Inside and Outside the Harmony with Pat Metheny

Editor's note: Much has been written about Pat Metheny, and he has been interviewed often. As a Berklee student in 1974, Richard Niles met Metheny, who was then a Berklee faculty member. Later, Niles penned The Pat Metheny Interviews, a book that discusses the inner workings of Metheny's creative mind and demonstrates step by step how he developed his concept and how he set and achieved each of his own demanding goals. The book contains many transcriptions of Metheny's playing during the interviews. The excerpt below sheds light on his approach to improvisation.

  Dr. Richard Niles is a composer, producer, educator, and BBC broadcaster. For more information about The Pat Metheny Interviews, visit
  Ailyn Niles
Score Examples

·Example 1

·Example 2

·Example 3

·Example 4

·Example 5

·Example 6

·Example 7

Thoughts on Style


Pat Metheny is noted for his melodic style and at one point during our interviews, I asked him to demonstrate his approach as it relates to harmony. He used a two-chord framework to show how an improviser can lead the listener's ear into the harmony by playing "inside" and then progressively going "outside" the harmony.


So much of the melodic quality I try to [evoke] in improvisation is really just having clear destinations. I'll play [some] simple notes [see example 1]. So let's say this implies that the chords are A minor and F Major, and I'm going to improvise over that [see example 2].

[Example 3 then shows Metheny's "inside" improvisation over the chord progression.]

Somehow even with that, you can still hear the A minor to F. Even if the chords aren't [being played], you just think it. So that's the first sentence you offer to somebody in a conversation. Once you've established that, other notes become possible [see example 4].

And when you've established that, then you can get away with anything! [See example 5.] That was just adding some extra chords, but once you've got that going, you can go anywhere else and add some really weird stuff" [see example 6].1

Niles's Commentary


If improvisation is instant composition, composition is slow improvisation. And the greatest improvisers see no difference between the two processes. The musical examples show Metheny thinking about improvisation in an utterly compositional manner. Like any improviser-composer, Metheny has certain melodic figures he uses repeatedly. Some might call these figures licks, but most are so originally conceived and deftly realized that I prefer to call them trademark elements of his style. It's not my intention to catalog all of them here, but example 7 demonstrates one such obvious pattern.


But beyond deploying patterns, Metheny has the ability to realize evolving melodies, each related to the last. The long hours he's spent woodshedding have been in the service of this concept of compositional melodic improvisation. In example 3, he adds pentatonic and blues phrasing to the original two notes. Example 4 shows added chromatic approaches. In example 5, he outlines additional chords: E7alt (bar 1), F# dim 7 and B-7 (bar 4), A-7 (bar 5). He still makes room for a blues phrase at the end, not just for fun but for continuity.

Example 6 includes more expanded harmony: B7 (bar 3), E7 and chromaticism (bar 4), E7 (bars 6 and 7), a charming little progression from Bbmin to A min to G7 to B7 (bars 8 and 9) settling on E7b9 (bar 10). Bars 11 through 14 remind the listener of the opening theme before Metheny goes momentarily outside for a blues lick (bar 15). Bars 16 through 23 may be seen as a dominant section, using chromatic notes to give the impression of E7 without stating it in an obvious way.

Hallmarks of Style


One of the main concepts I impress on my students is that innovation is fusion. I ask them to identify and analyze music to which they feel a strong emotional response. When I first heard Pat Metheny play, I was immediately struck by certain elements that, when mixed together, resulted in a personal and instantly recognizable style. He could play just one note and everyone would say, "That's Pat!"


Metheny's articulation is very personal. His technique of holding the pick backward and playing with the round end is so idiosyncratic, one is tempted to sound a warning that says, "Don't try this at home, kids." But it results in an unusually round, full, thick sound with a softer attack than that of other jazz guitarists. Perhaps it facilitates another style element: Metheny's rapid repeated notes. His staccato articulations are a little shorter than those of most guitarists, but the fullness of sound makes this attractive rather than abrasive. The pick technique makes an audible sound when he plays a classical guitar with the pick, as the pick slides on rather than plucks the string and therefore stays on the string a little longer.

Metheny's particular way of sliding into a note is what I call a "jazz dwee." It was probably inspired by the playing of Wes Montgomery or Jim Hall: two major influences on Metheny. But this slide also allows him to make a bluesy "smear" without resorting to bending the string as a rock guitarist would.

This type of transcription and analysis shown in this lesson is not only fun to do but is also a very effective way to get inside the creative minds of the great improvisers. The process offers benefits for music writing too. I had a phenomenal education in composition and arranging during my years at Berklee, but I became a writer by transcribing and analyzing the work of my favorite arranger-composers such as Gil Evans, Nelson Riddle, Duke Ellington, Robert Farnon, Dave Grusin, and Jeremy Lubbock. Transcription and analysis will help your playing and writing too.

1Excerpted from the book The Pat Metheny Interviews by Richard Niles. Copyright (c) 2009 by Richard Niles. International copyright secured, all rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.