How to play like Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny’s rise to stardom was paved by a unique mixture of musicianship and communication; of accessibility and sophistication. Perhaps no other contemporary guitarist can claim to have had such a wide audience, and few can match the eclecticism of his career, ranging from the open melodicism of his own groups, to fiery uptempo bop on sideman dates, from the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Derek Bailey to the classical minimalism of Steve Reich.
He continues to surprise and delight, and yet at heart has always remained a jazz guitarist through and through, no more at home than when improvising on standards with other master musicians. He is perhaps the greatest influence on contemporary jazz guitarists, including Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Moreno, Lage Lund and many others; but his influence extends beyond, even to classical players and electronic musicians such as Goldie. He has also contributed many tunes to the jazz standards repertoire.
Born in 1954 in Lee’s Summit Missouri, Pat’s earliest musical interest was in trumpet, before the legendary appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show caused him to fall in love with the guitar. He started at age 12 on a ¾ size Gibson ES-140 (no, me neither), puzzling out Wes’s licks from a treasured copy of Smokin’ at the Half Note.
Pat’s rise on the instrument was meteoric. In three years he was already winning scholarships to study on jazz courses and playing professional gigs. Playing in Kansas City he was spotted by Bill Lee, Dean of Miami University and offered a scholarship. In fact, he ended up teaching as their first electric guitar teacher.
His first experience touring came alongside vibraphonist Gary Burton and fellow guitarist Mick Goodrick. Recordings of this tour are interesting – Pat is playing electric 12-string and seems yet to come into his style as a guitarist. He took up a teaching post at Berklee in Burton’s faculty.
This was all to change with the release of his debut album Bright Size Life in 1976, featuring Jaco Pastorius on bass, which features all the hallmarks of Pat’s instantly recognisable playing and writing.
However, it was the following release, Watercolours, that in its partnership with Lyle Mays provided the nucleus of the Pat Metheny Group, a shifting organisation that would always feature the keyboardist until his passing in 2020.
While the PMG albums showcased Pat’s writing, Metheny maintained a prolific parallel career as a collaborator, in dates ranging from straightahead jazz to avant garde and contemporary classical music. He even found time to collaborate with David Bowie on a track from The Falcon and the Snowman.
It’s a fool’s errand trying to encapsulate a career as multifaceted as Pat’s in a few words, but I will note I’ve always personally most enjoyed Pat on other people’s records, and he often shows a more freewheeling side than a hear in his PMG recordings. A personal favourite is Michael Brecker’s Tales From the Hudson.
Pat Metheny’s technique is somewhat idiosyncratic but allows him to play fluid and fast lines with seemingly no effort.
Perhaps most unusual is his right hand pick grip, where he uses two fingers and the thumb. According to Pat this is to flex the pick to make it feel heavier – in fact growing up he says it was hard to source heavy picks, so this was his solution.
I wonder if this didn’t contribute to his highly recognisable sound, with its soft onset and slightly glassy quality.
Metheny’s left hand resembles his hero Wes Montgomery’s in several ways. In common with Wes, Pat is primarily a three fingered lines player, playing with a thumb-over pronated hand position and a lot of shifting, often along one string.
In common with Wes, Pat often favours low positions. I remember learning a lot of his material in high positions, only to realise from video footage that he was playing these ideas near the nut of the guitar.
Metheny’s style has evolved from using more hammer ons and pull offs in his early recordings to a more picked approach.
Metheny’s right hand technique is capable of delivering incredibly swift and precise lines, but notice how in this signature speed lick two ‘hammer-ons from nowhere’ (or left hand taps) are used to supplement his picking for rapid string crossing. The line is based on diatonic thirds through the major scale with the lower note doubled at the octave.
Metheny’s style can be separated into two elements: his straightahead jazz style which is highly chromatic and bop influenced which can be heard often in his sideman recordings, and the more melodic style that features heavily on his Pat Metheny Group (PMG) recordings.
While the divide is not absolute, Metheny has talked about his desire to move away from bop language in his own original music.
Listening to his debut recording as a leader, ‘Bright Size Life’ shows how much this was the case; his playing is highly melodic and disarmingly straightforward in pitch choice, based on many triads and pentatonics with relatively little chromaticism.
In fact, I would say that anyone seeking to channel Pat’s style should start with triads – just like Django, despite the difference in style. However, Pat also seems to like to ‘sequence’ the triads through the scale. Try this exercise if you are unused to this type of pattern.
You can see that all of these arpeggios of triads belong to the major scale. Once you are comfortable with this, why not try the spread voiced triads. The challenging string skips are worth it for the airy, intervallic sound.
The blues and pentatonic scales, both major and minor are fixtures in Pat’s playing, probably related to his interest in rock, country and singer songwriters like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.
Many of his compositions have a strong influence from this style of music, most notably his popular composition ‘James’ that features a breezy major pentatonic A section melody. Here’s a more intervallic example from the title track of his debut release:
On his PMG material, Pat’s playing is often diatonic to the major and its modes, as well as the melodic minor scale. While I would hesitate to call him a chord scale player -I don’t hear him using melodic minor modes harmonically all that much in quite the same way as some players for example - but it’s apparent how well he knows these scales all over the neck, and has a seemingly endless capacity for coming up with compelling melodies with them.
Lastly, Pat’s use of chromaticism is most evident in his more traditionally ‘jazz’ recordings, such as his sessions with Mike Brecker, Joey de Francesco and Joshua Redman. He will often use passing tones in scales in a very ‘bebop’ way. A particular trademark are rapid melodic descending thirds, that he plays usually by hammering the lower note with his second finger. This creates a ‘bubbling’ effect that can be heard in many of his uptempo lines.
Gear and Tone
Metheny is best known for playing his 1960 Gibson ES-175D. This guitar is notable for its peculiar toggle switch placement, battle scars, and most of all for the insertion of a toothbrush under the bridge (used to secure the early synth pickups which he pioneered in jazz.)
This distinctive instrument was as much part of his stage image as his curly hair and stripey tops and remained his primary instrument until the mid 1990s. A deal with Ibanez led to a range of signature instruments. Somewhat similar to the 175 in construction and natural colour, these instruments sport one neck pickup; Metheny eventually removed the bridge pickup on his ES175.
Playing the ES175 Metheny favours flatwound strings and the tone rolled off completely – however he also pointed out that the tone control on his ES175 is quite subtle. This also seems to be the case on my own 1968 model. You may find on your own guitar you may need to use a different tone setting to approximate his sound.
More recently Metheny has been seen playing a guitar by luthier Daniel Slaman featuring a single Charlie Christian pickup. Slaman is well-known for his reproductions and re-imaginings of Charlie Christian era ES150s.
While these three have formed his touring mainstays, there have been many other instruments associated with the guitarist, including the striking Pikasso 42 string and a Roland G303 Guitar Synth.
In terms of amplification, Metheny favoured a solid state Acoustic 134 amp until the mid 1990s, preferring a flat, midrangey tone with lots of (in common with George Benson and Wes he favours transparency and headroom in an amp.) Today he uses Digitech GSP-2101 Preamp and goes directly into front of house.
Metheny is also well known for his use of effects, at least in his own recordings. Often thought to be a chorus, his effected tone is actually created by digital delay; he says he uses “2 lexicon prime-time digital delay lines, one on my left at 14 ms delay, one on my right at 26 ms delay.
Each delay has a very slight “pitch bend” controlled by the VCO (sine wave) inside the prime-time. this is what gives it the “chorused” thing…” In his recent live work, he seems to have focussed on a ‘straighter’ guitar tone with the Slaman, using a subtle long tail reverb.
For the recordings I used my ES175 straight into my sound module and used delay effects within my DAW (Logic X) to approximate Metheny’s effected tone.
When I started transcribing Pat’s lines I noticed that he seemed to use more upbeats (ands) and syncopations at moderate tempos than any of the other players that I’d looked at, in both swung and straight-eights material.
Most jazz guitarists construct their lines from 8th notes, but Metheny seemed to favour much more syncopated rhythms than more traditional jazz guitarists, including his hero, Wes.
Then I remembered, that Pat had lived for a time in Brazil and has often spoken for his admiration of Brazilian music. Brazilian samba and bossa rhythms often feature a lot of upbeats, and I wonder if Metheny hadn’t absorbed that flavour into his line playing.
There’s also an influence of Afro-Cuban music; for example the introduction of ‘Phase Dance’ features a line that while harmonically very different, rhythmically resembles a classic ‘Montuno’ pattern that would find a pianist playing in a Salsa band.
Metheny has a reputation for a ’slippery’ time feel that can move on top, behind or right in the centre of the beat. He says he developed this ability through playing with some of the great drummers of the era as well as working diligently with a metronome, and later, a drum machine to cement his rhythmic precision and acuity.
That said, I notice Metheny is not necessarily an even, metronomic or mechanical player – he has a gloriously human feel that ebbs and flows but never loses its groove.