In recent years John Mayer kept a fairly low media profile, and it must've been hella difficult for him. The dude loves to chat and he's damn good at it. Ask him any question and you won't have to worry about posing the next one for a good 10 minutes. He's got a lot to say—and thankfully—most of it is interesting. He's restless and bursting with ideas, just like his albums that often zigzag between acoustic pop, grungy guitar blues, r&b and all points in between.
by Brad Tolinski
"I've often felt misunderstood," says Mayer with a good-natured laugh. "But now that I look at it, I think it's brought a certain kind of complexity to my career that I like. You can get four people in a room and one might mention my guitar playing, one of them would mention my songwriting, one of them might say they didn't like me for some reason, and another might say I'm really funny, but you just can't get a consensus. When I was younger that was troubling, now I find it empowering."
Perhaps Mayer's most "empowering" left turn came recently when the mainstream musician joined forces with one of the most radically counterculture bands in music history. In February 2015, while guest hosting The Late Late Show, John invited Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir to play with him in a studio performance. The chemistry was undeniable and subsequently, Weir, along with surviving Dead members Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, invited Mayer to join Dead & Company, a unit devoted to keeping the spirit of the late Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead alive in the 21st century.
Mayer was stunned by the offer. "Being asked to join Dead & Company is like being given a Samurai sword or something," he says. "It's an honor you can almost hold."
The guitarist will be truckin' between stadium gigs throughout the summer with the legendary jam band, but it doesn't mean he's giving up on his solo career. Over the last few months he released an excellent new album The Search for Everything in four-song increments over a period of three months. The staggered delivery was a grand experiment that Mayer insists needed to be tried. "
I feel 12 songs is a deterrent these days," he says. "I thought if I put out four songs at a time, the barrier to get people to listen gets lowered by a third. A 400-page book is a deterrent to me, where I'll consider 80 pages. Right now there is so much competing for everybody's attention, the struggle is to just reach people who already enjoy what I do and get them to stop for just a moment and listen.
"The Red Hot Chili Peppers released their best single in 20 years called 'Go Robot.' It's fucking astoundingly good, yet why have I not listened to their album? It's a question I had to ask myself."
Another question Mayer wrestled with was his choice of guitars and amps. A longtime Fender user, he felt he needed something different to handle the unique challenges of playing with Dead & Company. On a hunch, he reached out to legendary luthier and manufacturer Paul Reed Smith, and the result was the limited edition PRS Super Eagle, a three-pickup American made beauty. Mayer was so pleased with the result, his relationship with PRS quickly evolved into an amp line and a soon-to-be-announced mass market single-coil guitar (see sidebar, page 54) that has the guitar community buzzing.
As I mentioned earlier, John likes to talk and obviously there's a lot of ground to cover, so without further ado, let's let the boy riff.
On every album you explore some new territory on the guitar. What was your uncharted six-string path on The Search for Everything?
I found myself thinking about asymmetry. I've been called bland plenty of times, and I've always tried to figure out what that meant. I came to the conclusion that it had to do with symmetry or predictability. My natural instincts are to make my music tidy. But recently I started listening to a lot of music that wasn't particularly tidy, and I found I liked it better.
An example would be "Wooden Ships" by Crosby, Stills & Nash. With my tendencies, I would never have let some of Stephen Stills' solo runs leave the studio. However, after really immersing myself in the music, I started realizing what I initially thought were wrong notes were actually events that created interesting textures that weren't on my records.
My records have been very cubic, and I wanted to break out of that. Playing in Dead & Company had a huge impact on my thinking. Their music is so free it gave me another perspective. It helped me to remember that it's okay to have a guitar part that just plays in between verse one and the chorus, and doesn't reoccur between verse two, and the second chorus. In fact, you never have to hear it again.
Yes, I really enjoyed those ambient riffs that would just drift in and out.
I thought of them as being almost cinematic, like insert shots you'd see in a movie. For example, "Emoji of a Wave" has a nylon string guitar solo that's about four bars and disappears. The way I look at it, they create a deeper soundstage. The songs may be three-and-a-half minutes long, but I wanted them to sound three-and-a-half miles wide.
How do you rate yourself as a guitarist?
I think I'm good at playing parts that support a larger construct. It's only when you take into account my ability to write songs am I even a decent enough player to be talked about in something like Guitar World. If you allow that into the SAT score, it's only then can I even exist in the same conversation as other great contemporary guitarists. If you take me out of the song, and the fact that I'm playing the notes that I wrote, and these are parts of a song that have lyrics and their own intention and their own color, I'm not going to be able to really solo for all that long before I repeat myself.
You're being a little modest. You're one of the best pocket players in pop music, and that's one of the hardest things to do. The ability to play in the groove so far and tastefully that the listener doesn't realize they are being carried along.
Yeah, lifting the couch with one finger. If I'm doing my job right, you shouldn't have to pay attention to what I'm playing.
You have created a pretty identifiable guitar sound, but you're not afraid to reference music that you like or has influenced you.
Yeah, my school notebook is open and I show the pages because my heroes did that, too. Stevie Ray Vaughan was always talking about the people that influenced him, and that created a generation of informed guitar players.
The song "Helpless" is an obvious nod to Ron Wood-era Rolling Stones.
I wrote the guitar part back in 2011 for the Born and Raised album, but it just wasn't ready. There was something about the verses. They were a little too cocky, but I loved the guitar part because it had the sound of confidence. I'm not going to deny the hammer-on, pull-off Stones influence, and that dictated the direction of the recording. We were like, oh, let's get the high-powered Tweed Twin out of the locker and really embrace it.
A few of the songs are definitely little studies of influence. "Moving On and Getting Over" has the spirit of Sly Stone's "Family Affair." I'm a lover of music. I like being a historian when it comes to different ways to play the guitar. I can "do" a lot of other people that I admire, like Robert Cray, B.B. King or Stevie Ray.
It's fun to play in other styles. I'm not from outer space. I wish I was. I wish that I was a cosmic god who came down to Earth, and had the ability to subvert the blues and make it revolutionary like Jimi Hendrix did. I'm just never going to do that. I'm still a kid who listened to music in his bedroom, and tried to play just like it and that's why my albums have all these influences that at times sound like they came off the shelf like a book.
That said, I try not to use the whole book, but rather a sentence here or there as an ingredient in something new. There's a fine line between parody and turning your references into something fresh. If I feel my reference is too literal, I'm very quick to reject it.
"Roll It On Home" is a country homage, but it feels pretty authentic.
That's a great example. The temptation was to pick up a Telecaster and go for it, but I discovered when I did that it became parody. Instead I used my '64 Strat and rolled off the treble. If you notice, there is no real twang in my sound on that track. Once I stopped trying to imitate the country sound in a literal way, it became cowboy boots with denim, not an over-the-top Nudie suit. The idea was to get the music to sort of buff out the message of the song, which is this comfy arm around you, amber scotch haze sort of thing.
Tina Fey once said when a joke goes too far, writers refer to it as "a hat wearing a hat." I think about that all the time. At its core, a song like "Roll It On Home" already evokes J.J. Cale or the Eagles, so if you put a twang on it, it's a hat wearing a hat. My challenge was how to subvert what I was doing just enough to keep it real and in my world. The song could've been a joke, but I think I found a way of sidestepping that.
Another interesting thing about that song that makes it different is that the drum track — which is played by the legendary Jim Keltner —is actually from a different song! If you listen carefully, the cymbal crashes, fills and ride cymbals happen a lot of times completely off the bar line, and it makes the whole track fun and weird because it has this strange lope. It gave the song a bit of that asymmetry I was looking for.
The Mod Couple
[One page sidebar on the PRS J-Mod 100 head and cabinet]
When John Mayer wanted to create the ultimate amp, three names came to mind, Paul, Reed, Smith.
"The reason I love Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck is because they sound like themselves," says John Mayer. "What I wanted to do is get one amp that I can take anywhere, and sound like myself."
Mayer was almost legendary for having one of the most expensive rigs on the planet. On any given night, he would show up for one his shows with a backline consisting of rare boutique Dumble and Two-Rock amps that had guitar nerds genuflecting in the aisles. But those days are gone and, as far as Mayer is concerned, it's for the better.
"I wanted to get away from gear as a gallery," says the guitarist. "I just want a tool that allows me to get my sound quickly and easily. I had such a great experience with Paul Reed Smith making my PRS Super Eagle guitar, I asked him to make me an amp, too."
The result was the J-MOD 100, a hand-wired amp that Mayer describes as having the strength of a Dumble, the sweetness of a Fender and the power section of Marshall. A single channel amp featuring a switchable gain stage, and tone-sculpting features including a bright switch and presence control, it's simple to operate but versatile enough to recreate the broad array of sounds heard on all seven of Mayer's albums.
"We worked hard to create an amp that was an amalgam of all the amps I love," he says. "It has a lot of different spirits in it."
The J-MOD 100 features four 6L6 power tubes and four 12AX7/ECC83S preamp tubes plus five separate boards, all with over-sized traces for tonal integrity. Each board is dedicated to a particular part of the circuit: preamps section, power section, front panel controls, bias jacks and the effects loop.
At $5,990 the Mayer/Smith collaboration ain't cheap, but considering that Dumble amps are going for $70,000 it ain't bad either.
"Paul is as eccentric as all hell, but I love him as human being," says Mayer with genuine affection. "We talk all the time. I now know the more exacerbated and annoyed he sounds, the more fun he's having. I'll suggest something, and he'll grunt and groan, 'Aw, hmmm, errr, okay, just let me think about it.' I'll respond, don't worry, we don't have to do that. And he'll say, 'What, are you kidding, I love every second of this!' "
It certainly appears that it's just the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship. Mayer lets a bombshell slip that he and Smith will have a major announcement in the upcoming year. While Mayer has been long associated with the Fender Stratocaster, that could change. "You may soon see something with single coils come out of PRS," says Mayer slyly. "I'm looking at a prototype guitar on my couch right now that will occupy that space. I love Fender guitars, but I don't love the company. I can call Paul-the guy that started the company on the phone at any time of the day-and tell him what I'm moved by, or tell him what I want to change, and he'll fire up the troops and make it happen that day. He's interested in building guitars, not selling merchandise."
When you talk about asymmetry, it's almost as if you are using these devices to engage the listener in a subconscious way. A way to draw them in, so they listen again.
The way I see songs is that you have a voltage at the beginning of this copper wire, and you want to maintain the same power until the end of it. There are all these capacitors that can happen inside of a song, and if the lyrics don't make sense, or phonetics of the lyrics aren't right, or it takes too long to get to the chorus, you can lose that energy. What I try to get is the very same amperage that begins the song to maintain throughout. If you can get the spark to go from beginning to end, there's a good chance the listener will love it the first time and the 100th time, and that's interesting to me.
Earlier you were being a bit modest about your skills as a soloist, but recently you became a regular member the Grateful Dead offshoot, Dead & Company, one of the greatest improvisational units in rock and roll history. That must've given you some validation. How quickly were you able to assimilate in that world?
Assimilating into that world means essentially being a conduit. The people that attend those shows are not coming to see me, they're going to see their friends, visit memories and listen to the music. My job is to drive them to this place that they thought they were never going to see again. I mean, the greatest thing in the world is when people say to me that they thought they would never see another Dead show, and they were able to get the feeling again.
It's the polar opposite from being a solo act where everything is doing stuff ad hoc for your own benefit. I had really grown tired of making things better for me, and it was great to just became a musician in a band-a really incredible band. It is such an amazing opportunity, because I thought I would have to die and come back to life in some other time to become part of a band like this.
There was a point in my life where I was just chipping away, but wasn't sure why I was chipping away. I was a little lost. I'm telling you, nobody dreams past their third record. Nobody dreams about their fourth record, but you're still in this role where you go, "Well, we have to make another one. We got to keep going, even if you're not sure why. That's when strange things start to occur, and you start doing and saying strange things. You have achieved your objective, but you're not sure what the next objective is, so you're just hanging around the airport terminal being a creepy dude. [laughs]
Musically, what is it like to play with Dead &Company?
Most music has defined layers. You have the rhythm section on the bottom, the keyboards come around you and vocals go on top. With the Dead, it's a whole different geometry, and you have to play in the center of it. I'm a drummer's guitarist, but ifI played to just Billy Kreutzmann, I wouldn't be playing with the band. You have to play equally with the entirety of their sound, and that is very different for me. The reason the Grateful Dead worked was because of Jerry Garcia's ability to play all these notes and just keep expressing and expanding. I mean, the Dead could play something like "Sugaree" for 15 minutes and keep it interesting because the notes Garcia played were supported in different ways by the band's cascading drums. The drums are like a waterfall in that song, and they just keep rolling and changing and become more of a melodic support instrument. That's a different way of thinking for me.
"Sugaree" wouldn't be nearly as interesting if another band played it. The song is so simple. It's pretty much a study in two chords, but what ends up happening with the Dead is that everybody ends up inhabiting everyone else's realm at one point or another, and music ends up shifting in beautiful ways. The bass will come up to the vocal register, the drums will respond to the guitar, and if you mute Bob Weir, the world's most selfless guitarist for even a minute, the whole band falls to the ground. The antigravity disappears!
The band is all about musical antigravity, and I'm still not sure how it works, but when it does all people want to do is be around it. The trick for the guitarist is to understand that there is no lead guitar. If you solo like a traditional lead player it sounds terrible. I've heard tapes of my performances with the band, and when I hear myself playing lead like I would do in my own band, I cringe.
Jerry had this ability to play in a very melodic, stately way. You wouldn't call it shredding. The times I've shredded because the moment got the best of me, or because I thought that it was the most efficient way to get the crowd riled up, it does not sound good. The music of the Dead is this shared frequency space between the entire band, and I've become so accustomed to it, it's hard when it's not in my life.
They're more like a drum circle.
... And only those guys can do it. What really excites me, in addition to being part of a great tour, is that they are passing down this knowledge to me, and maybe I'll be able to pass to someone else. There's only a handful of people that will be going forward in life carrying on the scholarship of what this music means, and I'm honored to be one.
How is your playing similar to Jerry's and how is it different?
Oh boy, that's a great question. There's a blues mentality that's similar. I think I was able to enter it that way. But, at the same time, it's very different because he was more a major key player. I was weaned on Stevie Ray, Hendrix and Clapton, who all played primarily in minor pentatonic scales and Jerry played in the major pentatonic. The Grateful Dead music is so lush, sweet and sad-but it's a different kind of sadness. Blues is this guttural thing and the Dead is more whimsical and wistful. But I'm making a gross generalization. Garcia's ability to blend minor and major at the same time is stunning.
I would also say the challenge of playing with Dead & Company is that you have to always be aware of the big picture. You have to think about what the song is, what the message is, where the sadness is, where the hope is, and how to flow with all of those things. You've got to learn how to create on the fly, and how to make a mistake with grace while keeping calm.
What was the hardest thing for you to learn?
The ability to make a mistake and recover quickly, because the music is always pushing ahead. Also, as a guitar player, I play in a sort of ham-fisted way, so I had to learn how to use the pinkie in different ways I wasn't used to. I also had to learn how to play diminished scales for songs like "Slipknot," which has some jazz-fusion elements. Initially my hands wouldn't do it, but I loved the process of watching my fingers eventually do something they couldn't before.
Most people associate you with a Fender Stratocaster, but for the Dead shows you've been playing a Paul Reed Smith Super Eagle made specifically for that gig. How did that come to pass?
When I was asked to play with Dead & Company, the first thing I asked myself was, what guitar should I use? I had an Alembic, a brand Jerry used to play, but I thought it was a treacherous visual zone, because it was so closely associated with him. It was that "hat wearing a hat" problem. When I thought of who could understand the complexity of the situation, I thought of Paul Reed Smith. I reached out to him, and he said he had actually been thinking of reaching out to me. We talked a bit about what I might need and he shocked me by how quickly he went to work building the first prototype. It isn't a simple guitar, either. The Super Eagle has three coil splits, a custom-designed audio pre-amp, a treble boost-it's crazy!
It turned out the biggest thing was figuring out the scale length. The first version had 25 1/4 scale, similar to a Les Paul. It was easy to play, but it didn't have the sound I wanted. I also knew I needed a guitar with three pickups, because you have to be able to be out of phase when you want to be, and that didn't work because the scale length wasn't long enough. So Paul made a second at 25 1/2 scale length, but it was too tight. The third was 25 3/8 and it was joyous, because I was able to get the snap I needed, but it was short enough for me to bend the strings comfortably.
The other question was where to place the middle pickup to get Jerry's sound. Once we got that right, it got really fun. We put a preamp inside the guitar, which made it clean and hyper-dynamic. The Super Eagle was very different from what I was used to playing, and it was a little difficult to figure out. But eventually I got it and the relationship I have with that guitar is very special. It goes with me on my back, and it goes with me on the bed in the bus, and it goes with me on the bed in the hotel. Now, it's almost like my partner in the trenches.
This is not a guitar question, but of interest to many musicians. You've had difficulties with your voice over the last several years, which must've been frightening. How are you doing?
Really good, thank you. I deal with the fact that my voice has been through surgery, and through a treatment ofBotox which chemically stopped it from working. I've lost maybe eight percent of my facility, but I've gained a lot more in the way of maturity as a singer. My range got cut by a couple of notes, and maybe my falsetto got cut a bit more than that, but the way in which I sing is more refined and I think it more than evens out. You lose a certain facility as you get older anyway.
Was it a technique issue? Did you have to learn how to sing differently?
Yes, it was partially due to the way I sing. Instead of my vocal chords vibrating from side-to-side, they were being pushed forward a lot. Stylistically, I wanted to get that element out of my voice anyway. It probably wouldn't have been so bad, but I ran into trouble because I had come off tour, and went straight into the studio.
You don't realize how much you sing when you write music. I was singing all day, and then at night I was having a problem with acid reflux due to the amount of alcohol I was drinking. I wasn't really drinking excessively, but when I was on tour I'd play and then I'd celebrate and I'd play and then I'd celebrate, and so on.
I haven't had a drink in a long time. I sleep on a foam wedge. It's my love letter to being a singer. I always looked at myself as a guitar player who shouted on top ofit, and now I realize that it's something you've got to maintain, but you can't tell somebody how to do that before they're ready. When it came down to my circumstance it was a combination of things. It was a very subtle and wicked combination of overuse and acid reflux. But I'm cleared to go and the problem no longer exists. Honestly, it's not the worst thing to be scared into being well-behaved. I hate to say it, but hey, readers of Guitar World, the voice is an instrument. I know I'm being a downer, but protect yourself!