through line it’s that, regardless of what genre people are known for, they tend to love a lot of stuff, and that shows up in their guitar playing. One of the driving motivations with this thing is to not be locked down into any one genre or another.

“There’s just so much out there. I think guitar playing is in a bit of a renaissance. You’ve heard for a long time that guitar music is dead. I think that that’s totally wrong. Rock ‘n’ roll, as we’ve known it for a long time, might be becoming more and more of a niche genre. But guitar playing is alive and well. There are so many great players out there, and a lot of them aren’t in rock music.”

Better Living Through Chemistry

From the outside, it’s tempting to see the curiosity that powers Shiflett’s solo work, which is low-key in terms of scale and presentation compared to Foo Fighters’ hulking rock machine, as a kind of retreat. It hums along in the background, offering an outlet away from the crunching gears of one of the world’s most lucrative and high-profile touring operations. When the idea of an escape is put to him, though, he considers it for a moment and offers another perspective. “I think one hand washes the other,” he says.

“I don’t see it as a retreat,” he continues. “The more I play, the better I play. There was a period, this is a long time ago now, when I first got married, was having kids and figuring out how to be a dad, where I felt like my guitar playing stagnated or plateaued. I just wasn’t moving forward. That was in my early to mid 30s, I’m 52 now, but I figured out the way for me to keep moving was that I just had to play. That’s when I started to do Jackson United, that led to the Dead Peasants, then my solo thing, and the random shit that comes down the pike. The only thing I know how to do when I’m feeling uninspired is pick up a guitar.”

Equally, Shiflett observes that when he is out on the road or in the studio with the Foos there’s plenty to keep him on his toes. In its current configuration, the band employs Dave Grohl and Shiflett plus Pat Smear, whose resume also includes a touring stint with Nirvana and his time in Germs, one of the most important bands in American hardcore. The trio possess chemistry on top of familiarity, allowing their interplay, on new material in particular, to evolve rapidly. That appetite for woodshedding is in the mix again.

Chris Shiflett 2023 Foo Fighters
Image: Joey Martinez

“We’re all playing off each other, and it’s an ongoing thing,” Shiflett says. “You have to listen to what everybody’s doing, especially to where Dave’s going with a song. Live, it can change on a dime. You really have to be in it, you know? There’s a song on the new record called Show Me How that we started playing in the set right before Glastonbury. We were just working it out.

“It’s a really good example of how we do one thing in the studio, trying to figure out what it needs and what works, but then when we go to play it live, it’s just totally different. Stuff that Dave did on the record, I’m covering. Stuff that I did, Pat’s covering. It’s all over the place, and it’s song to song.”

Soon, Shiflett will plunge back into the world of festival headline sets and stadium shows, with dates booked in North America, Australia, New Zealand and the UK over the next year or so. He’ll probably have plenty of down time in hotel rooms or bunks to add to the list of 100 names or so he dreamed up as possible guests on Shred With Shifty, beginning with someone who helped get the ball rolling for him back in the halcyon days of the early 1980s.

“Hopefully one we’ll get done sooner rather than later is Vivian Campbell,” Shiflett says. “My first concert, when I was 12 or 13, was Dio on that first tour. There are ones like that, with an emotional connection, and then there are the wildcards. Willie Nelson would be amazing, but I don’t expect that I’ll get him. Or Jimmy Page. I mean, talk about a long shot.”

Chris Shiflett’s Lost at Sea is out on October 20 through Snakefarm. Shred With Shifty is streaming now on all good podcast platforms.

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