John Mayer’s Beautiful Early Song Neon Is A Benchmark By Which Guitarists Measure Their Skills

John Mayer is in the news. Dead & Company, the Grateful Dead offshoot in which he plays guitar, is due to take up a 24-show residency at the Las Vegas Sphere. Dead & Company will be the second act to perform at the venue, following U2’s 40-show residency. In some ways, it is ironic – the Dead are associated with counterculture, the Sphere is a fantastical state-of-the-art facility, and tickets aren’t cheap. In other ways, it is fitting as the Dead pioneered immersive multimedia spectacles.

John Mayer is also big on social media, where his song Neon has gained a reputation as one of the more difficult songs to master on the guitar. Neon first appeared on John Mayer’s independently released debut EP, Inside Wants Out (1999). In 2021, the song was reworked for the Colombian pressing of his debut album, Room for Squares. Our video is of a live performance at the Nokia Theatre, Los Angeles, CA in December 2007. Guitarists might want to pay attention to Mayer’s unusually dexterous thumbs.

Many of the comments touch on Mayer’s masterful technique. Jackson Shoaf quips: “Regular people: ‘Yeah, he’s pretty good at guitar.’ Guitarist: ‘I’m about to cry.'” Doctor Love jokes: “4 months of practice and I can now mimic John’s facial expressions.” J Dreii writes, “John Mayer’s fingers are the whole band, there’s a drummer, a bassist, and an acoustic guitarist.” Jarl Trippin adds, “It’s such a beautiful riff too, that’s the best thing about it. It’s not just difficult, it sounds good.”

The TikTok hullabaloo over the difficulty of playing Neon started in earnest when Mayer uploaded a tip on how to play the song in March 2021. Mayer’s advice was to use the thumb and index finger of the picking hand, moving back and forth on the guitar strings. He conceded, “this is difficult for the normal hand.” At a show in March 2022, he elaborated with, “I have thumbs like a mile long. You know, like the kid in school who could turn his eyelids inside out? That’s sort of what this is.” Let’s watch the video.

Watching the two videos of Neon gives an insight into the way John Mayer has matured as an artist. The first video captures the time when there seemed to be a tension within Mayer’s performances. All Music critic Erik Crawford asked in 2007: “Is [Mayer] the consummate guitar hero exemplified when he plays a cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Lenny, or is he the teen idol that the pubescent girls shriek for after he plays Your Body Is a Wonderland?”

This tension can be seen in our first video of Neon. One can hear the influence of Stevie Ray Vaughn in the bluesy intro, while the body of the song is stylised pop, almost as if crooned into the ear of a young woman in a bedsit. You could not have imagined that in eight years Mayer would be playing with three of the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead. (Phil Lesh declined an invitation to join Dead and Company as he was done with big tours). In the 2022 video, filmed seven years after Mayer joined Dead & Company, the song is less intimate and more poised. Mayer seems more at ease with his talent. He appears to have resolved the tension between his fairly safe singer-songwriter persona and the more sophisticated influences on his playing. He no longer comes across as disconnected, like the different sides of him “don’t even belong in the same body,” as Erik Hedegaard observed in Rolling Stone in 2010.

We’re going to sign out with one of the many YouTube videos on the difficulty of playing John Mayer’s Neon. First, a few words on Dead and Company. In February 2015, John Mayer guest-hosted the Late Late Show. He invited Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir to perform with him. They clicked and pretty soon Mayer was playing with original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann in Dead and Company. Dead & Company mostly plays covers from the Grateful Dead’s extensive repertoire. It has introduced younger audiences to the music of the seminal band. The Music Man anticipates that Dead and Company’s shows at the Sphere, from May to July 2024, will be spectacles of note. Now for the promised tutorial video on playing Neon. Mind your thumbs!

Don’t miss out on experiencing the incredible talent of John Mayer live, as he and Dead & Company take up a 24-show residency at the Las Vegas Sphere. Not only can you enjoy his distinctive guitar style in person, but you can also gain a deeper look into his musical world via his active Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channels. His brilliantly difficult song “Neon” is a masterpiece that guitarists striving to master often discuss online. Follow Mayer’s channels for an in-depth look at his remarkable technique and versatile musicianship.

Please be aware of people impersonating The Music Man. Click here to see our brands so you know who to trust.