I wasn’t originally going to include this song in the pluck and chuck lesson series because I thought of it as belonging to another technical category entirely. This song is a flagship in John Mayer’s technical vocabulary, and I think it is most notable as an example of his thumb technique. It’s a type of slapping stroke that funk bass players use to sound funky, traditionally what the Jamaicans refer to when they say “ya slap a de bass mon!” That’s right, this is a bass slapping song, and I will probably include it in my funk thumb series as well (when I get around to writing it).
This is the first tune I thought to call a ‘funkchuck.’ John essentially combines the pluck and chuck vocabulary with a two finger bass slapping technique to create a sort of Piedmont/bass-slapping technique that really doesn’t show up in anyone else’s playing. This song was released on John’s major label debut a ways back, and if you follow John’s live shows you will see that he has developed a lot of ideas around this song. There’s an interesting interplay between live recordings of 3×5, Your Body is a Wonderland and Neon that explore this hybrid style of pluck and chuck. He has a cloud of techniques that he draws from to build jams into each of these songs, but they all share a core of using several types of slapping strokes with the thumb to create a technique that mixes pluck and chuck and funk bass techniques into a stew of guitar-technical deliciousnosity.
This groove can essentially be heard in two parts: a grounded bass and percussion thread, and an upper part which is pretty strictly syncopated. John plays this with a lot of subtle microphrasing so that even the basic groove can have an almost vocal character. Still, for the sake of variety the picking pattern can be spread across different strings to vary the shape of the groove. I am almost tempted to say that the shape of the arpeggio changes, but this groove is more like a Bach style brise where there are two voices that can be heard out of one line that would seem pretty random if you look at it note-to-note. If you struggle to hear this, go to YouTube and check out the live in LA recording of this song. You’ll see that on the 3rd verse he harmonizes the upper line in the guitar part, which makes it more distinct from the bass thread. If you struggle to see how John Mayer and J.S. Bach could be spoken of in the same sentence, check out the preludes to the D Major Lute Suite or the E Major Violin partita. Then listen to Neon. Then be amazed….
The basic groove of this song is very tricky as grooves go. To be confident, accurate, and finally subtle with it takes some time of living with it. I recommending blocking out a couple of weeks of your life where you do nothing but play just the most basic phrases from this song if you actually want to perform it. As you get more into it this song can be rife with variations and gnasty bridge jams. I’ve never seen anyone play this quite the way John does, but…there’s first time for everything, right?
Simplified Version (Room for Squares)
Long Score – Live in LA transcription