John Mayer shares his advice on how to write the perfect guitar solo

John Mayer
(Image credit: Robin Little/Redferns)

At one point or another, every guitarist has debated what makes a “perfect” guitar solo. And earlier this year, Guitar World’s sister publication, Total Guitar, set out to answer this question once and for all. 

Using information gleaned from GW’s poll of the 50 greatest guitar solos of all time to examine common attributes, Total Guitar crunched the data (tempo, key, pitch range, melodic content, “shrediness,” etc.) and, voilà – unveiled to the world the first scientifically verified perfect guitar solo

But is there truly a formula for crafting a guitar lead that will achieve maximum impact with a listener? We asked John Mayer, as much a master of the superb, show-stopping solo as anyone playing the instrument today, for his opinion. And while he not surprisingly let out a laugh at the mere mention of a scientifically created perfect solo, he also acknowledged that there’s something to be said for approaching your leads with certain strategies in mind. 

“I think pitch, repetition, motif, all these things have a lot to do with which parts of your emotional map a solo is hitting at any given time,” Mayer says. “I mean, if you start high, there’s nowhere left to go, right? So I see it as building a ramp.” 

One guitarist he views as a master of building that ramp is Jerry Garcia. “When I was really diving deep into the Jerry stuff, getting ready for Dead & Company, I realized he was just brilliant at it,” Mayer says. “And another guy who’s brilliant at it is Doyle Bramhall [Doyle Bramhall II]. 

“Doyle is the single best soloist, in my opinion, when it comes to getting you to lean in. It’s a masterclass every single time. First he whispers at you with his guitar: ‘Hey, I wanna tell you something…’ And you go, ‘What? What do you wanna tell me?’ And he goes, ‘I wanna tell you about this...’ And you’re in. 

“He’ll be on the third go-round before he’s ever really pressed on the gas. He might do six go-rounds before he’s even thought about his heart rate going up. If you or I did that, we’d be circling the runway the last three.”

“So Doyle’s just a monster that way, and I think about Doyle’s playing a lot in that respect: When you’re playing a solo, state your case. If you want to state it again, you will be embellishing that motif again. You have another thing you want to say? Well, maybe now, as you start to explain yourself, you have a little more emotion because you’re amping yourself up in your argument.” Mayer laughs. “And then maybe by the end you get to swear, if you want to swear.”

Regardless of how you build your solo, and the techniques and devices you employ in doing it, Mayer is quick to point out that it’s essential to remember that your lead is not a standalone piece of music. In order to truly be successful, the solo needs to function within, and, ideally, serve to elevate the larger song. 

“The song has to pick back up after the solo, so you have to land the jump into the last chorus,” he says. “Now, outros are different. You can build a ramp to the moon on the outro if you want, because you have a little something called the fade-out to save you. But otherwise, you have these two set ends. And that to me has always been a really interesting, and sometimes challenging, process of a solo.

“You have to build a rollercoaster that still ends flat so that you can get back into the song. And you have to get back into the song in a way that, when you hear the chorus again, you’ve done something with your addition of a solo that makes the chorus feel like it’s saying something new. Well, that’s a puzzle, man. That’s a puzzle.” 

Ultimately, Mayer says, “Just have fun… but don’t go crazy. It’s like, ‘Here, go tool around in this Ferrari, but don’t bring it back crashed.’ Get it back into the garage so the song can keep going. Because the song is the boss, and that’s it. You have to always remember that.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.