As a 15-year-old growing up in Prescott, where lifted trucks, military dreams, and D-grade metal bands are the norm, I was often a black sheep for playing blues music. Showing up to open mics with a Fender Stratocaster under my arm elicited raised eyebrows from guys 50 years my senior, but if John Mayer could do it, then I sure as hell could -- and Mayer is the reason why I started in the first place, almost eight years ago to the day.
With three Stratocaster models to his name, thereby adding his signature to the long lineage of esteemed Strat players, John Mayer's guitar god status is heralded by many and scorned by some. His music is often eclipsed by his tabloid antics, which have settled considerably since his neo-Neil Young re-emergence, but my admiration stems back to a singular performance that happened right here in Phoenix at the Tempe Music Festival. More than just one of those epiphany-lending concerts, that show changed the way I both viewed and played music.
The now-defunct Tempe Music Festival had seen foundering attendance and headlining acts that drew weak numbers at best, but 2006 marked a pinnacle year for the event, drawing local industry titan Fender as a primary sponsor. To a young guitar geek, this meant a lot of hands-on experience with models I could only hope to afford, face time with the guys who built them, and the opportunity to see them played onstage.
Mayer, as large an endorsee as any at the event, captured this magic with his headlining performance with the John Mayer Trio, which became the last live show of the Trio's touring career. It's a final show that's monumental to just a few, but this was 2006 -- long before the mainstream faux-blues revivalist scene of later years, as led by The Black Keys and post-No Wow The Kills. Mayer's playing has always picked more from the solo-heavy era of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Danny Gatton's six-string gymnastics than the riff-based variations of modern day, but songs like "Vultures," and "Good Love Is on the Way" displayed equal parts of both sensibilities.
It wasn't until his donning of a worn-in sunburst Custom Shop Stratocaster for his blistering performance of "Who Did You Think I Was" that I caught the Stratocaster bug. There's something in the way a Strat fits the body, its presence and weight onstage, that differs greatly from that of a Gibson Les Paul -- one evokes curves and fluidity, the other screams weight and angularity. Maybe it was just in Mayer's hands, but there's a magic in his handling that stems to his stage show today -- even to the Trio's reuniting three weeks ago on Late Night with Seth Meyers, though Mayer played a big-bodied Guild then.
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I went out and bought a Strat the following week and dedicated myself to playing the blues, ripping off licks and flourishes from the man himself. Immersion in a genre, as it often does for many other music writers, led me to an obsessive tendency for music collection, indirectly benefiting my writing. I've owned a number of Stratocasters, all of which have shared some kind of stage time, finally settling on a pieced-together sunburst model, but they all have that same allure. More than just a show, it was a simple guitar that helped to push me down this path.