John Mayer is a guitarist whose genre and playing style has evolved greatly over the last 20 years or so. From the expressly romantic, soft-rock/pop that introduced him to the world, through blues guitar stardom, to Americana singer-songwriter, his output has been consistently varied. This, plus some of his more ‘celebrity moments’, has meant an equally fluctuating reputation.
However, something never in question has been his status as one of mainstream music’s modern guitar virtuosos - Mayer was described as “a master” by Eric Clapton. His superlative technique, chord knowledge, and creativity is evidenced in just about everything he has released. Here’s a selection of six John Mayer songs every guitarist should hear. Enjoy!
1. Neon (Room For Squares, 2001)
The main riff in ‘Neon’ from 2001’s ‘Room For Squares’ album is a masterclass in complex, intricate guitar part writing. How it manages to be so rhythmically and harmonically dense without being overkill in relation to vocal it accompanies is almost a matter of mystery.
The main guitar is in ‘Drop C’ tuning (meaning the low ‘E’ string is down-tuned to a low ‘C’) which enables a greater sonic range on one instrument. This only adds to the guitar part’s apparent wide scope and sense of fullness.
‘Neon’ is one of a relatively small number of rock/pop guitar parts that can provide a genuine challenge for even advanced players, though with diligence, repetition and deconstruction of the internal rhythms, its true beauty can be accessed.
2. Belief (Continuum, 2006)
This song makes the list for multiple reasons. Firstly, the main riff’s brilliant low-high interplay, moving all over the fretboard for a moving, sliding, energetic part. Not forgetting this part’s funky re-imagining after the solo, later on.
Mayer's PRS Silver Sky Signature guitar
Secondly, the fantastic slide guitar work for additional texture and atmosphere, particularly well-executed live by the wonderful Robbie McIntosh.
And of course, the guitar solo, which is an especially fitting example of the energetic, melodic-blues lead work that characterized this period of Mayer’s career.
3. Vultures (Continuum, 2006)
Funky grooves this well executed are rare in the 21st Century mainstream. The main part – besides being great in itself – demonstrates wonderful interplay with the mighty basslines of the unparalleled Pino Palladino.
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In addition, the guitar solo is something really special. An ultra clean sounding, emphatically plucked section that seems to simultaneously play ‘out’ with grinding, awkward notes, yet be the most natural, fitting solo possible.
Vultures is one of many tracks from ‘Continuum’ that firmly established Mayer as an electric guitar hero to balance his acoustic brilliance.
4. In Your Atmosphere (Where The Light Is, 2008)
Where The Light is from 2008 is one of the great contemporary live albums and serves as a superb introduction to Mayer newcomers with its three-set approach –and this song (that also goes by the name of LA Song) appears in the acoustic part. Somewhat puzzingly, it never showed up on any studio album and the live album became it's official debut.
Another of John Mayer’s primarily acoustic songs featuring a main part that’s just so casually complex. Hammer-ons, slides, bends, harmonics, all in an acoustic ‘rhythm guitar’ part but without it feeling way too much is quite an achievement.
The song is also in an unusual and open tuning that is well worth exploring; open Esus2 EBEF#BE. He also uses it for Heavier Things' track Something's Missing. Think of it as DADGAD's more exotic-sounding sibling!
The tuning and Mayer's approach means In Your Atmosphere is injected with as much melody as the vocal line, meaning that what is essentially an accompanying instrument adds so much more depth than could be achieved with basic underlying chords. It's a tour de force of Mayer’s considerable simultaneous playing and singing abilities, if any further proof were needed.
5. Ain’t No Sunshine (live, 2010)
Mayer’s cover of this Bill Withers classic is full of juicy throwaway licks, underwritten with a smooth, funky groove.
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But it’s the solo where he really comes into his own. His version at the 2010 Crossroads Festival is arguably more famous, but even his great playing there is usurped by this version at Madison Square Garden.
Each cycle of the extended solo takes a different approach and creates something that builds and in which it’s patently obvious Mayer is fully immersed. Sit back, relax, watch and learn!
6. I Guess I Just Feel Like (single, 2019)
Mayer’s recent single is his most reflective song yet and suggests his guitar journey will continue to be surprising. It's a sublime balance of taste and restraint with what is becoming an endangered species; the outro solo.
There's a wonderful use of space in the main bulk of the song between a country approach to acoustic / electric dynamic with some choice Knopfler-esque licks adding accents between the vocals. There's a majestic but understated solo three minutes in that serves as a middle-eight, but it's only a suggestion of the lead goodness to come.
The outro solo is a lesson in taste and Mayer makes it count without ever over-egging the song's recipe. Biting yet refined, it's a beautiful showcase of his sense of feel. But like most of us, even Mayer had to work at it before he found the right blend – as the behind the scenes video shows. But we'll quite happily listen to all seven minutes of those outtakes.