Santa Barbara’s Own
Famous Band’s Lead Guitarist Chris Shiflett Inducted into Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame
By Marko DeSantis | November 18, 2021
The extraordinary rock ’n’ roll journey of Chris Shiflett begins with a starry-eyed small-town boy who grew up to become the lead guitarist for one of the greatest bands of all time. That town is Santa Barbara, that band is the Foo Fighters, and their greatness was confirmed on October 30, when the band was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame on the first year of their eligibility. As one of his closest and oldest friends, I’m here to tell you Shiflett’s story.
It traces back to 1982, when an 11-year-old heavy-metal fan walked into Jensen Guitar & Music Co. on De la Vina Street for his first day of guitar lessons. Shiflett wanted to learn songs by such idols as Kiss and Ozzy Osbourne, but his teacher that day, Michael Frye, insisted on starting with the Beatles. So “Hey Jude” became the first song in Shiflett’s repertoire.
Fast-forward nearly 40 years, and Shiflett is onstage next to the guy who wrote “Hey Jude,” watching Sir Paul McCartney induct him and his bandmates into the hallowed Rock ’n’ Roll Hall. McCartney’s speech drew parallels between his own career and that of Dave Grohl, who founded the Foo Fighters in 1994 following the suicide of his Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain.
“Me, a teenage kid in Liverpool, just an ordinary kid in school like everybody else— one day, I fell into rock ’n’ roll, and suddenly the world changed. I joined a group, the Beatles,” said McCartney. “Dave did a similar kind of thing. He joined a group: Nirvana.” And then Shiflett did the same, joining the Foo Fighters in 1999 at a time when the Santa Barbara native was considering leaving music altogether. Instead, he cemented his own place in rock history, joining the ranks of a band that’s sold more than 30 million copies of 10 albums (nine of which hit the Billboard Top 10, three of which were number one), and won 12 Grammy Awards. And the Foo Fighters are still punching, occupying a rarified air where, even a quarter century in, they remain a vital and ubiquitous force in pop culture, regularly selling out stadium shows worldwide.
“There hasn’t been a day in the past 25 years that we haven’t had the Foo Fighters in regular rotation on KJEE,” said the Santa Barbara rock station’s music director Dave Hanacek, also a longtime friend of Shiflett. “Every flash-in-the-pan genre has come and gone, but the Foos have been mainstays despite never modifying their style to fit in.”
Where does Shiflett fit into that mix, which also includes bassist Nate Mendel, drummer Taylor Hawkins, guitarist Pat Smear, and keyboardist Rami Jaffee? Take it from Grohl himself. “Chris is, without a doubt, the most accomplished musician in the band,” the Foo founder recently told Entertainment Weekly. “I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t joined.”
When Shiflett got to the microphone in Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse Arena to deliver his acceptance speech last month, he first thanked his family and then turned attention to his Santa Barbara upbringing.
“I’ve got to say a big thanks to every single person I ever played in a band with at keg parties and dive bars,” said Shiflett, who cut his musical teeth at shows in Isla Vista driveways, Montecito backyards, and beer-soaked clubs on State Street. “If it wasn’t for you guys, I’d have never been ready in 1999, when I got the chance to try out for my favorite band, the Foo Fighters… . [That] turned into the last 22 years and this life that I never could have imagined.”
Salinas Street Memories
Chris Shiflett’s parents met while attending UCSB, and, like his two older brothers, Mike and Scott, he was born at Cottage Hospital. After moving around a bit, they settled on the Eastside of Santa Barbara in the summer of 1977, living in a house on Salinas Street and attending Cleveland Elementary. When their parents split, Dad moved north, Mom remarried, and the blended family— including stepbrother Steve “Stevo” Watson— moved to a small house on Castillo Street near Mission. The brothers recall music being the center of youth culture during that era.
“Poring over records was a constant in our house for the three of us, each with our own areas of interest but all spilling together to form a well-balanced canvas of music,” said Scott, who plays bass in the punk band Face to Face. “Chris, being five years younger, took a little while to come around to playing an instrument, but rock ’n’ roll had firmly gripped us, so it was inevitable that he would follow suit. Once he did, we would show him our guitar licks and the techniques behind them.”
Lessons from his brothers and Jensen gave Shiflett a strong base, impressing everyone from 5th-grade peers like Misha Feldmann— “When I first heard him play guitar,” recalled the Summercamp bassist, “I was already amazed at what this kid could do”— to Scott’s friends like Bill Armstrong, today the co-owner of SideOneDummy Records. “I visited their house, and in walks this long-haired kid,” he recalled. “He picked up a guitar and started playing some riffs. I thought to myself, ‘Does the talent ever end in this family?’”
One of Shiflett’s first public performances was at Santa Barbara High School during a talent show, when his band— some of whom would eventually become Lost Kittenz— played two Kiss songs, “Strutter” and “Rock ’n’ Roll All Night.” Scott was “very impressed,” explaining, “He came out looking like a full-blown rock star, even holding his guitar behind his head to play the solo!” His friend Jeff Kirchmaier, who played drums in that seminal performance, still recalls it vividly. “That gig was the first one either of us had ever done, but it was in his blood, and you could see it,” he said. “It’s easy to say now that his life started that night.”
By 1986, he was in a punk band called Legion of Doom, which was started by Mark Pananides, who first met Shiflett at Santa Barbara Junior High. “I considered him my arch-rival, but soon after that, we ran into each other at Jensen’s Music, where we were both taking guitar lessons, and we became friends,” said Pananides, who remembers opening for Excel, NOFX, and Rat Pack at the Golden Eagle Pool Hall on State Street, where Urban Outfitters is today. “It wasn’t too long after his own band Lost Kittenz began to play that his ‘it factor’ really began to reveal itself.”
He became a big part of the town’s burgeoning underground music scene, where people would play around town for free. “I went to shows at places like the Red Barn because those were the only places you could go with your friends and hang out,” said Shiflett. “Once my own bands started to play these events, it was the local approximation of making it big.”
Looking back now, Shiflett recognizes how important it was to be soaked in the musical culture that Santa Barbara offered back then. His first concert was Dio at the Arlington in 1983, and he recalls other performances by Motörhead and WASP. Then older friends would drive him to Los Angeles to see bands like Poison, Faster Pussycat, and Guns N’ Roses playing clubs before they got record deals. “We would get there early in the day and soak up every detail, studying their gear, their sound check, their outfits, their work ethic,” said Shiflett, who grew his blond hair long and started wearing crazy clothes. “They made a real impression on me about what was possible.”
Eventually, Lost Kittenz gained its own following and found its way into now-defunct State Street venues like Club Iguana, Carnival, The Savoy, and Noise Chamber, not to mention a couple of gigs in L.A. “We were lucky to live in a town that was just big enough to have places to play, but close enough to the music industry in Los Angeles to make it seem attainable,” said Shiflett. “I never felt like I had something special per se— we were part of a whole bunch of young musicians. But I knew from a pretty young age that playing music was the life path I wanted to commit to. Considering I flunked out of high school, my mom wasn’t happy that I was so tunnel-visioned on music, but in the long run, she understood.”
“Chris was a unicorn when we were kids,” said Hanacek. “He already looked like a rock star, larger than life with long, bleached-blond hair and crazy clothes.” One of his earliest girlfriends, Melanie Garst, thought so too. “I keep going back to Chris and all you guys sitting at Carrows back in the ’80s, practicing your autographs!” she told me. “I knew it was not going to be in vain!”
Finding the Foo
In 1989, Shiflett moved to Hollywood with Lost Kittenz bandmate Luke Tierney, intent on taking their band to the big time. That didn’t happen, so Shiflett moved to San Francisco with Joey Cape, another Santa Barbara native who was the frontman for the popular punk band Lagwagon. Cape got Shiflett an office job with Lagwagon’s label, Fat Wreck Chords, which was owned by Fat Mike of NOFX.
Soon after, another band on their roster, No Use for a Name, needed a guitarist, and Shiflett was in, learning 25 songs in three days. He played with No Use for almost five years at the peak of the 1990s punk-rock movement. He also joined Cape and Fat Mike as part of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, a punk-rock supergroup cover band. “I can’t credit Mike and Joey enough for how much I learned about the process of making records by observing them in the studio,” he said.
But Shiflett was approaching his late twenties, and the punk-rock life was grueling. “I had a great run, but I could feel the air running out,” he explained. By 1999, Shiflett was signing up for junior college classes that didn’t involve music, figuring he needed a new career path.
Meanwhile, his friend Bill Armstrong was working in the music business in Los Angeles and heard that Guns N’ Roses needed a guitarist. Shiflett declined the audition, but he mentioned to Armstrong that the Foo Fighters might be looking for a new guitarist as well. Armstrong agreed to reach out, but nothing came of it until a few months later.
That’s when the Foo Fighters’ tour manager, Gus Brandt, reached out. “I met Chris on the very first Warped Tour in 1995,” said Brandt. “I remembered that he was nice and good at his craft. When I was asked to handle the auditions, he stuck out as someone who might fit into the Foo Fighter ecosystem. I slid his name into the mix.”
Shiflett was hanging with friends in New York when he got the call from Brandt, and he immediately took a flight back to California. “I didn’t know what to expect, so I sat there in my bedroom and played along with the songs and learned them as best I could,” he said. “I had been a fan, their records frequently played in No Use’s tour van, and I saw them live a few times, including their 1996 show at the S.B. Bowl.”
He drove down to L.A. for the audition on day two of a week’s worth of auditions. Arriving early, he could hear someone else in the studio, followed by what felt like an eternal silence. “I’m just psyching myself out, going, ‘Oh, fuck! They’re in there just vibing with whoever must’ve totally killed it.’” But when he walked in for his audition, Grohl’s first words were, “Oh my god, Chris, you saved us! That guy wouldn’t leave.”
In addition to memorizing the four songs that he’d been sent, Shiflett learned the first two Foo Fighter records, including the backing vocals. They were impressed that he was the first one to sing during the audition. As they chatted, Grohl realized that he’d met Shiflett many years earlier at a punk show inside a Chinese restaurant on State Street in Santa Barbara. Grohl was playing with Scream, his band before Nirvana, and Shiflett was playing bass for the Santa Barbara punk band Rat Pack.
“Dave has never confirmed this, but I think that random show we played together on State Street in the late ’80s was what distinguished me and sealed the deal,” said Shiflett. “We all come from similar socio-economic backgrounds, and most of us spent some time in punk bands, so it’s just kind of central to the character of the band.” On the Foo documentary Back and Forth, Grohl agrees, explaining, “The fact that he was part of the underground punk scene was really important to me. Like, he’s gonna ‘get it’ … and he won’t take this shit for granted.”
When Shiflett returned for a rigorous round of auditions, involving new songs and covers that he had to learn on the spot. After another day of auditioning, the band invited him to the bar in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis. After a few drinks, Shiflett was bold enough to ask whether this meant he got the job. “We’ll call you tomorrow,” they replied.
He’d been sleeping on Armstrong’s couch, and he spent most of that Sunday sitting by the phone. Around 7 p.m., it rang, with Grohl and Hawkins both on the line. “You got the gig!” they said. “Get ready to say goodbye to your friends for a while.” Rehearsals started the next day, and their worldwide tour launched in a week.
A proper rock-star treatment ensued. He moved into the Sunset Marquis — “I had never had my own hotel room ever in my life!”— and then Grohl took him guitar shopping the next day, buying two of every guitar that he wanted. Shiflett only had two to his name at that time; one was broken, and the other was the same Gibson Les Paul “Black Beauty” that he’d bought off a classmate for $450 on his 15th birthday. (That one is now in the Hall of Fame, displayed alongside the guitar of Shiflett’s hero Randy Rhoads, the heavy-metal legend who was also inducted this year.)
Shiflett’s list of onstage highlights is a mile high, from selling out Wembley Stadium’s 86,000 seats two nights in a row to playing “Get Back” with McCartney at the Hall of Fame show last month. But he most fondly recalls playing “Detroit Rock City” with his Kiss idol Paul Stanley to record Alive II— “That was mental!”— and serving as a backup band for Mick Jagger on Saturday Night Live. Despite the Rolling Stones frontman saying he was gonna take it easy that night, Jagger went all out. “He would just be bouncing off the fucking walls,” said Shiflett. “He couldn’t not be Mick Jagger!”
He’s proud of the Foo Fighters, but he hopes there are still generations of kids coming up that will carry the rock torch. “We always get tagged with being the last rock and roll band standing or whatever,” he said. “I think there’s some truth to that, but hopefully that’ll change.”
The Fighters’ Future
These days, Shiflett lives with his Santa Barbara–raised wife, Cara Shiflett, and their three teenage sons in Los Angeles. But they keep a second house in their hometown, where they enjoy beach days and stay connected to close friends and family.
“My kids help keep it real— at home, I’m just Dad,” said Shiflett, remembering with a laugh when he told his youngest son that he was going to be in the Hall of Fame. “That’s cool!” his son responded. “Hey, can you make me some eggs?”
Between his family man and Foo Fighter obligations, Chris hosts a podcast called Walking the Floor, where he interviews musicians, writers, athletes, and artists. He also continues to make his own music, releasing several records over the years, including his 2017 release West Coast Town, whose title track is an ode to his halcyon days on Salinas Street and Leadbetter Beach on the Fourth of July, among other Santa Barbara nods.
And he hasn’t forgotten where he learned to play guitar. During the pandemic, the Foo Fighters did an apparel fundraiser through Vans’ Foot the Bill small business relief program, donating all proceeds to a music store of the band’s choice. Shiflett got them to choose Jensen Guitar & Music Co., where his eldest brother, Mike Shiflett, still teaches guitar. “The entire run of shoes and shirts sold out, and we raised nearly $50,000 for Jensen’s,” said Shiflett. “I love that store.”
Despite not being able to tour much, 2021 already features a number of Foo Fighter highlights: playing at President Joe Biden’s inauguration; releasing their 10th album, Medicine at Midnight; receiving the first-ever Global Icon Award at the MTV Awards; and headlining sold-out post-lockdown shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Forum in Los Angeles. And then, of course, the Hall of Fame. Up next is international touring, another solo album for Shiflett, and a new Foo project called Studio 666, a feature-length comedy horror movie, slated for a theatrical release in February.
The enthusiasm for Shiflett’s success is unbridled among those who rocked the Santa Barbara scene back in the 1980s and ’90s. “It feels like Chris brought the Santa Barbara music community along with him, as if we’ve all kinda been inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame,” said Nerf Herder’s Steve Sherlock, who also played in Lost Kittenz. Tierney, who went on to his own composing career after the Lost Kittenz faded, is also fired up. “Chris took the ball all the way to the end zone,” he said. “I am so proud and a bit righteous about the fact that one of our own got to spike said ball and do a much-earned touchdown dance.”
Mike Shiflett couldn’t be more excited for his younger brother’s success. “The whole family is so proud and amazed at his accomplishments,” he said. “He has always been blessed with great ability, courage, and a generous and giving heart. If I had anything to do with what he’s done, I’m extremely honored!”
Shiflett gives strong credit to his Santa Barbara upbringing for setting him on this amazing trajectory, explaining, “I’m proud of where I come from and never wanted to forget it.”
Marko DeSantis is a music professional and member of the bands Sugarcult and Bad Astronaut. He also played in Popsicko and the Ataris, and together with Chris Shiflett in Lost Kittenz from 1988 to 1991.
HEAR MORE ON OUR PODCAST: Chris Shiflett and Marko DeSantis join The Indy: A Podcast producer Molly McAnany on this week’s podcast. Click here to listen.