John Mayer was weaned on the blues. The trifecta of Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King and Buddy Guy introduced him to blues guitar when he was a teenager, and blues has remained the essence of his style. But even so, Mayer admits he has never learned a blues solo – and has explained why maybe you shouldn’t bother either.
Speaking to Rick Rubin on the über producer’s Tetragrammaton podcast, Mayer recalled how he got started on the instrument, playing on a Washburn acoustic guitar that his parents rented from the local music store, speaking of his incredulity that they would get his brother – his younger brother, no less – an electric guitar before him (his dad said the electric sounded like “dreck”), and how he learned by playing along to records.
Mentally, he would screen out the guitar and the vocals and use the track as a de facto rhythm section. Didn’t he ever want to harmonise with the solo? asked Rubin. No. Learning the rudiments, the pentatonics, the blues scales, and how they all fit together was one thing but he saw little point in learning another player’s solo, arguing that the magic was there in the room, and there is no way any of us can recreate it all these years later.
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“I never saw the value in learning a blues solo, because I knew how ephemeral they were,” he said. But I saw the value in learning the vocabulary. Here’s the thing about blues soloing: I saw it like, if you sit down and learn every solo, you go like this… ‘Yeah, I know how that goes…’ If you have a pretty perfunctory knowledge of the pentatonic blues scale, and you hear someone play a blues solo, it might sound magical at first. But as soon as you go [hums solo], ‘Got it! I’ve got what that was.’ But that is not what that was! Whatever that was before you heard it is the thing.”
The thing being the magic, the mojo, or whatever the essence was when the solo was recorded and the intention behind it. That, says Mayer, is the important part.
What we should be taking from the great blues solos of our time is the spirit behind them – and of course understanding the notes that made it. Mayer says he would mimic but only to get into the zone and start improvising around it.
“I always would say it is like playing last night’s lotto numbers – the numbers aren’t any good any more,” he said. “They are good if you are in the room. They are good if you are about to play them. So I would always try to go for the thing that made the solo – what’s the scale that makes the solo? And how can I get into that same spirit that the player is in? Now, there were certainly times where I would mimic what I heard, more as a way to get me into the centrifuge, and then start playing.”
If that mimicry was useful to Mayer, helping him develop a soloing vocabulary, it was when he started playing with his heroes and he felt he got closer to the source that he was able to tap into the essence of what they were playing. Sure, it was an education to be playing along to classic blues records and using them as a virtuoso backing band, but playing with the likes of Buddy Guy in concert, and learning to playing in the moment with him, was like taking the final degree exam.
“It is one thing to play along with a Buddy Guy record from 1972, it is another thing to play in the same moment with the same supply of oxygen as Buddy Guy,” he said. “Because you have a point of reference for the moment the same as he has, so every thing he is playing is in that moment. And that’s the university lesson. That’s the highest. That’s the doctorate.
“When you hear someone else in that moment playing, you’re grabbing from the same moment, and you hear what they do, that’s the best teaching in the world – not what it must have been like 30 years ago from the time you were listening to it.”
In addition to Guy, Mayer has played with the likes of Eric Clapton, BB King and Chicago blues trailblazer Hubert Sumlin – an experience he describes as “wild”.
“Those guys were digging something out of the earth when they play, like an oil drill or something, just getting something out of the earth,” says Mayer.
And when you have these pioneers digging raw materials out of their instruments, they are putting together the foundations for other players to build upon. The blues legends are the reference for us all. Mayer likens them to baseball cards, or wearing a star NBA player’s jersey; you can learn from them, you can pretend to be them when you’re practising, but you can never be them. Authenticity isn’t something that is learned.
“One thing about me that you’ll never see me attempt is that style of music because when I hear it I go, ‘I don’t buy that for a second, John.’ When I do it, I don’t buy it,” he said. “It’s fun but you’ll never hear me do Blind Blake stuff, or even Lightning Hopkins who I love. I’ll mess with it at home, but there is a line to where I think you should go.
“I came up with these guys as references; they’re like baseball cards. If you are into the NBA, you wear different jerseys, pretend you’re a different player in the driveway; that’s what I was doing. I did it for a lot of years.”
You can watch the whole conversation between Mayer and Rubin above. And subscribe to Rubin’s Tetragrammaton podcast here.