John Mayall talks treasured guitars and shirking practice
The building's burning down - what guitar would you save?
He's the godfather of British blues and the bandleader who broke Messrs Clapton, Green and Taylor. Let's see how John Mayall handles the 10 questions that we ask everyone...
The building’s burning down - what guitar would you save?
“All the guitars in my past have been hand-me-downs and not very good, but the one on the cover of A Special Life is my personal favourite.
"That one is an Eric Johnson Stratocaster in origin, but with all the guitars I have, I cut them up and make personal designs out of them. I cut out the parts I don’t need, tear out everything except one pickup and volume control, then whatever shape is left, I decorate it.”
When did you last change your own strings?
“Maybe six months ago. I don’t really change the strings very often. If it plays alright, that’s good enough.
"I only have one pick, too, and when that wears out and gets too many grooves in it, I’ll get another one. I don’t do much as regards maintenance.”
What's the oldest guitar you have?
“Well, the one on the cover of The Blues Alone was the oldest I had. It was a Japanese hollowbody I picked up in Korea when I was in the army [in the 50s], and the first one I started doing my artwork on.
"The fire of 1979 destroyed my house and everything in it. So now I’ve got nothing from the early days. All those guitars on the albums of the 60s and 70s are no more.”
What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on stage?
“The thing that comes to mind is when James Quill Smith - who was the guitar player in my band in the early 80s - got electrocuted onstage.
"That was traumatic. He had to be carried off, and that actually put a stop to the show. A very near-death experience. You don’t forget that in a hurry.”
What strings do you use?
“I think they’re Ernie Balls, medium-gauge. I like those because they’re not too hard to press down, and they still have a lot of good tone to them.”
What are you doing five minutes before you go on stage?
“The important thing for me is to make sure I put together a setlist with a lot of variety. You know, different keys and different moods, so it doesn’t sound the same, number to number.
"Also, I’ll mix it up as regards to the instrument. So I’ll do two songs on keyboard and harmonica, then the third one on guitar, then back.”
And five minutes after?
“Well, I don’t really wind down. Before the show, I’m out in the foyer signing autographs, and at the end of the show, the band have got their own CDs to sell.
"We all come out together to just hang out with the crowd. It’s all part of the connection. It’s all very natural.”
When was the last time you practised, and what did you play?
“I don’t practise. I love playing with other musicians, and we feed off each other, but I don’t usually play at home. It’s not the same, because I don’t get inspired.
"It would seem like a chore. I’ve thought about improving my technique for five minutes here and there, but then it’s like, ‘Why am I kidding myself? I’m never going to learn that!’”
What advice would you give your younger self about guitar if you had the chance?
“The main thing is that it’s not the technique or how many notes you play, but that you put your personality into the playing.
"Although you’ve got influences, what should come out is your own take. Be able to express yourself, your way. I think my playing is pretty constant. I never learnt to read or write music. I can’t play a scale to this day. It’s all very instinctive.”
What's the closest you've come to quitting music?
“Well, I haven’t, really. The audience is always there, and I’m happy it’s worked out that there’s demand for my music and I’m able to fulfil it.
"I don’t have any experience of playing to less than a full house. Happily, it’s always been that way.”
John Mayall’s latest long-player, A Special Life, is available now. UK tour dates begin in Truro on 16 October.