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John Mayer Approach to Original Composition


“The great thing about being a guitar player is that we are all really cocky. We all think we can pick up someone’s style and be just like them. See, we think we are just like them, but we are not. We are our own, little, bad imitation that…becomes something really cool—[who is] …not good enough to sound like [his idol], but… good enough to sound like [himself].”

-    John Mayer

It can be said that Mayer’s music is not for everyone. Hardcore “butch” rockers tend to think he’s too girly for their taste, singing songs like, “Your bah-deh is a wonderland”. Fans of his pop albums think his slow blues trio band is a boring spectacle in his music career, what with the dated 12-bar blues, the basic I-IV-V chord usage and the 5-minute guitar solos. Some even go as far as saying that he has no style of his own and that he just rips off the chops and licks of his major influences. No matter the case, when you come to think of it, he’s a world class musician who is famous for a reason.

He has multi-platinum albums underneath his belt. He has played alongside music legends like Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Eric Clapton. He plays pop music, slow blues, rock and acoustic jazz with such an organic and natural flow to them (both live and recorded) that you would not exactly know which genre to typecast him into. Definitely, if he’s got something to say about music expression, it’s worth listening to.

As much as this article is focused on Mayer, it’s not exactly focused on Mayer. It’s not even for guitarists or vocalists alone. Rather, it is for all musicians who persistently trudge along the coarse path of making better music and honing their musical sense. This is about how one of John Clayton Meyer’s ideas on music composition can draw out a more respectful musicianship in us and how we can come out as better musicians at the end of the day because of it.

In one of his 2009 released YouTube videos entitled, “Synthetic Muso-Regurgative Composition”, John Mayer explains that the inner and outer workings of song compositions can be based literally on “snippets” of popular songs that, when put together, will give birth to a new song. At first you may think it’s a sneaky sort of plagiarism. But having personally listened to the discography of John Mayer for quite some time, compare his songs, “Waiting on the World to Change” and “Heartbreak Warfare” with Eric Clapton’s, “Change the World” and U2’s, “Peace of Earth” respectively, and you will see that more than anything, he conjures up a sort of modernized, John Mayer-esque jacked up concoction of the classic songs he based those upon that truly have their own merits to them.

Going into the YouTube video, the three songs he combined were: U2’s “One” (key of Am), Tom Petty’s arrangement of Johnny Cash’s “Won’t Back Down” (key of Em), and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (key of F#m). He chose to voice them over a key he was comfortable with, which was “G”. You could see in the video how he had no problem jamming over “One” and “Won’t Back Down”, since the former is the supertonic of G, and the latter is the submediant, or the relative minor key of G. How I saw him inculcate “Billie Jean” into his amalgamated impromptu song was that he got the rhythm of the melody (i.e. the note pattern or “beat” of it) of “Billie Jean” and put it as a kind of garnish into his usage of “One” and “Won’t Back Down” combined melody, since in the first place transposing Michael Jackson’s F#m melody range a half step higher into G sounded awkward on the onset.

After he made the notes and melody of the three songs all relative to each other under the key of G, he made a harmony based on the key of G chord progression, which in this case was: G-Am-Em-F over C. The two minor chords here, I take it, is an obvious choice to go to as a way of getting that minor key and “sad” feeling of “One” and “Won’t Back Down” in his song. By this time, he cited that he added his own style into it, as a means of making the meshed up melodies together more seamless.

Lastly, as he got comfortable with the melody, rhythm, harmony and dynamics of  his freshly brewed “song”, he started changing the words, giving a different groove, jive and lyrical syncopations altogether. By the end of his solo jam, “Billie Jean” turned into, “you and me,” the “Won’t Back Down” melody hovered around his 2/4 measures with words like “brother” and “mother”, and so on and so forth.

Seeing such a simple yet profound approach in song-writing is astounding to behold, and even more so to try out as a musician yourself. It gives precedence to the musical content over the lyrical content (though John Mayer’s lyric composition is something not to be taken lightly either) simply because the medium of communication in music is, well, music. Lastly, it brings to light how not to be confined in any one major influence that makes one sound generic and a rip off of so-and-so and this-and-that. Certainly, with any three great songs and doing them the rightful homage that they deserve is a compelling reason to create good music.

So, fellow musicians, if by any chance you hit a dry spell during your journey in the path to becoming a better musician, try out the “Synthetic Muso-regurgative Composition” to any three songs that you dig. I assure you, it will mix things up and get your creative juices flowing.