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The New Guitar Gods

Strumming with the next generation guitar heroes

John Mayer

John Mayer on February 9th, 2007.

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The guitar has been the king of rock & roll instruments for more than half a century. What you are about to read are twenty reasons why the present and future of rock guitar are as exciting and explosive as its history. In attack, technique, lyrical ambition and experimental drive, these players are all descendants of the original heroes-including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and Jimmy Page – who transformed the electric guitar in the Sixties and Seventies. As John Frusciante says, “For me, the genuine guitar heroes had a lot to say musically and put themselves out there. They tried to take the instrument to new places.”

But Frusciante, Derek Trucks, John Mayer and the other guitarists in these pages are all heroes and gods in their own, often extreme, right. They are also proof that, long after Chuck Berry minted the fundamental twang and addicting joy of rock & roll guitar on his 1955 debut single, “Maybellene,” there remains much to discover and study in the unlimited alchemy you get from wood, six strings, electricity and the highly personal poetry of touch and strum. The distinguishing mark of rock’s greatest guitarists is, Mayer insists, “they’re all stuck on what they’re seeking, not where they are.”

This celebration differs from our 2003 survey, “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” in some ways. The guitarists here are, by the measure of rock’s extended history, new. Most are under forty, and all have made their impact in the last two decades. Also, there is no ranking. Numbered lists can be fun; we still get blowback from last time about who should have been up, out, in or down. But nerve and originality are not easily quantifiable, and that goes for record sales too. Frusciante and Mayer are among the few multiplatinum sellers here. Yet everyone in these pages is a true star of the instrument.

In one central way, however, this tribute to the guitar and those who play it is exactly like the 2003 issue: You cannot turn a page without a reference or a deep bow of gratitude to Hendrix. Frusciante, Mayer and Trucks all speak of him with informed reverence, and Hendrix’s cataclysmic influence appears repeatedly in the sound and vision of the other players. In the Rock & Roll Guitar Hall of Fame, Jimi Hendrix is, by every standard, Number One. Everyone else – including the hundreds of great guitarists who will be cited in the blizzard of letters and e-mails sure to follow – is Number Two.

***

Ask John Mayer if he is a guitarist or a singer-songwriter, and he replies immediately: “Always a guitarist.” As a kid, he goes on, “I had this vision – sitting by a window on a rainy afternoon, just playing guitar, I said to myself, ‘If I have enough strings and electricity, I can play guitar forever. I don’t need anything else.’ ” Today, Mayer, 29, is more famous as a singer-song-writer. His first two albums, 2001’s Room for Squares and 2003’s Heavier Things, have sold a combined 6 million copies, and his latest record, Continuum, is nominated for five Grammys, including Album of the Year. But as a teenager, Mayer – who was born in 1977 in Bridgeport, Connecticut – was so obsessed with Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan that, Mayer recalls, laughing, “in my mind, I was on my way to being the next Stevie Ray.” Instead, Mayer is a pop star and a dynamic, accomplished guitarist with an electric-Chicago attack and melodic concision best heard on Try!, his 2005 live album with the John Mayer Trio. He is also a passionate apostle for the blues elders he loves so much, such as Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Eric Clapton. “I never practice,” Mayer insists. “I’m always playing. I want to write songs people can just jam on.”

In your Jimi Hendrix essay in our 2004 “Immortals” issue, you wrote, “Who I am as a guitarist is defined by my failure to become Jimi Hendrix.” Can you elaborate on that?                                                                      If I could play more like Hendrix, I would. I’d want to do it all the time. But who I am is an amalgam of pop and something rootsier. It’s not a choice. As for Jimi Hendrix, all guitar players feel that way: “I’m not him.”

When did you get your first guitar?                                                                          It was January 1991. I was thirteen. My father rented a Washburn acoustic guitar from a music store. I took it to the bathroom, closed the door and sat there, thinking, “How do I find out what’s in here? What are you hiding?”

I’m attracted to what I don’t know. Everyone else I knew said things like, “I watched him play, and it made me want to quit.” I never wanted to put the guitar down. I watched guys who made me want to pick it up. That’s when you have the disease: You get your ass kicked, and you say, “I’m going to figure out why I lost that fight.”

How did you first hear Stevie Ray Vaughan? And why did he make such a big impression on you?                                                                                     In 1991, a neighbor gave me a cassette of [1983’s] Texas Flood. What hit me was the tone, the texture. It was rich, deep and round. It was wet, fluid, like mercury. I remember saying, “I don’t know how you describe it, but that’s the sound I want.” Stevie also began this amazing genealogical hunt for me: Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Otis Rush and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I wrote Buddy Guy fan mail when I was sixteen: “Dear Mr. Guy, I love your records. I’m going to play with you someday.” Buddy used to play at Toad’s Place [in New Haven, Connecticut]. I wasn’t old enough to get in. I’d call the guys there: “I’m a huge Buddy Guy fan. Please let me in. I won’t drink.” They never let me in.

When you’re onstage with Buddy Guy, he treats you like an equal. Do you feel like one?                                                                                                              I’m not an equal. But I feel like I can hold my own. And hold your own doesn’t mean coming out the winner. When I play with B.B., I play as few notes as possible. I’m there to satisfy his sound. The first time I played with B.B., he kept going, “Play another solo.” I don’t think he was being generous – I think he didn’t want it to be a cutting contest. As I played with him more, he’d turn his volume knob up. That’s when I said, “Wow, B.B.’s really letting me in.”

How would you describe your guitar style?                                                          I don’t play so much like Stevie Ray Vaughan anymore. I realized my signature is not soloing. It is in the chord voicings, the inversions. In “Wheels,” on Heavier Things, the lead line is chords.

That explains why you once said “Axis: Bold as Love” is your favorite Hendrix album. It’s his most concise, song-based record.                           The songs on Axis are an extension of beautiful guitar playing. You can almost hear Hendrix looking at the guitar as he plays [makes the sound of a long, shivering note], going, “I wonder what that does?” There is an element of discovery. Are You Experienced? is like a rough draft. Axis sounds like the colors on the cover.

Do you have an identifiable tone or color?                                                         I’m going for the biggest, fluffiest, tubbiest sound. I want my guitar to sound like Sting’s voice – thick, on the bottom. I want to figure out my own phrasing, my own vocabulary. Eric Clapton is so influential that people go, “Is that Clapton or someone doing Clapton?” I would like to get to the point where someone says, “I can tell that’s John Mayer.”

Why didn’t you play more solos on your first two albums? I landed in Atlanta in 1998 and wanted to be in a band – play electric guitar and sing. I couldn’t find anybody. And the electric guitar doesn’t sound great alone. So I wrote Room for Squares on an acoustic guitar. Compositionally, there was no room for me to sprawl. And Heavier Things was my Axis: Bold as Love intention.

But I came off the road after Heavier Things and went, “Why am I still not happy?” How could I have sold that many records and still misrepresented where I’m coming from? The Trio saved me. It was me putting up a roadblock and saying, “There is some shit I have to do, to get back on track.”

The Trio album is mostly original songs. Did you write them with the band in mind?                                                                                                        Originally, we were just going to play covers. But I love composers who write for the format. Guitarists like John Scofield and Pat Metheny write for the personnel. So we wrote songs lightning-fast. “Good Love Is on the Way” was written out of wanting to have a song like “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” by Derek and the Dominos. “Out of My Mind” – I wanted a slow blues tune. You gotta be high to like that one – it’s so slow.

You did some songwriting with Eric Clapton in London last year. What was it like?                                                                                                                         One of the most pivotal weeks of my life. That man is bullshit-free. We had lunch, and he told me something that I think about every day: “You can’t mastermind everything. You’ll go crazy. Just show up and play.”

But look at who his heroes are. You’re only as good as your heroes, and Eric is flawless at giving his bibliography, his footnotes. Eric embraces his lineage. And he said something to me – he let on that just as Muddy Waters took him in, he was taking me in, as a passing-on. That was absolutely huge.

***

Derek Trucks can’t say exactly how many days he spent last year at his home in Jacksonville, Florida. “Probably thirtyish,” says the blond, ponytailed guitarist. “Maybe close to forty, but not much more.” Trucks, 27, spent the others onstage, playing with the Allman Brothers Band, his own Derek Trucks Band or, since last May, Eric Clapton’s current road group. In fact, Trucks – the nephew of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks – has lived in a tour bus almost nonstop since he picked up the guitar at age nine.

His Allmans heritage and prodigious slide technique made him a jam-band-circuit star before he was old enough to drive. But the spiritual poise and uncanny vocal fire of Trucks’ solos and slide flourishes – captured on his latest and best album, Songlines – are rooted in his deep studies of not just blues but jazz and Indian music. An amazing thing about Trucks (who is married to guitarist Susan Tedeschi) is how still he is as he plays: moving only his hands, his eyes often shut in prayerlike concentration.

“I looked up to guys like John Coltrane and Duane Allman, who were completely stoic,” he explains. “Every ounce of energy and attention was focused on the job at hand.” Do you remember the first time you heard a Duane Allman guitar solo? He was always around. My parents were always spinning vinyl in the house – Eat a Peach, Live at the Fillmore East, Layla by Derek and the Dominos. Those were the sounds I grew up to. My dad would put those records on as me and my younger brother fell asleep at night. My dad was at the Fillmore East when he was sixteen, seventeen. He and his friends would skip school and hitchhike from Georgia up to New York. He made sure we knew and felt the music on that level.

How influential was your uncle, Butch Trucks, in your musical education?                                                                                                                            In the beginning, not much. But I knew the family connection, and it was enough to make me feel like more than a fan. Once I started touring and we played in the area where my uncle lived, he started sitting in. In 1989, after the Allman Brothers got back together, they were doing a record in south Florida. I was playing there, and the whole band sat in. They were really gracious. They opened the door for me to become part of the whole thing.

What made you start playing slide guitar?                                                        As nonromantic as it sounds, it was the fact that, at nine, playing a steel-string guitar really hurts. Having a slide on my finger – it didn’t hurt my small hands. I used a metal slide at first. Then someone keyed me into the glass slide – the differences in the sound. I took to that. As a slide player, you seem less interested in blues licks than in getting something close to the sound and emotion of the human voice. There were a few windows that opened for me there. In the mid-Nineties, [Gov’t Mule bassist] Allen Woody gave me a sacred-steel guitar record by Aubrey Ghent. For the first eight measures of “Amazing Grace,” I swore it was a woman singing. Then I heard the noise of the pick, and it blew my mind.

Another thing was sitting in on classes at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael, California. [Khan, who played sarod with Ravi Shankar, is one of India’s greatest classical musicians.] He makes his students take vocal classes first, learning to sing melodies, before he’ll begin to teach you to play them. That opened my mind, that you should be singing through your instrument. And the instrumental classes – he would sing a melody for us to play, then stop the class and go, “You, third row back, tune up your third string.” There are thirty musicians there; some are playing the sarod, which has twenty-five strings. And he’s pointing to a guy in the third row, telling him to tune up his third string. I was like, “I’ve got work to do.”

How would you describe your guitar tone – and how do you get it?     You don’t use any pedals or effects. I got this Fender Super Reverb amp when I was thirteen or fourteen. It’s been perfectly adequate since. I plug in and let go. On a good night, the tone I’m going for is what I hear when Little Walter plays harmonica through an overdriven amplifier or Howlin’ Wolf overpowers a microphone. I’m shooting for natural overdrive. I almost feel like pedals are a cop-out. I hate to say it’s always that way. Guys like Hendrix used them as their voice. But I’ve never had the urge. When we made Song-lines, I felt more comfortable overdubbing, a little freer to experiment in the studio, whereas I used to feel I had to cut live in the studio.

But I don’t think I’ll ever have a huge pedal board in front of me onstage. If I do, you can call me out on it [laughs]. When you play with the Allman Brothers now, do you sometimes feel you have to play exactly what Duane did? It goes back and forth. On tunes he left an indelible stamp on, I have to pay homage in some small way. On “Stand Back” [on Eat a Peach], his guitar solo is so melodic it’s almost like a bridge in the tune. I quote at least part of it, then head off from there. “Whipping Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” are like jazz standards. You play the head, stay true to it. Then at solo time, you do whatever you want. In “Statesboro Blues,” some nights it’s fun to quote Duane. Other nights, you want to go left. And that’s a tune where the audience comes into play. If you completely leave what Duane did, people look at you kind of cross, like you’re burning the flag. You’ve been on the road since childhood.

Have you ever been tempted by drugs and alcohol?                                    That life can derail a kid fast. My dad was on the road with me early on. I was very shielded from it – although not in the sense that I didn’t know what was going on. There were musicians I knew from a young age – I could see the path they were on. Then they’re not around or not playing anymore. I have experimented and dabbled. But playing and having responsibility from a young age – I never felt I had the option to lose a day. There was always a gig around the corner.

Ironically, by starting so young, you’ve played professionally longer than many guitarists in their thirties and forties.                                      When you start gigging at nine, you get a slight head start. But there is a great Ali Akbar Khan story. He was in his fifties. He had just done a recording session, and his father – who is in his eighties, taught Ravi Shankar and was the eminent Indian classical guy – comes in and hammers him: “That was the worst shit I’ve ever heard. Get your shit together.”When I think of stuff like that, I don’t feel like I’m done yet. Not even close.

***

When the intellectual part of Guitar playing overrides the spiritual, you don’t get to extreme heights,” says John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Then he gives an example of how high he gets with six strings and electricity: his hair-raising solo on a recent Chili Peppers B side, “Lyon 6.06.06,” recorded live in France last year. “I remember my brain completely going off. The energy flows to such a degree that there’s no reason to think.”

But Frusciante, who turns thirty-seven on March 5th, is also one of the most advanced technical guitarists in rock, a vibrant, chameleonic stylist whose melodic precision and invention were pivotal on the Chili Peppers’ commercial breakthrough, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Born in New York and raised in Southern California, Frusciante obsessively practiced guitar in his bedroom, playing along to records, until he joined the Chili Peppers in 1989, replacing the late Hillel Slovak.

Frusciante abruptly quit in 1992, beginning a seven-year descent into drug-fueled isolation. But since his return for 1999’s Californication, Frusciante’s early fusion of punk energy and the exploratory grandeur of Jimi Hendrix has bloomed into a colorful, explosive originality that is all over the Chili Peppers’ recent double album, Stadium Arcadium.

Who are your guitar heroes?                                                                                        I always felt it was limiting to stick with guitarists for your inspiration. I also draw inspiration from what you might call guitar anti-heroes – people with an originality that goes beyond the guitar-hero aesthetic. OK, who are your anti-heroes? Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground. In the Seventies, Keith Levene of Public Image, Ltd. and John McGeoch of Magazine invented interesting styles. I’m a big fan of Matthew Ashman of Bow Wow Wow. I have nothing against flash. But I grew up in a time when heroism and flashiness were overtaking the desire to make beautiful music. Kurt Cobain took guitar playing further than anyone with way more technique had-done in a while.

Who made you want to play guitar?                                                                        It was Ace Frehley, Jimmy Page and Joe Perry. But it was a while before anybody would buy me an electric guitar. By then, I was into [Black Flag’s] Greg Ginn, [the Germs’] Pat Smear, and Joe Strummer and Mick Jones [of the Clash]. But the point of punk was that you didn’t have to be a great player to get your angst across. It was a long time before I thought of technique meaning anything at all. But Pat has an amazing rhythm-guitar style. Most punk guitarists base their thing on down strokes. Pat has an interesting combination of up-and-down strokes. I can’t describe it. But the colors and feelings in what he did were meaningful to me as a kid. They spoke to my brain.

What is your role in the Chili Peppers?                                                                You have big room to roam amid Anthony Kiedis’ vocals, Flea’s bass and Chad Smith’s drums. Before I joined, the Chili Peppers were all style. The sound wasn’t about harmonic movement or musical texture. It was purely energy. Hillel’s playing was much simpler than other guitar players can get away with, because of how busy Flea was on bass. Once I felt like I understood that simplicity, I put aside my idea of the guitar’s original role in the band. I wasn’t just writing things that reminded me of the Chili Peppers. “Under the Bridge” [on Blood Sugar Sex-Magik] was an attempt to do a song in the style of Jimi Hendrix’s prettier songs – “Castles Made of Sand,” “Bold as Love.”

How did you write the guitar part for “Under the Bridge’?                 Anthony wrote the lyrics and vocal melody. I went over to his house, and we put his melody in shape according to chords I thought would be good behind it. I got the idea for the chorus from a Joe Jackson song, “In Every Dream Home (a Nightmare)” [from 1980’s Beat Crazy]. It has this drum break before the chorus, then the music starts on the offbeat. In “Under the Bridge,” I did the same thing. The chord I play before the drum break – I got that from “Rip Off,” by T. Rex. I figured I’d rip it off [laughs]. You just hold the major-7th chord. In his song, it’s a C major 7th. In mine, it’s E major 7th.

How much of a solo is improvisation – and how much is advance planning?                                                                                                                         Most are spur-of-the-moment. But I make it a point to come up with a way to start a couple of them. On Stadium Arcadium, I have a few written solos, on “Dani California” and “Make You Feel Better.” The solos in “Hey” and “Only 18” were different from take to take. In “Hey,” that’s the solo I played on the basic track, only it was from a different take. So we edited in that solo section.

Did you play or practice music in the seven years you were out of the Chili Peppers?                                                                                                                       I pretty much put down the guitar that whole time. Did you have your chops when you rejoined? I didn’t have my chops at all. But I’ve come to deeply understand that it doesn’t matter. I could have been a defeatist: “I remember when my left hand used to be strong like Jimi Hendrix’s.” That’s a sign of somebody’s strength as a guitar player – the sound of the strength of their left hand. But everything I learned as a person in that period, everything I had been through as a soul – that all went into the music. I’m happier with my playing on Californication than with my playing on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Even though I had way less ability, I see myself doing the best I could and coming from the right places. On Blood Sugar, I’m still seeing everything in relationship to Hillel. On Californication, it’s “What can we do? It’s four friends playing music. We can do anything.”

Do you have a favorite Hendrix album?                                                               I’m an Electric Ladyland guy. His music always sounds perfect to me, because he’s bending sound, taking care of music in every dimension. Where most people think of it in two dimensions, he’s thinking of it in four. I don’t think there’s a better guitar player in history. He’s not something that can be improved on. And there’s the spirit that goes into it. He creates a place where you can be high and hang out and lose yourself. He’s bringing out aspects of sound we didn’t know were there. I feel there are people moving ahead on that front, but they’re not so much guitar players – like [electronic artists] Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. They continue the work Jimi Hendrix started, but not on the guitar.

Do you ever wonder if, after half a century of rock guitar, there is anything left to discover?                                                                                     Luckily, I’ve always thought of myself as a musician more than a guitar player. Since I’m always changing as a person and my tastes are always changing, that is reflected in the ways I approach my instrument. I never feel like I’m running out of ideas, because it is clear to me – music is infinite. 

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