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Pat Metheny In Concert - Roland Users Group
Pat Metheny In Concert - Roland Users Group
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Pat Metheny

by Jess Ellis Knubis

Roland Users Group, Volume 2, Number 4

The sound seems to swell and cascade, echo and scream. Sounds that transcend the boundaries of the guitar yet seem to epitomize everything that the guitar is capable of.

At 29, Pat Metheny has popularized a new era in jazz guitar, taken the instrument outside of its normal parameters in terms of both musical creativity and the creative use of technology.

The unique style, first developed in the bars of Kansas City, has matured over the years through association with such diverse artists as Joni Mitchell, Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, Sonny Rollins, Hubert Laws, and of course, his ubiquitous partner, Lyle Mays.

And that unique sound, first the product of an inexpensive Gibson arch-top and liberal doses of digital delay, has developed into one of the most highly technical combinations of hardware, software, and experimentation in modern improvised music.

Yet through that synthesis and development, there remains the essential articulation, expression, and love of music that continues to excite audiences with the innovation that first brought him acclaim.

In this conversation, Pat discusses his musical development, coping with international success, and the future of synthesized music.

RUG: What sort of music did you hear in Lee's Summit? What was the home environment like?

PM: Well, there was all kinds of music around. Being from that part of country, country and western was real popular. You couldn't go outside and not hear that, so that was part of it. And at the time that I grew up, like most people my age, the rock n roll thing was really starting to hit. When A Hard Days Night came out I think I saw it 14 or 15 times, I guess I would have been 9 years old. And the town I'm from was sort of famous for its marching band community. And also, I lived close enough to Kansas City with the whole jazz scene that was happening there, although it was distant to me until I was 14 or 15. From the time I was 15 on, I was working 7 nights a week in Kansas City with jazz greats. So I was lucky to have a whole bunch of influences and I was always a big fan of all kinds of music.

RUG: Was your family supportive?

PM: There was conflict - especially in the days when I was still going to high school and working in Kansas City in sleezy joints. But as time went on they became more and more supportive and now they're really fans. But I learned to play on the bandstand in those clubs. I was real fortunate that, at the time I was getting active on the Kansas City scene, there were no other guitar players to speak of, one or two other guys and that was it. So I got every gig by default and in fact, found myself with the best gigs in town, with the best players. Not that I was that good, but because there were no other players around at a time when the popular sound in a lot of these places was the organ, guitar and drum trio thing, and I did a lot of that stuff.

RUG: So by that time you were already comfortable playing through changes, you had developed your chops ... ?

PM: Yeah, even from the time I was 15 or 16 I was doing that stuff. The kind of music I was playing around Kansas City, even though I wasn't playing it that well was, you know, pretty complex jazz standards. I mean, I kind of bypassed the whole rock-n-roll thing and went almost immediately into jazz and very avidly, right from the first day practically, I was practicing 10 or 12 hours a day. I was really into it. I was really influenced by Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrel, Grant Green and Jim Hall. Those were the big four for me, as far as guitar players. Later on I got involved with Jimmy Raney, who was really important to me. And after a certain point, and I think this is true with most people who are looking to be improvisors, I didn't care what instrument it was played on, whether it was guitar players or not. So the big influences for me, after the initial fascination with the guitar were Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, you know, all the cats.

RUG: Was joining the Gary Burton group an important development?

PM: As far as national exposure, yeah. Gary was another big favorite of mine and his group at the time was the only one that was using the guitar in a progressive way. Most jazz groups didn't have a guitar at all until 1968 or so when Gary came along.

RUG: When did you first start using the digital delay?

PM: Well, when they first came out. I had an experience in the studio with one and I couldn't afford it until about 1977 and that's when the cheaper ones started coming out. But I was hooked immediately, they just killed me.

RUG: Your formal music education, then, was limited?

PM: Well, even though I never really went to school or went to see a guy in a music store once a week or anything, I was very definitely a student of music. I studied all the jazz manuals, read all the books; even before I left Kansas City, I could analyze any tune and tell you what the resolutions of the harmonies implied in terms of various chord scales and that sort of thing. It's just that I never had an official teacher and had there been teachers around, I'm sure I would've had them. When I was teaching at Berklee as part of the Burton band, I was having to teach certain things that I didn't exactly...well, it was stuff that I knew, but I just had to learn the correct names for and Gary really helped me out on all that stuff.

RUG: Do you recommend a self-taught approach?

PM: In a way, I'm always reluctant to say that I'm self-taught because that implies that you don't really know what you're doing. But I think, if you can do it that way it's better because you're constantly accumulating things and there's never that expectation of what you don't know.

Pat Metheny with his Roland G-303
Pat Metheny with his Roland G-303
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RUG: Is Lyle Mays' background more formal?

PM: No, in fact, our backgrounds are very, very similar. He's also from a very rural town that actually makes the town I'm from look like New York City. He's really from the sticks. We could both analyze to the "nth" degree if we had to and I think that we both felt that was important, even though there wasn't somebody around to show that to us.

RUG: Tell me about the work you're into now, the Synclavier and the Roland Guitar Controller.

PM: Well, it's the most incredibly exciting and magical thing that's probably ever happened. How's that for starters? I first got a Synclavier about 3 1/2 years ago now, and that alone was a major thing for me because it brought everything right under my fingers. Even though I didn't really have the keyboard chops, to be able to have a 16 track sequencer that was efficient and mobile as that sequencer, was compositionally, an incredible breakthrough for me. Everything was possible all of a sudden. So immediately after getting it I started calling them up every day and saying, "Look, we gotta get a guitar interface for this." And over a period of three years and two or three prototypes, a lot of back and forth trips up there, we came up with the idea of using the Roland as a trggering system. Because they were talking about making another guitar with the hex pickup and I mean, really, all I needed was another guitar to get the feel of. And I think the Roland is an excellent guitar, the brown one, the G-303. And so I took that up there (to New England Digital). And they started doing some tests and they said, "Everything we need is right here, let's just use that." And I said "YEAH!". So they started working on it and now any Roland guitar can plug into the interface. I mean, you don't do anything to the guitar, immediately you're into the Synclavier world.

RUG: The Synclavier is kind of an expensive machine....

PM: Yeah.

RUG: Like, $60,000....?

PM: Yeah, well it varies depending on how many voices and options, that kind of thing. But to be accurate, I think that if a guitar player wanted to get in on it and wanted to start with an eight voice system, you could get started for less than $20,000.

RUG: Not cheap by most people's standards.

PM: No, but still, on the other hand, I honestly feel that most people have no idea what we're talking about here. This is a breakthrough that makes the electric guitar look like nothing. It allows guitar players to, first of all, sound like any instrument, to record into a sequencer directly, to play anything, have it printed out in music...not only that but to have a certain feeling as a musician that allows you to get away from the sort of inhibitions that guitar players traditionally have had to deal with. In other words, you can play notes and take your finger off the strings and the note will still ring...stuff like that, that keyboard players have been able to do for a long time now. I mean...I just can't say enough about it. It's the kind of thing where, literally, I get up in the morning, when I'm not on the road, and I sit in there for twenty hours and then go to sleep and then do it again. And you can do that every day, it's wild. Plus, with the Roland AB switcher box (US-2), if you already have a Roland synthesizer, you can plug the guitar into the guitar input and have channel A be the Roland and channel B be the Synclavier and play them both together at the same time.

RUG: The two seem to be completely different instruments.

PM: Oh, definitely. From what I understand, the Synclavier works from pitch to voltage where the Roland uses what they call time to voltage. The Synclavier uses an extremely high-powered computer to read the string like, 50,000 times per second. I mean, you can see on the computer exactly what you're playing as you're playing it.

RUG: You mean as far as pitch and waveform...?

PM: Pitch, what string you played on, how hard you played it, that kind of stuff. The Roland is obviously geared to a much lower price, but to tell you the truth, I mean...I'm not going to throw away my Roland. There are things that it does that my Synclavier can't do, like for instance, sound like a guitar, in the sense that to me, the Roland GR-30Roland GR30 is like a super hot rod guitar, it feels like a guitar, it responds like a guitar, all that stuff, which the Synclavier can do, but the Roland has a certain quality to it. I mean, I don't know much about the circuitry, but it seems to me that it's following the analog part of the sound as opposed to measuring the string, and that's a real advantage for that screaming guitar stuff. (Editor's note: At the time of this interview, Metheny had just received his GR-700 module. He has been using it in Europe and was not available for an interview update.)

RUG: Sort of the ultimate effects device.

PM: Yeah, except I've been constantly surprised over the years by how much further up the ultimate can get. But to have the Roland and the Synclavier from one guitar is a sound that, until you've experienced it, you can't believe. I think Roland should take it as a real compliment, 'cause what this means is that the Roland guitar is going to be the standard. I'm sure that there will be other manufacturers that come out with systems that use that 24 pin connector as the standard language from guitar language. Because, I mean, they've done it, they've come up with a really hip pick-up and a very logical way of accessing it with that kind of cable. Ultimately, I think that the Roland guitar controllers and the whole pick-up system may become, you know, kind of what the magnetic pickup is now, the industry standard.

RUG: Speaking of guitar language, what experiences have you had with the MIDI system?

PM: Well, none so far. In fact, I'm highly skeptical of it, to tell you the truth.

RUG: Why is that?

PM: I know that it moves at a very slow rate, relative to the kind of stuff that we're talking about in the Synclavier. They're talking about one bit every 5 msecs and um, I can imagine, for instance, someone triggering a Synclavier from some other source just to get the Synclavier sounds, but the Synclavier is spitting out like, well, it's a 16 bit machine so like, every 5 msecs there's like hundreds of bits passing, let alone one bit every msec.

RUG: You don't think it will be fast enough to track all the information from a guitar?

PM: I don't think so, no. I'll be curious to see. Doesn't the 700 have it? (Editor's note: MIDI transmits 1040 30 bit "words" per second. See the Understanding Technology article in this issue for the answers to Metheny's questions.)

RUG: Yes the 700 does, and the idea behind it, of course, is that any MIDI instrument will be able to interface with any other digital equipment available, including other computers.

PM: I hope it works. It's hard for me to imagine how it could work and also get the dynamics. I could see how you could turn notes on and off, but when you bend a note or when you play with dynamics, you increase the amount of information that needs to be read by about ten times.

RUG: Beyond the Synclavier, what instruments are you using?

PM: Well, I'm using the Roland GR-300, which I love, and in fact, I'm amazed that more people aren't playing it. It's been like four years now, and I figured...when I went into a music store and played that, I said, "Man, I want to make a record quick, because everybody is gonna play this constantly on every record made from now on." And at this point, there are only three or four people who are really using it.

RUG: Who do you suppose that is?

PM: I don't know. I think that there's a kind of fear in guitar players. That's the only thing that I can figure out, that it's a fear of the unknown or something. I don't know if it's that or if it's intimidating or maybe they just like the sound of the guitar, they don't want to mess with it.

RUG: Could the boundaries between guitars and keyboards become less defined?

PM: I think that could be part of it, but I'll tell you what I think it is as much as anything, a lot of people still don't know what it means. I still have people come up to me, guitar players, after concerts, after I've played a screaming solo on the Roland, and they'll say, "God, how do you make your guitar sound like that?" and, I mean, it's up an octave, it doesn't sound anything like a guitar, it couldn't be anything but a guitar synthesizer, but because you're a guitar player standing there playing a guitar, they still perceive it as a guitar. So I think a lot of it is just lack of exposure.

RUG: Education?

PM: Yeah, maybe. And in fact the people that are using the Roland, most of them aren't really using it for what it can do. The only guy I've heard who really is exploring it is Adrian Belew and he's really dealing on it. I saw him play live and it was like, "yeah", he was tearin' it up. A lot of guys just turn it on and then open the filter and then close it and that's kind of it. But to me, the fact that it allows you to get to those other registers...obviously, you can tell from my records that I prefer getting the guitar up an octave, which I use the Roland for a lot. You get out of the tenor range and into the alto range, which is great.

RUG: So, is the guitar synthesizer the future?

PM: Ahh...not exactly. I think the future is always going to be good music and good tunes. And after messing around and spending, I don't know how many tens of thousands of dollars on all this junk, still find that if I write a good tune, it doesn't matter if I play it on the Synclavier, the Roland or a kazoo, if it's a good tune, it's gonna sound good on any of those instruments. So I think that the future is still in the hands of the composers and musicians who come up with the goods. But I do think that as far as stimulating the imagination, these instruments are incredible breakthroughs. There's music that I never would have played if I had not had the Roland, and that's pretty exciting right there, that an instrument can inspire you.

RUG:, How is a small town boy, not yet 30, affected by international success?

PM: Well, it's not really different. I mean, the only time that there was a real change for me around the time that the white Pat Metheny Group album came out, which is my third record and the first group album. Prior to that time, my idea of success was to be able to play a club with Gary Burton and have it half full on week nights and sold out on weekends. To me, that was about as big as it got in jazz, and when I made the decision to start my own group, I had been playing with Gary about three years and it was getting to be time to move on and think about doing something else. I had met Lyle and we had hit it off and we had fun playing together, so I said, "Well, let's try this," and we got some gigs. I had already won a couple of small polls in Downbeat magazine, you know, the "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition," I had a little bit of a reputation and I had those two records out, Watercolors and Bright Size Life. And we started the group and went out on the road and then that group album came out and all of a sudden, instead of selling 10,000 copies, it sold over 100,000 copies very quickly and that was a shock to me. And for a period of a year and a half or two years after that, I was kind of confused and you can hear it in American Garage and New Chataqua. Not so much, New Chataqua, that was made even before the group record came out, but especially American Garage. Of all the records, it's my least favorite and to me the weakest one. Because at the time, I figured I was a jazz guy and here we were selling all those records and having all these people come and I didn't know exactly why. And after a short amount of time, about a year of not exactly knowing what was going on, I just figured out, that all I really wanted to do and all that I had done up to that point was play the stuff that I liked. And when I resolved that question, everything became very easy. I was never interested in being in show business or being a celebrity or selling lots of records. All I ever wanted to do was be a musician and try to play the music that I like the best that I could play it. And that's all I do now. I use that as my saying, each day when I get up, I just want to play some stuff that I like and, I hope other people will like it too. But if they don't, that's OK. And I'm finding that my tastes as a listener are actually similar to a lot of other people's tastes. And on one level, I love hearing real simple pop music but on another level, I can listen to Ornette Coleman records all day long. And I hope I'll play music that conveys the love that I feel for all different kinds of music and, hopefully, it will always sound like me, too. So, as soon as I resolved that, everything was cool and there's nothing really to be changed, except that the only real change is that I can play a lot better now than a long time ago—and for some people that results in overconfidence. But I know that I play a lot better now than I did five years ago but I also know that five years from now, I'm going to play a lot better than I do now. And if you keep both those things in mind, it keeps you humble, in a way. Because you can see that it's a very transient experience, it's something you can't hang on to. If you say, "Gee, I'm really good and I play my ass off," the moment you start doing that is the moment you won't get any better, and I've never given in to that feeling. I always assume I should have done better. You can go too far with that, too, but so far it's worked for me in keeping everything in perspective.

Pat Metheny - Photo by Anne Fishbein/Photo reserve
Pat Metheny - Photo by Anne Fishbein/Photo reserve
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RUG: I guess that's why those albums just keep getting better and better.

PM: Wait'll you hear the next one! Actually, there's two in the can right now. There's one that will be out this summer, I'm real proud of. It's different than the group thing, it's not a group record. It's me and Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. The first side is all other people's music, three Ornette Coleman tunes, a tune by Horace Silver and a tune that Charlie wrote. And the second side is a couple of my tunes, one of which is really set up for a lot of improvising. And it's nice, I really like it. The album is called "Rejoicing". And after that, in September, there's a group record that we just did a couple weeks ago. It's...it's the BEST experience of my life, captured on a record. I mean, it's one of those things were we went into a studio for four days and everything worked. I mean, it's the best tunes that we've come up with, it's the new group, we've got a fantastic new drummer named Paul Wertico, and a great new utility musician, he plays guitar, he sings and he plays bass, he plays percussion, he's incredible, he's from Argentina, his name is Pedro Aznar. The album features both those guys quite heavily, and of course, Lyle and Steve Rodby, too. So, if the best record I've made up to this point scored a 30, then this record scored 100. I still can't believe that we got it in the can. It's not titled yet.

RUG: Where did you record it?

PM: In New York, at the Power Station.

RUG: With Manfred Eicher?

PM: No, this one I produced. But also on this record, it's probably going to be the first one that really features the Roland guitar with the Synclavier. There are three tunes where it's very prominent.

RUG: What about the future of the Pat Metheny sound, more synthesizer based music?

PM: Yeah, I think soon, sometime within the next year, I'm going to have to do a solo record just with the digital guitar and in fact, I won't have to go into the studio to do it. I can do it right here, on the floppy disc.

RUG: You can 'phone in your part'?

PM: Just about. In fact that's not far away at all. They've already talking about hooking up modems between the factory and some of the users in order to transfer discs, and if you can do that, it's literally phoning in your part.

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