John Mayer: The Last Guitar Hero
A beacon of guitar excellence in an era of musical mediocrity.
We all have our inspirations. People who give us hope. People who give us reasons to pursue our passions with renewed vigor every time we witness them do what they do best. For guitarists, we call those people guitar heroes. The world has seen many guitar heroes come and go. Names like Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Eddie van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Stevie Ray Vaughan come to mind when someone utters the words “guitar hero”. They’ve all left behind a unique legacy, and their styles have remained at the forefront of the guitar’s consciousness since they first broke onto the music scene. Yet of the five that I named, not a single one remains here today.
In fact, you’d be hard pressed to think of a guitarist that is either alive or mainstream enough to warrant any current influence. Don’t get me wrong, records like Led Zeppelin IV and Electric Ladyland will inspire young and old guitarists alike until the end of time, but we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that Joe Satriani’s next album will ever break into the popular sphere and rock the worlds of mainstream listeners like it would have a couple decades ago.
There simply is not a demand or interest for guitar-led music in today’s day-and-age. Where simplicity and producibility exist with drum machines and 808s, the concentration and musical prowess required to record guitar, or any instrument for that matter, is simply not worth it anymore, considering the billions of streams that computer-driven songs receive. And even though musicians like Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift can make the claim of being guitarists, their music is hardly evocative of the face melting, steel shredding guitar of the past that inspired me and so many others to pick up the instrument.
However, there seems to be one person who has been the sole face of the guitar for the past two decades. His guitar playing is reminiscent of the guitar gods of the past. His work has been the impetus for many guitarists for as long as he has been around. He took the guitar by the scruff of the neck and held it up for the world to see. That person is John Mayer.
My introduction to John Mayer was random and uninteresting. I listened to his cover of “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty after it was recommended to me, and the music purist in me was quick to say that no softened cover of any rock-and-roll song would ever eclipse the original. So I continued listening exclusively to “Hotel California” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Later that year, however, I ate my words, as I began to browse the unending catalog of John Mayer songs that would eventually become the very basis for my guitar playing. Venturing out into blues and R&B, I came across John’s music, specifically his album Continuum.
There are certain songs that are flawless. You just can’t get enough of them. They pull you in and don’t let go until they’re done. They hit every beat perfectly, and every decision made by the artist seems to be the right one. “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” off Continuum is one of those songs. It’s my favorite song from any artist. Period. The opening two notes are enough to raise the hairs on my arms with their reverberated serenity and bluesy melodicism. “Slow Dancing” is the best of John Mayer. It’s the first song of his that I recommend for anyone to listen to. Yet it represents an extremely narrow proportion of his full discography. In his two decades in the spotlight, he has given the world a melange of pop, folk, blues, country, and rock music to the point where it’s hard to properly identify the kind of music he actually plays. It is certain, however, that the guitar has benefited greatly in his tenure as a musician.
John Mayer is one of the most versatile artists today. Starting with his first album Room in Squares, his music was mainly singer-songwriter pop until the release of Continuum. From that point, it became hard to accurately and precisely characterize his work. Pop, country, folk, blues, rock, soul; you name the genre, it could probably be used to describe John Mayer. Every one of his records is different and distinct. Just listen to the John Mayer Trio live album Try!. You’ll find an album filled to the brim with blues guitar. Then listen to Battle Studies. You’ll find an album that can be best described as pop rock. The differences in tone and style are night and day. This versatility gives JM a very diverse fan base, lending to his influence as a guitar hero.
JM, despite being in the mainstream, is not just a pop artist. Sure, he writes pop songs, but the heart and soul of his music is blues. Blues, for decades, was the heart of all music, and only recently was it washed away with the advents of autotune and drum machines which essentially sucked the soul out of music. John Mayer has professed his admiration for blues legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, and B.B. King who in many capacities collectively form the backbone of his blues playing. And to say that John has lived up to their legacies is no overstatement. His songs like “Gravity” and “Vultures” are blues to the core, and feature guitar work inspired by the greats. The guitar greats have even approved of John’s playing. He’s been invited to the Crossroads festival many times. He’s played with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and B.B King. He inducted Stevie Ray Vaughan AND Albert King into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eric Clapton himself has called John a “master guitarist.” And if Slowhand calls you a master guitarist, you know damn well that you are one.
John Mayer’s dabbling in folk and country music has also yielded some great music. Born and Raised and Paradise Valley are the two records of JM’s which stand out with an acoustic and folksy sound. Both records help cement him as a serious songwriter as they are a change of pace from his other albums. His style on both albums is somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan or even Neil Young with a heavy emphasis on Americana. Even though they go a different route than the rest of his albums, they still feature the same bluesy fingerprint that he has created for himself. They convey a far more modest tone, in both the lyrics and music, giving listeners an intimate and personal experience with the albums.
And outside of the recording studio, John Mayer is still ridiculously good. In fact, I’d argue that his live performances outshine his studio recordings. Googling just about any live performance by John Mayer will yield you a truly spectacular viewing nine times out of ten. There isn’t anything he can’t play. For instance, if you were to watch his and Keith Urban’s cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” you’d be in for a smooth, tasteful, and guitar-driven performance. His rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” does justice to the original while still maintaining his own inimitable style. Even when playing along with his contemporaries like Ed Sheeran, he absolutely tears it up and delivers jaw-dropping guitar playing. Whenever he performs, it’s not some over-the-top spectacle with 30 background dancers and a DJ; it’s him with a band and a guitar. And that’s what music is all about. It’s not about a surge of synth lines, though that may be interesting. It’s about an artist connecting with their audience through their own emotional vulnerability.
If I were to recommend one concert of JM’s to watch, it would be his “Where the Light Is” concert. It takes his best album Continuum and gives it a life on stage with a beyond talented band and a maturing Mayer. You cannot tell me that after watching “Where the Light Is” that John Mayer is not a competent guitarist, nor should he be considered one of the greats. He starts out the concert with a canonic version of “Neon”, one which has gone down as one of the most legendary guitar performances in the 21st century. His renditions of bluesy titles like “Slow Dancing” and “I Don’t Trust Myself” feature two balls-to-the-wall blues guitar solos that transport their listeners into another dimension. His performances of “Stop This Train” and “The Heart of Life” provide poignant respites between his other awe-inspiring playing. Meanwhile, he sprinkles in Jimi Hendrix with “Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Bold as Love,” giving the concert that extra kick, as if it wasn’t already amazing. Within the span of this nearly 125 minute long concert, you get to see why John Mayer is considered one of the best.
Social media has become John Mayer’s home in many ways. Not only does he personally use social media as a platform to tease his music and inculcate his guitar wisdom in listeners, but it seems that he has inspired every other guitarist on social media. His song “Neon” is subject to countless tutorial videos and has been mythologized in the archives of guitar Youtube. Instagram is littered with covers of “Slow Dancing”, like a Guitar Center in 1987 would have been littered with kids playing “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. Virtually every guitar Youtuber has put out some kind of content about John Mayer, acknowledging that his name is worthy of millions of clicks. He made waves on the Internet with the release of his signature PRS Silver Sky guitar which was modeled after the iconic Fender Stratocaster. During its release, he was probably the most talked-about guitarist on online forums as the guitar received both criticism and praise for its imitation of the Strat. Mayer embraced the guitar gossip and used it as a way to promote the Silver Sky. Times are changing, and John Mayer has been a valiant guide for the guitar in our growing technological society in a way that few others could.
And despite his impressive resumé, he still does receive musical criticism from those who find his music to be cookie cutter. His songs like “Daughters” and “Your Body is a Wonderland” are criticized by guitar purists who feel that the songs are too bubblegum for their tastes. And these purists aren’t necessarily wrong; songs like “Daughters” and “Wonderland” are pretty bland and unoriginal compared to the works of past guitar heroes. But to say that these two songs are enough to discount JM’s immense catalog of bruising guitar work is ridiculous. He still continues to deliver sonic bliss every time he feels it out on a stage. John Mayer does this whenever he picks up the guitar; his soul is made of the same fabric that made up the souls of the guitar legends of the past.
And fair enough, John Mayer is NOT the groundbreaking guitarist that Eric Clapton was when he released Layla or played Crossroads for the first time. And John Mayer is NOT the Stevie Ray Vaughan that tore up the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982. And, no, John Mayer is NOT Jimi Hendrix playing his guts out at Woodstock. John Mayer is John Mayer. And maybe he has played it safe compared to those guitarists, but how could you expect any different in an industry where now even a slight deviance from conformity warrants exclusion? He played the hand he was given the best he could while giving the guitar the voice it needs in a plastic industry. He will still go down as a more innovative artist than the Chainsmokers when it’s all said and done. He’ll be the guy that led the way for singer-songwriters in the 21st century. He’ll be the guy who kept the greatest instrument ever alive all while producing original music at a time when no industry head would ever want anyone besides the same 7 industry-approved songwriters working on a song. Most of all, he’ll be the guy that was the modern hero for the millions of kids sitting in their bedrooms playing the guitar. And like a kid from Fairfield, Connecticut used to play along to old records in hopes of becoming the next Stevie Ray Vaughan, there are millions of kids around the world playing their guitars with dreams of becoming the next John Mayer.