Survival Of The Fret-ist

But given Mayer's singer-songwriter path, he's less likely to hear that he's the successor to Slowhand than a catty comment like ''He's Dave Matthews for girls.'' No problem. ''Okay, if you've only heard 'Your Body Is a Wonderland,' I'd pat that person on the back.... Every opinion someone has about me, even negative, I can absolutely see why they think it. There's a ton of bad reviews that make sense. I think what makes me different from a lot of other artists is that I'm totally aware, for the most part -- aware of how people feel, aware why something would be seen a certain way...''

His is not the unexamined life. Mayer sometimes seems like he might, in fact, be the most self-conscious musician who ever lived. Such hyper-sentience about one's abilities and place in the pop universe might be crippling for other artists, but then, most others lack his combination of jokey self-deprecation, gregarious introspection, kid-like zeal, hard-bitten pragmatism, and hubris.

Call him an overnight success; Mayer won't be guilted. ''Nobody knows the work ethic as much as I do. I don't feel that anything has fallen into my lap. I can't make up for a Grammy in a year, but I can make up for it in four or five years and let people know that it wasn't a mistake to give it to me.

''It does come fast, but I'm not uncomfortable with it, because I've visualized this place in my career for a very long time. It's almost like thinking and dreaming about it is the flight simulator. When someone says, 'Don't you get tired of people coming up to you?' [I say] no, because I knew this was part of the deal. When I had to go to bed before I wanted to as a kid, I just lay there and thought about how cool it would be to go to a mall and have to turn around and leave because I've been recognized as a musician. I used to imagine HOW I WAS GOING TO SIT IN A CHAIR on 'The Tonight Show.' Everything got run through.''

HEAVIER THINGS' ''Something's Missing'' runs through a checklist of fame's accoutrements -- ''Friends/Check/Money/Check/A well slept opposite sex'' -- and still finds a lonely, God-size hole at the end. But you'd be wrong to suppose such candor means Mayer will be jumping on the bitching-about-celebrity bandwagon.

''I'd be lying out of my ass if I said I don't think about being a famous, famous, famous musician. But you know who else is a famous, famous, famous musician? Springsteen. But he's not really a celeb. He could go to some Hollywood party and the biggest stars in the world would stop and turn around and not be able to continue their conversation because Bruce Springsteen was there. Not because he's 'that guy from TV,' but because of his work. As long as my relationship with my work continues to be what it is, bring on the fame, baby -- as long as it grows out of the dirt of the work that I do.''

He speaks of fan support as if it were a sacred public trust. ''You're asking somebody to believe what you're saying is real, because they're going to put the faces of the people they love into the song. So I have a big responsibility to never go over the line into being full of s -- -. And if I do, and some critic calls me on it one day, and it's intelligently done, I'll be like, 'Right on.'''