"Most people who like us don't know anything about the guitar," admitted Pat Metheny in an interview two years ago. "They like the spirit of the music. We don't draw that many musicians; they're more into players that are expanding the vocabulary on a technical level. I know there are a lot of guitar fanatics who can't understand what all the fuss is about. Our stuff is very human music; we're dealing with more of a 'life' approach, as opposed to just more notes, yet another chorus."
Though this approach to jazz guitar is unorthodox and often subdued in terms of technique. Pat Metheny has in the past two or three years become somewhat of a guitar hero - perhaps even a guitar anti-hero - on his own terms. While emphasizing his role as melodic spokesman, rather than lead guitarist, of the Pat Metheny Group, the 27-year-old has forged a new aestethic in jazz guitar and become one of the genre's biggest success stories. And slowly but surely other guitarists, from young prodigies to established veterans, have felt the influence of the "Metheny sound".
There have been few examples since Dave Brubeck's rise in the '50s of a jazz artist gaining popularity of such mass proportions, and the audience Metheny spoke of in the above quote seems to be the key to his success. While he has not compromised his style in the least and is still revered by the jazz community. Metheny has also struck a chord with thousands of listeners, many of whom have never seen the inside of a jazz nightclub. And while his rock energy and pop-flavored melodies give Metheny his individual sound, the overall style is more closely tied to the jazz tradition than it is to anything known as 'fusion'.
Since the release of the Pat Metheny Group album in 1978, Metheny's records have consistently sold in the 200.000 range and have placed high (sometimes at the top) of the jazz charts. The Group LP stayed on the Billboard jazz chart for more than a year, while its follow-up, an entirely solo outing entitled New Chautauqua, hovered around #50 on the trade publication's pop chart. American Garage, the Metheny Group's second effort, reached #1 in Billboard, as did Pat's recent tandem LP with pianist Lyle Mays,As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.
Metheny, born in the small town of Lee's Summit, Missouri, took up the guitar at age 12, playing rock and roll with friends in junior high. "I was never attracted to the guitar per se," he states. "I got braces on my teeth when I was about 14, so I couldn't play trumpet anymore. I had a guitar, and I heard Wes Montgomery." The recordings of the late Wes Montgomery eventually led to Metheny's eight-hour a day obsession with the instrument, which in turn earned him a scholarship to attend Downbeat magazine's summer music camps.
Upon graduating from high school, Pat entered the University of Miami's music program, where he earned a D in his first and only semester as a guitar major because, he admits, "I went to one lesson and never went again." Nevertheless, after one semester as a freshman, Metheny was promoted to the university's faculty as a guitar instructor.
After hearing Pat Metheny play backstage at a jazz festival, vibraphonist Gary Burton invited the 19-year-old to come to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where Pat taught jazz improvisation and joined Burton's quintet, which also included guitarist Mick Goodrick, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Bob Moses. Metheny stayed with Burton for three years and as many albums before launching a solo career with his first ECM release, Bright Size Life, featuring Moses and bassist Jaco Pastorius. Pat's second LP as a leader, Watercolors, included backing from pianist Lyle Mays and drummer Don Gottlieb, the nucleus for the subsequent Pat Metheny Group.
Since the formation of the group, Metheny and company have toured almost non-stop, taking a break only briefly in 1979 when Mays and Metheny backed Joni Mitchell on her Shadows And Light tour. When the quartet decided to take some time off a year ago, Pat spent his 'vacation' touring with bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Dewey Redman, with whom he recorded the double 80/81 album. On his most recent excursions Metheny has moved from showcase clubs to halls that seat 3,000 to 5,000 people, partly because of the group's growing audience and partly because of their elaborate sound and lightning setup. "We try to keep all the lighting effects connected to what's going on musically," stresses the bandleader. "Also, with a program of entirely instrumental music, we want to keep the audience's attention because lately we've been doing two-and-a-half or three hour sets. Once we get up there, we want to play for as long as we can hold an audience."
With the incredible growth in recognition and popularity Metheny has experienced in the past few years, his audience doesn't seem even close to their saturation point yet. In a poll conducted by Musician, Player & Listener magazine and voted on exclusively by professional musicians and people in the industry, Metheny took top honors in the jazz guitarist category - not of one year, but of the past decade. Moreover, those who voted predicted Pat to be the jazz artist most likely to assert an influence on the music of the '80s.
Do you think contemporary guitarists overstress the importance of playing fast?
A guitar is one of those instruments that's easy for some people to learn how to play quickly - to play a lot of notes and stuff - but sometimes that can be deceiving because you can tell that there are players rhat don't really hear everything they're playing. They're just kind of letting their fingers do the work without really letting their head or their feelings get involved. On a horn you can never really do that, because the notes come from inside you. You have to actually breathe the note out, so that tends to give horn players a certain kind of focus that guitarists, drummers, or pianists sometimes don't have. This is a little bit true in the bass department, too, where now on both electric and acoustic bass you have musicians who are playing more notesper second than could possibly be digested. But on the other hand there are people like Charlie Haden, who can play in a very simple way, but he says so much. And there are examples of that on guitar, too. Jim Hall is a very economical player, yet he's extremely expressive.
Both you and Charlie Haden are among the few jazz players to use influences other than just the blues foundation in a jazz context. You each take elements from folk and country. Is that the influence of growing up in the Midwest?
Well, I think that migt havce something to do with it. Charlie really experienced that Midwest background thing. When he was a little kid he was touring around with his family band, performing on radio shows and playing shows with Mother Maybelle Carter. He's got that background in a much deeper way than me. I've always felt very close to the kind of music that comes from out there, but at this point I have to acknowledge that I haven't lived there in a long time. I left when I was relatively young, so my experiences of the past eight years have been more world experiences. I'm very glad that I grew up there, not only for the Midwest groove, but for the Kansas City playing experiences that I was fortunate enough to be involved in when I was young.
In interviews you usually say that you fooled around with the guitar for a couple of years before you took it up seriously. What did the fooling around stage consist of?
You know, playing "Louie Louie", "Little Latin Lupe Lu", and all those kind of tunes with various friends in junior high when I was a 12 or 13 year old. This would have been about 1967.
Was this before you were exposed to jazz?
No, I already knew about it through my older brother (trumpeter Mike Metheny). Around that time he had found a few friends who were very much into jazz. One person in particular who figured to be quite an important character in all this was a piano player named John McKee, who lived right up the street from us in Lee's Summit. He specialized in Thelonious Monk tunes. This guy knew every Monk tune ever written. He was about five years older than my brother, ten years older than me. But he would have jam sessions all the time, and I used to go up there and listen. My brother would sit in - it was kind of a little community of people who were aspiring to be jazz musicians. I was into rock and roll, but every now and then they'd let me play with them. I'd kind of fumble my way through some tune. I really liked doing it, plus I got to hang out with the older guys, which made me feel special when I was 13. So through my brother I was exposed to jazz as early as ten or eleven.
When you started taking up jazz more seriously, did you go to a teacher?
Not really, but only because there were no teachers around, to speak of. The only guy who was kind of a jazz guitar teacher lived miles away in the next town, and I didn't really have a way of getting over there to see him when I was 14 or so. I wanted to find a teacher, but I couldn't. As it turned out, within a few months after that I started playing all the time with really good players around Kansas City, and those people became my teachers in a more direct way. It wasn't like I'd go to some music store for one day a week; I was playing four or five nights a week on the bandstand with guys that were excellent musicians, playing jazz tunes. I was having to sort of scuffle my way through these tunes, trying to make sense out of the whole thing. As I look back on it now, that's the best possible kind of experience I could have had.
Did you learn jazz harmony and phrasing by osmosis through playing with these guys, or did they actually tell you about such things as theory and modes?
No, these guys were very intuitive kinds of players. The main guy I worked for was a trumpet player named Gary Sivils, who even now is really inspiring for me to hear. But he's not a knowledgeable improviser in the sense that he can explain modes and all that kind of stuff; he just instinctively knows what to do. He can play on hard tunes and make all the changes; it's more an ear kind of thing. So I learned from them in an intuitive sense. They never sat down and said, "Play these notes on this chord".
After doing the theory in practice, when did you learn what you were doing?
To tell you the truth, I didn't learn the actual names until I was about 18 and moved down to Florida. I mean, I knew all the stuff, but I had my own names for things. For instance, I called a diminished scale a "half-step, whole-step scale." I didn't know it was a diminished scale, but I heard it used a lot on records by my favorite players. I knew that there was a chord progression called a II-V-I, but idn't know exactly what it meant, even though I was playing tunes all the time that had II-V-I's going on all over the place. So I kind of learned what to do before I knew what you call it.
Besides jamming and playing in a band context, did you sit alone and practice guitar much?
Oh yeah. About eight hours a day. I was a complete fanatic; I used to cut out of study hall and gymn and go in the bathroom and practice during high school. I played tunes, which are that what I still practise on. I'd take something like (trumpeter Miles Davis') 'Solar' and play it all different tempos with a metronome beating on 2 and 4. I'd play in all keys, all over the guitar. I'd force myself just to play on one string, or on four strings, or just the lower two strings, or the upper strings - anything I could do to make myself feel comortable with that tune. I've never been able to just sit around and play scales up and down. Not because I have anything against it - because certainly elements of scales appear in all improvising - it's just that I get bored doing that. It never seemed to make sense to mewhy you'd be playing a scale up and down when you could be playing a tune. That's why I started to play guitar.
Did you try tunes all over the guitar just out of curiosity, or did you have a drive to master the instrument?
It was just an attempt to learn the instrument in a thorough way. See, the heavy guitar player in Kansas City was a guy named Don Winsell, who died just about the time I started to do gigs. In fact, I probably got a lot of gigs because he wasn't around anymore; there were very few guitar players. So there wasn't a great older person around for me to learn from. There were a couple of good young guys who, like me, were just learning. I wish that I had had somebody to guide me. Anything I practised was more or less just an effort to sort of sound like my idols on records.
Who were some of those idols?
Wes Montgomery was definitely my favorite, although I was into all kinds of people. I loved Kenny Burrell and still do. Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney were very important figures. Those four were my biggest favorites, and I also really liked people like Grant Green because at that time I was playing with organ players a lot, and he functioned in those kind of situations fantastically. I was playing mostly bebop then.
Was the Gibson ES-175 you now play your main guitar back then?
Yep, from the very beginning. Well, I actually had another guitar for a little while, but it got smashed up. It was an ES-140T. But I only had that for about four or five months, and even at that point I wasn't really playing it. I was just kind of holding it, strumming on it. Then it got smashed up in an airplane; I remember I ws devastated from it. I checked it through bagage in a cardboard case, and it came out in about three pieces (laughs). But the airlines bought me a guitar - that was back in the days when they actually took responsibility for it. So I got a Fender Mustang for about the next two months, and I remember playing that in the garage band scene. By that time I was into jazz pretty heavily, listening away, and I got my 175 for $120 or something.
Practising and gigging that much, did you have much of a social life?
No, I was 100% infatuated with music. And in a lot of ways that's still true. I spend just about all my time, in one way or another, working on music. I'm into it.
How did you get the Downbeat scholarship?
I subscribed to Downbeat when I was young, and that was a great education just in terms of learning the names of everybody and who did what. I happened to see that they had a scholarship program where you send in a tape, and if you were good enough they sent you to the band camp. So I got together with John McKee and a flute player. That was when I was studying octaves, and I remember we played "Bumpin' On Sunset". I played Wes Montgomery's part pretty much note-for-note, and they comped along. I sent in and figured nothing would ever happen. Then an issue of Downbeat listed the winners, and my name was in there. The camp was really a turning point for me. Attila Zoller was the guitar teacher there, and he was incredibly inspiring. He encouraged me more than anyone had encouraged me at that point. I got to do a lot of playing with kids my age who were into the same thing I was into, which was also a new experience. The camp was in Decatur, Illinois, so there were a lot of kids from Chicago, St.Louis, and all over the Midwest. That's where I realized I wasn't crazy, and that there were other people who were interested in the same music I was.
Back then were you primarily playing bebop?
I'd have to say that all during my time in Kansas City - until I was 18 - I sounded awful. I don't want to give the impression that, "Yeah, I was playing bebop and burning, gigging." because I sounded horrible. I hear tapes of me from that period and I was scuffling, just like anybody who'd been only playing for a year or two. I had a certain amount of chops, and every now and then - like every 48 bars - you'll hear a little glimmer of an idea (laughs). But for the most part it didn't sound too good at all. I wasn't writing my own music, other than just a few little tunes, until I was 16 or 17. I was just trying to learn to play bebop.
When you started writing and playing more melodic tunes, did you find you had a natural sense of melody?
I couldn't tell. Again, it was difficult because there was really no one to compare myself to, other than the records I heard. And next to the records, I was awful. All I really knew was that I wanted to do it, and I was doing the best I could.
Was the next turning point - when you started showing some real potential - when you got to Miami?
Yeah, I would say after I'd been in Miami for about six months, all of a sudden something happened. I'm still not sure what it was. I went trough a period of trying out all kinds of guitars. I had a Gibson L-5, I played a Les Paul for a while. I was trying everything I could, and it was a little bit frustrating because I couldn't seem to get the sound I wanted. My 175 had been sitting under my bed for about six months while I flirted with all these other instruments, and then one day, I got it out again. All of a sudden it felt right, like that was the instrument I should be playing. When I hear old tapes from around then, stylistically I can tell it's me. This was about the beginning of 1973. It was still kind of raw, but the sort of quirks that have become my style were apparent then.
Despite your opinion of your playing at that stage, you must have been fairly advanced, because didn't the University of Miami put you on the faculty during those first six months?
Yes. That's one of those things that seems much more dramatic on paper than it actually was. At the time a friend of mine named Stan Samole was a guitar teacher there, and all of a sudden all kinds of guitar players started going to the University of Miami. They'd just opened up the electric guitar program there, so kids saw it as an alternative to Berklee, I guess, which at the time was the only other place you could really go if you wanted to study electric guitar. Instead of two or three electric guitar majors, there were suddenly 50 or 60, so they needed more teachers. I was, like, one of the better players. Also, maybe I had a little bit of a knack for being a teacher. It just kind of happened; I don't see that as being significant. People who write press releases tend to build it up a little bit.
By this time you'd learned the formal names and theoretical concepts?
Yeah. I learned that in the first month or so at Miami, simply because I had to. Being a jazz major and all that, here's everybody talking about dorian modes. Learning the labels was very easy, as you can imagine. It's like learning to count in another language.
When did you actually learn to read music - from trumpet?
Yes. My older brother taught me to read music. I'd read music in the high school band, and there was always trumpet music around. I knew how to read when I was quite young, like eight or nine years old. I feel very fortunate to be able to read and write music, as a timesaving device it's invaluable.
Was the University of Miami your first teaching experience?
No, when I was in high school I taught little kids C chords and all that every day after school, just as a way to make money. It was fun. By the time I finished teaching at Berklee I was sort of tired of it. I'd given the same raps over and over again, so I was ready to cool it for a while. But I still enjoy doing it, especially with real promising players. There are just some subtle things that I've learned I can tell them about; it's fun to turn people on to these things.
Do you have an overall philosophy you try to impress on students?
No. In fact, my only philosophy in terms of teaching has been to make people aware of what their weaknesses are. But that's not really true, either, because with each person it's different. Some people really need to be encouraged that it's possible for them to become good players, and other people need to be made aware that there are things that they should work on other than what they've already got together. Players get to that intermediate level where they can already play pretty good, and that's kind of a dangerous period because they tend to start playing only the things that they can play well instead of the things they can't play well. This is especially true for people who are interested in improvisation. It's very difficult to master - or even get together at all - being able to play on chord changes. It's one thing if somebody's a real good modal player, but to actually be able to play on changes is a difficult thing that sometimes gets ignored. Learning that can help your modal playing, too.
How important do you think chops are - execution, facility on the neck, dexterity?
I think it depends on what kind of music you want to play. If what really moves you is music that has a lot of notes in it, then you've got a lot of work ahead of you. On the other hand, if the music that really gets you is accompanying yourself on folk guitar, then there's not as much as... or, actually, I suppose you could put as much effort into that and become the world's greatest folk guitarist. To me, everybody finds their own path in terms of technique. It gets me when the technique becomes the featured item. It's almost like somebody who spends hours polishing the water faucet thinking that's going to make the water purer or tastier. It doesn't really work like that. Just from my own experience, I've found that I've never really sat down and worked on technique - it just kind of takes care of itself as you become a better musician.
Was the Gary Burton Quintet, with Mick Goodrick on guitar, your first full-time band experience with another guitarist?
Yes. The first thing we did was to play different instruments - I played a 12-string, he played 6-string.
Was that the first time you'd taken up 12-string?
Yeah [laughs]. The inspiration for it was the reality that we needed two different textures in order for it to really work. I was interested in 12-string anyway at that point. I'd just gotten one and was fooling around with tunings. It just made sense to have two different sounds.
Did you have to alter your technique much?
Yeah. Obviously, it's a little harder to play a 12-string than a 6-string. The hardest part about it was tuning it up with the vibes [laughs] - that was a real problem. I went crazy for the first couple of months. The first 12-string was a Fender Coronado - I couldn't have picked a worse one. Then I finally got a Guild Starfire 12-string that made life a lot easier; I still use it.
Were there any specific things you learned from being in Burton's band?
Oh, I learned so much from everybody in that band - I could write a book about it. Not only did I learn music from Gary, but he gave me a business sense that made it practical for me to start my own group later on. He was almost like a big brother to me because at that point I was just a green kid from Missouri. I didn't know anything about booking agents, tours, or how much money I was supposed to get for gigs. I didn't know anything other than I liked music and wanted to be a musician, and I liked Gary's music in particular. Over the three years I was with him he more or less taught me the realities of the music business, in addition to always being inspiring as a player. He also kind of kept on my case about things. If I was playing solos that didn't seem to have any direction or that didn't end well - or even wrong notes on certain chords - he wasn't the kind of leader that would just let it slide. After the end of the set he'd say, "Hey, on such-and-such tune you've got to watch it during this section, because it's not working."
Were you able to take that as advice or constructive criticism from a more experienced player, or did you resent it?
Coming from him it meant a lot, and I was grateful for the advice. But being the restless youth that I was, towards the end I was tired of being the student. I wanted to be the one telling other people what they were doing wrong [laughs].
Did you adopt the attitude as leader of any of your subsequent groups?
Unfortunately for me and the other members of the group, the first year that I had my own band I was really trying to almost be the Gary Burton type. As time went by I realized that that wasn't really my personality at all. In fact, I'm much more inclined to just let everybody do what they want to do and make the best of it. That's more or less the policy I have now. We still talk about things together, but it's in a friendlier sort of way. With Gary it was more like, "Okay, on such-and-such a tune you messed up." As I got older, it's harder and harder for people to do things that I think are wrong. Almost everything sounds right to me, if it's done with the right spirit. It was important for me to go through that phase of being a strict leader, especially at the time we started out as a band because there was a danger of it becoming just another group, and I wanted it to have it's own sound. I'm sure that all the effort I put into molding and pushing it into certain directions had an influence on the way it came out. Now that the group is more established, I'm more into people taking chances.
Going back to the Burton Quintet, what did you gain from Mick Goodrick?
Mick Goodrick was the first guitarist I ever played with who made me feel really ridiculous [laughs] - because he was so good. I'd play my little solo and then he'd play this masterpiece afterwards, and I'd go back to the hotel thinking, "Aw, man, what's happening?" That would happen every night for pretty much the whole time he was in the band. It was a combination of him being great and me still getting my feet wet as a player. We always had, and still do have, a really good relationship. We played a lot of duet gigs during those years, and he was a big inspiration and influence for me.
Did you enjoy the work that you did with Steve Swallow?
Swallow, first of all, was and still is one of my favorite bass players, and playing with him was like a dream come true. Not only had I heard him on the Gary Burton records, but also on some [fluegelhornist] Art Farmer records with Jim Hall and an incredible album with [pianist] Paul Bley called Footloose [out of print]. In addition to being a great bassist, he's also one of my favorite composers, having written tunes like "Falling Grace" and "Hello Bolinas" - just classic tunes. He was very encouraging to me as a composer. I'd bring my new tunes in, and he'd look them over and offer suggestions. He encouraged me to write away from the guitar because at that point almost all of the tunes I'd written were in a sort of guitar-like way. He told me to write at the piano, and eventually I started doing that, which really helped. He also has this incredible spirit; I think I learned as much from him in non-musical ways as in musical ways.
What about the drummer, Bob Moses?
He's probably the most underrated drummer in the world. He's the one that I did the most playing with outside of the Burton group. He, Jaco [Pastorius], and I had a trio for about a year-and -a -half, off and on. We used to play all over New England. He was the first drummer I played with who had that wild, you-never-know-what's-gonna-happen-next sort of groove. At first I didn't know what to do with it, but as I played more and more, those kind of drummers became my favorite. You'd be playing along with him and all of a sudden he'd start beating on the tom-toms [laughs], real loud. At first I thought, "What is he doing over there?" Then I realized that drums aren't necessarily where you play your solo on top of; at their best they're part of the music, a commentary. It's hard to talk about these guys in a detached sort of way, like, "This is what I copped from this guy," because we're talking about some of the people that I care most for in the whole world.
What are you thinking about during the course of a guitar solo?
As far as what kind of ideas I use and stuff like that, I just don't think about anything when I play. I think about how lucky I am to be playing music; I think about anything but what I'm playing.
You don't think of the solo you're in the process of constructing?
Subconsciously that's all happening. Yeah, I do think about that sort of thing, I guess, but it's not an analytical sort of process. If I make an attempt to construct a great solo, the craftsman in me can do that, but that's the last thing I want to do as an improviser. I just want it to be. I want it to happen.
The solo more or less constructs itself...
Exactly. And I spend almost all of my energy now as a player getting to the point where I can let go of my thoughts, and that's absolutely the most difficult part of being an improviser, that process of letting go. I think that's much more relevant than saying, "I put my little finger here, and this and that."
Can you look back on a solo and analyze what you're doing theoretically?
I always feel funny when somebody comes up to me and says, "What kind of modes do you use?" or, "What scales do you use?" To me, that's the equivalent of someone asking, "What kind of verbs do you use?" The idea is to play music, and assuming you're a good musician, you've spent a lot of time learning the grammar of music. And the grammar of music includes the knowledge of all those things. You can't know just a few modes or a few scales; you have to know all of them, and you have to get from one to the next without even thinking about it, without even blinking an eye. Like most players who are accomplished as improvisers, I understand all of those modes, all of the technical details of improvising quite thoroughly - and I have understood them thoroughly now for a few years. I don't see that as miraculous or anything special, other than I've spent the time to learn the grammar of improvising - just like a writer has to spend the time to learn the grammar of English. That doesn't mean he's a good writer, but at least he's got the tools to work with.
There are exceptions, though.
Sure. There are people who couldn't tell you what's what about the grammar in a technical sense but instinctively know what to do. There are people who speak poor English - myself included - but can convey thoughts that still make sense. To me the idea is to become a good musician, and as my subject matter I tend to deal in fairly complicated harmonic areas, so it's important for me to understand harmony. But in terms of what's going on while I'm playing, I don't have to think about it anymore, just like a person who's writing a novel doesn't have to get the dictionary out every five minutes to figure out what tense he's going to use. He just goes for it because he knows what to do.
In terms of how you play the instrument, some of your technique is fairly unorthodox - the way you hammer really hard with your left hand and sort of swish around with your picking hand.
[Laughs] That's a good way to put it.
Do you use a thin pick and fairly heavy-gauge strings?
Right. I don't think you'd want to use a thin pick with light-gauge strings. I used to use Fender thin picks, but I just found some new picks made by Jim Dunlop that I'm going to start using. They're made with some new kind of plastic, and they're incredibly smooth and even. So my pick problems are almost over, I think, because, I've gone through unbelievable changes trying to get picks. I would buy a box of picks and only be able to use maybe ten out of a gross - all different brands. I prefer the Fender shape and pick with a rounded corner, so I hold it upside down. Also the heavier the strings you use, almost without exception, the better the sound you'll get.
Did your picking technique come about through trial and error, or were you actually looking for a different sound?
I wasn't looking for a different type of sound that had a vocal quality. To me, the very best players - Like Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Pat Martino, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Hall - all have a sound that makes me think of something. When I hear horns or people singing, I hear a legato sound. It's very rare that I hear a staccato sound. Since I couldn't pick very fast when I first started, I had to simulate the tempos that these guys in Kansas City were calling every night. That's where that sort of loose right hand started. But as it turned out, that has evolved into a technique where I can get a lot of different kinds of phrasing without having to change my right arm. I don't have to shift gears in order to shift tempos. Sometimes I see people who have to move their whole body differently when they play fast. I've really become aware of this after playing with [drummer] Jack DeJohnette because I noticed that he's totally relaxed as he plays, as loose as he can be. That's happened with me, too. You could come up behind me and just knock my arms off the instrument because I'm totally loose and relaxed.
Does what you say about knowing the grammar hold true for your composing abilities away from the guitar?
It's the same thing. I got to the point maybe three or four years ago where I could write down melodies as I'd hear them in my head. I think of the voice - like if Lyle is going to play it, I'll think of piano. If I'm going to play it, I'll think of guitar. It just kind of takes care of itself. But I make mistakes, too, and then I have to go back and correct them.
Do you ever write things out purely from a theoretical standpoint without necessarily hearing a melody in your head, and then test them out to see how they sound?
Yeah, I do that for fun. Sometimes, just for an exercise, I'll write 12-tone rows and exercises based on those. They sound nice and everything, but I couldn't say that I've written tunes like that. [Ed Note. A 12-tone row is a system of musical organization that arranges the 12 notes of the chromatic scale in a particular order, then uses that as the basic melodic and harmonic material for a piece of music.]
What are your current main guitars?
The ES-I 75 is still my main one; I think it's a 1958. For the past year-and-a-half, my second guitar has been the new Roland GR 300 synthesizer, and I'm really excited about it. I'm playing it about a third of the time now, and it just knocks me out. I've tried every guitar synthesizer that's come out and bought three of the other brands because I've always been into synthesizers. But none of them have worked out until this one. I can actually play the Roland like a real instrument. It sounds like me playing - my personality is still there. It's just that instead of sounding like a guitar, it sounds like a trumpet or a bass or an orchestra.
Are different sounds mainly what you're after in a guitar synthesizer, or are you trying to get closer to the aesthetic you've been establishing with the 175?
To me, it sounds like a 175; it's just different. For me it's a real breakthrough because I figured I'd always have to play the 175 if I wanted to feel comfortable. My phrasing and everything just transfers over to this particular synthesizer totally intact. In other words, I can do all my sort of sliding kind of horn lines and they really come out intact. Plus, it allows me to play some real sort of angular stuff that I've been playing on the guitar all along, but on the synthesizer it has a certain rough edge to it that I've never felt comfortable getting on a regular guitar.
What do you mean by angular?
Semi-atonal. But I've wanted to find something for a long time as a contrast to my regular sound, which is kind of dark, and this is like a real rough sound.
Does the Roland allow you to do all that where the other synthesizers didn't?
It tracks flawlessly. It never glitches.
Have you come across any other new developments in guitar synthesizers?
As a matter of fact, I've been working real closely with New England Digital, which is the company that makes this new computerized digital synthesizer called the Synclavier. They've been working on a way of rigging up a guitar triggering system for the Synclavier and have come up with a prototype that's incredibly exciting. I think they're going to find two or three different ways of triggering it, one using a regular guitar with strings. The prototype I have now is a guitar that doesn't have strings on it, made by the Oncor company in Salt Lake City. It triggers the Synclavier. So I've been experimenting with that a lot. I think the new digital synthesizers are going to have the ultimate pitch-to-voltage converter, with absolutely no delay.
What else is in your guitar collection?
A lot of Ibanez guitars; I'm a big fan of that company. I use their electric 12-strings exclusively. They've also made me a special guitar that I've got tuned up weird; it's a hollowbody 8-string electric. And they made me a real nice hollowbody 6-string that I was using for certain tunes. It looks like a real fat blonde ES-335; it's got one pickup mounted Johnny Smith-style, by the neck. But that guitar was ripped off when we were playing in Philadelphia last summer. I'd really like to get it back. It says "Pat Metheny" on the neck, around the fifteenth fret, so it should be real easy to identify. [Ed.note: If any readers have information concerning the whereabouts of this guitar, please contact Guitar Player.]
Do you find that switching from a hollowbody to a solidbody affects your playing approach?
Totally. I couldn't play bebop or traditional playing - at least not with a guitar sound - on a solidbody. With the Roland I can play bebop and stuff, but I don't even think of myself as playing guitar. I think of it as playing a synthesizer that is being triggered by a guitar. So there's no acoustic sound there. But I really rely on feeling the wood vibrating into my chest, so that's why I prefer the 175.
What sort of things would you use the solidbody for?
For the 12-strings I prefer a solidbody because I've got the 12-string tuned up in all these bizarre ways. The notes really sustain more on this lbanez - like on the harmonics on "San Lorenzo" [Pat Metheny Group]. The Ibanez has a brass nut and brass bridge, and I think it's a one-piece neck.
What sort of acoustic guitars do you like?
Guild all the way. They sound really warm and friendly [laughs]. I use the one with the cutaway, the D-something-C [D-40C]. Then I use their acoustic 12-string with a cutaway, an F-212C. And l've got a regular 6-string Guild F-50R in standard tuning, which I use to practice a lot. It's on the back of New Chautauqua. I also use a Guild classical guitar [Mark 2].
Do you have fairly big or small hands?
I have very small hands.
Does that have an influence on your choice of guitars?
None whatsoever. I think that's one of the biggest myths of all time. [Pianist] Keith Jarrett's hands are definitely not big, yet he can play more than almost anybody. I think there are some cases where big hands have helped a lot, like Tal Farlow or Jaco, who's got gigantic hands. Lyle has big hands, too. I think it can help, but it's possible to play well with small hands.
Do you have any strange cheap guitars?
Check this out: I've got one that's blue mother-of-pearl, like a drum set, on the body. It's got four pickups, eight knobs - one volume control and tone control for each pickup - seven switches, and four of the tuning pegs on one side and two on the other. It's got everything but a name.
What about the harpguitars you've used on records?
I just have one that was made by a German company called GEWA. It's like a 6-string classical guitar with nine extra bass strings, which I tune to various pitches lower than low E. I've used it mainly for added texture on a couple of cuts - "Oasis" from Watercolors and "Fallen Star" on New Chautauqua. I haven't really used it for a long time.
What non-standard tunings do you use?
One of the Guild acoustics is strung up in the high-strung Nashville tuning; The high E and B strings are the same as normal, then the bottom four strings are tuned up an octave. The G string is an .008, and the only wound string is the low E which is a .021.
I use that tuning for everything but the solo on "Phase Dance" on the Pat Metheny Group. As well as for "Sueno Con Mexico", "Country Poem" and the title track of New Chautauqua. And I use it for an extra color a lot, like on"Everyday (I Thank You)" on 80/81, way off in the distance.
What about the 12-string tunings?
Well, two of the 12-string tunings are more or less in the same family. They're based on keeping all the strings unwound, except for the lowest one. They range from an .008 down to an .018 unwound, and then I usually stick a .021 on the lowest string. They're tuned up in all kinds of strange ways. On "San Lorenzo" the top pair are two unison F's, which is the F on the top line of the staff. The second pair is a G higher than the F and a fifth, a C. In other words, the first string is in unison, all the rest are fifths. The third pair is the same F as the first string but with a Bb a fifth below it. Fourth pair: an Eb a whole step lower than the F, and an Ab below it. Fifth: a C with an F a fifth below. And the sixth is Bb just below the C and an Eb under that. So the lowest Eb on the guitar would be written as the first line of the staff. and the highest would be the F at the top of the staff. So the whole tuning is within one octave.
Do you have other 12-string tunings?
All the other tunings, like the one used on "Ice Fire" [Watercolors], are slight modifications of that tuning. I use the same gauge strings, but tune it to a different chord. Then I have a few weird 6-string tunings that usually involve something like a D tuning, but with the low string tuned weird. But I want to emphasize that my single-string electric playing is always in standard tuning.
What strings do you find hold up the best for these tunings?
I prefer D'Addario strings. Jimmy D'Addario has made me some special "Pat Metheny Deadwound" model strings [laughs]. This is weird to most people, but I prefer flatwound strings that are real old, to get that sort of thump sound. Then I brighten it up with the amp instead of using a real bright sound to start with. I don't like to hear my fingers squeaking on the strings, except on acoustic guitar, and then I love it.
Could you detail your amp setup?
My main amp is one I've had for about seven years, which I'm totally in love with - an Acoustic 134 with four JBL 10s in it. That's the first stage of the setup. I used to use Peavey amps as secondary amps, but they broke all the time. Now I'm using the new little Yamaha G-l00 210, which sounds fantastic. So I go from my guitar into an MXR Digital Delay set for just a little bit of slap echo, then into the Acoustic 134, and from the preamp of the 134 I take a line into the input of the Lexicon Prime Time digital delay. The Lexicon splits it from mono into stereo. One side of the Prime Time, set at 14 milliseconds goes into a Yamaha amp, which then powers another 15" E-V speaker. Those two speakers are spread on either side of the stage, so that I'm kind of in the middle of those and the Acoustic. We also run everything through a Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb at the sound board. We also do the PA in stereo to take advantage of the stereo qualities of my stuff as well as the keyboards and bass, which are also run through individual Lexicon Prime Times.
What's the purpose of all the digital delays?
We like to spread the sound out a little bit. It's just a sound that we all seem to naturally gravitate toward.
It's amazing that with all of the electronics, your identifiable group sound is very acoustic in nature.
To me, when you start getting into spreading sound around, you're coming much closer to what happens with acoustic instruments than you are when you have a guitar plugged into one amp coming from one part of the stage. To me, that's very directional. One of the beauties of all acoustic instruments is the fact that the sound spreads out from a single source.
Is such an elaborate setup the only way you've been able to arrive at an acoustic sort of sound?
Yes, short of playing an acoustic guitar with no mikes at all.
You don't think it could all be incorporated into a single "Pat Metheny amp"?
No, because the trick is to spread these amps all over the stage. I don't think you could get it from a single source. Sometimes I hear people playing through chorus effects, and I guess they're trying to simulate that sound. But to me, it just doesn't work. It sounds out ot tune.
You don't use any chorus effects in your own setups?
No. To me, the sound I get isn't a chorus sound at all. It's actually modulation happening at different times. With a chorus you do have some modulation going on, but it's basically mono. Even these new stereo chorus units don't make it for me. You've got to spread it out more than that to get that sound.
Did you go after that sound because that's what you heard in your head, or did you want to sound unlike other players?
There was a time when I was concerned about trying to find my own thing and was anxious to establish my own sound, but I was never naive enough to think that it could come from a piece of equipment. That stuff always comes from inside. If I had to play through a Sears amp, you could still tell it was me. I think that's true of every good player. Obviously if they have their own instrument and setup, that helps and they feel comfortable. But if you've gone to all the trouble of trying to establish your own kind of thing, it doesn't matter what you're playing on.
What do you feel about the importance people place on the guitar itself?
In some ways I have some reservations about the emphasis on the guitar, like in interviews like this one. But then I sat down and said, "Okay, who are some guitar players that I really like who I'd go out of my way to see?" I thought maybe I'd come up with four or five, but I got a list of around 40 people who are really important to me as musicians and are also guitar players. I'd always thought, "Well, I'm not really into guitar players that much." but then I realized there were a whole bunch of guitarists that meant a lot to me.
You've recently changed your personnel in your group.
We toured for about three years, starting trom May of 1977 till August of 1980. With the exception of two weeks off here and there, a month off once or twice, we didn't stop. We're sort of seeing that now, in retrospect, as Phase 1 [laughs] of the group. We decided that it was time to take a break, so we took off from August of 1980 till March of this year. During that time, of course, for my vacation I immediately went back out on the road with Dewey Redman, Charlic Haden and [drummer] Paul Motion for two months. I also spent a lot of time in Brazil playing with a lot of Brazilian musicians who were very inspiring to me, especially Toninho Horta. He plays the kind of guitar style that was made famous by Joao Gilberto, but taken to another place harmoncially - very evolved kinds of harmonies, beautiful songs. Everything about Brazilian music knocked me out.
Where did you find the new members of your current lineup?
Playing with Charlie Haden, I started realizing how important it was for me to play with acoustic bass. I feel a real closeness to that instrument. So we auditioned bassists and played with Steve Rodby, who I'd met at one of those band camps years ago. Within two minutes it was obvious that he was perfect for us, on acoustic and electric. Also, Lyle and I had been planning for a long time to do a record featuring our joint compositions, but in a more orchestral sense using synthesizers. We realized that a lot of what we were planning would really be enhanced by a percussionist. I had seen Nana Vasconcelos play an unbelievable concert in Brazil, so Lyle and I called him. He flew from Rio to Oslo, and As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls became a trio instead of a duo record. He worked out unbelievably well; he knew exactly what to do and found just the right sound for every piece. He's been touring around with us as a special guest. It's opened up a whole new world for us as writers. The group had everything it had before, plus the ability to do other things now. For instance, with the acoustic bass we can do some straight-ahead jazz, which really excites me because I couldn't really play any of that on my own gig before.
The roles of the particular instruments in your group don't seem to be those of a more traditional band. Whas that determined because of the particular players in your band?
It's a combination of that and the material we're doing, plus the fact that the groups we're most influenced by also feature that element. To me, that way of playing was originated by the Bill Evans trios of the late '50s and early '60s. I see our group as sort of a mutated descendent of that way of playing; that's more or less the tradition we're coming from.
What originally attracted you to Lyle Mays and Dan Gottlieb?
In Lyle's case it was simply that he was the most exciting young musician I'd ever run across. And that continues to be true. We also seem to have an affinity for each other's music and each other's way of playing that as time goes on becomes more and more valuable to each of us. Lyle has an incredibly logical way of doing things that's really opposite from my sort of haphazard approach. I think the combination of those two elements sometimes produces an interesting set of values. The kinds of tunes that we write are combinations of logic and the anarchy of weird guitar tunings. He's just a fantastic jazz player, too. The same is true of Danny. He's got a certain something that no one else has. He's one in a billion. I take it as a real compliment that those two guys have stuck around through a lot of hard times.
There is an element of the Pat Metheny Group. unlike most jazz or fusion groups. where you play songs rather than just improvise over changes. Do you still view the band as basically a jazz group?
Yeah. I have to modify that slightly by saying that even within the context of our tunes that are most song-like - "San Lorenzo" or "Phase Dance" - there are heavy arrangements, but the bulk of the song is still some sort of an improvised solo, even if the improvisation has to be in a narrower format than in an [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman tune. When we enter that mode we become something that's more like a big band in the sense that, yes, the improvisation is still featured, but we're also interested in writing for the ensemble and using our instruments as a common voice as opposed to solo voices. That requires a certain amount of organization, which we're all into. I've never seen any reason why one has to preclude the other - why you can't write for an ensemble and also just turn the ensemble loose.
Can you foresee moving even closer to a pop format where there is no improvisation and you simply play the arrangement?
Yeah, I can imagine that. I can imagine writing tunes that are completely composed, and I can imagine doing albums where it's totally free. It depends on the musicians and what mood you're in when you're playing. At this particular time, though, I think we're all feeling a need to stretch out more. We've always stretched out a lot, but we've got a few new tunes that are like Ornette tunes - just a short little head, and then the rest is free.
Although everyone gets a certain degree of free reign in your band, it definitely is the Pat Metheny Group with you as its leader. Have you always had that leadership ability?
I think it's very important for a band to have someone who's got a clear idea of what they want - good or bad. Somebody has to stick his neck out and say, "Okay, this is it." But, to me, it's just as important - if not more so - to have players in the group who are challenging and together on their own. Between Danny, Lyle, Steve, and Nana, everybody has really evolved, and it's finally gotten to the point where I feel like everyone is equal. My attitude is changing in that respect. I feel lucky just to be in that band, let alone be the leader.
[ Picture: Pat Metheny on his ES-175: "When I was about 16 the little thing to hold the strap on broke off while I was at a gig. I stuck a toothbrush in there so I could stand up, and it's been there ever since. This was originally a one-pickup guitar, and I put another pickup and set of controls in there. After the experimental pickup started falling out one night, I took it out and covered up the holes. There's gaffer's tape along the sides of the guitar because there are big cracks in there."]
Is there any conflict between recording with the group and recording in other contexts, either solo or with other personnel? What dictates which compositions end up on various projects?
There's no conflict between the two. Since I've had my own group the only two sort of solo albums I've done are New Chautauqua and 80/81. With New Chautauqua, obviously, there was very little conflict since it was just my own solo trip. The music on that record is very, very personal; it's about my family, the town I'm from, the area I grew up in. That's something I just needed to do for personal reasons. 80/81 was also something I needed to do, simply because those are players that I love as musicians and as people. Since I knew the group was going to be taking a break, I figured it would be the perfect time. I hadn't really done any straight-ahead kind of jazz playing on record, except for one Ornette tune on Bright Size Life. I still haven't done a record of, say, standards and bebop, which is something I want to do at some point. 80/81 is more or less partially a tribute to Ornette, and then "Folk Song" and "Every Day (I Thank You)" are stylistically more in my framework, just with horns instead of guitar playing the melody.
There's a difference in attitudes between the Pat Metheny Group album and American Garage.
Definitely. At that point we really felt the need to do a record in America with a sort of American sound. We needed to play some more rock-out stuff, because we were doing it so much live but didn't have the documentation of it on record. So we had to get it out of our system. As an overall album, I'm not sure how great American Garage is, but there are things on the record that I like a lot. The Pat Metheny Group album is stronger, but American Garage was a very important time for us as a group. It's very timely; it's sort of about the spirit of that year. It was a fun record for us.
What about As Falls Wichita?
Well, it's a conceptual album in a way. It's all music that Lyle and I have written together over the years, sort of textural written material. I play nine guitars on the album, but I only take one guitar solo. It's orchestral in nature, using synthesizers. It's very cinematic music. It almost creates a movie in your mind.
Was it hard doing an overdub-type album considering that the group albums have been recorded pretty much live and in very few takes?
Yeah, it was quite a departure. First of all, we recorded for three days and mixed in two days, which is an extremely long time for an ECM record produced by Manfred Eicher. We usually did a basic guitar track and then started overdubbing on top of that.
Was it possible for you to keep an element of spontaneity, or was that even desirable in this sort of music?
Well, the long title song is not really designed to be a spontaneous kind of thing. But even when you're overdubbing, there's a certain amount of spontaneity happening. Nana, who plays on the whole record, brought a lot of that element to it. We'd do the whole songs, then he'd go in and improvise the percussion over the whole thing. On the second side, the song dedicated to Bill Evans was totally spontaneous because we just had this little head and then Lyle improvised a great solo. But it's not a blowing record by any means.
At this point, do you have any idea what your next group LP will be like?
There's going to be a lot of guitar synthesizer on it. The focus will be on the new group sound - with acoustic bass and Nana and all the new elements. Also, we're going to finally get around to recording a lot of the tunes we've been doing live for a long time.
Having such an individual style, did you have to adjust much to back Joni Mitchell?
No, not really...but yes [Laughs]. Just like that tune, "I'm Ambivalent About You Baby -Yes, Yes, Yes, No, No, No." That's by a guy in New York named Mitch Farber. To me, the idea is to play the best you can. To make an analogy like I was doing before with words, it's obviously possible for somebody to speak on one subject one day and the next day speak on another subject. It's the same thing with music. My role in playing with Joni obviously wasn't to play chorus after chorus on the blues; it was to play sounds that enhanced her tunes, which is something I'm more than glad to do. I loved the opportunity to be a colorist and a sideman again as opposed to being the featured voice all the time.
Did you have to change your technique or style?
When I started I said to myself, "I really want to do this tour and not get a volume pedal." But as soon as she'd start singing these songs in rehearsals, I kept waiting for Larry Carlton's guitar parts to come in, and they never did. Then I realized that I was the one that was supposed to be playing them. I learned a lot from that. I realized that Larry had found the ultimate guitar conception for playing with Joni Mitchell. And there was nothing I could do to ignore it - it was overpowering. So at the time when that was needed, I'd try to do the best thing that was possible for the music, which was to try to play Larry Carlton-esque parts. There were other times when things of my own fit well, too. In that group there were a whole bunch of people wanting to get fills in - there were fills everywhere - so it was a challenging tour because it required a kind of minimalist way of playing.
Do you think there's much of a division between the way the so-called jazz community views you and the way your record-buying and concert-going audiences do?
Boy, I don't even know. First of all, it's hard to generalize about people. Everybody's got their own opinion about almost everything, especially something as subjective as music. I don't really worry about it though. I just try and play what I've got to play, and that's all anybody can do. The thing that means the most to me is playing in front of an audience. I feel real lucky to be able to play, and I put as much energy into it as I can possibly muster up. That's my job, that's my part of the bargain.
With this much of your life being absorbed by it, can you foresee ever leaving music?
I suppose if I had a family and stuff I might, but even then I don't think so. I don't expect to be on the road 300 days a year when I'm 50 years old - I don't think if I kept this pace up I'd live to be 50. It's very taxing, difficult work. I just made a commitment to be a musician a long time ago, which still holds. And the process of becoming a musician is not an easy one, but I'm not going to break that commitment. If it requires that I spend the time I spend doing it, then that's what the requirement is. I'm spending the minimum amount of time I possibly can and still keep that commitment. And it just so happens that that minimum for me is 24 hours a day [laughs].