Pat Answers

Pat Metheny talks trios, tones & technique

March 2001 by Adam Levy for Guitar Player


The Trio is one of the most exciting formats for jazz guitarists. Working with just bass-and-drums backing, players have maximum rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic elbow room. No pesky piano voicings to dodge, no second guitarist hogging your bandwidth-just the steady, driving pulse of the rhythm section and plenty of wide-open road to take improvisational excursions. There's a flip side, however. All that freedom can be daunting. Without a harmonic instrument to provide chordal signposts, it's easy to get lost in the labyrinthine progression of a jazz tune. And you get little or no chance to rest. You're in charge of playing the lion's share of melodies and solos, plus all the comping during bass or drum solos. You're also more responsible for the music's overall texture than you are in a larger group-when you play sparsely, the band sounds sparse, and when you play clustery chords or concentrated solo flurries, the band sounds dense.

One guitarist who's very familiar with the challenges and rewards of trio playing is Pat Metheny. Though he's best known for his work with the Pat Metheny Group-which has ranged in size from four to seven members since the Group's inception in 1977-some of Metheny's most personal and influential discs have been his trio outings. He has released five such records over the course of his career, beginning in 1975 with Bright Size Life. Rejoicing followed in '83, then Question and Answer in '89, and, last year, Metheny released two trio albums-Trio 99->00 and the two-CD Trio->Live [both on Warner Bros.] Though he's now leaving the trio format behind to launch a new Pat Metheny Group project, the guitarist remains excited about the three-man ensemble he spent the past year-and-a-half touring and recording with.


Adam Levy: What is it about playing in a trio that appeals to you?

Pat Metheny: One thing that's cool about a guitar trio is it's a blank slate. There aren't a lot of archetypes to say, "Okay, this is how you do it." That was particularly true when I started playing in the late '60s. You could almost count the trio records that existed then-Kenny Burrell's Man at Work, one Grant Green record, and a couple of Jim Hall records. It was open territory.

Adam Levy: How is this trio different from other trios you've had?

Pat Metheny: On the Rejoicing album, I played with [bassist] Charlie Haden and [drummer] Billy Higgins, who were the rhythm section from [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman's band. We shaped the music around that connection, and we played a lot of Ornette's tunes. It was similar with [drummer] Roy Haynes and [bassist] Dave Holland, with whom I recorded Question and Answer. Roy was one of the pivotal figures in the development of modern jazz music, so I wanted to build our music around that.

But in my new trio with [bassist] Larry Grenadier and [drummer] Bill Stewart, I'm building the music around what my thing is. I assume absolute command of the troops, in terms of setting the direction and tone of the music through the compositions, the instrumentation, and the volume we play at.

Adam Levy: Had the new group played together much before you recorded Trio 99->00?

Pat Metheny: We did four or five weeks of gigs in Europe. Those were just for fun-something different after a two-year stretch of gigs I had done with my regular group.

Adam Levy: Why did you decide to record this group?

Pat Metheny: Day by day, the playing kept getting better and better, and the band started morphing into this very special thing. It developed an identity that was quite different from my other trios, so it would have been insane not to document it. Four or five days before the end of the tour, I said, "When we get back to New York, let's go In to the studio For a day or two and see what happens."

Adam Levy: Did you record the repertoire you had been playing on the road?

Pat Metheny: I didn't want to play the music that we had been playing live. I wanted to play all different stuff.

Adam Levy: Why?

Pat Metheny: I wanted to combine the freshness that happens when you get people together playing music for the first time-which is often magical. With that sort of collective breathing that we had developed through playing together every night. I felt we could mix those two elements by avoiding the music we'd already played. The last date of our tour was on a Sunday, we flew home on Monday, had Tuesday off to do our laundry, and went into the studio Wednesday and Thursday. That gave me just two days to come up with a batch of new music. I wrote six new pieces.

Adam Levy: You also recorded new versions of some of your older tunes.

Pat Metheny: One interesting coincidence about the emergence of this trio is that it coincided with the finishing stages of the Pat Metheny Songbook [Hal Leonard], which I had been working on for 13 years. It has almost all the music I've ever recorded-close to 200 songs. That was being finished when the trio first started, so I happened to have all these lead sheets for older tunes I had literally forgotten-like "Lone Jack." I listened to that song again when I was going through the final correction stages of the book, and I realized it could work as a trio tune.

Adam Levy: How did the Trio->Live record come about?

Pat Metheny: I hadn't even intended to release the studio record, but it ended up that our two days in the studio produced enough good material to re-lease an album, which, in turn, gave us an excuse to do more gigs. I recorded a number of those, and put together Trio->Live from where we had gone past the point we did in the studio.

Adam Levy: How so?

Pat Metheny: On the studio record, I intentionally wanted to stay with 6-string guitar and play conventional song forms-in the tradition of what I had done on Bright Size Life. When we played live, we had all that, but we could also go into other stylistic zones. Some nights we'd play a lot of ballads, others we'd focus mostly on standards, and there were some nights where we'd get into the kind of wide-open space you hear on "Question and Answer." The instrumentation is also more varied on the live album-1 used several different guitars, which changed the texture of the music.

Adam Levy: What's your primary guitar on Trio->Live?

Pat Metheny: The prototype of my Ibanez Pat Metheny Signature model PM120. The one I used has only one pickup. The production model has two.

Adam Levy: You're not playing your trusty old Gibson ES-1 75 anymore?

Pat Metheny: I retired the ES-175 in 1995. It was really getting rickety, and I realized it's the only material thing on Earth that, if something happened to it, I'd be really upset. That guitar has been part of my life since I was 13 years old. I love it-it's so soulful. I've never had any work done on it. I'd still be playing it if it wasn't falling apart so badly, but I really don't want to fix it.

Adam Levy: How did your signature model develop?

Pat Metheny: Starting in 1981, lbanez became determined to make an instrument that I would play. They'd come to my gigs with prototypes, and I'd say, "Thanks, but I'm not interested." And they'd try again. They kept making these different prototypes, and it didn't seem to deter them that I kept turning them down, After a while, I realized they were serious, so I cooperated with them.

They made something I really liked in the mid '80s. I said, "I like this guitar, and I'll play it sometimes, but I'm not ready to give up my 175." They understood, and continued to make more prototypes until, in the mid '9Os, they finally came up with something I had to admit was better than the ES-175, in terms of access to the upper part of the instrument and its consistent feel and tone across the board. At that point, I knew that unless I retired the 175, it would always be an issue for me-I'd always want to play it. So I made the decision to play the Ibanez.

Adam Levy: Your tone is pretty dark. Do you use flat-wound strings?

Pat Metheny: I did play flatwounds for many years. I wanted something with the quick decay that gut strings have on acoustic bass-that was the goal. But as of two or three years ago, I switched to roundwounds.

Adam Levy: Why?

Pat Metheny: Partly because I want to hear the guitar ring more, and the roundwounds do that. But also, I was missing the bandwidth that I got when I play acoustic guitar. With acoustic, there's so much more frequency information, and round-wounds have helped me get more of that sound on electric.

Adam Levy: What other instruments did you play on Trio->Live?

Pat Metheny: On 'Faith Healer,' I'm playing an old Roland GR-303 guitar synth and triggering a VG-8. At a certain point, I switch over to the GR-300 synth module-the thing that people associate with my synth sound. I also used the Roland synth on the end of "Question and Answer." I play the Ibanez for about the first half of the song, then I switch over.

I also used several acoustics-all built by Linda Manzer. We've had a collaborative association for about 20 years, and I own 12 or 13 of her instruments. I played a nylon-string guitar on "Night Turns into Day." I used a 12.string fretless on "Counting Texas," and a 42.string Pikasso on "Into the Dream." That guitar fulfills something I've always wanted-to have notes sustain on a guitar-like instrument so that I could play over them. [The Pikasso guitar has one conventional 6-string neck and 36 tunable sympathetic strings that cross the guitar's top at various angles.]

Adam Levy: Your touch on the nylon-string on "Night Turns into Day" is incredible-so expressive, yet with almost no string noise. Is there a trick to avoiding the scratchy noises?

Pat Metheny: A lot of that is how the instrument is recorded and how good the engineer is at masking the noise. I'm sure every guitarist has run into an engineer who didn't know how to deal with acoustic guitar-someone who placed the mic in such a way that it seemed to bring out all that stuff. There are a couple of early recordings of me playing nylon-string guitar where the noise is horribly distracting. I don't think my touch has evolved that much over the years.

Adam Levy: Do you do practice a lot?

Pat Metheny: These days, most of the hours I spend working on music are devoted to composition. I'd love to practice more if I had time. The practicing I do gets rolled into the time I warm up before a show. I try to allot an hour to an hour-and-a-half each night before the gig. If the gig starts at 600, I start mindlessly playing around 6:30. I try not to actually engage myself in real music until the first note of the first tune on stage.

Adam Levy: How did you record the live album?

Pat Metheny: We recorded on ADATs at a 20.bit resolution. Our engineer, David Oakes, came up with a small rack of recording stuff that just sat on the side of the stage. I honestly never knew when we were recording and when we weren't. That's one of the great things about being a musician in this era. Up until a few years ago, making a live record meant bringing a big, expensive remote recording truck, or having an engineer set up in a separate room in the venue. There were a lot of extra people and extra gear involved. It was almost as if there were huge signs all over the stage declaring: We are making a live record! Now we can bring one little rack of ADATs or DA-88s and get something out of it.

Adam Levy: Was it hard to sort through all the recorded material?

Pat Metheny: It was, because I'm one of those guys who doesn't like listening to himself. But there was no way around it-there was going to have to be a lot of listening to figure out what the good stuff was.

One thing that helped a lot is that I had a log of everything we played. After every gig, I write a tune-by-tune description of the show-what songs we played, how I felt about how I played, and what things I could be doing better. I've been doing that for many years. I find that if I don't, it's easy to get lost in the euphoria that follows most gigs. There are all these people clapping, so you forget that you sucked on the third tune. It's like, "Oh, everybody seemed to like it, so what the heck?"

Adam Levy: Does the song sequence of Trio->Live bear any resemblance to the sets you played live?

Pat Metheny: CDs and set lists are different because they're fulfilling different functions. Live, the issue of attention becomes a palpable reality We're looking literally right in the eyes of these people sitting in front of us, and I become very aware of the rise and fall in their attention. A CD, however, must have the intrinsic capacity to be heard over and over again.

But whether you're sequencing a CD or putting together a set list, you must keep things moving, and have a narrative flow. The fundamental principles are the same: The idea is to tell a story.

METHENY ON HIS ILLOGICAL PICKING

When you hear Pat Metheny's fluid improvised lines-often zooming by at a swift clip-it's hard to imagine he believes his picking technique leaves much to be desired.

"When I watch Pat Martino play, his picking technique is the most efficient thing I've ever seen," says Metheny. "There's very little movement, and it's very practical. My technique is absolutely illogical."

"People often ask me why I hold the pick backwards. The reason is I could only get Fender Thin picks in Lee's Summit, Missouri, where I grew up. I couldn't stand the way those picks sounded, so I learned to hold them backwards-with the round edge towards the strings-and to bend the edge a little between my thumb and two fingers. That made the thin pick sound more like a medium."

"I didn't see any really good guitar players when I was starting out, because there weren't many around my town. When I finally did see guys who could really play, I thought, 'Wow, I'm picking all wrong!' But by then it was too late, because I was already making records. I do think about taking a month off and studying with someone like Frank Gambale, because there are things I can't quite do, which I could do if I had a more efficient picking technique."

 

METHENY'S TONE TOOLS

For the past few years, Metheny has done most his electric work on an Ibanez Pat Metheny Signature Model PM1 20-a thinline, double cut away archtop. It's strung with a D'AddarioXL115W set (.Ol lP, .014P, .OlSW, .028W, .038W, .049W).

Metheny uses a complex rig to amplify his Ibanez. First, the guitar signal goes to a direct box, which splits the signal and sends one line to the house PA. (or recording console) and the other line to a DigiTech GSP 2101 preamp. The right channel output of the 2101 is split via a direct box, with one of the signals routed to a Crest power amp and an old Acoustic 134 4x10 combo loaded with JBLs-the amp electronics aren't engaged, as the combo is used solely as a speaker cabinet-and the other signal going to an (Prime Time II delay (set to a 13-millisecond delay with sine-wave modulation). This signal terminates at a Crest power amp feeding a 15" JBL speaker in a Theil cabinet one side of the stage. The 2101's left side is sent to a Prime Time II (set to a 26-millisecond delay with sine-wave modulation), as well, and then to another Crest power amp feeding a 15" JBL in a Theil cab placed on the opposite side of the stage.

"This setup fills out the sound so my guitar doesn't appear as if it's coming from a little box, "says Metheny." People often confuse my processed tone with 'chorusing'-an effect I've always hated because it mixes two different pitches in one speaker. I like it when two sound sources are discreet and things just mix together in the air."

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