Bright Size Sound: An Interview with Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny. Photo courtesy of the artist.

With his mangy mop of hair and endearingly chill press photos, it can be easy to lump Pat Metheny in with the goofiest tropes of smooth jazz. But the New York City-based guitarist is a legitimate musical genius—the elusive artist capable of winning 20 Grammy Awards while also playing a key role in pioneering contemporary strains of experimental art.

Metheny was born in Missouri, raised by a musical family who took him to concerts and nurtured his creative side. His brother Mike – a flugelhorn player – pushed Metheny to learn the trumpet. But it wasn’t until Metheny saw The Beatles perform on television that his interest in the arts fully clicked. Shortly after, he picked up a guitar and fell down the jazz rabbit hole.

After high school, Metheny moved to Boston to teach at the Berklee College Of Music. Existence within such a prestigious environment opened doors for him to work with musicians including Jaco Pastorious. Metheny performed with the prodigious bassist on his solo debut Bright Size Life, which was issued by ECM in 1976. In 1978, he launched a quartet called the Pat Metheny Group. Supported by drummer Danny Gottlieb, bassist Mark Egan, and forward-thinking keyboard player Lyle Mays, the band is responsible for some of the most groundbreaking fusion ever recorded.

Metheny has challenged boundaries with his solo work, too. 1981’s As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls is an inadvertent proto-ambient epic. In 2010, he put out the bizarre Orchestrion, which found Metheny conducting a symphony of robots. Most surprisingly, 1994’s Thurston Moore-approved Zero Tolerance For Silence is pure noise music—more indebted to Bill Orcutt than Wes Montgomery. Over the course of his career, Metheny has made music alongside the likes of David Bowie, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, and many others. He’s an artist who thrives most when traversing new terrain.

In spite of this penchant for unpredictable variation, Metheny’s standard sounds tend to be either jumpy and ornate or organic and calm. His new album, Dream Box, falls into the latter camp. It came to life on the road, as Metheny revisited solo recordings he had collected in private moments over the years. In addition to originals, the LP features updated takes on bossa nova standards and Miles Davis classics. For a seasoned 68 year old player, Metheny still locates ways to twist familiar sounds into slinky, baffling new forms.

Reverb caught up with Metheny to talk about ideal guitar specs, iconic collaborations, and some of the most wonderfully surprising moments of his career.

Pat Metheny Group performs at Austin City Limits in 1977.

So, since this is a Reverb interview, let’s start off talking about gear…

Thanks for thinking of me. I am a Reverb regular—I have bought (and sold) many things on the site and I find myself checking in almost every day to see what’s new.

If you really think about it, a guitar is basically a piece of wood with strings on it. I do like guitars, maybe now more than at any other point in my life, but I see them the way a carpenter sees screwdrivers in his toolkit—they are there to get a job done, you have a variety of them to do different things, etc. And a really good screwdriver is not going to help you build a really good house if you don’t know how to build a house. By the same token, with acceptable tools, a good craftsman can do just about anything within their range of abilities.

Each era has unique musical opportunities that often juxtapose in an interesting way with what the culture demands at the time. Somehow, through the luck of chronology, during my life as a musician there has been a revolution in terms of what music technology has evolved to, and by being a guitar player I have kind of been on the front lines of it all. I often joke that my first musical act was to “plug it in.” Cords and wires and amps and everything else are part of our instrument as guitar players the same way reeds and mouthpieces are for horn players.

This is without question the greatest time in history to be a musician in terms of available tools. That said, a good idea is a good idea—and the inverse is also true. Across the history of music there existed a composer like Bach who, with much less “tech,” wrote the greatest music of all time. And here we are, with all these great tools and those same exact standards remain in place and hold true.

Whether music shows up in this or that form, and whether it comes to be by the way of some kind of super modern technology or a person just playing the melody on a traditional instrument that might be hundreds of years old; as long as whatever the musical result is meets the highest standards of soul, spirit and content set by our collective human musical history, the methods used for its inception are kind of beside the point—but still nerd-worthy.

If you have a genuinely great musical idea, it will work in both hi-tech and super low-tech ways—assuming the fundamental things that make that music do what it does at its best are present. For me personally, I am happy playing an acoustic guitar just by itself or aspiring to come up with some new way of presenting music using the revolutionary technical opportunities of the time. But good notes are always the priority. Hopefully while building an original conception around those good notes to tell a story in a personal way.

Sometimes you do need specific tools to tell those specific stories. Although I started with a Gibson ES-175 and a little amp and a strong interest in what that general area of improvised music had become by the late-‘60s when I started, I had an open mind about what else beyond that zone a guitar player might be able to offer in an improvised setting. Some of the answers to the questions I have asked of myself have wound up requiring getting some instruments made that are fairly unusual and barely in the guitar family in the end.

But before I can make a sound, I feel like I have to have a sonic destination in mind. Once there is a strong musical objective, all the variations that have come up over the years in terms of the different types of things that I have done have the possibility of becoming something tangible on a bandstand somewhere. And from a viable conceptual place, the right tools seem to emerge as well.

But in the end, as much as I can nerd-out with the best of them regarding guitars and amps and synths and everything else, they are fundamentally just tools in the service of music.

So along those lines, back to that house thing, it is like someone who sees a beautiful house and wonders if the carpenter that built that place used mostly a Phillips screwdriver or flathead. Did they use an electric screwdriver with the latest and greatest titanium drill bit?

In fact, it doesn’t really make a huge difference; as long as it is a really great house. Nor will the vast majority of people who visit or live in that house ever even think about the tools the folks used to make it. They are just going to enjoy being there.

You have an Ibanez signature model, and that made me curious about what you look for in a guitar? What has your experience collaborating with the Ibanez team been like?

As I mentioned, my first real guitar was a Gibson ES-175N and that guitar was with me from the time I started playing until the early-‘90s. It was really getting beat up. It had never been in the shop and was held together with duct tape and stuff. Right around then, Ibanez had generously offered to make something for me, and together we came up with that first PM-20. The Ibanez stuff is great and I have really enjoyed my relationship with them.

What is especially notable about their instruments is their incredible consistency. I could walk into any music shop, pick one off the wall and walk right onstage with it, and I know it would be fine.

I always look for guitars that sound like one instrument from the lowest note to the highest. Ibanez seemed to have cracked that in the mid-‘80s. Somehow, that quality is there on just about all of their instruments. They have also followed me along the way as I have asked for different variations and we have tried a few different approaches together. Each one has been an adventure.

Right now I am very excited about the new version of the PM series that will come out next year. They were interested in my fascination with the pre-war Charlie Christian pickups that I have become kind of obsessed with. They took it all very seriously, their whole engineering team came to my house where I have 10 or 12 examples of instruments of that era with those pickups, listened and measured and studied everything very closely, and went back to the lab to work on cracking what makes those pickups so special.

Lots of folks have tried to get there with various CC pickups, but I feel like the version that will be on the new PM model is the closest I have heard to the best one I have that lives on an old ES-150 from the ‘30s. I think they will be introducing two versions of this new model at the next NAMM show.

Roland G-303 and GR-300
Roland's G-303 Guitar and GR-300 analog synthesizer.

Your use of the Roland G-303 is incredibly interesting. Could you talk about your relationship with that instrument and how it’s factored into your music?

Yes, I use that guitar with its companion Roland GR-300, the blue box from 1978 or ‘79. I kind of think of it more as a “reverb and FX triggering device” as much as anything. The basic sound of it is pretty crude, it is the stuff that I do with what comes after the initial signal that gets it to where it gets to.

That instrument, although it was produced in small quantities and now many years ago, remains absolutely unique. It can do something that no other instrument can do, which if you think about it is really saying something. It is not MIDI, it is not digital; it came several years before all those technologies came along. I think even the folks at Roland are not exactly sure what it is.

There are several things about it which give me a window into thinking less like a guitar player and focus more on the kinds of phrasing stuff that came from being an early (and pretty bad) trumpet player. Also, it allows me to get up an octave from where the guitar usually sits on occasion. I always was hearing stuff up in that register, and was always banging up against the top notes of a conventional guitar. With the Roland I can genuinely hang out up there.

Guitars with lots of overdrive or distortion were a thing while I was coming along, and honestly it was already so common in the late-‘60s and ‘70s that I kind of willfully avoided it in the early going. Electric guitars already seemed to have limited dynamic range in the ratio of the softest notes you can play to the loudest without touching any knobs. As soon as you add distortion, that ratio gets even smaller, except in the very best hands, say Jeff Beck or Scofield.

I have always focused on the touch with the hope of making the dynamics between notes in a line have a kind of feeling of breath to them—it is almost an obsession with me. Since the distortion thing had already become almost a cliche go-to device for the upper end of things dynamically by the mid-‘70s, I was hoping to find an alternative way to get to something like that without being that. The Roland gave me a window into something I could use that could hang with the most intense drummers without that usual distortion thing, although I did eventually warm up to that too about 20 years in.

Pat Metheny performs with the Orchestrion, his collection of mechanical instruments, at the former St Elias Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in November 2010.

Me and my editor Nick here at Reverb are both really big ambient fans, and are blown away by how much As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls feels like it quietly influenced the genre. You and Lyle Mays did a ton to pioneer the synthesizer’s role in jazz. Orchestrion is a really fascinating project in a similar vein, too. Could you talk about your relationship with electronic music, and how you’ve blurred the lines between cutting-edge techniques and human musicianship over the years?

After playing in Gary Burton’s Quartet for 3 years, things were kind of aligning in such a way that it seemed it was time to start my own band. I had made a couple of records by then, Bright Size Life in particular had gotten a fair amount of attention. I had been thinking about what kind of a group I might have for the last year I was with Gary and kind of knew the direction I wanted to go in as a bandleader. Kind of central to it all was the idea of having a small group that could utilize some of the new instruments that were emerging in a way that was more orchestral in nature rather than the kind of Minimoog solo-ing in a sort of guitar style that seemed to be everywhere around then.

My good friend Jaco Pastorius had recently started playing with Joe Zawinul in Weather Report and through Joe I learned about the then new Oberheim FVS-1—which was kind of revolutionary, in that finally there was a way to have polyphony in that world that actually sounded good. So when I finally made the move to leave Gary and start my band, I spent whatever money I had saved going all the way back to my paper route money in Lee’s Summit to buy a Dodge van for us to do gigs—and one of the first Oberheim four-voice synths. I had chosen the guys to be in the first edition of the band, and off we went.

From then all the way up to now, I have spent a good chunk of my musical life sort of out on the bleeding edge of technology as it has appeared. I have found for me, there is an interesting thing that happens when something comes along that offers up some new possibilities, like some weird ether that shows up in those first moments, months or years when you find you have access to something that wasn’t there yesterday.

Next up for me was the Synclavier, which completely rearranged my compositional sense of what I might be able to achieve with a band, both live and on recordings. And even the Orchestrion idea is really an extension of the idea of instruments functioning as tools to build things from a basic conceptual idea to completion.

I can remember the months when the Synclav first introduced sampling to the world—which was monophonic and quite limited. But it seemed, at the time, like the world shifted on its axis and suddenly anything was possible. That first night I had it, I probably wrote 50 ideas. Of course, now GarageBand on all of our iPhones is probably 100-times more powerful than that first generation Synclav and while I use it occasionally, it doesn’t hold the same fascination now that the Synclav did then—which is interesting.

There is something about having something that is new and opens up new doors that is powerful for as long as it remains somewhat novel. But I also have always tried to build things that have a strong relationship to the fundamentals in music, regardless of the tech or culture that they emerge from. That seems to give whatever those things might be a certain resilience even as whatever it was that seemed novel at the time becomes more part of the vernacular.

"From The Mountains", from Pat Metheny's 2023 album Dream Box.

Could you talk about the process behind writing and recording your new album, Dream Box? When you’re sitting down to write, where do you start?

There was a way I wanted to improvise that I found difficult to get to when playing standards or blues or even modern composers like Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock. When I wrote my first tunes, I found that not only could I set up a situation where I could play the way I wanted to play finally, but it also gave me a kind of authority to ask certain things of the other musicians. Probably at that moment I realized I might have a knack for being a leader at some point for the first time—it all came out of the compositions.

For me, the composers I admire the most are the ones who write things that are robust enough to withstand almost any interpretation and still retain their essence. The all-time champ for me in that department would be Monk—if you play the right notes of his best tunes, and someone is playing the right bass notes, you will sound good, and Monk will be right there in the room with you. You can do it 500 nights in a row and you will never get tired of it. For me, that is the standard.

I write a lot of music. Almost every day I write something, and I don’t use most of it. My batting average is about three for 10. Dream Box is the first time I ever found myself rummaging around in the rather large folder that I keep going where I stash stuff. I found things in there that seemed to represent some aspects of writing and playing that I think I couldn’t have gotten to if I had consciously tried. It is a record that is really a surprise for me and I am happy folks seem to be enjoying it.

You’ve had some surprising detours over the years. You and Ornette Coleman strike me as musicians who dwell at very different ends of the jazz spectrum. But you collaborated on the album Song X. A friend of mine recently showed me Zero Tolerance For Silence, which is such a cool album. You’ve also worked with musicians like David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, and Jaco Pastorious. How have you adapted your playing within the context of those detours?

For me, music is one big thing. Although there certainly are distinctions between conceptions of this band or that band, each setting is a variation on my personal sense of what music is and what it means to me.

All of the recordings and projects I have put together over the years are like one long record, or one long story divided up into different chapters, with different tones, different characters coming and going and sometimes wildly different temperatures represented. And I have never seen any one aspect of any of it being more dominant than any of the others, and that includes what it has meant when I have had the chance to work with other people.

When I see folks refer to one or another project of mine as being a “side project” to something else, it tells me that they really don’t have an understanding of the whole point of it all as I have hoped to offer it. I never ever think of it like that and never have. If there is anything significant about whatever my thing is, it is the way that all of it goes together more than any part of that someone partial to this or that aspect of it might want to peel off to hold up as their idea of what the central mission of it all might be.

Every record or period of exploration that I have been lucky enough to get into has been offered with the idea of trying to reconcile the things that I love about music and that have had resonance to me with what I perceive are my favorite aspects of the musicians that I have brought along to join me on this or that particular part of the journey.

In many ways, my main occupation over all these years, even before being “a guitar player” has been that of bandleader or someone who might be able to offer a conception of music to a situation with a particular point of view. Coming up with a concept for a band or a project, finding and hiring the right people and then writing music for it and finally getting it to become a viable live performing unit have been the consistent elements of my focus over all these years regardless of whatever context the music winds up in. Because I have also been the composer of almost all of the music that my various bands have played, I have always had specific needs to fill to get that particular set of music to sound the best that it can.

In a lot of ways, I see the whole thing from Bright Size Life until now as one long trip, one long record, one long composition with a varying cast of characters that come and go to create a kind of exposition on the evolution of the basic premise laid out a long time ago on that first record.

Pat Metheny plays a solo while supporting Joni Mitchell at the Santa Barbara Bowl, 1979.

I’ve been on a really big kick listening to your music lately, and I have a lot of musical friends across a range of styles who I’ve learned have also been deeply influenced by your music. The mark you’ve left extends well beyond jazz. I’m curious if there are any current musical artists, movements, or genres that you’re particularly excited by.

I became a musician because I am a fan of music. I still listen to everyone and follow what is going on out there pretty closely, particularly in the general community of folks that I hang around with. The world of pop music has not really changed that much since the ‘60s, in terms of content; the root of the chord established on one, some kind of whack on two and four by something, mostly major and minor chords in various combinations with someone singing on top. When you think of all possible music that we as humans might make, it is interesting that so much of what gets listened to worldwide across now three generations has clustered together so tightly.

But that is in the realm of content itself. In terms of soul and spirit, you can find it everywhere, sometimes the oddest places, and after all, that is what really counts. It might be a bunch of middle school kids in a basement somewhere that for that one weekend cracked the code of it all for a moment.

For me, I am all for the folks who manage to get to the most soulful places and then are able to sustain it by having a deep sense of the musical fundamentals that are intrinsic to the kinds of good music that is timeless. And there is almost no predicting how and when that may come about.

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