Open Secret

by D. Mead for Guitarist, September 1992.


Once hailed as a jazz fusion pioneer himself, Pat Metheny is nevertheless no stranger in the Grab-a-Grammy stakes. His albums Travels, Still Life Talking and Offramp have all seen him walk away with a guitar case full of awards. I asked him whether he considered the fusion tag to still be relevant...

"Well, it's never been one of my favourite words mainly because it emerged from a marketing concept more than from musicians. I've rarely heard musicians use that term; it's more usually the record companies.
When most people hear the word fusion they think of electricity. For me, as a guitar player, the first thing I did was plug my guitar in! That was my first musical gesture. I've been having to deal with electricity since the word go and I've tried to use it in a musically creative and responsible way. As technology made itself available to people like me, it was very natural to try and use it. It opened up orchestrational possibilities for a small group that didn't exist before. I loved the fact that I could have a four, five, six piece band that was capable of making this huge wall of sound in addition to what we did as just a jazz quartet."

You come from a musical family, what's your earliest musical memory?

"Well, my older brother Mike, who is five years older than me, was a spectacular young musician. By the time he was eleven he was like a child prodigy, playing the Purcell Trumpet Voluntary in Kansas City churches; he was really something. And so my early music memories are probably hearing him and my father play duets; my dad's also a very good trumpet player and my grandfather too is a professional trumpet player, So mostly it's trumpets."

You've said before that you were put off trumpet, and that you were drawn to the guitar because it was the instrument that your parents most feared.

"That was definitely a large part of it. When I was about eight years old, the beatles thing happened and the guitar took a place in the panorama of western culture that attracted me. Also my brother was such a good trumpet player that I knew I would never be as good as he was, so that was in there too: like 'God, I don't really want to follow in this guy's foot steps'."

And of course your parents not wanting you to do something is adding fuel to the flames.

"It's funny, because people talk about rock'n'roll as the music of rebellion. But, to me, jazz was always, and still is, much more rebellious than rock'n'roll, especially now. Rock'n'roll has become so totally predictab le and everybody has been doing exactly the same thing now for, like, 25 years."
"Jazz, to me, was always the music of individuality. There are so many colourful characters within the jazz spectrum and as a form it really demands that you get in touch with your own personal self; if you don't have your own sound in jazz then basically it's nothing. In rock, the more you can sound like everyone else the better."
"Rock was rebelling against my parents, but jazz was rebelling against my parents as well as all my peers, because they didn't have any idea what I was talking about".

You do have a unique sound, but that sound has now been very much copied by an awful lot of jazz players. Does that bother you in any way?

"Well, it is a little strange. I don't necessarily feel like I invented anything; I always played what I wanted to play. I saw it happen with Jaco Pastorius - I know what it was like the first time I heard him. There was nothing like that, nothing even close to that before. But whoever first comes up with something doesn't necessarily get the credit for it. It becomes part of the vocabulary and that's the natural course of events. I see people get very defensive and say, 'Well, that's my shit. People are stealing my shit.' But you can't do that. We're all part of a community and everybody is collectively working to advance the cause, and every now and then somebody gets a little glimpse of something and everybody else thinks, 'Yeah, that's a good idea.' In my case, for four or five years I think I was probably the only person that played with digital delays and two amps and all that, and it was like a new thing. But now everybody does it and I'm not going to sit around and say, 'Oh yeah, well that was my shit and everybody copied my sound.' My reaction to it now is to take all the delays off and play with just the straight guitar - do something different!"

Was there a point in time when your sound actually clicked? Can you put a specific date on it?

"Yeah, it was kind of an accident, actually. When digital delays first came out they were very expensive and very cumbersome - five rack space things and they were, like, 8-Bit! Anyway, I was living in Boston at the time, but I was in a studio in Oslo and saw a Lexicon there, noticed that the company was in Boston and said, 'Can you put it on the guitar and see what it sounds like?' It was supposed to be used for vocals, for ADT, and the guy said, 'Oh, yeah.' So when I got back to Boston I thought, 'God, there must be a way to do this live,' so I called up Lexicon and said, 'I'm this guitar player...' and they gave me one!"
"I messed around with it and got into this thing of splitting up the amps because I always thought that the guitar was a bit flat in mono. It seemed like when I heard a saxophone player like Sonny Rollins the sound seemed to come from all over the place - it didn't come from this one little spot. So I tried it and that was it."

Does the fact that you have such a distinctive sound confine you in any way? Have you ever wanted to just pick up a Telecaster and rock out?

"Whenever I do play with any kind of distortion, if I go and sit in with somebody, I find it's so easy. It all kind of runs together and you don't really have to make the notes speak. Also, if you play anything fast at all you sound like Allan Holdsworth! With the kind of sound that I use, if I miss any part of the note you hear it as a big clang. I find that other kind of sound very forgiving; I can get through it technically, but I can't make it come alive the way somebody else could."

You started writing the new album, Secret Story, a long time ago. How do you decide between material which would suit a group or solo project?

"I do think this record is unlike any record that I've ever done before. It's sort of a culmination of everything I've done. Usually, everything I write I try out with the group, because that is my main format. So I had stuff which I knew was good, but that didn't quite fit the group because the tunes needed to be more orchestrated. But there's no real rule, although maybe for the group it has to be conducive to live performance because we are such a live performance band."

Have there been any developments on the guitar synth front which you've taken up for this album?

"I did try the new Roland GR-1 and it's pretty amazing. The one before it, the GR-50 was pretty spectacular, but on the album I still play my old GR-300. That's the one for me because it's so raunchy sounding and it's got a real grit to it that I think is just fantastic.
But guitar synthesis is such a difficult engineering problem. All the people that I've seen trying to do it have all my sympathy, because I know what they've been going through. Some have done better than others, but there's just the physical reality of how long it takes the lower two strings to speak - it's going to take a few milliseconds for that to happen. But they're making progress; each generation gets better, so we've all got to hang in there."

Do you think it's like the mathematical conundrum where you keep halving the distance to your goal, but you never actually arrive?

"Yes I do. Actually, that's a good way to put it. But I think when you get down to 20ms you're in the ball park, and you can handle that."

Any other equipment changes?

"I haven't changed anything for about four years! I should probably update one of these days because I know there are all kinds of new things that have come out - especially things that are smaller but which sound really good. But basically, my thing has stayed the same because I've got really used to it, although it's not even all that efficient. Anyone who get s really used to something will know what I'm talking about here, but my stuff is pretty noisy and when I came up with a way of getting rid of the noise, I really missed it! If you play 300 gigs a year for ten years with the same stuff, it's really hard to get used to something different. But I plan over the next year to completely renew my rig; there are just too many hip new things, It's been a good four years for me to lay low, because they've changed the stuff so many times and they now seem to be getting down to some conclusions about MIDI and stuff. So it's really settling in and I've been waiting for that to happen."

What about this new Ibanez 'Pat Metheny' guitar?

"There are actually a couple of different prototypes. The first one is the one I played on the entire record of Question And Answer. It's basically an Ibanez Joe Pass model, except that the pickup is in a more conventional position and it's got a different neck on it. It's a great guitar and I love the way it sounds and the way it plays. However, I don't think I would stop playing my Gibson ES175 to play that all the time."
"I realised that if I was going to switch guitars, I wanted something that had some kind of improvement, rather than just being more or less the same. So I got together with the main designer at Ibanez in Japan and we traded ideas, and the new prototype - I've got one already and I'm picking another one up in a month - is very unusual, and I think a really exciting development for a jazz guitar. I think it is the freshest new design for a jazz guitar since the George Benson came out."
"It's got total access to 24 frets, but it's a full jazz guitar. There's a double cutaway arrangement and it's a very different body shape from any jazz guitar that I've seen. It has just one pickup and we've talked about the idea of doing a version of it with a pickup in the bridge that you can mix in too."
"But it's a beautiful guitar. It's easy to play fat, but not too fat and the question now is just getting it to sound exactly right. We've gone back and forth a couple of times on pickups and pickup placement - one of the problems with having 24 frets is that the pickup has to be slightly further towards the bridge and it's not such a warm sound, so there might have to be some compromise there. But we're working on it, so it should be out in the not too distant future."

On Secret Story you play a Pikasso Guitar. What exactly is that?

"It's an instrument made by a woman guitar maker in Canada, named Linda Manzer. It's basically a 6-string guitar with two sets of crossed strings underneath and another set of plucked strings down where the volume and tone controls would be. Then there's another neck that comes across the other way and you can tune the strings any way you want; I basically tune to groups of diatonic notes with whatever melody I want to play. It's really far out!"

Do the other strings work like the drone strings on a sitar?

"No. They do resonate a little, but you hardly hear them, it's more to be able to get to some unusual voicings."

You have recently collaborated with the American composer Steve Reich.

"Steve had done several pieces for solo instruments with tape, and he decided he wanted to do one for guitar. So he called me up and asked me if I wanted to play it, which was incredibly flattering because I'd been a fan of his for such a long time. I got really excited about it and the process of working with him was really inspiring. Most of my contact with other musicians has been with other improvising musicians, and to get to work with one of the major American composers on something like that was fascinating."
"He didn't know anything about the guitar. He said 'Okay, I want you to show me everything,' and I said 'Well, there are six strings, they're tuned like this and written down an octave,' (For those that don't know, when guitar music is transcribed onto a stave, it's dropped a whole octave to keep it on the treble clef - Ed) and he was taking notes and I gave him a beginning guitar book so that he could see how it was all written out! The piece is very closely related to the other two pieces that he did for flute and clarinet. There are ten guitars involved and two electric bass parts, which I also play."
"Technically, it's one of the most difficult things I've had to do because his music is based on repeating rhythms that lock together to create composite melodies. You have to play each part very, very precisely, rhythmically, and it's a kind of straight up and down rhythm playing style that I've just not done. I usually play with my own phrasing and kind of jazz it up a little. But this had to be real specific and it was probably the biggest challenge I've ever had. The record has been out for a couple of years, and it's called Electric Counterpoint. The piece I did is on one side, and on the other is a piece by The Kronos Quartet, called Different Trains."

You write mainly on piano. Is this in order to create a different harmonic point of reference?

"That, and for me it's just much easier to think on the piano because there is only one version of each note. That still messes me up on the guitar."

And do you find that if you sit down with a guitar to write, with all the best intentions in the world, you end up...

"...Just playing the guitar. Exactly! And you end up writing guitar music which sometimes is okay, but after a couple of records I'd written enough guitar music for a while. And when I started to write on the piano I found that when I translated it back to the guitar it was better. Sometimes I still pick up the guitar for ideas, but I find that I end up finishing them on piano."

You use a great deal of different textures on Secret Story.

"To me the record is really a collage, with different elements that come and go. There are sounds and just noises throughout the whole record. I wanted there to be this constant floor of noise..."

Your early ECM albums were recorded very quickly. Do you find that now you need the luxury of having longer in the studio?

"Yeah, I do. I need it to get the thing that I want. The ECM records were recorded in two or three days, with maybe a day or two to mix."
"I still like doing records like that - Question And Answer was done in six hours, fifteen tunes in six hours! But with the group albums, and this one, there is a level of detail that I want to get which just takes time. I want people to be able to listen to the records over and over again and I think for that to happen you have to create a depth of information that's rock solid, And that takes time."

When I've seen you play, you seem to regard the fretboard from a horizontal point of view, playing along the strings rather than across the fretboard...

"Well, you know why that is? It's because I like the way the note A sound s on the top string better than I do on the second, but I like A on the second string better than I do on the third, and so on. So, if I want to play a melody, I'll think of it along the strings rather than across, to take advantage of that. If there is any way to do it that way, then I will."

Your playing also incorporates a great deal of chromatic tones...

"Well, I think that anybody who studies improvising long enough will eventually get to the point where they find a way to get all twelve notes available all the time. The next step after that is, to start using them! A lot of it is a matter of hearing: you just start to hear it that way after a while, especially if you listen to a lot of Coltrane and people who really developed that part of the language."

"I've found with my own teaching that if a player wants to move away from a purely diatonic mode of improvising, their initial steps are dogged by their own reaction to the chromatic tones, by perceiving them as sounding 'wrong' somehow."
"This whole thing of learning to improvise via chord scales is very useful, but it can be deceiving. All seven notes of a chord scale are not equal - some are definitely stronger than others. So I encourage people to play entire solos only using chord tones, not using any approach notes or scale notes at all, but only using the three or four basic notes of whatever the chord is. The idea is to be able to play melodies using only arpeggios, but not making them sound like arpeggios."
"If you can do that, then you have in your mind what the strong target notes are and you can start going in with the other notes of the scale. When you're hitting the main chord tones pretty hard and you've got the other scale tones as passing notes then you can start goin g for the other chromatic tones. It's really four chord tones, three other scale tones and five chromatic tones."

Do you think in terms of a pure chromatic scale?

"No, I mainly think of the triad. I think if you were to analyse what I play, I'm landing on one of those three notes a lot, mostly on the third; I play a lot of third-based melodies. The reason I started writing tunes was because I couldn't find tunes that set up the kind of guitar playing I wanted to do as an improviser. Some of that has to do with the guitar - we need material which is set up more for the guitar."

Are you going to tour with the new album?

"Yeah, I'm going to do some kind of a tour in the fall. It's going to be a nine or ten piece group and somehow we're going to try and simulate some of this. Then there's a live Metheny Group album in the can, which is due for release in the summer of '93, and I've just done another album with a really interesting young sax player called Gary Thorns. It's an unusual kind of record for me. Also I just played on six tunes on Bruce Hornsby's new record, with Bonnie Raitt and Phil Collins. That's kind of a different thing for me!"

It sounds like a drastic departure...

"Well, I've always wanted to try and do something like that - play eight- bar pop guitar solos. It was fun, and I think I actually played some great shit, and if it gets on the radio it's going to be good for all jazz guys, because there are some pretty hip notes in there..!"


Thanks to Marc Lensink for this document. On my Pat Metheny Links page you can find a link to his site.

Maintained by Thomas Hoenisch TOP last update: July 1998