John Mayer is one of the most lyrical soloists playing today – learn his tricks to crafting memorable leads

John Mayer
(Image credit: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)

John Mayer may be popular in the broader market for his more pop-orientated output, but nevertheless his blues roots shine through all his work. Mayer is an extremely accomplished blues player who has done his homework when it comes to the history of the genre.

Hi style is lyrical and free flowing and he is a master at creating a memorable and concise guitar solo. While there are elements that might be traced back to greats such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Robben Ford and Eric Clapton, Mayer has forged a highly personal sound to back his influences up.

His appreciation for Jimi Hendrix is clear from the fact that he has covered several of Jimi’s songs. His trio with Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino is an inspiration to many up-and-coming players, combining free wheeling improvisation with deep grooves.

In this lesson, I’ll cover several of his signature approaches to crafting lines. He is a master at weaving in and out of the changes using blues scales combined with other structures. It’s no accident that Mayer spent time at Berklee College of Music, especially with guitarist Tomo Fujita. His thoughtful approach to playing and writing always contains interesting twists and turns.

In our first example, we’re looking at working around the D blues scale. Note that we sometimes use the bluesy b5 and at others the perfect 5th. Another element introduced here is John’s use of slides up and down the string - this lends a lyrical feel to his lines. 

Example 2 was partially inspired by John’s solo on his amazing song Gravity. I took inspiration from some of those lines and developed them in a way that seemed natural. The repeated bending idea is one that John often uses.

Next we see the use of double-stops: as we’ve discussed in this column before, using double-stops is a useful way of filling out the texture in a trio or small group. It can add weight to a rhythmic idea, too.

In example 4 we see how John might weave a line by adding the major 9th to the minor pentatonic – this is a strategy employed by Josh Smith, Clapton, SRV and of course, Jimi Hendrix.

Mayer’s phrasing is worth listening to; the fact that he is a great singer is a considerable factor in his lyrical style, as BB, Freddie and Albert King also showed us.

It’s worth listening closely to how singers phrase. Many leading instrumentalists have been inspired by the great singers and the way they deliver a line. Why not try it, too?

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 4, Bass 5, Middle 4, Treble 6, Reverb 4

Go for an American-style amp sound – Mayer uses Dumbles but a Fender tone works superbly too. Reverb will be essential and a delay pedal will help. For solos, add some light overdrive but don’t overdo it. Mayer loves to use more esoteric effects such as filters and the Hendrix-inspired Uni-Vibe, but go for the core sound first and only then experiment.

Example 1

In our first example, we look at Mayer-style slides and quarter-tone bends which spice up the articulation and give a more dramatic sound to the bluesy lines.

Example 2

We start with a repeated bend and the idea is then moved down the scale – working motifs like this gives a solo cohesion.

Example 3

Double-stops are a common device used by Mayer and provide harmonic colour as well as thicker textures. We round the lick off with a sliding bluesy idea.

Example 4

Note how Mayer adds the 9th to the minor pentatonic; see it weave its way around the chord tones of Dm and Bb - D natural minor contains both chords.

Example 5

This one’s a riffy and repetitive blues idea with a few wide intervals. Note the use of double-stops again, which fill out the texture.

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