John McLaughlin & Pat Metheny - Guitar Synthesists
more or less in the jazz tradition

by Charles Little

(Reprinted from Jazziz magazine, May/June 1985)

Thirteen years ago John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Rockers and guitarists wholeheartedly embraced this musical experimentation while many jazzers shook a finger at McLaughlin and proceeded to don earplugs. Little did purists know that McLaughlin was destined, through the M.O., to change the course of guitar and jazz forever.
Pat Metheny, an accomplished jazz guitarist for over a decade, has also made an undeniable contribution to the music with acoustic and electric playing, disregarding criticism as he also expressed a multitude of new sounds. Like McLaughlin, he has crossed over several music markets, playing fewer traditional styles with paradoxical acceptance.
The concurrent exploration of the guitar synthesizer - the instrument of the future - by these two players seems only natural, considering that both have done more for the conceptualization and popularization of guitar and contemporary jazz than practically all other artists involved in this tradition combined. They have been continually praised as innovators and, at the same time, scoffed at as experimental refuse. But it is important to remember that both were developed, consummate artists long before they chose to integrate the technological revolution into their ever-evolving styles.
A new era for improvisation is emerging. Keyboardists have long had access to the world of sound creation, but only recently have guitarists been afforded, through guitar synthesizers, this same ability. The technology behind these instruments is so complex and novel, though, that they have inherent problems. McLaughlin actually abandoned his first guitar synthesizer 11 years ago due to its complexity and limitations, Consequently, ignorant philosphies overshadowed its significance and concentrated on the guitar synthesizer's faults rather than its achievements and potential.
Recent technologic advances have eliminated many of the past quirks of the guitar synthesizer, which now provides a wider range of color for the palette of the musical artist. One of the newer guitar synthesizers, Roland's GR-700, has sophisticated, versatile functions on a floor pedal control panel that is relatively easy to use. Consequently, it is getting much attention from both amateur and professional players.
The relative lack of popularity of this futuristic instrument lies in the paucity of role models who play it. McLaughlin and Metheny are once again in the innovator's chair and therefore are subject to ridicule by those who hate to see tradition redefined and enriched.
The guitar synthesizer is by no means a mere sound-enhanching accessory. Rather, it is a complete computerized instrument capable of duplicating the sounds of most other instruments and even sounds as yet unheard while playing a "standard" guitar. The potential is endless, considering that once the synthesizer is properly programmed, the guitarist can use established abilities and technique on a familiar and comfortable istrument to render such new sounds. Some even believe that the synthesizer has a jazzier quality than the standard guitar and that this will expand the use of guitar in jazz music.
But technology is simply technology. What really matters most are the artists and the way in which they choose to incorporate it into tbeir art. Technolology will never replace human emotion and creativity. Although Metheny and McLaughlin are the two best known guitar synthesists, many older jazz guitarists are delving into the domain, too, including Tommy Tedesco, Al DiMeola, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritcnour, Steve Lukather, Ryo Kawasaki, Paul Asbell and Randy Bernsen. But at the pinnacle of this new frontier are McLaughlin and Metheny, two acclaimed jazz musicians who know a good thing when they see it and are uniquely prepared to approach it responsibly. JAZZIZ conducted separate interviews with Metheny and McLaughlin - asking parallel questions - and discovered that musical attitudes, not shiny new toys, underlie the phlosophies shared by these two artists.

JAZZIZ: Both of you are using the guitar synthesizer to relay your music. In addition, your music is at present an experimental type that is at the same time very accessible.
METHENY: John and I, I think it's safe to say, both have fairly strong musical personalities that were developed in a large part before we even got guitar synthesizers. And it's more or less a new color - it's something different, it's a new voice - but on the other hand it's puzzling to me, extremely puzzling, that we're the only two guys.
McLAUGHLIN: Well, first of all, I have a great admiration for Pat as a musician, as a guitar player and as a writer, too, but at the same time we are very different, different kind of people, musically different and conceptually. So naturally the approach to the [synthesizer] is different. I think we look at it necessarily differently. The thing is, about music, everything is experimental. I think the only music that's not really experimental [for the most part] is pop music - it's non-experimental, it's formula and geared to be sold to a particular kind of market. The thing is that when you get out of that world you go into more of an experimental domain. An artist is in constant search for the development of his craft - even to the extem of seeking new forms to express himself. And there's no other way, other than by experimentation, to discover where things can work or where they can't work. The fact that you find it acceptable is great. Every artist in the world would hope that everybody finds what he does acceptable - not only acceptable, but [that listeners would] love it, because we all want to be loved and adored; it's just basic human nature.
JAZZIZ: How do you feel about the negative attitudes held by so- called "purists" toward the guitar synthesizer?
METHENY: Well, quite frankly, a lot of jazz people have a negative image about tbe guitar, period (laughs). It runs the whole gamut. There are a lot of major jazz players who, not on the record, would tell you they don't want a guitar player in their band. I think that there are a whole bunch of people who maybe wouldn't be interested - I'm talking about hardcore jazzers - in somebody who was coming from a Jim Hall or Jimmy Raney or Wes Montgomery or Tal Farlow kind of approach, who might be interested in somebody who was playing a guitar synthesizer. In fact, a guitar synthesizer has the potential quality of a kind of vocalness or a kind of human cry-type sound that the traditional jazz guitar player has an incredibly difficult time trying to simulate.
McLAUGHLIN: The question would be more relevant if it were what are my feelings toward purists. And I don't like any of them. I don't like purists in any form because they're necessarily self-opinionated and very very narrow-minded. The purist, in fact, is the worst kind of listener because they know a little bit and they think they know a lot. They become terribly self-opinionated and this is really unfortunate. And anybody who tries to do something different suffers for it. People could say, "Yes, well the purists are the guardians of tradition, etc., etc.," which I think is a lot of hogwash because the musicians themselves are the guardians of the musical traditions.
I could give you many examples; I'll give you just two from very different fields. Miles, a classic example - I remember, this is going back a few years, a guy came up to Miles saying, "Listen, why don't you play like you used to play?" And [Miles] said "Well, how did I use to play?" which is a typical puritanical approach to him - I mean so, so, so far off it's amazing.
Another one is Paco De Lucia, who is a flamenco guitar player who belongs to my generation of musicians. He wants to broaden his musical base, enrich his tradition, make a contribution to the tradition, because the tradition's not gonna die; one day we're gonna die, but the traditions go on, the music goes on.
But the thing is, during your life what do you contribute to the overall tradition of music, your music, be it jazz, be it flamenco music, be it classical music? That's really the question in mind and of course Paco gets criticized by some of the "purists," flamenco purists, because he's influenced by the experiences that he's had with Al DiMeola and myself or that he's had with Chick Corea, and of course this affects the way that he looks at flamenco music, not in a detrimental sense, but in an absolutely positive sense! But of course it's not seen like that by the purists because they think, "Oh no, he's breaking the rules, he can't do that, he's not playing like he used to. This is something that everybody who tries to expand the norm will be subject to, and that's just a fact of life; there's nothing you can do about it.
JAZZIZ: Expanding the traditions through creativity, particularly in regard to guitarists and guitar synthesizer seems to be somewhat at a standstill.
METHENY: We're so, as a generation, conditioned to the guitar as being one particular thing. And when it's a non-guitar-type sound it's not so attractive to a lot of guitar players who are looking to get an Eddie Van Halen thing or a Hendrix thing or something. It's really different, it's a new thing and the fact is that there are very few guitar players who are looking for a new thing. Almost all guitar players are looking to create an older thing, they're looking to recreate John McLaughlin or Jim Hall or Wes Montgomery...clearly influenced by one person more than anybody else. And that's wild. That's something you can't say about a lot of others - why that is, I don't know.
McLAUGHLIN: There are not a lot of artists generally who are trying to create a new thing; I think it's not limited just to guitar players. In fact, what is "trying to create something new?" - it means that they're looking inside themselves for a way to articulate what they feel and the way they feel today is not like the way they felt yesterday. And so of the forms that were valid five years ago, we find some can be developed and will be useful and some can't.
So what happens is that you have a state of frustration in the mind and spirit of the artist - a necessary part of life. [This] will stimulate the artist to look for a new form in which to articulate what he's really feeling, and without that we have no creation whatsoever.
I think what's happened, particulary in America, is that the hamburger philosophy of pop rock & roll is out there - super dominant. It's the money, it's the thrill, it's what makes the kids happy and all the other arguments, and why not? My only regret as far as that's concerned is that people unfortunately are not exposed to some newer kind of creative art - in any kind of plane - but we're speaking primarily about music. They just will not have the chance to be exposed to it, and so, if they're not exposed to it, they don't know it exists; they don't even know if they like it or not. Unfortunately, a lot of people won't be exposed to a lot of creative music that is going on today.
JAZZIZ: Just exactly what can be done with the guitar synthesizer?
METHENY: Oh man, it's so complicated. I've done these seminars where it takes two hours, without even picking up the guitar, just to talk about the Synclavier and what it can do. Basically, what it boils down to is anything you can imagine in your wildest dreams, anything you can think of, it'll do it!
There's a new kind of term going around in terms of computer-type people where they start talking about computer user-friendliness and all that. The new term is a very real thing; it's called "option anxiety." When you start talking about any kind of synthesizer, especially as they get more and more sophisticated, that's quickly becoming an issue. You know there are so many things it can do that it's just overwhelming.
McLAUGHLIN: A synthesizer, whether it's a keyboard synthesizer or a guitar synthesizer, will allow you to explore the realm of creation of sound. For example, you can be involved in the creation of just a sound, that first of all has never been heard before, and you can create a sound that can really function like a key. It can evoke something in you, like a key; it can just open something up that would not have, in fact, been able to be opened witbout that, or perhaps [only] in some other time, some other place, but in some other way, and I think that's a very good thing.
JAZZIZ: It sounds as though the increased technology brings with it increased responsibility.
METHENY: Absolutely! People had better get over their fear of technology. In the last two years there's been progress that is absolutely unbelievable and in the next 10 years anybody who denies the value and the aid that this stuff can be to a musician - any kind of musician, I don't care if you're a country and western musician - is out of their mind. Even if it's just a composition level, you can write your whole piece on a Synclavier and then go have it played by acoustic players.
The whole idea of going into I studio, in a very short time, is going to be an antiquated one. I've already done one film score, literally, in my bedroom, that when you go hear it in a theater sounds like it was done in a multi-tracked studio.
Also, with guitar synthesists, the fact is that it's still a guitar, and you still are going to have to learn how to play the guitar first. I'm still constantly amazed, considering how many guitar players there are out there in the world, how few really good ones there are. Everybody thinks their instrument is difficult, but I think in jazz or improvised music, guitar is an exceptionally difficult instrument. It's got a lot of wierd, bad habits built into it that encourage pattern playing and lick kind of playing - all the kinds of things that as an improvisor or a jazz guy you want to avoid. Few people can manage to overcome that hurdle.
JAZZIZ: With the advent of sequencers and polyphonic synthesizers, it seems like you can put in a little and get out a lot. In that respect, do you think that this will "take over" the way people write music?
McLAUGHLIN: It's quite possible that there will he a wave of that, but I can't believe in its durability because there's only one thing that can really hold out, and that's the human heart and soul. But I think the attitude towards computers needs re-education because computers are an amazing tool - whether it's an artist, or whether it's an architect, or whether it's just a writer working with his word processor.
I think we should have a more positive attitude towards the computer; it's true, for example, you can put a few notes in, invert it, reverse it, arithmetically retrograde it, pitch retrograde retaining the key signature - you can do a ton of things with it. But I think that's necessarily good. I think we discover things about the music we're writing that we wouldn't have discovered before, but I don't believe in the durability of computers writing music, preparing music, and it being of human significance.
The essential part of music is some movement, some creative thought, some feeling that happens in the imagination, in the heart of the musician, that he articulates to [the] listener.
JAZZIZ: Do you think that the Synclavier guitar enables you to reveal more of your musical personality than ever before?
METHENY: No, I wouldn't go that far because I've always been a big contender that different instruments don't really change you as much as you change them. Even if I had to play the rest of my life on a funky old Sears and Roebuck guitar and a Pignose amp, I've got the feeling that I could find a way to get what I had to say out through those things. It's a wider range; I think that's the term you used, a wider range of sounds and that's exciting to me.
JAZZIZ: Will this new technology drastically affect the music that we will hear in the future?
McLAUGHLIN: Throughout my life as a musician, I can't see things changing too much; it's a life of experiment, a life of research into music and into the development of forms that I've discovered. To perfect them as much as possible, I don't think it's gonna change too much (laughs).