John Mayer: Battle Star
Originally published in Guitar World, February 2010
Who says you can't have a number-one pop album, play the blues and Twitter at the same time? Meet musical multitasker John Mayer, the world's most famous guitar hero.
John Mayer is famous. He’s so famous that he’s the seventh most followed person on Twitter, with 2.5 million subscribers (he’s below Obama…but above P. Diddy). He’s so famous that the tabloids dissect his sex life like a sports commentator analyzes the Super Bowl. He is so famous that your granny, your little sis and your girlfriend not only know who he is but also probably wish you played guitar a lot more like Mayer and a lot less like Slayer.
You get the picture. John Mayer is motherfucking famous.
He’s also a rarity—a modern pop idol that aspires to musical greatness. As he recently explained to a British news outlet, “You can’t make music as a famous person. Famous people make really, really bad records, so I make music as a musician.”
Born in 1977, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mayer began playing the guitar at age 13 and quickly fell under the spell of Texas blues colossus Stevie Ray Vaughan. He spent the next several years practicing and playing in local clubs, until he graduated high school. After a short, two-semester stay at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Meyer hopped a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, and at the age of 19 began playing coffeehouses and developing songs for his first album, the 2001 multi-Platinum blockbuster Room for Squares.
“I was really confident from the beginning,” he says. Though he’s 32, Mayer, with his tousled hair and soft features, still looks like a college student. “I was arrogant. I needed that arrogance. It gets you on an airplane with $1,000 in your pocket and makes you believe that you’re going to get work when you land.”
Since then, Mayer has won several Grammys, recorded three more studio albums, including 2009’s Battle Studies, and composed a catchy string of soulful hit singles such as “Gravity,” “Waiting on the World to Change” and the current smash “Who Says?” His combination of flawless melodies, clever lyrics and thoughtful arrangements made him a natural heir to musicians like Stevie Wonder, Sting and Paul Simon, who have turned pop into art.
But somewhere along the line, the guitarist started becoming more famous for who he was with offstage than on. Additionally, his regular appearances on TMZ and clever use of new media made it appear that Mayer was more intent on becoming a celebrity than a serious player.
In 2005, however, the human hit machine took a radical left turn. With his credibility at stake, Mayer carved a new musical path, reinventing himself as a guitar hero in the mold of Eric Clapton and boyhood idol Vaughan. Known primarily as an acoustic singersongwriter, he set aside his Martin guitar, picked up a Fender Stratocaster and began collaborating with certified blues legends like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Clapton himself. It could’ve been an embarrassing bit of overreaching, but Mayer surprised everyone by holding his own against the cream of guitar royalty.
During this period, he temporarily jettisoned his backup band and formed the John Mayer Trio, an unapologetically stripped-down, shred-happy blues-rock unit that featured the killer grooves of two seasoned studio musicians: bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan. The Trio released Try! in 2005, a live, bare-bones affair that put the spotlight directly on Mayer’s lyrical guitar playing. Focusing on the sweeter side of Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King, Mayer impressed skeptics with melodic soloing that neatly sidestepped the more obvious blues clichés. His status as a guitarist to be reckoned with was cemented in 2007 when Rolling Stone featured him alongside John Frusciante and Derek Trucks on the cover of its “New Guitar Gods” issue that February.