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Peter Mayer Interview

Jimmy Buffett’s lead player talks about his gig and his rig

Peter Mayer

Peter Mayer has a great, steady gig: Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band has been playing sold-out tours every year for decades. They usually play sheds (big outdoor amphitheaters), but their boss has enough pull to book some cool, off-beat venues, too—stuff like tropical island beach stages, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and private parties for Bill Gates.

Click here to watch our video of Peter taking us through his rig, then click here to watch him demo''ing his custom Martin.
Being a Coral Reefer is no cake job, though—although Parrothead Nation has a ceaseless tolerance for “Margaritaville” in D, the tropical shirt-wearing faithful have a collective palette that favors many styles of music including country, reggae, soca, various Latin influences, bar room rock, jazz, vaudeville—you name it. It’s no wonder, then, that Buffet’s band is one of the tightest outfits on tour. The Reefers each have their own litany of solo work; chart-topping producer, writer and session player credits; Grammys; and of course, fans.

Peter Mayer
Peter (left) with frequent guest Coral Reefer Sonny Landreth
and Jimmy Buffett
Having been Buffett’s lead guitarist for 20 years of albums and tours, not to mention the dozen solo projects under his belt (some under the name PM), Mayer now finds himself described as a musician’s musician. This isn’t a surprise, considering the fact that he’s the kind of player who does session work with chop monsters like Dave Weckl, but it’s worth mentioning that such a title is also the result of much more. Mayer was influenced by another world of music as a missionary kid growing up in India. He also studied formal theory and composition at Webster University where he went on to teach jazz guitar.

We recently had the chance to chill with Mayer backstage at a Buffett show, where he chatted gear and gigs with us before taking us through his entire rig (see the video).

You play with some killer musicians, man. I imagine that has an effect on your own approach as a player.
It does. I’ve scaled back my ego—I say that in kind of a funny but humble way. I’ve worked with Weckl and different people where it’s all about chops and really knowing your neck and all that stuff and I’m very thankful for that experience. I’ll be honest with you, when I got into this band 20 years ago, there were times when they’d say, “Hey, we don’t need so much on that,” and, “You can lay off there.” And I kept trying to just push, push.

But after awhile it starts to make sense.
I’m playing with guys like Mac [McAnally] and Jimmy [Buffett] and maturing and meeting more players like Joe Walsh. Sonny Landreth plays with us all the time. I watch him and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, man! It’s in the hands.” It’s all about the hands. But yeah, being humble was huge. I eventually learned to pick up the song verbatim as simply as I could, and sure enough out of all that I always learned something. It’s almost like you can’t be too wise about this stuff, you’ve got to go and be humble and pick up the new lesson. It may be a simple thing like—oh, you can bend that note that way—which makes this little emotional thing come out. That’s a beautiful thing. This gig has been great for me for that.

What’s your approach to solos? Anyone who has tried to learn the second solo to “Bama Breeze” has got to wonder how you do it. How do you come up with that stuff?
I don’t know, but thank you very much. It probably has a lot to do with the way I practice. I do this thing where I try not to play through my fingers but play from my heart or play from my ears. I force myself to sing what I’m playing so I can hear things in different ways. It’s all about identifying and getting past limitations— forcing myself to learn in different ways. Sometimes I just tape myself singing and then learn what I sang that way. You’re always guaranteed to get something fresh and it never sounds like someone else’s solo.

By the same token, I do encourage guitar players to play with their hands. In other words, play around a little bit and discover what your hands can do. There’s a beauty in the way your hands are shaped—no one else has got that, so you’re going to make a different tone, which guarantees us each if we practice, if we spend the time on it, each of us is going to bring out our own tone.

Peter Mayer
Mayer gates his signal out of his board, isos the his Hot Rod Deluxe and mics it with a Shure SM57
How hard is it to work on side projects when you’re busy as a Coral Reefer?
Actually, Jimmy depends on us doing that, to bring something fresh to this gig, you know what I mean? And I’m just curious in nature. I love to sing, I love to play and I love to write lyrics, too. It’s all just an expression of who I am and what I do. I’d go crazy if I just had one thing. I just don’t want to get stale, you know? Variety brings me peace. Ever since I heard the Beatles and I heard classical music and rock and roll and Bo Diddley, I’m just so jazzed by music—it’s the way I think the world keeps its sanity.

Tell me about the new acoustic that you and Dick Boak put together?
It’s incredible. First of all, Dick is incredible. He’s always been right there whether it’s for charity work, for helping us out as artists with our guitars or anything. So, thank you, Dick.

Okay, so Mac came to me and said he noticed I was playing up on my neck a lot and that it looked like I couldn’t quite get there with my regular cutaway. He had heard that there was something called a Schoenberg cutaway in the Martin books, so we went to Dick and asked him to build a couple and he did.

Peter Mayer
Peter’s board
The thing about that guitar is it sounded incredible out of the box. Also, what you’ve got to remember is that guitars need to be “played in.” It’s my job to play the sound into the guitar. I’ve got to hit that thing; I’ve got to play it constantly. Some people actually strap them to speakers and get them rolling up like that. Mac McAnally likes to do that. But I found that after about a year, two years, along with your finger oil, your soul, your everything, it starts opening up the guitar. And now it’s kind of like a marriage. That wood was shaped by a wonderful craftsman at Martin and then my soul goes into it and it becomes this incredible instrument.

I understand Mac McAnally’s custom Martin didn’t fare so well.
What happened to Mac’s is, after a couple of months it was starting to open up because he was playing it a lot. That’s when it got squashed between two road cases. I tell you, there was nothing left of that thing. We’re talking toothpicks. He ordered a new one though and it’s phenomenal, as well.

What kind of pickup did you go with in your Martin?
I’ve been a Fishman guy all my life. I’ve got an Ellipse system with a mic in there right now. I’ve used the mic a little bit but I’ve got to tell you, the pickup sounds phenomenal. I’ve got an Infinity system on the way, I’m excited to try that out, too.

Last question—is there one that got away?
Oh yeah, man! I know exactly what you mean. When you said that I felt a pain right here in my back. I had a Gibson L-5. It was a beautiful blond, jazz guitar. I don’t know what year it was, but it must have been like a ’63 or ’64. It was beautiful. It had gold hardware and it just sounded incredible! I was a young pup and I didn’t know what to do with it. Pat Metheny started playing a new guitar synth so I traded that for a Roland guitar synth. Nothing against Roland, of course, because I still use their guitar synth and their VG88 system in my own band, but that was probably the dumbest trade I’ve ever made. That guitar today might be worth about 40 grand, but more importantly, it was just a beautiful soulful guitar. That’s my one that got away.

Peter’s Gearbox
Fender Strat ’63 Reissue
Guild Starfire 4
Fender Teles (Various)
Martin Custom 12-Fret
Dreadnought (similar to a HD-
28VS) with Schoenberg-style
Venetian cutaway
Fender Hot Rod Deville
Isolation cabinet
Shure 57
Modded ISP Decimator
(for final gate)
Line 6 DL4 modded for higher output w/ EX-1 expression pedal
Line 6 MM4 modded for higher output w/ EX-1 expression pedal
Keeley Compressor
(classic 2 knob version)
Keeley Katana Clear Boost
FullTone USA Fulldrive 2
Ernie Ball Vp Jr. volume pedal
Boss TU-2 Chromatic Tuner

Peter Mayer