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.
Battle Studies, Mayer’s latest album, finds him more in his pop mode, focusing on lush textures rather than in-your-face guitar heroics. Even the album’s cover of the ultimate blues guitar workout “Crossroads” receives a tight, slinky arrangement that features a relatively short solo break. While the album makes a less-than-ideal basis for a Guitar World interview, it turned out to be a great springboard to discuss not only guitar playing but also the role of the musician in 2010.
Mayer is engaged and enthusiastic as we discuss topics that range from deeply philosophical to the usual talk about picks and strings. “This is the last sit-down interview I’m going to do for a long time,” he says, burnt out from the constant media attention that seems to follow him wherever he roams. “It’s cool to give it to Guitar World.”
GUITAR WORLD What do you listen to these days?
JOHN MAYER Ever since I was a kid, I’ve bounced back and forth between pop and what I would call “instrument-driven” music. Not instrumental music, just instrument-driven music. For example, when I was real young I would toggle between commercial stuff like Mötley Crüe and Skid Row and more serious guitar-driven blues like Buddy Guy. When I got a little older, I’d switch between Pearl Jam and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It’s no different now. I still go back and forth between the two. I’ve been in pop-song phase, and Battle Studies reflects that. The guitar playing is subtler than what I would do with the Trio because I was concentrating on supporting the songs. But I’m really getting excited about picking up the guitar again and opening another door. I’ve recently become obsessed with Bill Frisell’s album, Disfarmer. It’s fucking insane. It’s something I can sit with for the next six months and really pull apart.
GW You’ve always taken those two distinct paths with your career: the pop guy and the blues shredder.
MAYER I like to think of it as one path with two lanes.
GW Battle Studies is a pop album, but much of it feels like pop from another era. For example, “Who Says?” sounds like Paul Simon’s solo work from the Seventies, while the groove in “Half of My Heart” is reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham–era Fleetwood Mac.
MAYER Yeah. I recorded the album in Los Angeles, and that vibe is very present. There’s a proliferation of Eighties and Nineties nostalgia on L.A. radio at the moment, and I found myself in the car listening to a lot of things like Don Henley’s “Leather and Lace,” Tom Petty’s “Freefalling” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” all of which were produced in California. There’s something about listening to music in the same city that it was born in. You feel the direct connection to it.
GW The songs you mentioned are very relevant to your album. All three have lots of guitar, but they’re tightly arranged and the solos are deployed primarily to serve the hook.
MAYER It’s not immediately apparent, but every tune on Battle Studies has something that challenged me on the guitar. I could go through it track by track and point out a new chord voicing that excited me or some new technique I’ve never used before. If I were to really break down “Half of My Heart,” which is the poppiest song on the record, you might be surprised by how much is going on.
The playing on the album is definitely a reaction to playing in the blues-trio format. I was getting a little tired of those Albert King shapes. The geometry of it was bugging me, and I needed to go somewhere else.
GW I think most people understand that you are trying to achieve the difficult balance between being a pop musician and growing as a musician.
MAYER I hope so. It’s a message I’ve tried to convey over time. I think in some ways the only ally you have in this entire game of being a musician is time, because it’s impossible to reveal everything on a single album.
What might not be obvious about Battle Studies is that it is a concept album. There’s a sadness that runs through all the tunes in the same sort of way. I’m really interested in how Battle Studies will be perceived when two more records go on the shelf after it.
GW It’s clear you have chops. Is it hard for you to play with restraint?
MAYER No. I actually like the control. I’m a little bit of a control freak, and I like it when people ask me, “Why didn’t you go in for the kill?” The answer is, it wouldn’t have been appropriate for these songs. I think many of the new generation of players have a better handle on when and when not to play. But then again, I try to work in a spectrum, so after making a very crafted song-oriented record like this one, I’m gonna have to bust out with a guitar record, just to keep myself happy.
GW It was interesting that you decided to cover Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”. Do you listen to much Delta blues?
MAYER I’m informed by it, but I’m not an obsessive. I think Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Bill Broonzy sound great in the car, but there is a sonic limitation to those early recordings, and with “Crossroads” I liked the idea of updating it sonically.
GW Do you have some examples of what you think are perfect pop tunes?
MAYER Oh yeah. There are so many perfect pop tunes in different… [pauses] See, I think pop is an incredibly vast idiom of music. I don’t see it as something confining. I can pick five pop tunes that I think are great and they would be from five different genres—R&B, hip-hop, adult alternative, hard rock and so on. You were talking about Paul Simon earlier, and I think his “Train in the Distance” [from 1983’s Hearts and Bones] is one of the most well-crafted songs I’ve ever heard in my life. It covers 40 years in four verses. His economy of verbiage is maybe the best ever in pop songwriting.
GW You hear his influence on your hit “Who Says?” in both style and substance.
MAYER It doesn’t break new ground, but I think the lyrics push it forward. If the lyrics were different in “Who Says?” it would just be a pleasant folk song. They put a different spin on the music and give it edge.
GW What do you mean by “edge”?
MAYER I don’t mean a controversial edge; I mean it perks up the music. It becomes a compound. I really like it when music has at least two different elements that come together to sort of react to one another. The lyrical phrase “Who says I can’t get stoned?” gives it a little bit of a punk/irreverent thing. If instead I sang, “Come with me where I go,” it would fall over, because it would be too cliché. That contradiction is a theme that goes throughout the album. Most of the lyrics are very “late night” and desolate, but the music is “everything’s gonna be alright.” If the music was desolate and the lyrics were desolate, I think it would bring people down too much.
GW You’re a traditionalist in terms of your music, but you’re progressive as far as promoting it. You’re one of first artists to really embrace new media in all of its forms. You’re a blogger, you Twitter, you’ve created some genuinely funny bits online, and you’re a fixture in the tabloids. You seem fine with breaking the “third wall” and making your personal life part of the entertainment. Is it a means to an end? Are you ever afraid of being the victim of it?
MAYER It’s not exactly a means to an end; it’s a means to continue on the original authentic path. My path is straight—bone straight. I’m not going to worry if my “radio transmission” gets misinterpreted as much as I need to worry about my path being correct.
In terms of giving access, I don’t believe any of the access that I’ve given has been a compromise in any way. For example, I don’t really tweet about my personal life; I’m just tweeting the silliest thoughts and some impressions that I have of things, which is what any writer does. I try not to roll over on my back or be too vulnerable, but making sure that you’re constantly landing on your feet admittedly can be a lot of work after awhile. It’s a whole other career, playing this media game. I know it’s not ultimately the healthiest thing in the world, and part of me thinks I now have to close the doors a little bit and go back to a place where it’s just me.
GW When does it get weird?
MAYER It gets really sick when you begin thinking in paragraphs about things you’ll read about yourself doing—thinking about them either before you’re doing them or as you’re doing them. And then you become very self-critical, so you start imagining how somebody else will misinterpret it before you do it, and everything takes on six possible outcomes. It’s a demented game of chess.
GW So why embrace the new media at all?
MAYER Success as you dreamed it is never gonna show up the way you saw it. By the time you have it, times will have changed. The people who have the hardest time are the people who are fighting the future. There are certain artists that I ran into when I was starting out that were very upset with their record company and very upset with the way things were going. You’re not gonna hear me complain about the record industry or downloading because my complaining isn’t gonna change it. All you can do is ride it. Everybody wins for a little while, and then they don’t.
GW New media is the new reality, and all young performers will have to come to grips with it.
MAYER It’s MySpace. I haven’t been handed a CD in a really long time. I’ve been handed a piece of paper with a MySpace link. That’s already become commonplace, and it’s important if you’re an artist and you want to promote yourself.
It used to be mailing lists. I used to go to Kinko’s and bring my Zip disk to the Mac tower to open up my Photoshop file with my little postcards about an upcoming show. I’d print them out, photocopy them, cut them, put stamps on them, and mail them. That went away, and then it was about programming HTML, so I learned HTML so I could build my first web site. And then it was about going on message boards and promoting yourself there. An artist has to accept that this is a constantly changing environment.
GW It’s better to respect, understand and control it than just let it invade your personal space.
MAYER Overall, I think it’s been helpful. It’s been at the sake of some of my sanity, but sometimes it’s gratifying. Some of the most daring or controversial thoughts I’ve posted were the best received. The fun thing is that people like a little irreverence—they enjoy it when you shatter your own pedestal. The day of being a hero is over, because as soon as you become a hero, people can’t wait to take you down. People want to see you shake your own cage and say, “I don’t take this seriously.” I wonder if a new Eddie Van Halen could even exist these days, you know? Somebody would come out on a message board and argue that he’s not all that.
Buying a record used to be the end of the equation, but now it’s the middle of the equation. The end of the equation is the fans’ reaction to it. It’s the “voracious discussion” about it. A record is not the product anymore—it’s the catalyst. It’s the beginning of the discussion.
It can be a good thing, but I think sometimes you have to say to your audience, “Let me handle this.” You can’t be so much of a co-op that anybody could say, “We want you to be more like this,” or, “Could you please do this,” and you’ll do it. I enjoy the push and pull of public opinion. People come up to me and say, “Why don’t you play more blues?’ and people come up to me and they say, “You jam too much.” And, eventually, as I switch from one music path to the other, everybody gets satisfied. It might take a couple years, but I do like the idea that I can say, with a slight bit of good-humored contempt, “You’ll get it when I give it to you.” I think that keeps everybody interested.
GW Do you think you really know when to stop letting the public into your personal life?
MAYER Do I know when I’m giving too much away? I just found out. I found out in the last three weeks of doing press. I thought if I just kept being as completely honest as I could that it would bring me to a higher ground. But I don’t think the media give a fuck if I’m vulnerable and I’m honest; they’re just getting their lines. They’re just taking away the tasty morsel. I was trying to approach each interviewer with a pure heart, but after doing 12 interviews a day, where you really are truly entertaining every stranger’s notion, I discovered it just messed my head up pretty bad.
GW You’ve been a solo artist for your entire career. Do you ever wish you had a band around you—some sort of support system that would take some of the focus off of you?
MAYER Since I first started playing, I always wished I had a community. It’s starting to get there.
Being a guitar player, sitting in your room, making friends with CDs, making friends with the dead, making friends with your heroes, you begin to create your own universe. And if you’re lucky to have a little bit of talent and you work really hard at it, you become recognized for that talent, and your own little universe starts to take shape. So now the things that you dreamed are happening, literally. You go in your room, you shut the door and disappear. You don’t play by anybody’s rules. And all of a sudden people start to notice you. People start to want to listen to your music. So you’re taught through that success that this is the way it works; this is the way it always should work.
You go through your twenties, you keep churning out hits, you’re touring, and people think you are the shit. Meanwhile, you don’t realize that all you’ve been doing your entire life was just creating your own support system of love and synthesized attention. Because you’re onstage, you still haven’t paid attention to the fact that you’d imagined everything in your life. It’s all come out of your bedroom, it’s all come out of your own architecture, but it’s not rooted in any reality except that the money’s real and the album sales are real and the respect is real. Meanwhile, you can’t have relationships with people because you’ve invented everything in your head, and the only place you’re really happy is the place where you control everything.
From the time that I was 14 years old, I’d made myself control everything, ’cause I couldn’t control high school, I couldn’t control what people thought of me being a guitar player, I couldn’t control not having friends. The only thing I could control was being this thing. However, at certain age, being by yourself and controlling everything is no longer very satisfying. You begin to want to bond with other people and establish real, mature relationships. Unfortunately, it was difficult for me, because for a long time I had no proof that my controlling everything didn’t work—because it worked! It actually does work in everything, except relationships with people.
GW …because most people have minds of their own.
MAYER And God forbid someone should respond in an unexpected manner. We’re talking about ultimate masturbation. Not just sexual—creative masturbation.
I’ve had to come out of that other universe of imagination that protected me. I’ve realized, Wow, being a great guitar player, going into a room and dreaming up a song that everybody loves, being wacky and interesting and left of center doesn’t mean anything when it comes time to really connect with somebody on an emotional level.
GW That’s why being in a band is a healthier situation. In a band, people call you on your own shit.
MAYER That’s right. And as a solo artist, there are positions you can’t take. For example, when I hit that stage every night, I can’t say, “I’m gonna blow those people’s minds.” But in a band it’s perfectly okay to say, “When we go out there, we’re gonna blow people’s minds.” A band can be cocky. A band is the tribal aspect of being a musician.
But I will say the one thing I can do as a solo artist is be completely authentic and tell people exactly where I’m at. I made a commitment when I wrote “Why Georgia” [from Room for Squares] to ask, “Am I living it right?” So I think there’s something nice about staying narrative, staying honest and saying every record falls in a different place. Battle Studies is my weird, get-your-shit-together album. This is me learning how to connect to the things I never connected to, so that I can be a normal person for the rest of my life.
GW Let’s shift gears and talk specifically about music. Tell me about “Half of My Heart,” which, as I mentioned earlier, seemed inspired by Fleetwood Mac, with Taylor Swift playing Stevie Nicks to your Lindsey Buckingham.
MAYER Yeah, the rhythm guitar is very Lindsey Buckingham, but the lead line is very Mike Campbell [of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers], and the group is Fleetwood Mac.
GW When you play it live, you even use a Rick Turner guitar, like the kind Buckingham plays. Did you use that in the studio?
MAYER I think I did, yeah. I’ll be honest with you man, we tried a lot of guitars out, but when I played the Turner it was still, “Hey, that’s the sound!”
GW When I’m bringing up influences, I’m not accusing you…
MAYER No! Listen, if a dude plays like Lindsey Buckingham and plays Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar, there’s awareness in it.
GW You’ve been working with drummer Steve Jordan for a while, and he even functioned as co-producer on the album. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with him.
MAYER Steve came in to play drums on a couple tracks on my second record, Heavier Things. To be honest, at the time I was still learning what a good drummer is, but when Steve was playing, I just knew. It was like, Wow, I feel supported. This is bringing life to my ideas.
I didn’t see him again for a couple years, until we both walked in the studio to play on this Herbie Hancock track called “Stitched Up” [on Hancock’s 2005 album, Possibilities]. Until that day, whenever I would record with a rhythm section, I’d always think of my performance as a scratch track that I would replace later. So when drums and bass were playing, I was playing guitar without any consideration for it ever being on the album. Steve, however, insisted that I play my actual take with the band, which was incredibly frightening to me. In the end, however, I discovered it was so much more fulfilling. He taught me that everybody in the same room playing really matters. Getting “the” take.
We worked together again on Continuum  and had an incredible time. I should explain the way Steve and I see our roles: Steve produces the bass and percussion, and I produce the melody, harmony and vocals, and we never touch the other guy’s stuff. We used to make suggestions, but the trust level we have is insane. It’s a really binary existence. It’s to the point where Steve will come in to mix a session at 8 a.m. to get the rhythm section right, and leave. Then I’ll walk in, I won’t touch the rhythm section, and take care of my half.
I don’t believe that I’m the most muscular sort of performer on record. I like sweet sounds. I like the sound of nice sounds stacking up. And when I met Steve and started playing with Steve and Pino Palladino on bass, there was the muscular addition that just gives it the interesting sort of center of gravity. Without Steve and Pino underneath, I think most of my songs would completely float away. “Half of My Heart” would have been a complete pop disaster if it weren’t for Steve’s grit. It’s almost like Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland of the Police—someone’s doing the cracking and someone’s doing the floating.
GW You’ve played with a number of incredible musicians, including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Herbie Hancock, Eric Clapton, Jay-Z…and the list goes on. Is there a common thread between them?
MAYER Yeah, I think they rest comfortably in their own identity. I’m still a little frantic. I’m still sort of running around, looking for my jacket.
GW You mean they are literally the definition of “cool.”
MAYER And the thing I can’t stress enough about the experience is that nothing really compares to it. You can play along with a Buddy Guy CD, and the information’s good, but when you’re standing on the same stage in the same place with him, for whatever reason you have a better frame of reference, because you’re both in the same moment. It’s hard to describe.
GW You’ve often played with your fingers, but I’ve noticed you’ve stopped using a pick altogether. Why?
MAYER I can be in more places at once on the strings and over the pickups. It’s the closest I’ve managed to come to creating my own sound. I’m really interested in creating a place to stand as a guitar player. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m starting to get my chops back. Half the people reading your magazine are getting bored with their playing, and half the people reading your magazine are just starting to get excited again. It’s just the ebb and flow of it all.
GW You play through Two Rock amps. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MAYER It all started with this quest to find a great Dumble amp. I remember saying during the time of making Heavier Things, “God, if I could ever have a Dumble, I’d feel like that was the Holy Grail.” I mean, we’ve all read the interviews about what Stevie Ray Vaughan was using, and he’d always mention his Dumble.
So I came across a Dumble at one point, and I just got hooked. They are just the wide-open Ferraris of amps. I bought a couple, and then I discovered a Two Rock Custom Reverb at Rudy’s Music in New York, and I went, “Wow, this is a really cool amp!”
Later, I called the Two Rock guys, and they were so easy to talk with. So for the past five or six years I’ve been working with them, and we’ve designed a series of amps that fit my needs. I use these two signature model Two Rocks. They’re single channel, really clean, and have a huge amount of headroom.
GW You’re primarily a Fender guy. You even have your own signature model.
MAYER Yeah, I really stand behind them. Some of the best compliments I ever got were, “I’m not a Mayer fan, but that’s the right Strat.” So I use that onstage, along with several other guitars. I’m really into using the guitars that I used on the record when I play onstage. Every guitar has a unique harmonic fingerprint, and it plays a recognition factor in any given song. Also, playing the same guitar is sort of like bringing the studio out on the road. For example, I’m playing a 1961 Les Paul SG on “Friends, Lovers or Nothing.” There’s not really any other guitar that’s gonna deliver that sound.
GW Your show features a lot of different guitars.
MAYER Yeah, but I also love the idea of playing the same guitar for an entire evening. It’s great when Jeff Beck comes onstage and plays a white Jeff Beck Strat all night. It’s a great approach, but it just wouldn’t work for the songs on this album. Each was composed with the idea of finding a different sound for each song.
GW You are currently working with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tech, Rene Martinez. What’s his best Stevie Ray story?
MAYER You’d have to ask him, because I would feel like I was betraying his confidence. But here’s something: We played a gig at Webster Hall in New York in 2004, and that was the first time Rene ever came out to tech one of my shows. That night at soundcheck, the speaker in my Fender Vibratone blew. Rene told me that Stevie had played at Webster Hall years ago and that the speaker in his Vibratone had also blown. So I think that was Rene’s sort of first notion that, you know, “Maybe I can work with this guy.”
I think I really understand the Stevie Ray Vaughan tone more than most people because of being with Rene. I think it’s the most misunderstood tone around. Everybody thinks you get a Tube Screamer and you turn the distortion all the way up, and you turn the level as loud as it goes before you get yelled at. But his sound wasn’t about gain—the gain was in his hands. It was in the muscular, atom-bomb left hand, which made it sound loud. It was loud, but it wasn’t distorted. And when people try and play “Texas Flood” through distortion, it sounds awful. Stevie primarily used the amp’s volume and a distortion pedal as a boost, and then he just whipped the hell out of the strings to get that sound.
GW Steve also used heavier strings to produce his tone.
MAYER I’ll tell you, the argument about string gauges is about the silliest thing a guitarist can engage in. Maybe you get a better tone off of bigger strings, but if you can’t bend up to the note, what’s tone anyway? But like Hendrix probably had .010s, so it’s whatever you can bend.
GW Do you find it unusual that you are probably one of the most influential blues guitarists in contemporary music?
MAYER My greatest honor is to look through people’s MySpace pages under influences to see Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray, Eric Clapton and John Mayer. It’s like… it’s unbelievable to me. Those kinds of connections are very meaningful to me. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to talk about his love of Kenny Burrell, Buddy Guy and Freddie King, and that’s the best use of adulation you can possible have—when people get turned on to someone because you like them. If I like X, and X loves Y, then I love Y too. That’s what’s brought a lot of people into blues music.
GW There is this dichotomy regarding your image. On one hand, you’re being sold as this sort of funny individual, yet your music is very earnest and serious.
MAYER I don’t know. It’s not contrived. It’s the honest-to-God way I’ve always been. I think I was really uncomfortable with it as first, ’cause I thought that only one of those sides could live, but I actually think one side keeps the other side alive. Not to get super meta about it, but it’s the price you pay for being different, and it’s uncomfortable. Believe me, I’ve often thought, Am I destroying my career? But this is the way that I’ve always been.
I think people recognize it with time. It’s like, “Okay, I’ve seen how he behaves, I get that he’s not putting anything on.” I don’t want to change anything now. A couple of years ago I would’ve wanted my zaniness to go away. I would apologize for being zany. I’d be like, “I’m sorry I did stand-up comedy last night.” It seemed like a threat. But right now, for whatever reason, it feels like something that’s a little mine. It’s part of who I am.