John Mayer has opened up on his soloing strategy, explaining that his love for playing the blues has to be tempered by his ears overruling his hands and calling time on his solos to address the needs of the song.
Speaking to Guitar World, he described an internal struggle between the freewheeling instincts of the lead guitar player, and the songwriter who has to keep score at the end of the day and make sure the track still works. He knows all too well that it's all very easy to get carried away with an electric guitar in our hands.
“I let my ears rule,“ he said. “So while it’s fun – just primally fun – to get more time to play a solo, I become deeply upset with myself when I start to hear myself thin out. It’s almost like a fountain pen, and I can always tell when the writing gets thin as a guitar player. And I don’t tolerate it in myself, even though the other side of myself just wants to let loose.“
As Mayer tells it, the ear is “boss“ when it comes to exercising a sense of restraint in his compositions. But when it came to conversation, the blues-pop superstar was in expansive mood, talking in detail about his use of Fractal Axe-Fx modellers, his three guitar amplifier setup, and the clarity of tone that he wanted from his rig to help those solos really pop off the fingerboard.
“For that kind of session-player, speed-of-note thing, that picking response really comes from direct input or a Dumble amp, which, really, is a direct-input amplifier,“ he explained. “Even though it’s coming through a speaker, everything in those amps moves so fast, and in the best, cleanest way, that when you pick that single-note stuff, you’re just in heaven because the notes are so crisp.“
When discussing his blues playing, Mayer made the surprising admission that he did not feel that he had the sufficient vocabulary of phrasing to put together longer solos, or to call himself a bluesman. And although Sob Rock found him channelling his Journeyman-era Eric Clapton, Mayer's ear was waiting in the wings to shut him down if he got carried away.
“My ear goes, 'I will simply not tolerate a solo that’s twice as long as it needs to be. I heard you lose your motifs. I heard you lose your lyricality. I heard you lose your phrasing,'“ he said. “That’s why I don’t really consider myself a blues guitar player – because my phrasing gives out after a certain period of time.
“And I love playing blues guitar. I mean, it’s like constant downhill skiing. It’s an endless water slide. But the ear rules. The ear is the producer of the record, and the ear is the one that has to call bullshit on every other part of you as a composer and a musician and a guitar player.“
Mayer explained that he released a video of him playing the first single from Sob Rock, Last Train Home, with the solo removed from the mix to help young and aspiring players work on their soloing chops, recalling when he was learning the instrument, soloing over blues masters such as BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughan was a chastening experience for a novice. And he shared some advice on how to compose the perfect solo.
“I think pitch, repetition, motif, all these things have a lot to do with which parts of your emotional map a solo is hitting at any given time,” said Mayer. “I mean, if you start high, there’s nowhere left to go, right? So I see it as building a ramp.”
The ramp metaphor serves a purpose, too, because once the ear pipes up you are going to have to avail yourself of the next available exit, and work out how to finish the solo with the song – and your dignity – intact.
“Just have fun… but don’t go crazy. It’s like, ‘Here, go tool around in this Ferrari, but don’t bring it back crashed.’ Get it back into the garage so the song can keep going. Because the song is the boss, and that’s it.“
Sadly, some of Mayer's most out-there solo ideas might never see the light of day. Mayer discussed how exacting he was about lifting influences and dialing in a sound that felt authentically his. And that meant an 80s stadium-rock moment straight from the Phil Collen playbook – Jackson guitars, a Rockman and a Marshall – was consigned to the cutting room floor.
“Don Was has said he wishes he could’ve sold tickets to the recording of this album, just for the guitar parts,“ said Mayer. “Because the guitar parts, some of them that never made it to the record, it was just so funny to hear that sound revived. There were times where I would take a Jackson and run it through a Rockman, which is as Def Leppard as you can get. It’d be a Jackson through a Rockman with, like, a [Marshall] JMP, and I’d start playing these kinds of Hysteria lines.“
Def Leppard? That would definitely have violated all rules on restraint, but you can hear what did make the cut as Sob Rock is out now on all formats via Columbia.