At 19 Pat Metheny became the youngest instructor in the history of Boston's famed Berkley College of Music, where amongst others he taught Miles Davis guitarist Mike Stern. Some five years later he played lead guitar in Joni Mitchell's backup band on the Shadows and Light tour, together with Metheny Group keyboardist Lyle Mays, and his good friend Jaco Pastorius. To top that, three of Metheny's eight albums have been nominated for Grammy Awards, and last year he was voted "top guitarist" in America by Rolling Stone magazine.
"Living so close to Kansas City was the lucky break for me," says Pat, "because I got interested in jazz when I was 14 - there was a very active scene in Kansas City and very few guitar players - in fact NONE! So I got just about every gig that one could get more or less by default. I got to play hundreds and hundreds of gigs with great players by the time I was 17 or 18." Metheny not only listened to jazz but also kept his ears open and developed an interest in country and western and rock & roll. Shortly afterwards he taught at Berkley after being introduced to the establishment there by Gary Burton, whose Quintet he played with.
Pat sees himself not as a rock artist but as a jazz player. Whilst this may be true, he's certainly the only one I can bring to mind who can attract audiences of between 8,000 and 15,000 in the USA, and that includes Miles Davis.
"The whole reason we get together to play is to express ourselves as improvisers with an eye towards a tradition that's been going on in America for over a hundred years now. Jazz has gone off on all different kinds of tangents, and as a form has accepted influences from every possible area stylistically. Certainly, having grown up in the time that I did, the rock 'n' roll influence and the country influence are a large part of what I do and I make no effort to hide that. But my thing is to play it different every night. It's not to get a hit and play that hit over and over again for the rest of my life, which is more or less the path that rock 'n' roll follows. Don't get me wrong. I don't want to give the impression that I have any sort of negative feelings towards rock 'n' roll at all, because I can still listen to any number of rock 'n' roll cuts and practically crash the car while listening to them because I get so excited. But my thing, and the thing that I am good at, is being an improviser, that's my little groove."
Being a young jazzer, Pat Metheny has already developed a healthy interest in synthesisers, which are played in his band by co- writer Lyle Mays on keyboards, and himself on Roland guitar synth.
"It used to be that you had to call a piccolo in to hit a certain register. Nowadays it's possible to get into that register with any source instrument, but there's a basic danger of taking too many short cuts by using synthesisers, which happens a lot. It's an easy instrument to get hip sounds on. My new record, Offramp, is the only record I've heard where guitar synthesisers are featured. Some people have used them more or less as a background effect - the guys in King Crimson, Andy Summers has used them a little bit, Jimmy Page too, but they're all using them as effects."
Because he deemed it necessary, Pat Metheny learned to read and write music in order to remember everything he was coming up with.
"It was a tool...Reading and writing music to most people is a chore, because they don't have a use for it. In my case, I needed to document things as I went along. Generally, guitar players tend to be the worst readers and writers because there's not that much cause for us to do it. Most people who've known me over the years would say I'm one of the best guitar readers they've come across, but on the other hand next to even a poor saxophone reader I wouldn't be as good as him! I'm considered an excellent reader for a guitar player, but that means nothing."
Surprisingly, Pat Metheny never practises, instead preferring to balance out onstage by playing a 3 1/2 hour set to cover 'basic ground.' Technical as he is, Pat prefers not to give tips to aspiring musicians, although he let slip a few Metheny methods for the readers of MUSIC U.K.
"I hold the pick on edge like this [here Pat demonstrates the point by slapping the note with the pick held sideways on to the string] which is considered pretty strange, but it's because I like to hear the full sound of the string, not the sound of the string breaking up."
Another technique of Metheny's is to play scales across the fretboard as opposed to down the neck, in order to obtain maximum string ring.
"To me, the biggest problem in guitar playing, and rock 'n' roll in particular, is that everybody sounds almost exactly the same. You almost have to be a connoisseur to be able to tell one guy's licks from the others because guitar players tend more or less to play in patterns, and to me the trick is to try and come up with some hip new stuff all the time. You have to keep it loose sounding and fresh, and the best rock players certainly do that. I mean Jeff Beck; this guy's moving all over the place constantly.
"When I improvise or solo it's a matter of telling a story, and when you go to see a good movie, or see a painting you like, or hear somebody talk to you, there are certain qualities that make it interesting. You don't wanna hear the guy say the same thing over and over and over again as he's telling you a story. You want him to say it once in the most vivid possible way and then you get the message and you can imagine what it is he's talking about. For example, Eddie Van Halen is a fantastic improviser - I get the feeling that he couldn't play the same way twice if he wanted to, and the same criterion that makes me like that as music is the same criterion that makes me like Ornette Coleman as an improviser."
At this point in the interview my curiosity can no longer be contained and I demand to know the intrinsic benefits of Pat's guitar strap fixing, which accommodates a very filthy looking toothbrush as part of the deal! Is this customisation as we know it?
"The lower strap button broke off on a gig when I was 16, and as I couldn't stand up and play the guitar like that, this situation here with the toothbrush was improvised [there he goes again] and it was the best I'd ever played, one of those breakthrough nights, so it's stayed with the strap ever since!"
Here Pat Metheny dangles his Gibson ES175 by its strap for the benefit of the photographer's peering lens, at the same time discussing with me his much beloved instrument.
"This is the first guitar I ever got. Originally it had just the one pickup and I bought it from a farmer for $100. I'm told it's a 1958 with a PAF." This is not a stock guitar; a pair of volume and tone controls along with one pickup have been added, and, at a later stage, removed. The former holes have been filled, whilst the latter has been patched with a piece of gaffa tape. In fact the whole instrument has been botched with gaffa at various times in the past.
"The Japanese guys have taken it apart, trying to copy it because they want me to endorse an Ibanez. They've already made about six 'Pat Metheny' models and they're great guitars, the last one they made for me is just phenomenal, but it's not even _close_ to this! What I'm afraid of is all this cracking business which started years ago, it sounds so good, and it sounds better and better every year. I don't wanna do anything to fuck it up - it's never had a fret job. I mean, part of the reason it sounds so good is that I've been playing it non-stop for 14 years now, probably an average of 5 or 6 hours every day for 14 years, so it's like a baseball glove, it's worn in, you know?
"I have a pretty bad voice," admits Pat, "and I consider what I do on the guitar, and hear, more as the sound of my voice now than I do the sound of my own voice. When I'm playing it's as if I'm singing, and it's much more reliable than my voice."
I'm sure Pat Metheny wouldn't regard himself as a collector, but he does own three Roland guitar synths, two with Gibson style necks, and one with the Stratocaster type to which he's added a Floyd Rose Tremolo System. He also owns a Guild F50 and a few more of their acoustics he couldn't remember the model numbers of, plus a bunch of Ibanez Artist solid body 12-strings with the double cutaway. Another is an Ovation Electric Classical guitar.
"I've pretty much always been into the Gibson feel. I like the sound of Stratocasters a lot, but there's an eighth of an inch difference in the scales and since I've spent so much time on the ES175, it really messes with me. I've got a few prototype instruments too, different kinds of guitar synthesisers, some that don't even have strings that are real space age kinda things.
"Y'know, the hardware part of it on one level is extremely fascinating to me, but on another level I really couldn't give a shit about it. Basically you could hand me almost any guitar and almost any amp, and you'd pretty much be able to tell it was me that was playing it, as is the case with almost every good player in almost any style...they tend to bring their thing around with them, you know?"
Unusual tunings are part of Pat Metheny's sound and he goes to great lengths to keep them that way.
"I've gone to pretty elaborate means to get other sounds, mainly by changing the nuts and bridges, re-arranging the strings in various orders and I use a certain number of 'high string' Nashville tunings. For example, on a six string you take the E string and the B string and leave them the same, take off the bottom four strings, put on the lightest gauge you can get away with, i.e., 008, tune that to the G that's actually higher in pitch than the E string, the D string you do the same and it becomes the D one step below the E string. The A becomes a fifth below the E string, and the lower E instead of being 2 octaves lower is now only one octave lower than the E string, which means that you can play all the normal grips but the voicings come out backwards, more or less. The lower part of the neck is actually as high or higher in pitch than the top part of the neck. It's really a great sound, especially if you double the same part that you played on a six string, with that it can sound like the world's greatest, cleanest 12 string. I would, however, recommend you don't use your favourite instrument for this purpose, and be very careful if you restring an acoustic this way."
Pat's amplification consists of an old Acoustic 134 that's been his main amp for about 10 years, based on a couple of Lexicon Prime Time D Digital Delay units with Yamaha slave amps to drive the delay.
"Basically it's three different sounds for one. It's the straight amp, then there's two sides of the Prime Time, each driven by Yamaha slaves with Electro-Voice speakers. I don't regard the Lexicon as an effect because I leave it on all the time. I like to get a sound, rather than changing the sound for an effect I try to get as much out of the sound as I can. For instance with the Roland I have one sound that I like and that's the sound that I use, and I try and play lots of different music with that one sound as opposed to the thing of having a million different sounds and in the course of one song, switching eight or ten times.
"As far as amps go, solid state work better for me for the kind of sound that I like, which is a very mid rangey kind of tone. Tube amps are obviously good for that real distorted long sustain kind of sound, but I'm pretty much going for the opposite of that. I like the sound to be real clean and I like the sustain to be long, but natural, not artificially long.
"We're entering a very interesting period right now, with real time versus non-real time instruments. We're entering an age where it's possible for someone to go out and get a Synclavier and a Linn Drum machine and, having never played a not of music in his life in real time, still be able to come up with some pretty hip stuff by using sequencers, and I was the first guy on my block to get a Synclavier and a Linn drum machine! Yes, there will be people who will come along and use only those instruments, and will have huge success in a pop sense or whatever, but the fact is that no matter what happens in technology and any kind of artistic endeavour, everything evens itself out after a while. As the saying goes, 'There are no short cuts,' and no matter what happens you're still gonna have to learn about those three things, rhythm, melody, and harmony, and whether it's politically hip at the moment or not doesn't even matter, but you're gonna have to deal with that stuff. A musician has got to deal with that, RHYTHM...MELODY...AND HARMONY!!
"But what I like about rock is that there's never going to be a university of rock and roll, and heaven forbid that there ever will be, it's still street music... You can get some help in a university, but basically you're gonna have to get in a room and get it together or get out there and play."
And Pat's message to every musician who'd like to improve himself?
"In these days it's very important for people to keep their ears open and realise that there's so much music out there. It's so easy nowadays to say 'I'm only into this, or I'm only into that.' It's important to keep your eyes and ears open."