When Reginald Guillaume of the Guitar5000 YouTube channel set up his filming equipment outside the Anaheim Convention Center earlier this year to film some impromptu street collaborations with NAMM 2023 attendees, he probably had no idea what he was about to set in motion.
During filming, he came across Ryan Woodard – a talented, then-only-16-year-old guitarist and singer living with autism, who answered Guillaume’s sign that invited passersby to sing a song with him. Woodard quickly spoke of his love for John Mayer, and before long the two were performing Gravity.
But this wasn’t just any Gravity cover – instead, those who were on the scene (and those who watched it online) were taken aback by Woodard’s vocals: close your eyes, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Mayer himself.
It was a remarkable performance from Woodard, who also has a popular YouTube channel of his own, through which he showcases his vocal and accomplished guitar chops by publishing covers and original tracks.
At the time of writing, the pair’s performance has been viewed a whopping 7.2 million times on YouTube alone. And, such is the power of the internet, word of Woodard’s triumphant street performance and his fondness for Mayer’s music reached the PRS signature artist himself.
In response, the Sob Rock star gifted Woodard a guitar – his Martin OMJM signature acoustic guitar, to be precise, which was shipped to Ryan with a handwritten note: “Ryan, you sound great. Here’s a little something to help you keep expressing yourself. Your friend, John.”
It was a momentous milestone in the burgeoning musical career of the teenager, who began playing guitar when he was nine years old. Such was the speed of his progression, by the time he was just 11 he had been invited to share the stage with Buddy Guy – an experience that further pushed him towards the blues.
Then, when he was 12, he came across Waiting on the World to Change, and there began Woodard's life-long affinity for Mayer and his music.
“There is a lot that I like about his playing,” Woodard tells Guitar World when asked about his love for the Silver Sky mastermind. “I really love his tone, feel and percussive slap on his acoustic songs like Heart of Life and Neon. I really like how clean he plays everything. He plays a very beautiful, clean, warm style that I can’t get enough of.”
It’s a tone, feel and style that has directly informed Woodard’s own playing. Be it with a Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul, Ryan has mastered a dynamic touch that players several years his senior are still striving for, as well as a versatile approach to phrasing seemingly rooted in a philosophy of squeezing the most emotion out of fewer notes.
Yes, Woodard has dexterity in his corner, but given his list of heroes – Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix – it comes as no surprise that he excels when pursuing blues-y feeling over speed.
It’s a six-string school of thought also favored by Mayer, and so Woodard’s soloing style is probably no coincidence: “There are a lot of great albums but Continuum is my favorite one because it has more of a blues feel in that album,” Woodard explains. “I feel that it was influenced by The John Mayer Trio, which I am a huge fan of.”
Now 17 years old, Woodard is already a House Band Leader at the School of Rock in Santa Rosa, California, having started lessons at the institution back in 2019 – lessons that have helped him develop his own musicianship and personality, while giving him an outlet to express his love for Mayer's music.
All of this simply means that it proved to be exceptionally special for Woodard when the aspiring singer-songwriter unexpectedly received a package from Mayer earlier this year.
Receiving a guitar from a hero is anybody’s dream, but for Woodard, the best part wasn’t the ultra-high-end acoustic – it was the letter, which, as Ryan tells Guitar World, “was the best gift I have ever received”.
“I felt honored because John has been such a huge influence on my guitar playing and songwriting,” Woodard says. “To be recognized by your biggest influence in music is the greatest honor one can get.
“It made me feel very proud. When he signed his note, 'Your friend…' I truly felt like he meant it. I am really friends with John Mayer!”
Sure, the note was nice, but the guitar was also a pretty decent perk. Specs of the $4k instrument include a spruce top, rosewood back and sides, Fishman Gold Plus electronics, an ebony fingerboard and, of course, a Mayer signature inlay.
“It plays beautifully and it has a great sound,” gushes Woodard, who also says he visited the Martin NAMM booth specifically to get his hands on the guitar. “It is very easy to play. I dreamed of getting one and it came true.”
Ryan has wasted no time in putting his new OMJM to good use. Not only has he been taking it on the road to use at gigs, it’s also taken pride of place in his YouTube videos: peep his cover of Neon – flawless vocally as well as on guitar – for a demo.
The power of music for Woodard goes far beyond his affinity for the Martin OMJM and all things Mayer. As a youngster growing up with autism, Ryan looked to music, which helped him communicate in ways he had previously been unable to, and gave him the confidence to interact in new, creative ways.
After first picking up the instrument with the encouragement and support of his grandparents, Woodard began obsessing over the Beatles and Michael Jackson at an early age. Later, he moved on to consume other artists’ material album-by-album – a process that taught him a lot about music, but also a lot about himself.
“First, I learned a ton of music and every part of each album and all of the instruments that were on it,” Woodard reflects. “Second, it helped me become more verbal. Music and the guitar has been a huge part of my life and has had a huge impact on me for the last eight years.
“The guitar is my best friend. It was the first thing I could do where my ability was as good or greater than typical kids or adults. It gave me confidence because for the first time in my life I was able to interact with people as a peer or even a leader.”
Armed with his new Martin OMJM, the future looks bright for the ambitious singer-guitarist. Naturally, he has some lofty dreams – “I am dreaming big… I hope to sell out arenas, and I would love to be recognized with a Grammy” – but he’s also got goals that hit closer to home.
“I want to be the best guitar player I can be,” Woodard muses. “There is always room to grow, so I will continue with lessons and non-stop practicing. It would be great to collaborate with other artists and produce music.
“I would also like to use my talents as a guitarist to raise awareness for those with special needs,” he goes on. “I enjoy playing for non-profits and giving back to my community when I can.”