John Mayall interview: ‘I’m a very rudimentary guitar player’

The godfather of the blues plays York this week. Pete Wise talks guitar licks and keeping it fresh

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One special life… John Mayall
As John Mayall fell in love with his father’s blues records in his Macclesfield family home during the Forties and Fifties, he could scarcely have imagined that his own contribution to the genre’s progression – as it morphed explosively into British blues-rock – would be comparable to that of many of his American idols.

John Mayall gig

  York Barbican

  Wednesday, October 29 @ 7.30pm

  £27.50-£29.50

  Barbican website

  John Mayall website

Young, gifted and proficient in guitar, keyboard and harmonica, Mayall moved to the bright lights of London in the early Sixties, becoming a key figure in the capital’s budding blues-rock scene.

Mayall is known as the godfather of British blues; a mentor to countless guitar heroes including Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor; and a sensational player in his own right.

We gave him a call to discuss his new album A Special Life, musical inspirations, and a forthcoming gig at York Barbican.

Your new album A Special Life came out this summer. The classic blues sound is still there, but were there any other influences at play?

I don’t think about it that specifically. When you’re in a band and you’ve been playing with them for five years or more, you automatically come together and create what’s natural to you, so as far as picking the material is concerned, as long as all the songs have an identity of their own, that’s what we aim for.

You created the cover art yourself. What were you trying to put across?

I think when you make a piece of music or put out an album, the main thing is to have the two elements match up, so they complement each other. So the art and the music itself, they should be as one.

Do you have any favourite tracks from this album?

They tell a story in words and music. When I make an album, one track doesn’t sound the same as the next. I aim for as much variety as possible.

Is it tricky to keep creating fresh ideas within the blues rock tradition?

It’s always been quite easy for me to do so. Playing in different keys automatically leads you to different moods. I’ve never had any difficulty in putting a well-rounded album together.

Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to about getting back on the road?

Well, we’re on the road all the time… The big British tour is 30 or more dates in a row. We’re looking forward to coming out your way on the bus; it’ll be fun because I’ve got family up in Yorkshire still.

You’re based in America nowadays. Do you miss the UK at all?

I come back so often that it feels like I’ve never been away once we’ve set foot on British soil, so not really.

Do you have any particularly nifty guitar playing tips you’d like to pass on?

Well I’m a very rudimentary guitar player, so I don’t know really… I can’t play a scale to this day! I just play around with a fretboard as best I can and come up with surprises.

I’m always looking for new things and exploring the instrument. I have a great time playing, especially with the band I have, who are very supportive. They play off each other and punctuate my guitar playing in a way that’s very inspiring.

Do you just ‘feel’ your way around the music?

Well I have to because that’s all I can do! I can’t read a word of music. I have a very basic style I suppose.

What excites you more: something inspiring in the instrumentation of a song, or great lyrics that tell a story?

Well, it’s a combination of both things, you can’t have one without the other – they have to be supportive of each other. Playing live is a way for you to explore all the possibilities of an individual song, so it’s a great pleasure to get out there and do that.

What’s the set-list looking like for your UK tour? Will you changing things from night to night?

It’s a different show every night because there’s that much material to choose from. So people travel from one gig to another and see a different show.

We like to keep it fresh. The new set, whatever it is, comprises of old songs and new songs, so it’s a good cross-section of music from my career. There’s something for everyone there.

What makes a great guitarist?

I think that any guitar player – or any instrumentalist for that matter – they all have to have something that nobody else has. Their ideas come through the instrument, and somehow it doesn’t sound like anybody else. All the players I’ve played with are very individual, creative musicians.

How do you think this is achieved? What makes a musician sound unique?

I don’t think it has anything to do with the technical side, it’s what comes out. Two people can have the same instrument and the same amplifier, in the same configurations, but they’re definitely not going to sound the same.

It’s in the individual’s technique I suppose. Guitarists always sound very much their own person – it’s a means of self-expression.

Do you have a message for your fans in York?

It’ll be very much like a homecoming for me, to play Yorkshire, because my family live there. It’s a special place, and northern audiences in general have always been wonderfully supportive of my playing. We’ll have a damn good time together!

King King

John Mayall’s support band at York Barbican are King King, awarded Best Blues Band at the the British Blues Awards for the third year running.

It has been three years since King King broke cover as the hottest draw in British blues-rock in 2010. King King have built their reputation the old-fashioned way by carrying out extensive touring and blowing a roof off every night.

It is blues-rock par excellence, delivered by a band whose passion for their work is highly reflected on stage.

Maverick Magazine called their album Standing In The Shadows “terrific… tremendous”, followed by Blues Matters’ statement “When it comes to the high-rolling wave of British blues, they are riding above the surf”.