“The fun part is singing over it”: how John Mayer turned a DIY practice routine into “probably the most emo song” he has

John Mayer performs onstage
(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage/Getty Images)

Sometimes, inspiration can be found in the most unlikely and unspectacular places. For guitar players specifically, that means the seeds of a new song or solo can be unearthed from something as simple as an impromptu noodle. 

Practice routines, for example, are some of the most fruitful avenues into songwriting. After all, you never know when a random string of notes purposely aligned to test and train your own personal playing skills might turn into something extraordinary.

There are countless case studies of when songs and riffs have been born out of DIY practice routines. AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, for example, began life as Angus Young’s acoustic guitar warmup lick. Similarly, Joe Walsh’s stage warmup eventually transformed into the Eagles' Life in the Fast Lane.

Even Sweet Child O' Mine was once believed to be another example, though Slash recently shot that myth down.

Another name that can be added to that list is John Mayer, who, back in 2008, transformed what started out life as an exercise in finger dexterity and phrasing feel into what he called “probably the most emo song” he has.

That song is Edge of Desire – the ninth song from his 2009 record Battle Studies, which takes its place alongside the likes of his acoustic fingerstyle masterclass Neon as one of Mayer’s most challenging tracks to master.

In hindsight, Edge of Desire has all the hallmarks of a routine-turned-riff. Centered around the major scale and minor pentatonic shapes that move up and down the fretboard, the main hook forces some considerable finger stretch as it utilizes each finger, introducing lithe turnarounds, encouraging clean chord movements, and promoting improved fretting hand movement.

For singer-guitarists, there's then the small order of doing all the above while singing the track's flowy lyrics.

Speaking on an Instagram live back in August 2017, Mayer recalled the origins of the song, saying, “The year was 2008. I was watching, at that time, the vice president debates or something in some bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel and it was a practice thing. 

“Not that different from [Dave Matthews Band’s] Satellite – you're going for the feel,” he continued. “The fun part is singing over it.”

And, in November 2017, when asked on another Instagram live to play Edge of Desire, Mayer said, “That’s another guitar exercise I was doing.”

Mayer further elaborated on Edge of Desire – and its connection to Satellite – during his appearance on Cory Wong’s Wong Notes podcast last year, recalling how the latter track “blew” his mind.

“Stevie Ray Vaughan blew my mind – Def Leppard blew my mind first – and then Pearl Jam blew my mind.. No, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan then Pearl Jam, then it was Dave Matthews Band,” he reflected. “I went, ‘Oh my god.’”

After launching into an impromptu performance of Satellite's main hook, Mayer went on, “How fun to be a guitar player coming up and he gave you those things to mess with. You’re learning finger dexterity and you’re also [learning to sing at the same time].

“That is, in a way, also…[starts playing Edge of Desire]. Same sort of thing, right? [Satellite] was an exercise. So was this. Then you try and see if you can sing over it. It’s like a game.”

But perhaps what makes Edge of Desire even more notable is the fact Mayer sees it as one of the most “emo” songs he’s written.

Before bursting into the track’s opening exchanges during a gig at Florida’s Amalie Arena in April 2022, Mayer mused to the audience: “I feel like this is the most emo song I have. It’s probably the most emo song I have in my repertoire. That means ‘bucket of stuff’ – I like to think my ‘bucket of stuff’ is brimming.”

Live, Mayer has made Edge of Desire an electric guitar staple, previously performing the song from the fretboard of a Gibson SG before migrating to the PRS Silver Sky upon its arrival.

More recently, though, the superstar turned it into another one of his acoustic guitar numbers, and used an ultra-rare Martin double-neck from 2010 to perform it during his solo arena tour.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.