At the height of Guns N’ Roses’ fame, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin cut such an understated figure that lead singer Axl Rose referred to him as “Mr. Invisible.”
More than 25 years later, the band is back together for “Not in This Lifetime…,” a multiyear, globe-spanning reunion tour which, according to Billboard, is the highest-grossing in history. But it is missing Mr. Stradlin, whose songwriting contributed to hits like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Patience.”
“He wrote half the stuff,” said Rick Nielsen, guitarist for rock band Cheap Trick. “It was Izzy’s f—ing band,” said former Guns N’ Roses manager Alan Niven, who later worked directly for Mr. Stradlin. In his 2011 autobiography, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan wrote that “Izzy was probably the most significant force” in the group.
Mr. Stradlin, now 56 years old and living in Ojai, Calif., resigned from Guns N’ Roses in 1991. By some measures, he has kept much busier than his former band, quietly releasing nine studio albums between 1999 and 2010. (Guns N’ Roses released one over the same period.)
His low profile and absence from a reunion tour for a group he helped found, however, mystify his fans and associates. The band he formed after Guns N’ Roses, the Ju Ju Hounds, broke up after one album, and his solo efforts have flown under the radar, in part because he doesn’t tour.
“The current GNR tour has been a great success for the guys. My nonparticipation was simply not being able to reach a happy middle ground through the negotiation process,” Mr. Stradlin said in an email. “That’s life, sometimes things don’t work out.” He didn’t respond to further inquiries.
Fernando Lebeis, manager for Guns N’ Roses, declined to comment on the tour negotiations but said “Izzy is a dear friend.”
Mr. Stradlin, born Jeff Isbell, began his music career in 1980, when he moved from Lafayette, Ind., to Los Angeles, followed by his childhood friend, Mr. Rose. Mr. Stradlin joined punk and metal bands, delivered the L.A. Weekly and used heroin, according to people who worked with him and his own accounts. Guns N’ Roses formed in 1985.
The band’s 1987 album, “Appetite for Destruction,” which featured Mr. Stradlin’s songwriting and raw, loose guitar-playing, sold 8 million copies in the U.S. by 1989, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. It is set for reissue in June.
Mr. Stradlin’s addiction worsened as the band’s popularity soared, according to former colleagues. After he was arrested for urinating in the galley of a plane, Mr. Stradlin gave up drinking and drugs on Dec. 15, 1989, he said in a 2006 interview with digital-music distributor TuneCore.
Guns N’ Roses finished its double album “Use Your Illusion” and went on tour in 1991. Mr. Stradlin, attempting to stay sober, distanced himself from his rowdier bandmates, according to former colleagues. But he continued to be frustrated by their behavior, including Mr. Rose’s late appearances at concerts, the colleagues said. Mr. Stradlin quit on or around Sept. 9, 1991, a week before the release of “Use Your Illusion,” according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
His departure was announced Nov. 7. “It was such a major change,” Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash wrote in his memoir. “But to the outside world it was a nonevent.”
Mr. Stradlin reconnected with old friends in Lafayette. Soon after, he formed a new band, enlisting Los Angeles bassist Jimmy Ashhurst, and signed a two-album deal with Guns N’ Roses’ label, Geffen Records. His vision, according to bandmates: A scaled-back, drama-free group that played rootsy rock in clubs and theaters.
Joined by Bob Dylan drummer Charlie Quintana and guitarist Rick Richards of Atlanta’s Georgia Satellites, Mr. Stradlin in 1992 released “Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds,” to warm reviews. “Shuffle It All,” its biggest single, reached No. 6 on Billboard’s rock chart that year.
The band enjoyed touring abroad. But in the U.S., journalists dogged Mr. Stradlin with questions about Guns N’ Roses. A tour with Keith Richards didn’t happen; an offer from Bon Jovi was rejected. “Bon Jovi chased him high and low,” said Mr. Niven, who managed Mr. Stradlin at the time. “Izzy’s attitude was, very bluntly, I’d rather play clubs.”
Representatives for Bon Jovi and Mr. Richards said they didn’t remember the details of the tours.
Touring wasn’t easy for Mr. Stradlin. A well-known addiction specialist, Bob Timmins, was hired to help him, says Steve White, Mr. Stradlin’s former road manager. “He was still fighting off the addiction,” Mr. White said.
Mr. Timmins died in 2008. A spokesman for his foundation declined to comment on his work with Mr. Stradlin.
Mr. Stradlin’s bandmates tried to respect his sobriety. When Mr. Quintana drank during a 1992 recording session with Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, for example, he put his red wine in a coffee cup, Mr. Quintana said in a 2016 interview. “He wanted a healthy band.” (Mr. Quintana died in March.)
Mr. Ashhurst remembered inadvertently upsetting Mr. Stradlin by smoking a joint on a tour bus. “I wish I could take that back, but I can’t,” he said.
The Ju Ju Hounds broke up in 1994 while recording its second album. The band members were working at the Caribbean Sound Basin studio in Trinidad, taking breaks to travel, surf and scuba-dive.
Early that year, Mr. Ashhurst called in after a diving trip and was told Mr. Stradlin had left the country. Confused, he eventually found Mr. Stradlin in a coffee shop in Copenhagen.
“I don’t think he appreciated being tracked down,” Mr. Ashhurst said.
Mr. Stradlin wanted to get away from the pressures of the music business, current and former colleagues said, but they also cited friction between Mr. Stradlin and Mr. Ashhurst over drugs. Mr. Ashhurst said he later became addicted to heroin, but not during his time with the Ju Ju Hounds.
In his email, Mr. Stradlin said “the Ju Ju Hounds was a great band.”
He released his second Geffen album, “117˚,” in 1998, with Rick Richards, his Guns N’ Roses colleague Mr. McKagan and former Reverend Horton Heat drummer Taz Bentley.
For later albums, instead of working with a label or management, Mr. Stradlin released them independently through digital distributors like TuneCore. He has little interest in promotional activities, bandmates say. “It’s just basically 11 records that nobody knows about,” Mr. Bentley said.
These days, Mr. Stradlin wakes up early, mountain-bikes, surfs and travels with his longtime girlfriend, Rick Richards said. “He likes to be untethered.”
According to a 1992 interview in Musician magazine, Mr. Stradlin said getting a dog helped to “keep my perspective, see life through a dog’s eyes. You’re doing all right if you’ve got food, a place to sleep and someone to pet you.”
Write to Neil Shah at email@example.com