John Mayer Crossroads Solo - A study in string bending

by James Stelling

The following is a demonstration and analysis of John Mayer's solo on the Robert Johnson song 'Crossroads' from his album 'Battle Studies'.

I have provided a video demonstration, full tab and backing tracks for the solo. In the analysis section you will also find audio examples of each phrase both at full, and at 50% speed as well as analysis of each phrase.

This is a backing track that we made for you to practise this solo to.

This is the same backing at 70% speed repeated five times.

Analysis

String bending is one of the guitar’s most commonly misunderstood techniques in my experience.

Students and other aspiring guitarists often think very little about the destination pitch and more about the original note to which they’re applying the bend.

This more often than not results in notes being bent to inappropriate pitches.

Whenever you’re bending a note you should be thinking about what that bend will do to your line/melody. Avoid just bending any old note you happen to land on just because you’ve seen other guitarists bend so you think that you should be doing it too.

The above link and the following analysis is from John Mayer’s solo on ‘Crossroads’ (an old Robert Johnson tune made famous by Cream) from his album ‘Battle Studies’. The second half of this solo is a great example of how to use bends of all different kinds. The first half of the solo has just been included so that anybody interested has the whole transcription. This having been said I will do an analysis of the entire solo. Please click the link for a pdf of the transcription.

So let’s start at the beginning:

Phrase 1 & 2

The phrase in the first bar uses the A minor Pentatonic scale. It ends with a quarter tone bend otherwise known as a blues curl. This is really the only bend in which your destination note isn’t of much importance. This is due to more emphasis being placed on the note you are bending from than the note you are bending to.

The next phrase starting in bar 2 and ending in bar 3 is in response to the first phrase. It also uses the A minor pentatonic scale and ends with a blues curl.

Phrase 3

The phrase starting in bar 4 and ending in bar 5 is fairly tricky. It is the first phrase so far to have started on one of the off beat sixteenth notes (the ‘a’ of beat 2). This song has swung sixteenths which means that the off beat sixteenth notes ( ‘e’ and ‘a’ ) are swung and not straight. Keeping this in mind it becomes very important for you to make sure that you are playing the same feel as the track. If in doubt use a programme like ‘Transcribe’ found at www.seventhstring.com to help you loop the phrase and slow it down. Really listen to what you’re playing and compare it to what is being played in the original.

 The phrase starts on the ‘a’ of beat 2 and uses the A minor Pentatonic scale again, also making use of hammer ons to make ascending the scale easier to play at speed and which sound smoother. Then on the ‘e’ of beat 4  John plays the major 3rd (F#) of the IV chord (D5) which anticipates the chord that we hear in the next bar. The next part of the phrase  is very typical of John Mayer. It is a technique that he uses very often to get fast flurries of notes. The specific delineation of pull offs and slides are very important when trying to achieve this. Be sure to apply more pressure to the string when sliding backwards. This will strengthen the note rather than allowing it to die out which in turn makes the phrase more punchy. Again this phrase is using A minor Pentatonic or you could chose to see it as a D9 arpeggio starting from the 3rd.

Phrase 4 & 5

The next phrase in bars 6 and the beginning of 7 makes a strong feature of F# in addition to the A minor Pentatonic scale which implies D7 (D,F#,A,C). This gives the effect of playing the changes.

The phrase starts with a half step pre bend from F# to G (meaning you would bend up a half step before striking the note) before releasing that bend back to F#. Again be careful at the end of the phrase and throughout this transcription to pay specific attention to hammer ons, pull offs, slides and also rests. Ending your notes at the correct time will make your playing sound much tighter and your phrases more punchy a la John Mayer.

The phrase spanning bars 7 & 8 starts with a muted note on the ‘e’ of beat 3 and ends with a blues curl. Again using A minor Pentatonic.

Phrase 6

The phrase starting at the end of bar 8 and finishing at the beginning of bar 11 uses a lot of techniques that it is important to get right if you want to sound like John Mayer when playing this solo or using these licks. Pay attention to the blues curl on the double stop, the full tone bend at the beginning of bar 10 (this means that you need to bend the G on the B string up to the pitch of A) making sure to reach the desired pitch not going too sharp or falling too flat and also the grace note slides in bar 10. You should slide back from Eb to D immediately after striking the note.

My harmonic take on this phrase is that John is thinking A minor pentatonic throughout adding in the F# and the Eb for bluesy effect.

This concludes the first part of the solo. The next part of the analysis will deal almost exclusively with bending.

It’s worth noting at this point that this tune is harmonically quite open due to the lack of 3rds being used in the majority of chords. This means that you can play either A major Pentatonic or A minor Pentatonic and their equivalent blues scales over the A5 chord, you can play A minor pentatonic over the D5 chord or you can imply D7 with arpeggios or the D mixolydian should you so choose. It sounds especially good in my opinion to play A minor Pentatonic until the F#m11 chord at which point you can change to A major pentatonic (F# minor Pentatonic). This is what John does in the next half of this solo

Phrase 7 & 8

This half of the solo starts with an ascending A minor Pentaonic scale taking you from position 1 of the scale, through position 2, finishing in position 3 where the bulk of this half of the solo is played.

Whilst I have notated this line using 8th notes it’s worth noting that there is actually a rest in-between each note which is a swung sixteenth rest. It’s very important to get this rest at the right point between each note in order to give it the bounce that it has when John plays it. So just to clarify there should be a rest on the the swung ‘e’ & ‘a’ of beats 1, 2 and 3 and on the ‘e’ of beat 4 as the last note is tied into bar 13. Again, try using ‘Transcribe’ to help get the right feel of this line.

This is where we really start to talk about bends. The bend at the end of bar 12 is a full tone bend which means that you should bend up from the C (on the B string) to a D, you then hold it there and pick it again on beat 2 of bar 13 release it (although not audibly) and then pick C again on the ‘&’ of beat 2 slowly bending it to a D again.

In bar 14 we have another full tone bend and then a pre bend from B to C being released back down to B. Always keep in mind that you are trying to play a specific melody here and that the bends are just a way of reaching specific notes.

Phrase 9 & 10

There are 3 different types of bends in bar 16. A tone and a half bend (these can be quite difficult to execute so try to be very aware of your pitching) a regular full tone bend, and a full tone bend which slowly rises to its destination note. Be careful to try and match this phrase carefully to the slowed down example. The devil's in the details as they say.

You can see at the end of the phrase in bar 17 that a full tone bend is played following a hammer on. Be careful again to ensure that you reach the desired pitch and that you don’t pick the bent note just because you are used to doing so.

Bar 18 includes another tone and a half bend. It is followed by a full tone bend from the same note. The desired effect here is to hear the notes ‘G’ ‘F#’ and E all from the 12th fret of the E string so your bends have to be accurate.

In bar 19 we have a full tone bend from E to F# followed by a half step from C to C#. Be sure to check these destination notes. Make sure they are not sharp or flat or you’ll sound like an X-Factor singer.

Phrase 11

In bars 20 & 21 we have half step bends again. It’s important to be able to bend to specific pitches at will. If you bend a full tone when you should bend a half tone then your playing can sound wildly out of tune. Be sure to check your bends against the recording of the solo. In this specific case it wouldn’t be the end of the world as you would be bending to a C# rather than a C but if you were playing over an A minor chord and got it wrong you’d certainly get some funny looks.

So to summarise, always be aware of where you are bending to and why. Are you trying to play a specific line or are you trying to add a blues curl. Are you trying to bend up a 1/4, 1/2, whole or tone and a half? These things matter. These are the notes you are playing.

This solo is a great study in string bending so use it to practise your bending and specifically bending to pitch.

Always be diligent in your use of hammer ons, pull offs, slides and rests also. Be as meticulous as you can be when learning this solo and your technique will improve.

I hope you've enjoyed this lesson and found it helpful. 

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All the best, James.