By: Debra Devi
Photo Credit: Will Feffer
I keep seeing this tan guy with a mischievous grin striding purposefully across the lawns at Flathead Lake Lodge. He’s wearing sneakers, shorts and a ratty T-shirt; his bushy reddish hair is stuffed under a backwards baseball cap that doesn’t remotely contain it.
For a moment I thought he was a groundskeeper, out tending the exuberant petunias that are overflowing baskets, flower beds and even an old wagon. But no, it’s Pat Metheny, one of the most successful jazz guitarists on the planet, with three gold records and 17 Grammys to his name.
Pat is here with his striking French-Moroccan wife, Latifa, their two young sons and a new baby. Pat won’t do interviews, nor allow his workshop or performance to be photographed or videotaped. Well, somebody’s got to bring a little star attitude to this festival. Everybody’s too darn nice! Actually, Pat is nice too, equally friendly to all at breakfast etc. All anyone can talk about is his master class coming up this morning.
A great guitarist joins a workshop’s faculty because he wants to teach, so even beginners can benefit immensely from a master class. As festival founder David Feffer notes, “In a master class with Scott Tennant, he solved a problem in thirty seconds I had been struggling with for months, just by shifting my hand position slightly.
Around twenty students file in for Pat’s workshop, ranging in age from seventeen to seventy, and in experience from beginners to professionals. The first thing he addresses is how jazz guitarists can avoid boring listeners with scale-based improvising: “Show people what’s happening through the melody and they will stay engaged in what you’re playing. Jazz is a language and the better you know it, the easier it is for you to tell your story.”
His number one suggestion: Take people on a journey. Number two? Make sure you have a great drummer.
Pat provides a gentle, useful critique of each individual student’s playing. Once he has the entire group playing, though, he gets tough, stopping everyone short for a lecture on rhythm. “None of you are playing in time! If you want to play ahead or behind the beat, make sure that is a conscious choice you are making, not just something you’re doing because you don’t know how to play in time.”
Other choice Metheny quotes:
“It’s the space between the notes that counts.”
“If it doesn’t feel good, it’s not worth playing. It should feel good.”
“John Coltrane was the nuclear physicist of jazz.”
I slip out early to prepare for the alternate tuning workshop I’m teaching after lunch. I use alternate tunings to bust out of songwriting and soloing ruts. They can really break you out of trying to write a song based on chords you “know,” and lead to writing from the heart, as you search the guitar blindly for a chord or melody that sounds good, that expresses what you feel.
I’m teaching in a room decorated with two massive bearskins–heads attached, fangs bared. I will never understand the impulse to see a beautiful animal in the wild and shoot it. I scrawl tabs and chord charts onto the flip pad on the easel by the fireplace. Figuring out how to teach what I do somewhat instinctively has been a good exercise.
Eight students arrive and sit in a semi-circle in front of me, each plugged in to a little Roland Cube practice amp. I’m unsure how to handle the fact that they seem to play at very different levels.
I plunge ahead, starting with drop-D. I show them how to play one-finger barre chords like the guys in Soundgarden. I move into DADGAD and demonstrate how easily it lends itself to beautiful 9th chords. I teach them one of my songs. Then I explain how to put the capo on the 2nd fret and tune the third string down a half-step from A to G# to arrive at Open-E (EBEG#BE). Their expressions range from comprehending and excited to utterly lost.
After my workshop I run into Jody Fisher. I ask him how he handles teaching a group. His advice: “Before teaching, ask each student about his or her ‘guitar life.’” I’ll try that tomorrow in my vibrato workshop. He also says, “Once you can teach something, you really know it.”
We head to the main Lodge for happy hour, where Ren Ferguson, head luthier with Gibson’s acoustic guitar building shop in Bozeman, Montana, is standing in front of the fireplace holding up a piece of wood. Only at a guitar festival could someone talking about wood grain hold the rapt attention of thirty-odd people with drinks in their hands.
Ren also shows how struts are fit into the body of a guitar for maximum resonance and displays some of his stunning custom inlay work, such as the new black “Pirates of the Caribbean” guitar he’s working on for Johnny Depp.
By now I’ve got my spot at dinner, next to Blues/Rock teacher Matt Smith and across from Jazz teacher Jody Fisher. We have a special guest at our table this evening, Lee “Captain Fingers” Ritenour, who has arrived to give a clinic tonight. He and Classical teacher Andrew Leonard have their iPhones out and are comparing apps for guitarists.
At the Carriage House, Ritenour–backed by National Guitar Workshop’s Pete Sweeney on drums and Dave Overthrow on bass–opens with the Sonny Rollins tune “Alfie’s Theme.” Lee shares hilarious stories from his L.A. session days about blowing his cue repeatedly during a full-orchestra film score recording, and waiting all night with Quincy Jones for Stevie Wonder to show. Lee talks a bit like actor Jon Lovitz, which adds just the right touch of swinger to his tales.
Lee invites two teenage students to the stage to jam with him, observing their playing and giving them tips, such as minimizing hand movement to play faster. They walked away beaming. He also donates copies of his new CD, 6 String Theory to everyone. Pat Metheny in the morning and Lee Ritenour at night. What more could you want?
As Alex DeGrassi tells me later: “It’s always great to be able to hear other guitarists play and then hear them talk about what they do. I really enjoyed Lee and Pat’s workshops and getting some insight into their approach to playing and what makes them tick. I’ve rarely held a flat pick in my life, so watching Jody [Fisher], Lee and Pat play gets me thinking about a whole new world of possibilities.”
That’s what this week is all about.
Debra is the singer/guitarist for the rock band Devi. Download Devi’s debut album, Get Free for free.