When John Mayer first appeared on the scene some twelve years ago, it was easy to dismiss him as just a pop phenomenon. But with each new release he has shown that he is one of the most versatile guitarists around. Whether he's doing more soulful music, as on Continuum, playing acoustic folk rock like his latest album Born and Raised, or playing the blues with John Mayer Trio, Mayer has shown that he is one of the most gifted guitar players to come around in recent years. Here we will take a look at the guitar playing style of John Mayer.
Mayer is a Jimi Hendrix fan, always incorporating covers of the late musician in his setlists. Most notably perhaps “Bold As Love.” So it's not surprising that Mayer has adopted the same style of playing “within” the chord as Hendrix did, doing lot's of pull-offs and hammer-ons within the current chord structure. Mayer also tends to play barre chords in the same style as Hendrix, using the thumb to fret the base note and mute the A-string of the guitar. This way, his remaining four fingers can easier do fills and small licks.
Although you mostly see Mayer playing guitars with single-coil pickups, he has on occasion played a Gibson ES-335, as he told Guitarist Magazine in 2008: "I also have a gorgeous, beautiful sounding Gibson ES-335 which is another kind of sonic power to write for." John reportedly has over 200 guitars in his collection.
A great guitar to use if you want to emulate Mayer's single-coil sound is the 2012 Gibson Les Paul Standard, which has push/pull pots that turn the humbuckers into single-coils. That way you get both the crunch and power of a Les Paul, and the smooth melodic sounds of a single-coil pickup.
Talking about what guitar to use, Mayer had some interesting things to say on the subject to MusicRadar: "I'll tell ya the number one rule about guitars for me is that, I'm so sorry you couldn't get the color that you wanted, but if you pick up a guitar at a store and it's sunburst, and you hate sunburst, but it feels and plays great for you – lightning strikes – then that's your guitar!" So basically, if a guitar sounds great to you, then that's the model for you want.
Mayer's main inspiration when it comes to blues rock is Stevie Ray Vaughan, a fact that is quite apparent in Mayer's tone. In an interview with Guitarist Magazine Mayer shared his thoughts on how to achieve a similar tone to SRV, and in essence similar to John's tone as well: "Well, people who go for the SRV tone - it's not distorted, it's just loud. There's a difference in something loud hitting a microphone, and something distorted hitting an amplifier: two completely different things. People would be really surprised, if you are going for that Tube Screamer thing, just how much it was a volume thing and not a distortion thing with Stevie."
A major part in playing guitar like John Mayer is understanding that these days he mostly plays without a guitar pick, using his fingers instead. Mayer told Guitar World why he made this switch: "I can be in more places at once on the strings and over the pickups. It’s the closest I’ve managed to come to creating my own sound. I’m really interested in creating a place to stand as a guitar player. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m starting to get my chops back."
It is generally regarded that the thicker the string gauge, the better the tone. But Mayer makes the point to Guitar World that thick string gauge isn't worth much if you don't have the required finger strength: "I’ll tell you, the argument about string gauges is about the silliest thing a guitarist can engage in. Maybe you get a better tone off of bigger strings, but if you can’t bend up to the note, what’s tone anyway? But like Hendrix probably had .010s, so it’s whatever you can bend."