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John Mayer in his own words: “That joy and passion and chemistry of just picking up the guitar and playing has never been in jeopardy”

John Mayer
(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

There has been a lot said and written about John Mayer. The pop-rock superstar's fame transcends his capabilities with an electric or acoustic guitar in his hands. But when we strip it all back and listen to the man himself, how he tends to see the world is through the guitarist's POV.

Whether we are just getting to grips with the instrument, serious amateurs gigging at the weekend, teacher or student, his is a perspective we all share. As said in conversation with Guitar World upon the release of his latest album, the ’80s-inspired Sob Rock, “We’re all in the same boat. We’re all sitting down with an electric guitar alone in a room, hoping to trip over something that we’ll never forget.”

Here we have pored over the archives to present Mayer in his own words, explaining how the guitar is central to all he does, and why if you stripped everything away – the fame, the noise, everything else – he would still be left with a guitar in hand.

Rule number one

“I’ll tell you the number one rule about guitars for me. I’m so sorry you couldn’t get the colour that you wanted, but if you pick up a guitar at a store and it’s sunburst, and you hate sunburst, but it feels and plays great for you – lightning strikes – then that’s your guitar! 

“As soon as you start getting greedy and you go, 'I want one like this sunburst, but can you make it blue?' The blue one is going to sound and feel terrible. Never in my life has that ever succeeded. To be lucky enough to have lightning strike twice – it doesn’t happen.”

SRV

“The first guitar influence when I was about 13. The moment I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan I thought, ‘Wow – that’s the thing that’s not just strumming chords!’ I heard him on a mixtape that a neighbour had given me. It had SRV on one side and Robert Cray on the other. 

“I came to appreciate Robert Cray much later on, but it was the drama in Stevie’s playing that I was attracted to. People who go for the SRV tone – it’s not distorted, it’s just loud. There’s a difference in something loud hitting a microphone, and something distorted hitting an amplifier: two completely different things. 

“People would be really surprised, if you are going for that Tube Screamer thing, just how much it was a volume thing and not a distortion thing with Stevie. I don’t like things that are quiet and distorted – if it distorts because it’s loud, then you’re happening!”

Hendrix

“I picked up on Hendrix after I heard Stevie Ray play Little Wing and Voodoo Chile. The first of his records that I had was Axis: Bold As Love, because it had Little Wing on it – that song is so beautiful. That album to me is still the best Hendrix record. 

“It’s that moment where he was just discovering his power, before he discovered people trying to rob him blind of just about every commodity you could imagine. It just has this beautiful spirit to it. It’s the artist beginning to realise the musical scope that he could create.”

Continuum

“I think I’ve stayed true to what my sound should be. I still aggravate the hell out of people by not committing to being a blues guitar player or a pop musician, but I like ’em both and I think I proved with Continuum that it’s at least possible to get people to bop their heads along to something that contains guitar playing and pop melodies.”

The John Mayer Trio 

“The Trio was a great compositional tool for me, because as a composer, when you have those two guys [bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan] you think, 'I want to give these guys something to really play!' It really upped the ante on my compositions. We started rehearsing and I felt like I’d lifted off the ground!”

The Black Strat

“It really is the Continuum guitar – you know, it’s just f*cking great every time; it’s the best-feeling guitar I’ve ever played. You know, I still can’t get a guitar manufacturer to explain to me why two guitars that are made in exactly the same way, why one of the guitars has more [string tension] slack than the other. 

“They’ll tell you like, ‘No, the scale length is exactly the same.' So why are these strings tighter? You know what I mean? And why do these ones go loosey goosey and all buttery? But this one is the same guitar and you’re telling me it’s the same specs, and I can’t get the strings to have a swish to ’em, you know? Who knows what it is? 

“The infinitesimally small differences in tolerances of measurement between one guitar and the other? But [The Black One] just has a little extra slack; a little leeway. Some guitars, you’ll put 0.011s on, and it’s like [makes abrupt noise] and you just can’t move around.”

The Gold Leaf Strat

“It’s got that incredible second position – what do they call it, the quack? That’s the quackiest Strat of all time! That weird, hollowed-out, out-of-phasey type sound. I’ve always liked that sound, especially the fourth. When I was a kid, that was my favourite sound on the guitar; it’s even, it’s smooth, it has chimeyness, but it still has bass. It’s the most colourful selection on the Strat.”

Amps

“I never use amp channels and I know there are people who think that that’s a waste. But I like the amps to be one solid, singing clear voice and then change the signal with pedals. I am always searching for the loudest, cleanest amp I can find – I can’t get enough of clean amp tone! The Dumble I guess comes from the SRV mythology. They record beautifully. I don’t even see the point in owning one if you are not going to record with it.”

Distortion

“When it comes to distortion, it’s not really distortion as much as it is sustain and volume. I use distortion pedals as a way to affect the mix, like a pedal that’s bringing a fader up on your guitar; it brings a bit of saturation. People get carried away with distortion and I do too.”

Recording

“Studio time is very expensive, and if you go into the studio and explore and don’t find what you’re looking for, then you get – or at least I get – disheartened very fast and it can send me into a flat spin, creatively. I take it very seriously when I walk into the studio and I say, 'I don’t have anything yet, but follow me here.' The alternative is admitting that you got everyone together and nothing came of it.”

Obsession

“I work in polar opposites. Like we all do – half your readers are all the way on this end of loving the guitar again, half your readers are nearing the other end where they just want to put it down. We all work in opposites: it’s all this until it’s all that. You go through phases like, ‘Oh man, I’m having this total Charlie Christian phase.' Then it’s, ‘Oh, I’m having a Pearl Jam phase,' or Bill Frisell, or that Hendrix bootleg. 

“You make all of these giant strides from both ends of the spectrum and back and forth. All that really does, as any guitar player knows, is just serve to set up the next time you get into it – you’re going to be that much more excited, because you cleansed for a minute.” 

The collector

“I have a ’52 Blackguard Tele that took me to another place. It’s the most beautiful-sounding guitar I’ve ever heard. Only one pickup is really usable, because on those old Teles the neck pickup was wound for ‘jazz’. I also have a gorgeous, beautiful-sounding Gibson ES-335, which is another kind of sonic power to write for. 

“I have a PRS McCarty Hollowbody that’s dynamically so pure. I love hearing every harmonic of every note: it rings like a piano, so for chords it’s just beautiful. I also have a Gibson L-5 with flatwound strings on it, just gorgeous. I also I have a prototype 1979 Hendrix Tribute Strat: white with a reverse headstock with a contour on the front, which is really interesting. The Fender Custom Shop built 100 of them, based on my one actually. And a prototype Hendrix Monterey Strat that [San Francisco artist] Pamelina painted in 1997. 

“I’m a big fan of prototypes! I love custom colour stuff, too. My favourite Fender colour is Charcoal Frost Metallic so I collect those. I’ve never seen a Charcoal Frost Tele, but I think I have every other guitar made in that colour! I have a ’68 Strat, black, big headstock, classic [Jimi Hendrix] Band Of Gypsys, and I have a very-hard-to-find ’69 Olympic White Strat with maple cap neck, which is the Woodstock Strat.”

Passion

“That joy and passion and chemistry of just picking up the guitar and playing – that’s never been in jeopardy. Yeah, you can take my picture when I come out of a club, but you can’t take the guitar playing out of me.”