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John Mayer guitar lesson: 12 tips that will help you capture the essence of his versatile playing style

John Mayer
(Image credit: C Flanigan/FilmMagic)

John Mayer’s guitar vocabulary is anchored in electric blues with obvious tips of the hat to players like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, BB King and Eric Clapton. He is equally at home on the acoustic guitar too, and has a solid foundation of modern acoustic techniques and approaches in his arsenal.  

For this lesson we are using Mayer’s versatility as a vehicle to focus on a variety of core techniques and vocabulary. The rhythm guitar work in our tab examples showcases both the strumming and fingerstyle techniques used by JM. And, with blues forming a great well of inspiration for Mayer, we’ve recorded a handful of examples in this style for you to try.

Finally, we’re looking at John’s pop and ballad styles and you can try out a classic John Mayer drop-tuning. You may just need a heavier gauge spare string on hand for this one!

1. Rock Rhythm One

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Our first riff is a straight-ahead rock/pop track that features electric strumming and Hendrix inspired chords and riffing. 

The A minor pentatonic phrases in bars 2 and 4 are played in unison with the bass. Aim for a tight and driving feel with a light, blues-orientated overdrive.

2. Rock Rhythm Two

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John generally uses his thumb to fret the bass notes for the shapes you’ll see in bars 1, 2 and 3 – the chords sound effective and highlight John’s Hendrix influence.

Use a first-finger barre if you find it more comfortable, but make sure you keep the idle fifth string muted out.

3. Blues-Rock Lead 1

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The opening phrases in each bar flirt with the b5 note of the blues scale (Eb in this key), and Mayer’s use of the blue note is reminiscent of the way SRV used to include it.

4. Rock Lead 2

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You can really draw out the string bends in bars 1 and 2 to make them sing. Try to approach bar 3 with ‘feel’ rather than a rigid sense of timing – the rhythm of triplets can be tough to get bang on, but John’s bluesy style leaves room for a looser approach.

5. Fingerstyle Electric 1

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Once again, the thumb of the fretting hand is used for the bass notes on the low string. Mayer has great finger/thumb reach, so you may find this tricky if you have smaller hands but it’s easier to get the light ‘bounce’ in the bass notes if you can manage it.

6. Fingerstyle Electric 2

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We’re developing the previous riff with some more jazzy chords here. Listen to John Mayer Trio’s version of Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman to get a sense of John’s funky, soulful fingerstyle treatment of this kind of riff.

7. Dominant Blues 1

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The phrasing here is in bite-sized pieces with gaps in between, a typical BB King-like approach which you can apply when improvising. For a brighter, less bluesy sound, target the 14th fret C# note on the string bends.

8. Dominant Blues 2

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Another bluesy offering here, with some typical tricks to give our lick some bite. The important part about the quarter-tone bends in bar 1 isn’t that you hit the target pitch, but rather that the bend should be more gradual.

9. Acoustic Lead 1

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Here, we switch over to the acoustic guitar for an emotional pop track in 6/8. The final Cmaj9 chord sounds great and is one that John is especially fond of.

10. Acoustic Lead 2

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The use of doublestops helps to thicken up the lead melodies and the intervals used add an emotional quality. The semitone approach between the doublestops is also used to great effect.

11. Acoustic Fingerstyle 1

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Here we’ve used a classic JM open tuning – simply drop the low E string down to C. This gives the acoustic guitar a deep resonance and can provide the illusion of multiple musicians playing at once. 

The fingerstyle technique is fairly simple: bass notes are plucked with the thumb and the chords are played by the fingers.

12. Acoustic Fingerstyle 2

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A development of the previous example, the bass notes are a bit of a stretch here, so you’ll benefit from using a ‘thumb over the neck’ approach if you can. Take a look at a live performance of Neon and you’ll see that John has a long reach with his thumb.