Guitar Heroes

John Mayer

A songwriter that has navigated pop, blues and country while claiming the reputation of a guitar legend. We look at the history, playing style and gear used by John Mayer.

Posted: 10th August 2021

History

Born in Connecticut, Mayer became fascinated with guitar at a young age when seeing Michael J Fox in Back to the Future. At 13 he got his hands on a guitar and his neighbour gave him a cassette of Stevie Ray Vaughan. This led to an obsession with the blues, quickly hunting down Buddy Guy, B.B King, Freddie King and more. Within a couple of years Mayer was playing in bands and at 19 he enrolled at Berklee College of Music, before John eventually dropped out and pursued his solo music career.

His first EP ‘Inside Wants Out’ was released in 1999, which was primarily focused on an acoustic pop sound. This caught the attention of industry professionals and Mayer went on to record the albums ‘Room For Squares’ and ‘Heavier Things’ that featured Grammy-winning hits such as ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’ and ‘Daughters’. Though Mayer’s sound was primarily pop-focused, his guitar playing was the focus of the track arrangements and his nod to the blues was always there, including standout performances of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Lenny when playing live:

After performing and releasing a live album with Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan as the John Mayer Trio in 2005, Mayer went on to release Continuum which further bridged the gap between blues and pop music. Mayer’s success continued to rise with five Grammy nominations in 2006 and sold out shows at Madison Square Garden. Since then, John Mayer has gone on to release Battle Studies, Born & Raised, Paradise Valley, The Search for Everything and most recently Sob Rock. Each album has crossed the lines between alternative rock, country and western through to blues and even eighties pop. Between these albums he also toured with The Grateful Dead’s former members - Dead & Company.

Playing style 

Mayer’s playing style has strong roots in blues music, primarily from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, mixed with his own individual playing style. Here’s a few tips to get closer to his signature sound.

Fourth position
If you’re playing Mayer, grab a Stratocaster and put it in the fourth position, this combines the neck and middle pickup for a chimey, clean sound. Perfect for those SRV style licks! Check out our Stevie Ray Vaughan Guitar Heroes article for more tips to emulate that playing style.

Thumb Stops
John rarely plays with a guitar pick, instead his finger technique mixes his thumb and first finger, which is perfect for grabbing chords. He also stops the strings ringing out with his thumb for rhythm that mimics that of a snare drum. A good example can be heard of this thumb-slap style on ‘Why Georgia’ and ‘Neon’.

Triads
Another classic ‘Mayerism’ is playing triads. This is where instead of playing the entire chord you play the root, third and fifth notes. Mayer will often slide between these chords. A good example can be heard in ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’ he also frequently uses his thumb to play the root note of the chords and let notes ring whilst playing hammer ons around those triad shapes.

Pick Rake
A style that’s synonymous with blues and SRV-style playing is the pick rake. This is where you pull up or down with your picking hand on muted strings to create a raking style motion. This can be heard in ‘Who Did You Think I Was’ and in the solos on the John Mayer Trio recordings.