How to play blues like John Mayer

He’s one of the most imitated and highly regarded guitarists of the modern era, but John Mayer's style is unabashedly inspired by the greats.

It’s easy to forget that John Mayer’s arrival on the guitar scene at the turn of the millennium was greeted with a fair amount of suspicion by the powers that be. After all, what was this young man with Hollywood looks, a stable of pop songs and a boatload of SRV-inspired licks going to do to help drive the instrument forward?

The answer, of course, was a hell of a lot. Two decades later and Mayer is a bona fide guitar hero, one of the most respected players on the planet, and a multi-Platinum artist whose style and gear choices have inspired a whole generation of varied and exciting new guitarists.

Of course, the fundamentals of Mayer’s playing style remain rooted in the blues, and he has always worn his veneration of the greats – Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King, Clapton and Buddy Guy in particular – on his sleeve. But the way he brings all these influences together in such a wonderfully expressive and fluid style is what sets him apart, and makes him a true idol of modern blues guitar.

Lick 1

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Play Blues Like John Mayer Lick 1

This is bluesy pentatonic lick in the key of D Minor. The first bar is a simple run starting with a string bend and then entering into descending triplets. In the second bar, there is a raked Dm chord. Don’t focus too much on the 10th fret barred notes, if they don’t ring out that’s okay – you can even mute these if you wish. Mayer uses a lot of raked notes to achieve impact on the note he ends up on, and here it’s to emphasise the final note of the lick.

Lick 2

Play Blues Like John Mayer Lick 2

As a Hendrix devotee, Mayer often mixes rhythmic playing with lead lines, mostly to complement whatever vocal melody he might be laying down on top. This example is made up of two chords, an A Major and an F♯ Minor. They aren’t played like conventional barre chords. The root on the low E is played with the thumb, and three notes in the form of a triad are played on the D, G and B strings. This method of approaching chords allows other fingers to be freed up for embellishments. The final bar is a speedy triplet run that would take you back to the A chord on the repeat.

Lick 3

Play Blues Like John Mayer Lick 3

Aside from having fantastic blues chops, you may also see Mayer playing melodic phrases along one string. This is in part to emulate some of his slide guitar heroes. This lick pairs a hammer on and a slide in each three-note grouping as you ascend the neck in the key of A minor. Leave some space between each grouping to allow the phrase to breathe and don’t forget your vibrato. There may not be many notes here, but they really need to sing.

Lick 4

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Play Blues Like John Mayer Lick 4

This funky riff is high up the neck in the third shape of the C♯ Minor pentatonic scale. This is the relative minor of E Major – Mayer often plays in this key. For an authentic vibe you could ditch the pick and get stuck in with fingers. The first bar is made up of two 8th notes followed by three beats of 16th notes. The 16th notes contain some rests, which are easiest to explain if we count the beats in the bar as ‘1 & 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a’. The first rest is on the ‘&’ of beat 2, the next rest is on the ‘e’ of beat 3 and the final beat has 2 rests, one on the beat and one on the ‘a’. The rests have two played notes between each one. The second half starts the same but with a little note flurry at the end to add some lead guitar.

Lick 5

Play Blues Like John Mayer Lick 5

This D minor lick has some muted notes and some rakes and makes for a great, high energy style Mayer lick. Each bar starts with two muted 16th notes before doing into some double stop hammer-ons. The doublestops with hammer-ons at straight from the Hendrix playbook. Each bar ends with a rack down into a slide. The first bar rakes down three muted strings and lands with a slide on the A string from the 12th to the 10th frets. The second bar only rakes down 2 strings because we’re adding an additional note at the end of the slide where we pull off to the 8th fret.

Try It Yourself

Each lick here can be moved around based on what key you are playing in. They are mostly pentatonic based as John Mayer often sticks to pentatonic style patterns in his playing. He is a big fan of combining melodic phrases with rhythmic elements which makes for great self-accompaniment. If you want to channel some Mayer vibes into your playing, grab your Strat, flip it to position four (neck and middle pickup) and have some fun.

About the author

Leigh Fuge is a guitar teacher and professional musician from Swansea, UK. He has taught hundreds of students face to face and via the MGR Music platform. He has more than 10 years of experience working as a touring musician, session guitarist and teacher. Visit mgrmusic.com to find out about guitar tutors in your area.

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