BBC Music Magazine
Music that Changed Me
Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny
The American guitarist and bandleader Pat Metheny has performed with musicians from Ornette Coleman and Gary Burton to Steve Reich, Joni Mitchell and David Bowie. A multigrammy award winner, he has released countless albums of his own and others’ works, and his new recording on the BMG label, Road to the Sun, includes his first two composed chamber works written for classical guitarists Jason Vieaux and the LA Guitar Quartet.
I’m from a musical family. My grandfather was a professional trumpet player, my father played well and my older brother Mike is a fantastic trumpet player. I was pressed into learning trumpet when I was eight. Two years later, in 1964, THE BEATLES invaded America and that was the beginning of my awareness of music other than what was happening in my family. It brought the idea of the electric guitar, the iconic symbol of everything that was just about to happen in the world, into the Metheny household. My parents reluctantly allowed me to spend the money from my paper route on an electric guitar. If I had to choose one Beatles track it would be ‘And I Love Her’, which I went on to record myself. Some of the melodic elements and the sound of George Harrison’s guitar on the intro added up to something infinitely appealing to me.
Not that long after I’d figured out ‘Love Me Do’, my brother brought home MILES DAVIS’S Four and More and I heard ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’. It was like being hit over the head by a two-by-four, an instant lifechanging moment. At the time I didn’t really know anything about form and chord changes, I just heard the sound – a harbinger of what was about to happen to me on a very profound level, having to do with the civil rights movement, things that were not that close to my semi-rural upbringing in Missouri but which I understood to be really important.
I never had a guitar teacher – if there had been a notable guitarist in my town they would have been getting the gigs I got in Kansas City! From 15 to when I left town at 18, I was working four or five nights a week on a bandstand with some incredible musicians, and that’s how I learnt to play.
WES MONTGOMERY was a major hero for me and I knew all his records to the point of distraction: ‘If you could see me now’ on Smokin’ at the Half Note is the greatest guitar solo of all time, including Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Segovia! About a month before Wes died, he played the Kansas City Jazz Festival and I stood within a couple of feet of him and got to feel that vibe – he was just an incredible spirit.
Jumping ahead to the mid-1980s, among the best phone calls I ever got was STEVE REICH asking me to play his solo work for electric guitar, Electric Counterpoint.
I’d been a fan for years: his Music for 18 Musicians changed everything – Steve had somehow captured the worldwide polarmagnetic shift from triple to duple time. I had the great experience of learning his music from the ground up and I feel very lucky that I’ve had that encounter with a guy that, along with Miles, has been a major inspiration for me.
Filling in blanks, particularly in the world of written music, is an ongoing process for me. I’m lucky to live across the street from the Lincoln Center in New York and I had the chance to see WAGNER’S Tristan und Isolde conducted by Sir Simon Rattle at the Met. It was a life-changing experience to rival ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’. I knew the piece because it’s famous in my world as this four-hour exploration of a minor seventh, flat five chord, or the ‘Tristan’ chord. I went three nights in a row, and each night it just got better.
We’ve had a pretty horrible four years in the US but what’s great about being a musician is that I take great comfort from waking up every day knowing that B flat is still B flat. What music represents is something that’s foundationally true. The privilege of being a musician and the wisdom that comes from living inside music has shone light on worlds that I would never have found otherwise.