John Mayer is not exactly short on backline options but when he answered a last-minute call to support Ed Sheeran at his Gillette Stadium show in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the gourmand of electric guitar tone had to improvise and reach for the digital amp modeller, with reports suggesting that he used a Fractal FM9 for a solo set that was put together in a hurry.
Khalid had originally been scheduled to support Sheeran but pulled out after being involved in a car crash. Mayer had little time to prepare. Also, given that he is on tour with Dead & Company, and had a set the next night in Boulder, Colorado, the chances are his live rig was elsewhere.
Mayer used a couple of Martin acoustic guitars for his solo set, before joining Sheeran onstage with his Dead & Company prototype PRS Silver Sky signature guitar in hand for a performance of Thinking Out Loud.
Credit to YouTuber John Nathan Cordy for the spot, but zoom in on the fan-shot footage of Mayer’s support set, and you’ll see an FM9 there. Does this mean Mayer is a digital convert? Maybe. But maybe not.
Mayer has famously enjoyed an on/off relationship with digital modelling tech. In 2015, he had used a Kemper with Dead & Company. In 2018, he revealed that he left the guitar amp at home for studio sessions, preferring his Akai MPC instead.
And in 2019, he created a storm in a gear forum when used the Fractal Axe-Fx III at Coachella – which is ironic given the circumstances surrounding the 30 June performance with Sheeran, where he was replacing Khalid. At Coachella Mayer was guesting with him.
But Coachella was in the calendar. The Sheeran gig was an emergency. You need something you can throw in a gig-bag and take to the show, and the FM9, billed by Fractal as “the most powerful floor unit ever“ upon its release in 2021, is just that. And if it can get you through a stadium show at a moment's notice, well, maybe Fractal are onto something.
Mayer has always had some love for the Fractal and the amp modeller in general but in 2021 he explained why they have yet to render his collection of dumble tube amps redundant; they don’t understand gain structure. Yet.
“One thing it doesn’t respond to well is the change in guitar volume,” he said. “Because it’s an amp modeller, it doesn’t quite understand gain structure – it doesn’t quite get it.”
In Mayer’s view then, they also didn’t translate the physical movement of the string proper in the same way as a tube camp, what he calls “the whapoosh of a note”.
“Amp modellers don’t yet know how to take a note and kind of squeeze it the right way and send it out,” he complained. They also got confused with oblique bends. “Like three notes of different harmonic information; it just freaks out,” he said. “But! It’s pretty close. It’s not bad.”
And it got the job done last week. Mayer’s tone certainly sounded pretty darn tubular when he was soloing with Sheeran onstage on his Silver Sky signature guitar. You can check that out above.
Sadly, no close-ups here to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the FM9 was back in play but it’s a pretty safe bet. Sheeran’s monster looper pedal spaceship obscures all the floor candy on that rotating stage setup.