The Player
Total Guitar|September 2021
Inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan and feted by Clapton, John Mayer is one of the most gifted guitarists of the modern era. He also knows how to the play the fame game - from crafting pop hits and collaborating with fellow A-listers to teasing his new album via TikTok. This is his story: the making of a guitar superstar...
Grant Moon

In March 2021, when John Mayer used TikTok to preview a snippet of Last Train Home - the flagship single from his new album Sob Rock - it was a typically smart move. Since the prehistoric age of MySpace, Mayer has always embraced social media. He’s a shrewd guy who knows the game, and in his two decades of stardom he’s accrued 5.2 million followers on Instagram, 1.4 million on Twitter and 1.2 million on TikTok. Clearly, his global fanbase stretches far beyond the guitar community. But dig down – past the meme friendly videos of his dogs swimming in his pool, the pastel-shaded, 80s-vibe promo shots for Sob Rock, and the numerous photos of celeb friends such as Ed Sheeran, Herbie Hancock and Barbra Streisand – and you’ll find some videos in which he offers sage advice on the art of guitar.

Some tips are immediately practical: don’t start your solo too high or you’ll have nowhere to go; to play great blues guitar listen to the phrasing of great blues singers. Others take more skill to implement – such as choosing notes within your solo that imply the chord changes behind it – while his most advanced musical philosophy has echoed down the ages through countless other great guitarists: “Practise thinking from the idea first,” he advises, “instead of what the guitar offers you.” To be a true musician, then, think beyond your scale boxes and your muscle memory – hear the melody in your head first and play that. All the while tap your foot in time and imagine the chord progression, the band, behind you. That’s what Mayer does, and things have worked out nicely for him.

His 2001 debut album Room For Squares went five times platinum in the US and earned him the first of his seven Grammys to date. It also introduced the world to an unusual talent, someone who straddles the camps of commercial pop and also blues/rock music like no other modern star. With his pop savvy, his smooth, pillow-talk vocal style and Johnny Depp-level movie star looks, Mayer didn’t just dip a toe in the mainstream, he cannonballed straight into it.

This modern-day guitar virtuoso/vocalist/ songwriter has three US Billboard No.1 albums under his belt, can fill arenas across the world, and is also regularly invited to cameo with some of modern music’s most recognisable stars: Sheeran, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys; he’s even dated some of them, notably Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. And he’s not afraid to shower irony-free praise on Justin Bieber for his melodic gifts, or on Dua Lipa for her rhythmic hooks. But while he has an eye on the poppier realm, it’s telling that Mayer was also speed-dial buddies with Apple’s Steve Jobs – because this talented, handsome, successful guy is also a bit of a nerd.

Along with his geeky passion for watches, design and fashion, his fastidious, obsessive nature is evident in his detailed posts about guitar playing - and his massive guitar collection. He can happily expound on the relative merits of different six-strings, cables and amps, right down to the attributes of certain tube brands. He was hands-on at the Fender Custom Shop for the production of his beloved ‘Black1’, the Relic Strat strapped to him on the cover of his 2003 US No.1 album, Heavier Things. Ten years later and about to embark on his first tour with remaining members of the Grateful Dead, he approached luthier Paul Reed Smith to make him a guitar. Mayer went to the PRS factory personally and sifted through every pickup, neck and component, in the quest for the exact right tool for the job.

And just as he will gladly join those A-listers of pop, rap and RnB, Mayer’s equally comfortable ripping it up with legends of the blues, such as BB King, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. “He’s a master,” Clapton said of Mayer recently. ‘His facility is phenomenal. I don’t think he even knows how good he is.”

It was the blues that got him into all this. Born in 1977, Mayer grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut. As a child of the 80s he was welded to MTV, soaking up all the slickly produced, deftly played soft rock, yacht-rock, MOR and AOR the new-fangled channel could offer. Among the artists soundtracking his youth were Clapton (in his shoulder-padded pomp, enjoying a renaissance with hit albums August and Journeyman) plus Toto, The Police, Huey Lewis & The News, Phil Collins (in Genesis and solo), Elton John and Steve Winwood.

When Mayer was 13, a friend gave him a mixtape featuring the blistering Texas blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, and he was hooked. Vaughan’s MTV-friendly image and rocky take on the blues offered a perfect entry point into that world for a white teenager from the suburbs, and opened the door to Jimi Hendrix, Cream/Bluesbreakers-era Clapton, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and the three Kings – BB, Albert and Freddie.

His dad rented him an acoustic guitar from a local music store and he took lessons. He played obsessively, emulating his heroes, soon learning the language of the blues on his first electric, a Squier Strat. His teenage power trio, Another Roadside Attraction, played amped-up blues covers à la SRV, and by the time his next group, Villanova Junction, was playing dances at Fairfield High School circa ’96, he had saved enough to buy himself a Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Strat, his main axe for years.

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