Fifty years after his debut album, British blues master John Mayall is still going strong. Over the years, Mayall, and his Bluesbreakers have jump started careers for guitarists like Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, and Peter Green, to mention a few. The current lineup of Mayall’s band, which no longer go under the Bluesbreakers moniker, consist of drummer Jay Davenport, bassist Greg Rzab, and guitarist Rocky Athas. The trio has been playing with Mayall since 2009, and appear on his last three studio albums. During a tour stop in Stockholm, Sweden, Mayall took the time to sit down with Gibson.com to talk about his new album Find A Way To Care, his Gibson ES-125, and jamming with Jimi Hendrix.
Congratulations on your new album Find A Way To Care! You’ve got a great sounding band, and your voice is as strong as ever. Where do you find inspiration after so many years in the business?
“Well it comes from the songs, you know. If I’m making an album I want to make sure that they’re all in different keys, and all have a different feel to them. A lot of people don’t even bother with stuff like that, and are quite content to play a whole album in two different keys. I like to feel like it takes a little journey, a musical journey that takes you through different eras of the blues.”
I really like the horns on "Find A Way To Care," and “ The River’s Invitation. ” Have you ever thought about adding a horn section to your live show?
“No, not for live. Once you start adding people they stand waiting around, you don’t want horns on every song. A four piece is the ultimate. You’re talking freedom, because of so much improvisation. There’s nothing pre-arranged.”
I was watching the promo video for Find A Way To Care, and in it you're playing a Gibson ES-125 guitar. Have you had that guitar for a long time?
“I can’t really remember. It’s been sitting in a closet for a while. The guitar on A Special Life album was what I was using on the road for that particular album. But then I found the semi-acoustic one, the Gibson you’re talking about. I thought I’d give that one a try, because it is really light-weight, and it’s just a different feel. So, I’ve been using it all this year, and maybe a bit through last year too. It’s very responsive. It’s light-weight, so you can just have it slung over one shoulder Freddie King style. It’s run through the Roland Jazz Chorus, that’s what I always use for my guitar, that’s the sound.”
John Mayall’s 1958 Gibson ES-125 - all stock. The only alteration made to the instrument is Mayall’s carvings around the edge of the body. Mayall uses .009 gauge strings on the guitar.
It sounds really good, I heard you playing it during the soundcheck.
“It sets it apart from the standard guitar, so that with Rocky on his guitar, there’s no question on who’s playing what. They complement each other, and they’re quite different instruments all together in sound.”
Gibson all the way: John Mayall on his Gibson ES-125, and Rocky Athas on his trusty Les Paul.
There are accounts online suggesting that Jimi Hendrix sat in with the Bluesbreakers for a couple of gigs in 1967. Can you share any memories of what it was like to be on stage with Hendrix?
“Quite a lot of times actually, he was always on the scene when he came over from the States to make his start. He was really in love with the British blues scene, and the fact that everybody appreciated it more than they did in the States, so he was in his element. He loved playing guitar so he’d sit in with anybody if he just happened to be not working. There were so many London clubs, so it was quite easy. Everybody was around, it was all one big family.”
What was it like to play with someone like Hendrix?
“Just like anybody else, very casual. People like to jam, or to play with somebody else. It’s as old as the hills, as long as anybody can remember that’s always been the creative force behind every bit of music in jazz, and blues.”
These days it's quite common for bands to go out and play one of their albums in its entirety. Ever considered doing that with Blues From Laurel Canyon, which is such a popular album among your fans?
“No, it wouldn’t work. Because, there’s only certain songs that will translate well to a live performance. I mean, I suppose you could labor with it, but there’s so much material to choose from it’s actually pointless to do something like that. The nearest I got to that was doing the Bare Wires thing, and the Blues From Laurel Canyon, which was a story from start to finish. So, Bare Wires side one of the LP was one story, and then I carried it a step forward, and made Blues From Laurel Canyon be both sides of the LP.”
Speaking of Blues From Laurel Canyon, it’s certainly one of my favorite albums. The album starts with the sound of a jet plane, and the songs blend together without any breaks. It must have been pretty unique back in 1968. Where did you get the idea for such innovations? Was there a specific reason behind it?
“They’re all in different keys, but in both cases I made a musical bridge that blended the key change into it. You’d be going along, and at the end of the song there would be a trail that went through different chords until it reached the opening chord of the next song, all part of the journey. It puts it together like a classical piece of music, they all kind of link up together.”
Many of your albums are live recordings. Do you prefer blues in a spontaneous live setting rather than recorded in a studio?
“Well, they’re both very rewarding musically. The advantages of having a live album, and also the pitfalls of it, is that what you play is what you get. There’s no going back and altering it, whereas in the studio you have the freedom to create a piece of music through different instrumentation, and that is where the difference lies. The advantage of live recordings is that you get a certain excitement there that may not always come through when you play in a studio. I mean, we try and do that. That’s why in the studio, I try always to make it the first or second take at the most so you get that spontaneity.”
I know you like to mix up the set list quite a bit between each show, and it's something I think most fans really appreciate. How do you go about choosing what songs to do each night?
“Well, we’re adding songs, which is a new challenge for the band. Because we got such a long tour, it’s a great opportunity, so when I was at home I made a list of thirty new tunes or something like that. So we’re going to add those in as the tour goes on. Maybe a couple every night until we find out if they work or not. I’ve never done that before. This band is so terrific that they catch on so fast. There’s no other band like this one. You just saw [referring to the band learning Mayall’s “Voodoo Music” in a matter of minutes during soundcheck]. I won’t say it’s simple, it’s natural, a great experience.”
You mentioned that you’re doing a lot of touring. I’ve always been impressed by the amount of touring you do each year. Where do you find the energy for such a rigorous touring schedule?
“The thing that zaps your energy most is having a day off, and you’re just sitting around in a hotel waiting to play. But when you get a gig every night, you’re traveling, and the momentum rolls along. It’s much easier that way, and the other advantage is if we do over a hundred shows a year, that’s only a third of any given year, so it gives you two thirds of the year at home. You can’t beat that. Then when you’re at home for a while, you can’t wait to get on the road again, and do something different. So in a sense you have two different lives that are compatible with each other. It is wonderful.”
Mayall and Athas jamming in Santa Barbara earlier this year.