I never wanted to become a rock star.
I don’t like performing enough, and I didn’t really try to learn to like it. Still, I’m a guitar player, and a pretty darn good one when I’m warmed up and practiced. I like to wonder what it would be like to perform in arenas with a kick-ass rock and roll band. It’s very much a part of who I am, what I like to do, and what I think about.
For example, some people can recall exactly where they were when Lennon and Kennedy were shot. I recall exactly where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard “No Such Thing” by John Mayer.
I was driving north on the 880 in the East Bay, just up from the Oakland Airport. I had KFOG, a mellow rock station, on the radio, which I listen to in the car when nothing else is good.
The song started. I heard the acoustic intro, a jazzy chord voicing that I didn’t recognize. Usually when I hear a guitar chord I can picture exactly where on the neck it is played. This time I couldn’t, and I was intrigued. A pop song with a complex guitar chord. Tell me more!
His voice enters with the drum kit and bass. He sounds young, and also unique. I figured he was about my age, maybe a little older. As the verse continued I couldn’t make out the chord changes. Was it just a couple notes changing, or was his entire hand moving around the neck? How many chord changes per verse? I couldn’t tell. Usually overly complex chords mean the musician is trying too hard, but this song felt seamless, and the melody line fit the chords really well, despite their complexity. The pre-chorus and chorus had the same affect. Simple, interesting, just kinda perfect. I could tell he was a bad ass guitar player but he also had the sense not to rip into a guitar solo and spoil the vibe of the song. They put a keyboard break in instead. Smart.
Damn, who the hell is this kid?
The tabloids have given John Mayer a rough time, and a lot of that is self-inflicted. However, as a musician and a guitar player, the guy stands out among the best. I’m not impressed by the technical extremists like Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen. I never really cared for those players who overly romanticize guitar solos. I don’t like songs that sound like a music theory thesis project.
I admire guitarists whose solos you can sing, who develop real voices in the way they play. I can pick out a solo Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or Slash just by listening to the way they strike the string. It’s distinct.
I don’t yet put John Mayer on the same level as those guitarists, but I give him a lot of credit for defining a style of guitar ballad that I’m not sure existed before him. Listen to “St. Patrick’s Day” from that same debut pop album, “Room For Squares.” Then listen to it again. Those guitar chords don’t exist anywhere else.
For that alone, I give the man props, but I also respect his later work. The jazz trio, the country pop album, the Hendrix and Petty covers. I feel like if I was John Mayer, I’d have had the exact same guitar playing career. Oh, and dating Katy Perry? Sure, that too.
For the last decade of my life, since I’ve been aware of the guy, there’s been a thread in my brain that feels like I missed out on being John Mayer. The other threads remind me that I don’t have his voice, the guitar chops, the poise on stage, the libido. I would be a terrible John Mayer, and if I could get into his head for a moment, I bet there’s a thread there that wishes he could just have a cute house in the suburbs with a hot wife and a couple of guitars hanging on the wall (like I do). Screw the fame. Simplicity, anonymity, and peaceful easy feeling is priceless. I’m sure he has those moments.
It’s fun to think about, and I enjoyed my brief time in the spotlight with The Rolling Sloans at MIT. Plus, I’ll always be able to pick up my guitar and sing John Mayer tunes to Lily.