Pat Metheny is a true master of guitar, and every player can learn from his awe-inspiring fusion approach – expand your chops with these key concepts

Pat Metheny performs onstage
(Image credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

Pat Metheny is a phenomenal jazz guitar player, an equally incredible composer, improviser and all-round musician. From the early 1970s and while still in his teens, Metheny began to gain exposure as a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band, on fledgling recordings with bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius and as the youngest lecturer to teach at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. 

From that point to this, Metheny’s career has been staggeringly fruitful, as a band leader with the Pat Metheny Trio and Pat Metheny Group – in collaboration with artists such as Michael Brecker, Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau, John Scofield, and Chris Potter, as a sideman for Joni Mitchell, Joshua Redman, Bruce Hornsby, and many more – and a solo performer, with ambitious, groundbreaking projects such as his Orchestrion Project and on his solo acoustic album, One Quiet Night

He has received over 30 Grammy nominations across over a dozen different categories and even at this stage in his remarkably impressive career, continues to develop and grow as an artist and player. 

Metheny has successfully achieved the holy grail in jazz, creating a truly unique voice on his instrument while still sounding completely connected to the history and the vocabulary of the idiom – so while you can clearly discern the influence of players such as Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, this is balanced with a more horn-like vocabulary taken from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Michael Brecker.

Add a little of the anarchic free sprit of Ornette Coleman or Derek Bailey, include a mastery of Latin rhythms plus an appreciation of the beautifully melodic simplicity of James Taylor, govern all this with a considerable imagination, and you’re in the general ballpark area. 

Metheny's compositional prowess is perhaps the main contributing factor that sets him apart from the pack. Anyone that can claim to have an entire ‘Real’ book dedicated exclusively to their pieces must surely be considered prolific by anyone’s standard. I really would urge you to check Metheny out, even if you wouldn’t normally go near music connected to the dreaded ‘j’ word.

His playing and writing truly transcend stylistic boundaries with intelligence, flair, and beauty with a real sense of commitment to quality. One senses with Metheny that the only thing that matters to him is the music, and all the other trappings of his considerable success – all the awards, his worldwide fame, and the associated wealth – have limited interest to him. 

The musical examples that follow outline a selection of approaches that you can frequently spot in Metheny's improvisational vocabulary, including motivic development, sidestepping, the use of slurs and slides, unisons, and targeting of crucial chord tones.

We also explore these concepts as found in other key players from the worlds of fusion, rock and blues, before rounding things up with a cohesive solo spanning two choruses against a swinging jazz-blues in the key of F. 

Start by learning these examples as written, before using the underlying concepts as a springboard for your own ideas. 

Technique focus: dynamics, articulation and expression

Metheny expertly incorporates a huge range of emotive techniques with both fretting and picking hands to allow him to go some way to expand the usually restricted expressive potential of the guitar, to reach a level comparable to a hugely dynamic lead line jazz instrument such as a saxophone or a trumpet. 

From a picking perspective, Metheny balances picked notes with hammer-ons and pull-offs along with partially muted and full open ringing notes. He will also combine these variables with sensitive manipulation of the volume control on the guitar itself. 

He generally sets this at just above half way as a default starting position, but not too many notes go by without some kind of adjustment up or down, to allow him to play without tension but still be in synch with his accompanists. 

In terms of the fretting hand, Metheny frequently slurs and slides into and away from any note, allowing him to add vocal-like detail and expression to the beginning or ending of any given phrase. 

He’s also super-critical of note length, sustain and decay, controlling these values with a combination of both fretting and picking-hand muting techniques. It’s definitely wise to pay close attention to these often overlooked but crucially important areas of your playing.

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 3, Bass 6, Middle 5, Treble 4, Reverb 5

Metheny's electric sound has less modulation and delay recently, but we’re still looking at a jazz-style tone from a super-clean guitar amp with a long studio-quality reverb. 

Select your guitar’s neck pickup, and make sure you have enough volume on tap to allow you to pick quite lightly but with confidence, and maybe a little closer to the neck than usual. Then add that reverb!

Example 1. Bluesy motifs

We begin with the opening four bars of a Metheny-inspired blues in F, using a variety of chord tones (F-A-C-Eb for F7, plus C# for F7#5, Bb-D-F-Ab for Bb7) alongside the F Blues scale (F-Ab-Bb-Cb-C-Eb). 

There’s a lot of articulation detail here, as in just four bars we see a selection of slurs, slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, along with a combination of rhythmic values, including swung eighth notes and triplets, triplet 16ths, and 32nd-note ornamentations. 

Example 2. Pat concepts

For examples 2a)-2f) we’re looking at a range of conceptual ideas that Metheny might draw on when improvising against an F7 tonality (F-A-C-Eb), so once again we the see the combination of chord tones, Blues scale (R-b3-4-b5-5-b7), and Mixolydian mode (F-G-A-Bb-C-D-Eb). 

Examples 2a) and 2b) both use chromaticism by moving a melodic cell or motif in semitones. In 2c) we’re looking at sliding, whereas 2d)-2f) highlight 3rd and 7th interval targeting, plus slurs and unisons.  

Example 3. Crossroad interpretations

In examples 3a)-3f) we see how a diverse range of players from the worlds of fusion, rock and blues utilize these same concepts, starting with Oz Noy’s take on sidestepping, literally moving little parts of a phrase up or down in semitones, through Frank Marino and SRV, and on towards Eric Clapton’s use of 3rds and 7ths. 

We compare John Scofield’s application of legato and end with Jimi Hendrix’s unique take on applying unison notes across a pair of adjacent strings. 

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John Wheatcroft

John is Head of Guitar at BIMM London and a visiting lecturer for the University of West London (London College of Music) and Chester University. He's performed with artists including Billy Cobham (Miles Davis), John Williams, Frank Gambale (Chick Corea) and Carl Verheyen (Supertramp), and toured the world with John Jorgenson and Carl Palmer.