John Mayer is going back to the start. "I began my career on stage with only a guitar and a microphone," he said on Instagram announcing his forthcoming March tour. "A lot has changed since then, but I knew one day I’d feel it in my heart to do an entire run of shows on my own again, just like those early days. It took a couple of decades, but I feel it now. I’ll be playing old songs. Newer songs. Songs you haven’t heard yet that I’ll be road testing - all on acoustic, electric, and piano."
While he's become an impressive ensemble player in his own solo bands and Dead & Company since then, he's not been averse to going back to lone rider mode over the years. He's not only a nuanced acoustic guitar player, but his best songs take on new dimensions when stripped back – and these highlights prove it.
1. Neon (Live At The Nokia Theatre, 2007)
A doozy from the first song on the live set of Where The Light Is filmed at LA Nokia Theatre (which also acts as a great introduction to Mayer World), this is his ultimate betcha-can't-play-this finger-twisting acoustic riff (even Paul Davids struggled with it) but it's an absolute earworm too.
The heart of the complexity is the 16th note fingerstyle pattern; it's all about the thumb and index finger here.
And never mind the technicality and that breakdown at the end, this is a masterclass in solo performance energy. Just make sure you tune your low E string down to a C before you start on the long road to learning it.
2. Shadow Days (2012)
The 2012 Born And Raised album aw Mayer grow his mane out and embrace a rootsier sound, but the record never sounded as intimate as this James Taylorish take on its lead single. The energy of his alternate picking on a small-bodied Martin 00-42SC Stagecoach guitar (released as a signature edition in 2013) propels the arrangement forward and highlights the hopeful theme of the song.
He's using the same kind of technique we heard on Neon here, so good luck learning it, folks! Cover bands must love him…
An antidote to the ascending celebrity star status Mayer was starting to openly retreat from, there's no gimmicks here; just pure songcraft and musicianship.
3. Man On The Side (circa 2000)
Ignore that unforgiving piezo tone, Mayer is untethered by it on an acoustic version of a song he reportedly co-wrote as a teenager in his dorm room at Berklee college of music in Boston. It was clear early on this was a muso with serious romantic troubadour chops, and he would harness that ability to channel the combination into songs that people gravitate to in arenas.
It dates back to his Lo-Fi Masters duo days with fellow Berklee student Douglas 'Clay' Cook (now in the Zac Brown Band) before he went solo, and that's where the 1999 demo album below originates from. Both Mayer and Cook would drop out of the prestigious college after two semesters to pursue performing as a duo in Atlanta.
During their time together, guitarist and vocalist Clay co-wrote songs that would be used for Mayer's first two solo albums – including Neon and No Such Thing. When Mayer talks about getting back to his solo performance days, Man On The Side is the kind of material he could be thinking about. It also appears in electric solo on 2002's Any Given Thursday live album, segued out of a performance of SRV's Lenny.
4. Slow Dancing In A Burning Room
Oh come on, we're hardly going to ignore this one – it's the blues ballad Stairway To Heaven when it comes to guitar shops! But it's so good and works fantastically acoustically.
One of Mayer's great talents is transposing a riff from his songs into chord voicings – often using embellished triads – and it's why his music is catnip for us guitarists burned out on cowboy chords. Here he's on-brand (to be fair he never goes off when he's playing acoustic) playing his other Martin signature, an OM-28JM.
This take on it is from his Martin's Jam In Place livestream during the pandemic and offers the bonus of Mayer wearing some kind of (probably embarrassingly expensive) beret / showercap and somehow carrying it off. Mayer gear fiends will also note the amp setup behind him features a Dumble Dumbleland Overdrive Special on the right just behind him.
5. Gravity (2022)
This is Mayer truly exposed, acoustic and enjoying every moment – an intimate Hilarity for Charity benefit show on 1 October 2022, filmed from the crowd. Going straight into the Continuum classic with the lead and getting lost in it, it's this kind of thing that is going to make his solo shows truly special.
He delivers the solo with some improvised edges, looping the chords to play over with a cutaway Martin that we think is likely to be his 000-14 Custom Shop.
6. 'Why Anyone Has To Go' (2022)
Mayer says he's going to be roadtesting new songs on his March US solo tour, and he has form for it – unusual for an artist of his status but certainly admirable.
Especially doing it in front of thousands in an arena, knowing it will end up on YouTube the next day – something Mayer alludes to in the intro of the emotive song above.
And he's not averse to leaving great songs off records too, if they aren't quite cooked enough. As he explains to Cory Wong below, and even performs it, one particular example is one called Over And Over and it's from his celebrated Continuum album era.
"It was a beautiful song and it would have totally fit the record," Mayer told Wong. "But I didn't understand the bridge. I couldn't get the bridge to work.
"That song was really special," he added. "It didn't get there because the bridge made no sense…"
He teases that the potential wedding dance favourite might get finished for a potential Continuum reissue, and that the album was originally going to be a double. "I don't do songs that are 95% cool," said Mayer. "I can't live with it." But you can hear Mayer playing Over And Over to Wong below – he must like it as he remembers a fair bit of the lyrics and the solo!
• See John Mayer debut his new replica of Jerry Garcia's Wolf guitar live and reflect on the experience in a new interview: "It's changing the way I play"