From swing to jazz to bottleneck blues to folk, Grammy-winning acoustic guitarist Pat Donohue plays it all with a flourish of artistry and melodic inspiration. Chet Atkins called Pat one of the greatest finger pickers in the world today; Leo Kottke called his playing “haunting.”
Pat is certainly one of the most listened to finger pickers in the world. As the guitarist for the Guys All-Star Shoe Band of Minnesota Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, Pat gets to show off his savvy licks and distinctive original songs to millions of listeners each week.
His decade-long association with Garrison Keillor’s popular program has led to some unusual gigs: There was the after-show club date in Berlin, when Wynton Marsalis showed up to sit in with Pat and the Prairie Home band. Or playing music on camera for the Prairie Home Companion movie with director Robert Altman and stars Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones.
Besides the weekly radio broadcasts, Pat plays about 30 concerts a year nationwide and teaches at such popular music camps as Augusta Heritage Center and Rocky Mountain Fiddle Camp.
Pat’s musical tastes are eclectic. Though he considers himself foremost a folk guitarist, Pat’s influences are rooted in bluesmen Blind Blake, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters and Miles Davis. He manages to blend jazz and blues with folk, and the mix is seamless. Over the years he has captivated audiences with his unique original compositions, dazzling instrumentals and humorous song parodies, including Sushi-Yucki and Would You Like to Play the Guitar?
Honors include a 2005 Grammy for his participation on Pink Guitar, a compilation of Henry Mancini tunes on acoustic guitar, several Minnesota Music Awards, and the title of 1983 National Finger Picking Guitar Champion. His original tunes have been recorded by Chet Atkins, Suzy Bogguss and Kenny Rogers. Pat has also been a featured performer at major music festivals including the Newport, Telluride and Philadelphia Folk Festivals.
Pat has been obsessed with the guitar since he first picked one up at age 12 and began learning simple chords and melodies from a Pete Seeger instructional book. His background as a drummer in a garage rock band helped with the transition and he never looked back. As a youth, the St. Paul, Minnesota native pestered guitarists playing at Twin Cities coffee houses and blues venues, seeking tips on playing. Borrowing bits and pieces of the styles of finger picking pioneers he admired, he taught himself to play, building a repertoire flavored by Blind Blake, Django Reinhart and Chet Atkins.
“I was very lucky to see some of the old-timers that aren’t around anymore,” says Pat. “The University of Minnesota had summer concerts in the early 70s and I got to see Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Joe Williams and Jesse Fuller. I wasn’t shy about going up to them and trying to befriend them and find out what I could about playing the blues. By and large, they were very accommodating. Big Joe Williams invited me to his hotel and we wound up playing guitar together.”
Six of Pat’s eight recordings are on Minnesota’s Bluesky Record label. His most recent is Profile, a collection of original and traditional tunes ranging from folk to blues. He also has two instructional videos and a concert video on Stefan Grossman’s Vestapol Videos, which not only display his guitar wizardry, but also feature the warmth and humor he brings to his live performances. Pat recently recorded an instructional DVD with buddy Mike Dowling, “A Guide to Two Guitar Jamming,” or Learning to Play Well with Others. Produced by Homespun Tapes, the DVD comes with tablature and is nearly two hours of strategies, examples, and advice on making good music together, no matter your playing level.
Pat currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.