Pat has been obsessed with the guitar since he first picked one up at age twelve 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.
For Pat's short and long bios in PDF form, see the Press Kit page.
A LITTLE ABOUT PAT'S EARLY DAYS“There was always music in the house. My sister Mary Ellen played guitar, piano and sang. Her friends would come over and they’d listen to the Everly Brothers on the radio. I started on drums when I was 10 and played in my folks’ basement until it drove my father nuts. Then one day when I was about 12, I was home sick and picked up my sister’s guitar and learned some chords from a book. I started playing in garage bands with high school friends. I got interested in blues guitar playing at this time and started searching out recordings and performances by some of the older blues masters.”
“I was very lucky to see some of the old-timers that aren’t around anymore. 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.”
PAT'S INFLUENCES AND LEARNING TO LISTEN“My earliest influences were Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Blind Blake.” “Developing an ear for listening to music is essential. I learned by listening to the tunes I liked and trying to reproduce the music, developing my ear in that way. When I began playing there was very little in the way of finger picking instruction. I would just listen to the records and try and figure it out, and in failing to do so, developed a style. For me, the essentials were a good ear and a high threshold for embarrassment.”
COLLEGE AND BLOSSOMING CAREERPat moved to Denver, Colorado in 1971 to study at Regis College. After two years at Regis, he transferred to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While carrying a full academic load at Marquette, Pat maintained a rigorous musical regimen, often practicing up to six hours daily. His performances during that time (mainly as part of Marquette’s “Traditional Music Society” as well as venturing out into the Milwaukee bar scene) often consisted of three or four forty-five-minute sets, featuring an eclectic offering of folk, blues, and jazz material.
After his graduation in 1975, he returned to Denver where he established a solid reputation as a 'guitarist's guitarist' and in 1982 was runner-up in the National Fingerpicking Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. The following year he won the Championship. This award led to wider recognition of his skills and he started accepting engagements throughout the United States. In 1983 Pat moved back to his home town, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
In 1985 Donohue's first album, Manhattan to Memphis, was released on Red House Records. He released one more album on Red House before setting up his own label, Bluesky Records.
A LONG STINT ON PUBLIC RADIOIn the early nineties, Donohue was asked to join the house band on Garrison Keillor’s radio program A Prairie Home Companion. He played on and wrote music for the show for almost 20 years, which gave him a chance to accompany some of the world's premiere folk and roots artists. He and his colleagues in the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band are on-screen throughout much of Robert Altman's final film A Prairie Home Companion based on the radio show. Donohue wrote or co-wrote several of the songs on the soundtrack.
PLAYING WITH CHETGuitar legend Chet Atkins once said, “Pat Donohue is one of the greatest finger pickers in the world today.” Donohue wrote a song in praise of Atkins' skill and virtuosity called “Stealin' from Chet.” He has recorded a studio version on his Backroads CD and a live version on Radio Blues, a collection of his favorite performances from A Prairie Home Companion. Atkins joins him on each version. In the liner notes to the live version, Donohue wrote, “What can I say? The most exciting three minutes of my life. We miss you Chet.” (Atkins had died a short time before the album was released). Pat says “One of my favorite tips is from Chet who told me that if you make a mistake, you should make it again later in the tune so that people think you meant to do it. It sounds funny, but I have used this trick.”
A MARTIN GUITAR DESIGNED FOR PAT“I have about a dozen guitars, acoustic and electric. I really like my Kevin Ryan guitar and I once won a beautiful Ervin Somogyi in a national fingerpicking contest in Winfield, Kansas, but my favorite to play is the Pat Donohue Signature Model Martin. A few years ago I got a call from Dick Boak of Martin Guitars who was interested in having me design a Pat Donohue model. I worked with a local luthier, John Woody Woodland, and we came up with a design that features a wide neck, deep body, and some antique appointments. Each is personally signed by me. I love the feel and the balance tone, and it looks pretty too.”
A NEW RECORDING, BLUE YONDER“There are songs that I love to perform, especially with my favorite musicians, so I included them on my new CD. The musicians, who are, like myself, former Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band members, are my favorite people to play with, and the kind of musicians with whom you don’t have to talk much about the music. You just play, and they start playing, and it sounds good.”
LIFELONG PASSION“I still watch videos of my favorite performers like Reverend Gary Davis, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Wes Montgomery. YouTube has all sorts of performance and instructional material. If a person wanted to, they could be a pretty good guitar player by watching YouTube videos and practicing what they saw. Vestapol Videos, Stefan Grossman’s guitar workshop, has lots of videos for fingerpickers, including some of my own.”