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Pat Metheny - Guitarist Magazine, May 1985.

Interview with Pat Metheny

By Nicholas Webb

Guitarist Magazine May 1985


The single from the movie score you wrote, 'The Falcon and the Snowman' has done very well here. Has it done well in America?

Yeah, it's a top twenty hit! I never thought I'd see my name up in the charts I'll tell you that!

How did David Bowie get involved?

He saw a rough screening, in the composing stage, when I had just written a couple of the main themes and they had been laid up against the film. He saw it and really liked the movie especially the tune I'd written to go with the Tim Hutton character in the movie. He asked for a cassette of it and a couple of weeks later I got a message to say that he had written words to the tune and would we like to record it with him. He changed a little bit of the melody, but hardly any, and wrote great words. My group came over and we all went into the studio in Switzerland, where David lives now, he came down and we spent a couple of days in the studio and came up with a track. It was really fun too, he's a blast to work with!

Had you written for films before?

Yeah, I'd done a couple of smaller films; Little Sister, which hasn't been released yet starring John Savage and Kevin Bacon and a small science series that was on PBS, which wasn't over here. The Falcon was the first multi-million dollar Hollywood production though, with a famous director. I've just finished another one which will be out in the fall, called Twice In A Lifetime, starring Gene Hackman, Ellen Burstyn, Amy Madigan and Ann-Margret. It's quite an exceptional movie and I reckon it will win lots of Oscars.

In the last two years I've done four movies including Under Fire, in which I was a guest soloist, involved in the composition and the scores.

You played in London in 1982, what made you do that concert here?

Well, we tour all the time and I love to play live more than anything. For the last ten or twelve years now we have played live a good 250 to 300 nights a year. We come to Europe fairly often and have played a lot in Germany, but haven't had that much of a chance to play in the UK much at all. The '82 concert was part of a tour; people knew the record and it was a sell out concert, bar about 20 people.

The line up now is Lyle Mays, Steve Rodby, Paul Wertico and Pedro Aznar, which is this the same line up as before, isn't it?

Yes it is, in fact the last tour we did over here was the first few months that particular line up was together, but we're a lot better now than we were then!

It's also the same line up as on the most recent record, 'First Circle', and 'The Falcon And The Snowman' soundtrack.

We just found out the other night that we won the Grammy with this record, the third year in a row in our category, which is kind of cool!

It's a big European tour you're embarking on, isn't it?

Yeah, it's about 9 weeks, pretty much every night as well. We have a weeks worth of dates in Poland and Hungary, for the first time, then we play two weeks in Germany, a week in Scandinavia, a week in Italy, a week in France and a week in Switzerland.

Do you like traveling, because I know it's hard work?

Yeah, I love it. To me, getting to play live in front of an audience every night is the reason I became a musician. Doing scores and all that's fun, and challenging, but there's nothing like the exchange that happens with an audience.

I'm real happy with this line up and also just for the three of us who've been in the band the longest, myself, Lyle the piano player and Steve the bass player, it's been about five years. We're all five years older now and it just feels so much more mature. I'm especially pleased with this latest group record, which is the first one I can really say is what we're trying to do.

Did you always want to be a musician when you were at school?

Oh yeah, I mean ever since I can remember. My family's very musical; my Mum's a good singer and my Dad played trumpet all through his college days and my older brother is an excellent musician and was always a big influence on me.

Why did you choose guitar out of all the instruments?

Part of it was that the guitar was the instrument my parents least wanted me to play, it was the one they feared most and I was at the age of thirteen or fourteen, when that made it more appealing to me.

That was a fairly small element in the decision though. I started out as a trumpet player, which is my family's kind of tradition, but I had braces put on my teeth and the pain quota went way up — blood on the mouth piece once was enough!

I was attracted mainly to the guitar because at the age of ten or eleven the Beatles were just happening and I saw A Hard Day's Night about fifteen times and the guitar is kind of the instrument of our generation. I related to it as an instrument.

I finally got a guitar when I was about thirteen and immediately after that I heard Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery, who I got to see him play live in Kansas City just before he died...

After I heard Wes though, I stopped listening to rock 'n' roll and from the time I was fourteen till I was eighteen, I was your basic jazz purist snob, but I think in order to really play that sort of music you have to go through a period like that, it's so difficult. At that time I was mostly playing with musicians who were twenty or more years older than I was. I happened to hit the scene in Kansas City, which was like the nearest big time, when I was about fifteen at a time when there were no other guitar players around, so I got every gig in town, not because I was very good, but by default, because of that situation. From the time I was 15 to 18 I was working 6 nights a week, with great players, all of whom were staunch 'Beboppers' and the standards that were set were very high.

This time you were trying to emulate Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall...

Absolutely, although I was also, even at that point, slightly frustrated with the state of guitar in the jazz community; it seemed to me that there could be a lot more happening. In those days the only major group that even had a guitar player as a side man, other than the organ groups, was Gary Burton's group, and that was very strange. All the other groups, if they had a guitar, it would be in a very minor role and it always kind of puzzled me, because I couldn't see why the guitar didn't feature in the other groups. Part of it was because of the player, but part of it was because of the inherent problems in the instrument, as it relates to jazz; I mean it has a small dynamic range, especially the jazz guitar sound and jazz is the music of dynamics.

Pat Metheny with Gibson ES175 guitar

That's always been the big argument rockers have put forward against the Joe Pass approach or whatever, the 'get your sound and stay with it and play lots of notes' kind of thing.

Yeah, and I think it has some validity. You start thinking about a saxophone player like Sonny Rawls, or any great saxophone player, the difference between their softest note in a phrase and their loudest note is probably a ratio of 15 to 1, with a guitar, without changing the volume, the softest to loudest ratio is maybe 2 to 1, 3 to 1 tops, maybe more if you have a real good touch, but it's still no where near, I mean you're talking about Art Blakey who's going to really blap. To me, that's what makes jazz swing and there are very few guitar players who can really swing.

After Kansas City I moved to Miami. I'd been offered a scholarship at the University but after two weeks I decided I had finished bluffing my way through high school and didn't want to keep up the myth that I was going to study history and stuff, I just wasn't game. So, I got ready to leave and they offered me a job teaching guitar, which looks much better on paper and sounds more exciting than it actually was.

They had just opened up the doors to calling the electric guitar a real instrument, so instead of one or two guitar majors they suddenly had 80 and only one guitar teacher. I was probably one of the best students there, so they offered me this teaching job and I accepted. I had just met Jaco Pastorius about that time (l was 18 and he would have been about 20), I felt like checking this guy out and we started playing together. There were a lot of good players around who, for some reason or other, happened to be in Miami for this one year period; Steve Morse, Narada Michael Walden (back then he was just Michael Walden), Hiram Bullock (a really good guitar player who plays with David Sanborn), Will Lee, the bass player (in fact his Dad was the Dean of the college!) and Mark Colby, who's a good sax player, but hasn't got too famous. All the guys who made up the Dixie Dregs, that was Rock Ensemble 1, were all thrown together as a class.

When I met Steve Morse it was the first time I'd had any contact with someone my age who was also a guitar player, I remember thinking there must be people like him everywhere, and he thought the same of me.

It was the same with Jaco. It was an illusion, but it was a good illusion because everybody was stimulated by this environment.

I lived there for a year and at one point went back to the Mid West to do a Jazz Festival. Gary Burton happened to be on that same festival, I played with him and he asked me to join his band. Joining his band involved teaching at Berklee, in Boston, so I moved up there later that year and started teaching. When he went out on the road we toured for about three years, so that took me up till I was about 21, when I started my own band and we've been on the road ever since!

I met Manfred through Gary Burton round about that time, when he was just starting up. He had Gary, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and a couple of European guys.

You'd been playing a semi acoustic 175 for most of this period and suddenly there was this guitar synth, what happened was it love at first sight?

Basically, the people in our music store got this thing in and asked if I wanted to try it, it was that blue Roland box, the GR-300. I'd tried every other guitar synthesizer and had even bought a couple of them, the Avatar and the Patch 2000, which I messed around with for two or three nights then put in my closet, because they were just unplayable!

They're still there actually, I think I'm going to start a synthesizer museum at some point, because I've got them all now! I just picked the GR300 up and I couldn't believe it, because it worked! I could play all my kind of weird phrasings and it translated. I'd always had people design these guitars so I could play up an octave, but they never worked; the frets would always run out, whereas I wanted another 8 or 9 notes. I wanted to buy this thing there and then, because I knew if everybody gets hip to this they're all going to have to have one. This was five years ago, and to this day, with the exception of John McLaughlin and Adrian Belew, few people are buying a guitar synthesizer! I just don't understand.

Did you start by playing your old licks when you picked it up, things that you happened to be playing?

Not really, I immediately started playing things I never would play.

What's the difference in technique between playing the electric and the electronic guitar?

Well, the main difference is the psychological one; you have to stop thinking about it as a guitar, because it no longer is a guitar. The guitar has very little to do with it, other than as a means of talking to a computer and it's translating what you want to tell it.

We are conditioned to think synthesizer/keyboard; synthesizers are little electronic circuits, which you turn on and off. When you play these guys, you are just turning them on and off, so you have to learn to think like the instrument you're playing. The Roland has a high trumpet sound, which I particularly like and when I'm using it I tend to not think like a guitar player, but rather like a horn player and have always done so, even in my guitar playing, in the sense that I like to have natural 'breaths', which sound natural if I were playing a wind instrument. All that was immediately translated, but there were even a lot of phrasing things which might sound alright on a guitar, but on a trumpet they would sound real stiff. You have to think in those terms.

The main difference in terms of actual guitar technique is again one that I had been working on anyway and which just sort of happened to translate over quite well. You have to play very light and very clean. If you pick real hard it tends to make a sound which isn't clear to the converter, but if it hears a pure tone, or just the note, it tracks real fast. I've met a lot of guys who ask how you can actually play guitar synthesizers, because they don't track, but they are generally the people who pick real hard and that's hard for the computer to digest.

Pat Metheny - Portrait Photo, Guitar Magazine, May 1985

So at the end of the track 'Are You Going With Me', for the powerful phrases which sound like you're really attacking the guitar, you are actually just touching it?

Well, whether I'm playing as hard as I can as loud or whatever, I've always tried to be completely loose. That's a very important quality for me, which I don't think unfortunately many guitar players have. When guitar players play fast, you can see them tighten up and inevitably, to me, it translates as stiff music. It may be great guitar playing, but I don't like to hear people trying, I want to just hear the music, which I've found is when you're real loose. Watching good drummers like Jack DeJohnette and Roy Haynes, you see the sticks are practically falling out of their hands, but they are playing the meanest stuff and the very best guitar players tend to be very loose as well, like Jim Hall.

As far as technical differences go, you have to be quite a bit more accurate in terms of pitches; like you play the guitar you slide over a string and touch it real quick, because the guitar has no sustain quality unless you're holding down the string. If you're playing a sound on a guitar synthesizer which has got a long sustain you only play one note but it sounds like five notes are ringing. If you accidentally touch another note, the computer registers that you want to play an harmonic there.

Those are problems which I personally feel are less the problems of the player and more problems of the technology. The technology is good, but even with the Synclavier, which is the best tracking of them all, they still have a bit of work to do. To me, anybody should be able to pick up the Synclavier and not change their technique at all, but just be able to play and they just aren't there yet, but they will be.

What equipment do you use? You've got a Roland controller...

Yeah, actually Roland controller is a term that people now use for the guitar; it's a Roland G-303, which are good guitars and I've got a bunch of those. It's the first time I've ever played a solid body guitar and at first I was a little reluctant to get into that, but I now feel really close to them. The neck has a Les Paul kind of feel with Gibson scale as opposed to a Fender. I'm used to that having played a 175.

What about your back line equipment?

I've always used the same basic set up with a couple of recent modifications. I've been using my main amp for 11 years now, it's an old Acoustic 134, with a bunch of Yamaha stuff. I'm using the Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer in addition to the Synclavier controller and I've also recently started using the Roland GR-700, because it has a MIDI output, which I can trigger the Kurzweil from. That really sounds like a piano, then you ask why I would want to sound like a piano and I'd answer, because I have three priorities as a musician; the first is to be a musician, to have a band and that sort of thing, second is to be a composer and third on the list is to be a guitar player. I've never seen my main priority as being a great guitar player; I play the guitar quite well, but I think that more important than that is my music, which doesn't necessarily have to be on the guitar. Some of the tunes I write, I feel are as much a statement as anything I would ever play on a guitar, and it's intriguing to me, as a band leader, to try to explore all the possibilities that are available to us now with the guitar for filling roles other than that of the soloist; playing chords on the guitar synthesizer, behind everything, can make me part of a synthesizer ensemble, as well as being the guitar player.

I don't feel I'm losing anything, I am in fact gaining more options. I can still play the guitar acoustically, in fact I think with an even greater appreciation of what it means to say that I'm playing an acoustic instrument.

Do you play much acoustic guitar then?

I play more and more all the time. The more I get into synthesizers, the more acoustic guitar I play, it's really weird! I think it's because you sit there and mess with knobs for half a day, working on a sound, when you pick up an acoustic guitar, it immediately sounds fresh and you realize that hip though these synthesizers are, they're thousands of years away from having the power an acoustic instrument has.

It's the challenge of it then in a way?

It is the challenge...but a lot of it is the way I use synthesizers and the Synclavier. I use these things as music processors, in the same way as people use word processors. I mean, it doesn't matter what style of music you play, you're still dealing with chunks; you have an A section and a B section and you have to find a bridge. Composing with the Synclavier, you can try the sections in different combinations, print them out, look at them, change the key, you can do all the things you would want to do with any kind of text, the music becomes a malleable unit. If you work on a tape, you've got to redo it each time you want to change something.

Whenever I start talking about all this technology and how into it I am, it's quite easy to get lost in it, but one thing I do believe real strongly is that you, the person, have to provide the music. None of this stuff is going to do you any good if you don't have anything to say, it's not going to help, in fact, all it's going to do is make it more obvious that you don't have anything to say. If you write a good tune, it doesn't matter if you play it on a fifty thousand dollar Synclavier or a twelve ninety five guitar, if it's a good tune it will sound like a good tune and if it's not it won't. There's nothing you can do about it. There are no short cuts to being a good musician, and people have been finding this out for thousands of years. The more this technology grows, the more people are going to find out that there are no short cuts!

I recently saw a video of one of the concerts you did with Joni Mitchell, who I think is a great writer. Larry Carlton was interviewed for the magazine and he was talking about working with her, saying she has a special, totally unorthodox system and that it's all there, she just writes. The structures to her numbers have always been so strange, yet her lines are always so long and it all works, because she means it. How do you work with that?

Well in fact I identify very closely with her approach, especially from a guitar standpoint. Her thing is she just likes tunes; she doesn't really think of notes or chords she just really likes sounds. Before I met her I had been getting involved in that myself. I'd get a twelve string, put all kinds of weird strings on it and give it to my girlfriend to tune it until she thought it sounded right. I'd then try to get something out of it, maybe making a modification here and there. The guitar is a really wild instrument, but it's very easy to get sucked into the web of fingers, patterns, positions and grips and all that. Guitar players are all playing the same voicings and the same kind of scales and the same patterns, only because, who knows when, someone said somewhere along the line that the guitar had to be tuned EBGDAE, but the fact is that you've got six strings and you can tune it any way you want to really. You've got this really nice layout of notes, up and down, and I've always tended to think up and down anyway, because I like the sound better that way. So it's real easy for me to adapt to different tunings. I think in interval relationships based on the open strings and her thing to me is very natural; it's like she got to bypass all that guitar stuff that those of us who have had to deal with it usually have to break away from at some point.

Did you feel you had to make that step back and reaffirm your jazz roots, by doing the jazz album, 'Rejoicing'?

No, I've never felt that music was around to prove things. I know I can do it, because that's the music that I've played the longest. I admit that it is a little strange, considering how much a part of my background jazz forms, that so little of my recorded output reflects such. There are a lot of people who know my playing real well, who would say they liked all that, but that the thing I do best is play standards, and to this day I've never recorded a standard on a record. There's not really any particular reason for it, that's the weird thing. Even for 'Rejoicing', I had a bunch of standards to do, but we ended up doing tunes which just seemed right for the record. The same thing happened for '80/81 ', I had a bunch of standards ready, but we started playing some of this freer stuff and it worked great.

The group is more involved in experimentation with the new instruments and so on, and standards aren't real appropriate. On the early records, like 'Bright Size Life' and Watercolors', I was primarily interested in establishing the differences between tradition and what I did on the guitar. Whenever somebody's surprised at any element of my playing which is more traditional it makes me think they haven't heard our records; even on our most rock 'n' roll record like 'American Garage', there are things which show that whoever is playing the guitar knows his harmony from a Bebop point of view. It just isn't obvious to some people, which is always a little puzzling to me.

Unfortunately the trio record didn't come out as well as I hoped it was going to, partly because of the mix and partly because it just didn't! We did a whole bunch of trio dates last year after this came out, about three or four months' work, recorded every night, so I think there'll be a live record. There were a few nights when it was just unbelievable, really good.

Generally, with my group records, we play the tunes live for about 6 months before we record them, that's the way it was on the 'First Circle', which I think is part of the reason why it came out so good, and everything on there is first or second takes.

How do you record, because the ECM label has a special approach to recording, hasn't it?

Well generally its done very fast; the longest I've ever taken to do a record would be the 'First Circle' record, which took five days to record, 'Rejoicing' was done in two days, 'Bright Size Life' was basically done in a day, with the overdub on the second day, 'American Garage' was done in three days, 'As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls' was done in three or four days, but never anything longer than five.

We basically go in, set up as we would if we were playing live, but facing each other instead of out, play the tune a couple of times and then record. The synthesizers are always done as overdubs though.

Do you work with a particular engineer?

Yeah, this guy Jan Erik Kongshaug, he's Norwegian and lives in Oslo. He's the I just think he's greatest engineer, unbelievable. He is a guitar player himself and it's funny because people will ask you what sort of mikes he uses and I can tell you the names and everything, but I've used the exact same mikes, the same echo and the same everything. I don't know what he does, it's like a magic spell or something that he talks everybody into.

When you were over here recently, recording the film score, you sounded very surprised at your commercial success and that you could sell so many records but it still be called jazz.

And still am! It's not surprising to me when a group that's obviously trying to sell a lot of records, succeeds in selling a lot, but we just play what we want to play. On 'First Circle' we're talking about things like Forward March, and other tunes on every record that are eight or ten minutes long. Rejoicing', which is very much in the tradition of guitar trio records, sold almost 130,000 records in the States.

Why do you think you've had such a lot of success?

Well, I know two of the reasons. One is that we tour non—stop and by virtue of playing live have had personal contact with millions of people. We play between 200 and 300 nights a year, and there are between 2,000 and 5,000 people each time. If you add that up, it's a lot of people and a certain percentage of that audience wants to have a record, which sells a lot of records. The other is that we deliver the goods live; we play really long and hard and it shows, even though we sound much better live than on records.

The new album was the first time I've come out of a studio situation and not wanted to find the nearest bridge and jump off it! I mean it really felt great! In fact there are a couple of tracks on there that, if I were to leave town tomorrow for good, it would be OK, because there are a couple of things on there that I've always wanted to get on a record and finally did . Not anything specific in terms of guitar playing, but just a feeling.

What are they, particular tracks?

Yeah, the ballad 'If I Could', was the first time I've ever had the experience of playing something in the studio, and after finishing playing it, being glad that the tape was running because I'll never ever be able to do it again; like one of those special moments that happen, not every night, but almost every night. Usually when you see that red light go on, you know it's going to be transcribed in a guitar magazine or something, and you start thinking all the wrong things like "what if I make a mistake!" But that whole day it was just loose and we were having a blast; the stuff was sounding good and we were having fun.

Do you have a specific guitar maker?

Yeah, there's a girl in Canada called Linda Manzer, who's made me five guitars now and they're fantastic. She made me an incredible six string guitar, which I used on Lonely Woman on the 'Rejoicing' record, that's the clearest example of what it sounds like. She has also made me a twelve string and an eight string guitar which has a sitar effect. She made me two miniature guitars; a triple, which is twelve string with the strings in three groups of four, rather than six groups of two and an alto guitar, which is about half way between a regular guitar scale and this mini one.

On the film sound track I did a couple of weeks ago that we were talking about earlier, I play no guitar at all except at the end, when I play one tune on a miniature Ibanez guitar. It's tuned up an octave, but looks like my 175, with a hollow body and it's a great instrument.

Did you have it made especially for you?

Yeah, well I kind of suggested it to them. They always make mini Les Paul or Strat type guitars and tune them to regular pitch, so I thought why not make something a bit different. I think it will be coming out soon.

Pat Metheny, black and white photo with effects, from Guitarist Magazine, May 1985.

Playing live, which guitars do you use?

I'm using a Guild six string on a stand in a Nashville tuning, that's where the top two strings are the same, the bottom four strings are restrung and tuned up an octave so you can play all your normal voicings but they come out backwards. It's a really wild tuning!

I've got the three Rolands for different things; one is for the Synclavier, one has a vibrato and the other has no vibrato. Each one goes with different tunes. I'm also using an Ovation six string, classical with a pickup on it, and a Fender acoustic twelve string, on one set only, because it was the cheapest one I could find in a music store! I needed a twelve string that I could tune to an open chord and bang on it. I'm using a Coral Electric Sitar on one tune, which has a real cool sound and an Ibanez electric twelve string, tuned real weird. I think that's it.

Which acoustic guitars do you use?

I mainly play the Linda acoustic, that's my favorite.

What about acoustic guitar amps?

I've got two Yamaha G100 preamps, with a Yamaha 300 watt power amp, two MXR digital delays, one Lexicon PCM 60 digital reverb, one model 95 Prime Time Two Lexicon, Roland GR-300, Roland GR-700, Synclavier interface and Synclavier digital synthesizer and on the acoustic guitars I use a Lexicon 224X reverb, which is a really great sound. These little PCM 60s that have just came out are single rack space and sound exactly like a 224, but they cost about 1000 dollars! It's unbelievable, people are going to flip! You can't have all the flexibility but you can get that Lexicon sound.

Which guitar players do you listen to?

John Scofield, Michael Gregory Jackson, Allan Holdsworth, Van Halen, Jim Hall, I'd put him number one, Stevie Ray Vaughn and there's a young blues guitar player in Oregon who's starting to make some waves and I'm sure he'll become real big, named Robert Cray, I really like Stevie Morse a lot, especially when he plays solo, which most people haven't heard yet. We had him open up for us a bunch of gigs, just by himself.

I like Larry Carlton a lot and I love Jimmy Hendrix. I like some stuff Henry Kaiser has done. Pat Martino, George Benson, I actually like Earl Klugh, although a lot of people put him down, but he's got a real feel and a nice sound. I do wish he'd try a little harder, but he's got all the stuff there. I like Viv Campbell, who plays in Dio, with the two hands all the time but he uses like all five fingers or four oh the left hand and five on this, he's a Heavy Metal guy. Actually I've only heard one solo of his but it was really happening! I like McLaughlin, especially his work with Shakti, Leo Kottke.

Copyright © 1985 Guitarist Magazine


Webmaster's Note: Not only was Nicholas (Nick) Webb an insightful writer, but he was also a very talented guitarist and composer in his own right. Nick Webb was the founder and principal architect of the British instrumental group, Acoustic Alchemy. Nick worked for years with fellow guitarist Greg Carmichael in Acoustic Alchemy, appearing on ten albums, before passing away from cancer in 1998. I had the chance to meet Nick and Greg in Los Angeles some years ago, and can personally add that Nick was also a very kind and gracious person, as well as an excellent musician. - Wayne