How To Sound Like John Mayer
I have to admit, I was at first a little reluctant to write an article on how to sound like John Mayer.
Mayer is not a traditional blues guitarist. His music is aimed at a wide audience, and as a result, a lot of it is closer to pop music than it is to the blues.
Yet whilst this might be the case, John Mayer’s skills as a guitar player are without question. His phrasing is beautiful, he has exceptional control over his dynamics, and his feel is amazing. His playing is not overly flashy or complex and it always serves the song. He is without doubt one of the most tasteful and versatile guitar players in the modern era.
In addition, John Mayer’s tone is sublime. In my opinion he has one of the best blues guitar tones of all time. It is so smooth and all of his notes retain perfect clarity. Yet when he pushes it, he can get that soft crunch that sounds amazing for the blues. Just listen to songs like ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’, ‘Helpless’ and ‘Belief‘.
I decided then, that in this case it is almost irrelevant if you are a huge John Mayer fan or not. The gear that Mayer uses is amazing for the blues. It will improve your tone and give you a rig that is great if you want a vintage blues tone. So without further ado, here is everything you need to sound like John Mayer.
Some Initial Considerations
In all of the articles I have written in my ‘Sound Like‘ series, I have tried to offer up budget friendly alternatives to the often very expensive gear of your guitar heroes. I have attempted to do the same here, but in the interest of full disclosure, this one has been a bit more challenging. This is because John Mayer’s tone is built around a very high quality clean sound. This is what makes it quite difficult to sound like him, without spending a lot of money.
When guitarists use a lot of distortion or specific effects, it is often easier and cheaper to recreate their tone. Just look at a guitarist like Gary Clark Jr. He has an amazing heavy blues tone, and his rig is both easy to replicate and very affordable. This is because his tone predominantly comes from his pedals, which are no more than a few hundred dollars/pounds each.
Conversely, a smooth clean tone like John Mayer’s comes from his guitar and amp. Up to a point you do get what you pay for, and Mayer has spared no expense in the gear that he uses. This is particularly true of the amps he uses. A lot of his gear is hand built and bespoke made, and this all translates into better tone.
That is not to say that you have to spend £10,000 to sound like John Mayer. But if you really want to replicate his tone, be prepared to spend a little more, especially on your amp.
The Fender Stratocaster
When it comes to guitars, Mayer is best associated with Fender and more recently, with PRS. For years though, the only guitar that he played was a Fender Stratocaster, of which he has played a number of different models.
One of the first Fender Strats that John Mayer used was the Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Strat. Stevie Ray was one of Mayer’s biggest influences and Mayer bought the guitar with money that he saved working in a gas/petrol station.
Once Mayer became more famous, he went on to briefly use a number of other Strats, including a Jimi Hendrix Monterey Strat. Then around 2004 he fixed on one main guitar. This was a Signature Strat that was built for him by the Fender Custom Shop.
Nicknamed ‘The Black One’, this Strat was very close to the original Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat that Mayer played. The only notable difference was that Mayer’s new Strat was reliced. Surprisingly, this was less about aesthetics and more about the guitar’s tone. As Mayer observed when asked about it:
The body on a Strat that has a lacquer around it, normally doesn’t resonate…I wanted a guitar that (didn’t) have any paint on it. But when I started to think about it, the idea of a guitar without any paint on was just a little bit too rustic for me. So I thought about something sort of like Rory Gallagher’s Stratocaster…
And that was how his Signature Strat was created. This went on to be the main guitar that Mayer used on the Continuum album – and during countless live performances.
The PRS Silver Sky
In more recent years, Mayer has been associated with PRS. This collaboration started when he was touring with Dead & Company in 2016/17. PRS made a custom built ‘PRS Super Eagle’ for Mayer in a very limited run of only 120 models.
Following this initial partnership, Mayer and PRS founder Paul Reed Smith teamed up in 2018 to create the PRS Silver Sky. This has now become one of John Mayer’s main guitars. After years in the making and a much anticipated build up, the guitar provoked a rather negative reaction when it was first released. This was largely because of its design – which is visually based closely on the Fender Strat. Detractors mocked both Mayer and PRS, stating that it had taken them years of work just to add a PRS headstock to a Fender Strat.
Visually, the guitar is polarising – you will either love it or hate it. But in terms of its sound and playability there seems to be no dispute – this is a quality instrument.
Personally I have never played a Silver Sky, and visually it doesn’t really appeal to me. But in terms of quality, you are in safe hands with PRS. They have a reputation for meticulously building instruments to a very high specification. My first electric guitar was a PRS Santana SE. It is one of the PRS entry level models but it is an amazing guitar and plays like an instrument 3 or 4 times the price. So if you want to sound like John Mayer, you like the look of the Silver Sky and are happy to spend a bit more – it would be a great addition to your rig.
Choosing the Right Guitar
Beyond the PRS Silver Sky, if you want to sound like John Mayer, then you either need to buy a Fender Strat, or a Fender Strat style guitar. For although Mayer has more recently collaborated with PRS, the specs of all of his guitars are very similar.
In fact the main reason that Mayer switched to using the Silver Sky was not about tone, but rather about playability.
Tonally, this guitar is very similar to a Fender Strat, as it has the same pickup configuration. The key difference is that it combines the vintage tones of a Strat with modern design features. So if you’ve ever played a Fender Strat and it just hasn’t felt right in your hands, try one of these guitars. Whilst I would argue that you will only ever get true Strat tones from an original, you can still get beautiful vintage tones from these guitars. Arguably you will also benefit from improved playability.
If you are looking for something more traditional though, then you need look no further than a Fender Strat. And the great news here is that you can buy Strats and Strat replicas across a range of budgets.
In the lower price range, I would recommend one of the classic Fender squire models:
If you are happy to spend a bit more, then any of the Mexican made Fenders would make a brilliant choice:
Finally, in the higher price bracket your choice really opens up. Here I would recommend going for an American made Fender, or one of the Custom shop models:
- Fender American Professional Stratocaster
- American Elite Stratocaster
- Custom Shop ‘Chicago Special’ 1960s Stratocaster
- Fender Custom Shop 60s Heavy Relic Stratocaster
- Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Stratocaster
Whilst none of Mayer’s guitars have any particularly defining features, it is worth noting that he almost exclusively plays guitars with rosewood fretboards. As I mentioned in more detail here, this does have an affect on your tone. If you have a guitar with a maple fretboard (as I do) then don’t worry, it is not going to make a huge difference to your tone. But if you are going to buy a new guitar and you really want to sound like John Mayer, it is worth taking this into account.
If you want to sound like John Mayer, you need to invest in a great amp. This is where so much of Mayer’s tone comes from, and it is where he places a huge amount of emphasis. He is after all, one of a highly select group of musicians to play Dumble amplifiers.
Manufactured in California in the 1960s, Alexander ‘Howard’ Dumble hand built boutique amplifiers that are now recognised as some of the best amplifiers ever made. Dumble initially took inspiration from amps like the Fender Bassman. So tonally, Dumble are closest in tone to Fender amps. The biggest difference is the dynamic range. As long time Dumble user Robben Ford noted, when talking about his Dumble Overdrive Special amp:
(There is) a perfect sonic curve, the lows are deep and rich but not unclear, it doesn’t mush out like some amps will. You have the frequencies there for your use. The mid range (is) punchy and clear and the high end, bright, clear but doesn’t hurt your ears. It’s loud but it sounds good.
It is perhaps little surprise then that Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan – one of Mayer’s biggest influences – are just some of the notable players that have favoured Dumble.
With only around 300 models originally made, Dumble amps have now gained legendary status. Their prices reflect that. Even if you can find a Dumble amp (and they’re not that easy to track down) they are extremely expensive. Depending on the model and it’s condition, you could easily expect to pay upwards of $50,o00/£42,000.
For many years, the Dumble Steel String Stinger was Mayer’s go to amp. However, worried that his Dumble would give out on him whilst he was out on the road, Mayer started to look at alternatives.
Mayer’s first move away from Dumble was a collaboration with the brand Two-Rock. Two-Rock are a high end, boutique amp manufacturer who’s mission as a company – at least initially – was to produce amps that sounded like Dumbles.
Mayer first used their Custom Reverb, and then shortly afterwards, Two-Rock built a limited number of signature amps for Mayer. These featured a few modifications to the Custom Reverb, all aimed at getting Mayer closer to the Dumble Steel String Stinger tone.
It was a similar story when Mayer first began to collaborate with Paul Reed Smith around the time he started playing with Dead & Company. Mayer and Smith set out in search of a Dumble Tone, and made countless iterations until they created the PRS J-Mod100.
In more recent years, Mayer has also come to be associated with Milkman amplifiers. Like Dumble amps, these are hand crafted, boutique amplifiers made in California. This really is where the similarity ends, as unlike the PRS and Two Rock amps Mayer has used, Milkman amps are not Dumble clones. Nor are they clones of vintage Fender amps either. The amps produce a beautiful vintage sounding tone that is unique to the brand.
Finally, Mayer has also used Fender amps at various points too. During his time with Dead & Company, Mayer reportedly played a Deluxe Reverb, and he also used a Fender Bandmaster for a number of years at the beginning of his career.
Choosing the Right Amp
Yet whilst Mayer has used a variety of different amps over the years, the characteristics of each are actually quite similar. All of the amps have high quality clean tones and a lot of headroom. And they also all ‘take pedals’ very well.
So if you want to sound like John Mayer, you should focus on buying an amp with similar qualities. The challenge here is how to recreate those beautiful clean tones with an amp that is friendly for home use. All of the amps that Mayer uses are very large. To get the most out of them, you have to crank the volume. This is not really an option if you are a playing at home or in small venues. So whilst I would recommend opting for a boutique amp if you have the money, I wouldn’t advise going for a 100 watt Two-Rock or PRS.
Instead, I would opt for a vintage voiced, Fender style amp that is lower wattage. Although it won’t have the same headroom as a larger amp, you will still be able to get beautiful clean tones. You will also be able to effectively drive the amp using the right pedals.
With that in mind, here are some of my top amp recommendations:
If you are on a more restricted budget, an entry level Fender amp like either the Fender Blues Junior or the Fender Pro Junior would be a great choice. Beyond that, it is also worth considering the PRS Sonzera 20. This is an entry level amp from PRS, but one which receives brilliant reviews for the quality of its clean tone and dynamic range.
In the middle range, there isn’t really a lot of choice. The only real option at this price range that is suitable for home use and will help you sound like John Mayer is the Princeton Reverb.
If you are willing to spend a little bit more though, then your options really open up. In the upper price bracket you have access to very high end boutique amplifiers. You also have access to brands like Milkman, which Mayer actually uses. In this upper price range, my top recommendations would be:
Although these smaller amps won’t have quite the same headroom as the amps that Mayer used, they still have beautiful clean tones and they will enable you to get a great tone at a lower volumes.
The final piece of the tonal puzzle is pedals. Like his hero Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer predominantly uses guitar pedals to push his amp into a warm break up. He plays with the beautiful clean tone from his amp and then drives that by adding pedals that focus predominantly on pushing his amp harder.
Over the course of his career, Mayer has used a wide variety of different pedals. Some of these have only been used for very specific songs. So here I’ll be looking at the pedals that form a key part of his sound:
The Strymon OB1 and Keeley Katana Clean Boost
The first type of pedal that John Mayer uses in his set up is a boost pedal. Boost pedals are brilliant for getting beautiful blues tones. They are subtle pedals that don’t actually change your tone that much. As the name suggests, they are just there to boost your guitar’s signal and push the amp that bit harder. Mayer predominantly uses two boost pedals – the Keeley Katana Clean Boost and the Strymon OB1.
Both of these pedals are ‘clean boosts’ that don’t colour your sound. They are perfect for getting the thick and warm tone that Mayer uses when he is playing clean. The Strymon also doubles as a compressor. This will help to tighten your sound up, which is great if you are playing further down the neck, or you are playing chordal melodies and really want the notes to stand out.
Although at around $280/£230, the Strymon is a little more expensive, both of these pedals are relatively affordable. Having said that, if you are looking for something in a lower price bracket then I would recommend the Xotic EP Booster. This is an amazing value pedal and one that will also help you to sound like John Mayer.
The Klon Centaur
A huge part of John Mayer’s tone comes from the overdrive pedals that he uses. The first and perhaps most famous of these is the Klon Centaur. The Klon is what is known as a ‘transparent’ overdrive. Like a clean boost, it doesn’t colour the sound of your amp and guitar, it just pushes your amp harder. Because of the quality of its tone, the Klon is recognised as one of the best overdrive pedals ever made.
Sadly, the original Klon Centaur is no longer in production. You can buy second hand models on sites like Reverb, but they tend to be quite pricy. It is unlikely that you you will be able to pick one up for less than $3000/£2500.
Luckily, there are a number of brilliant ‘clones’ of the pedal, which come in at a lower price point. The most authentic of these is the Klon KTR Centaur, which is manufactured by the same company that made the original. However, at around $415/£340 it is still quite an expensive pedal. So if you do want to look at cheaper alternatives, some of the best alternatives I would recommend are:
As you can see, ‘clones’ of the original Klon Centaur are generally in a higher price bracket. But if you pair them with the right amp and guitar, any of the pedals listed above will work wonders for your tone.
Ibanez Tube Screamer
John Mayer took inspiration from his hero Stevie Ray Vaughan, who is largely responsible for the widespread popularity of Tube Screamer. Like the Klon Centaur, the Tube Screamer is an overdrive pedal. But unlike the Klon Centaur – which is famous for it’s transparency – the Tube Screamer produces a very specific sound.
Like the Klon, the Tube Screamer boosts your guitar’s signal, but it boosts the middle portion of the signal disproportionately. Generally speaking, Fender guitars and Fender style amps are renowned for lacking in the ‘mids’. Their tones are tight and well defined at the bottom end and bright at sparkly at the top. In the middle they aren’t so well defined. So you end up with somewhat of a ‘scooped’ tone.
The Tube Screamer puts those mids back into the mix. When you combine this with the right guitar and amp it creates a thick and warm sounding crunch. Like Stevie Ray, Mayer has used a variety of different Tube Screamers during his career – including the TS808, TS-9 and TS-10. It is only the TS-10 that is no longer in production, but you can pick them up second hand on sites like Reverb for around $400/£330.
In more recent years, Ibanez have also released a 2 in 1 boost and overdrive pedal called the Ibanez TS808DX. The idea here is that you can combine the two key functions of the Tube Screamer – a clean boost and an overdrive – in one unit. It isn’t as authentic as opting for one of the original Tube Screamers, but it could be a great option if you want both a boost and an overdrive without the expense of buying separate pedals.
Fulltone Full-Drive 2 Mosfet
If a 2 in 1 boost and drive pedal appeals to you, then another pedal to look at is the Full-Drive 2 Mosfet by Fulltone. In terms of its spec, this is very similar to the Ibanez TS808DX. Unlike that pedal though, Mayer has used the Full-Drive 2 on his board for a number of years. Not only does it have a boost and an overdrive, it also has different ‘clipping’ modes. This allows you to alter the way the pedal distorts the signal chain. It changes the tone from one that is vintage in character, to one that is more modern.
Again this pedal is in a slightly higher price bracket. But you do get a lot of different tonal options for your money. So not only will it help you to sound like John Mayer, it will make a great addition to your rig as an all around pedal for the blues.
Way Huge Aqua Puss
One of the final pedals to add to your rig is the Way Huge Aqua Puss. This is a vintage style analog delay pedal that Mayer uses to add a soft decay to the notes he plays.
Delay is an effect that is often overlooked amongst blues players. This is because generally speaking, heavy delay is an affect that is used more in alternative styles of music.
This is a missed opportunity, as using just a small amount of delay can alter your tone.
It rounds out the sound of your playing and also makes your tone thicker and warmer. Rather than each note ending abruptly once you have picked it, adding delay makes each note tail off naturally and gives your sound a greater depth. You only need to use a slight amount, and ultimately it is not an affect that is going to make a profound difference to your sound. But it will definitely make you sound better and will help you get that bit closer to those John Mayer tones.
If not, then you need to buy a separate reverb pedal. Not only is reverb essential if you want to sound like John Mayer, but it is a key part of a beautiful blues tone.
Generally speaking, Mayer has used the reverb in his amps. But when he does use an amp without reverb – like the PRS J-Mod100 – he uses a separate reverb tank. These are very expensive and also somewhat unnecessary, especially if you are just looking for a small amount of reverb to soften your tone.
As a result, I would instead opt for a basic, vintage voiced reverb pedal. I wrote an article on them recently, which you can read in full here. But some of my top recommendations to get those Mayer style tones are as follows:
- Strymon Flint Reverb & Tremolo Pedal
- Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano
- Fender Marine Layer Reverb Pedal
Each of those pedals will also make a great addition to your rig if you are looking for a greater variety of reverb sounds than your amp offers you.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it – everything that you need to sound like John Mayer. For most of us, replicating Mayer’s rig exactly is not a viable option. But whilst that might be the case, there are elements of his rig that we can replicate to capture similar tones on a more restricted budget and at neighbour friendly volumes.
His tone is perfect for the blues. And I think we can learn a lot from the way that he uses a high quality clean tone as the base for his sound. So regardless of whether you are a huge John Mayer fan or not, take some of the ideas here and implement them in your rig. You will develop a beautiful blues tone as a result!
Let me know how you get on, and if you do have any questions or comments, just pop them below or send me an email on [email protected] 🙂