Dream Theater’s John Petrucci Carries the Torch of Prog-Shred guitar Into the New Millennium

July 1, 2007

0petruThe music scene was changing in 1992. Spandex-sporting, fretboard-tapping, whammy-bar-flailing metal Gods who had topped the charts and ruled the MTV airwaves just a few years earlier suddenly found themselves out of favor—and nearly out of work—as they were cast aside by the flannel-flying, low-tech touting grunge armada. Even underground pioneers like Metallica hired hit-making producers, jettisoned their progressive leanings (not to mention their lengthy locks), and traded harmonic-minor arpeggio excursions for a few judiciously placed blues runs. It seemed a whole generation of self-proclaimed “anti heroes” were swapping their Ibanez RGs for reissue Fender Mustangs, and eschewing what they perceived as the burgeoning excesses of guitar-dominated rock. Yeah, 1992 seemed like a very bad year to release a progressive metal album.

The music scene was changing in 1992. Spandex-sporting, fretboard-tapping, whammy-bar-flailing metal Gods who had topped the charts and ruled the MTV airwaves just a few years earlier suddenly found themselves out of favor—and nearly out of work—as they were cast aside by the flannel-flying, low-tech touting grunge armada. Even underground pioneers like Metallica hired hit-making producers, jettisoned their progressive leanings (not to mention their lengthy locks), and traded harmonic-minor arpeggio excursions for a few judiciously placed blues runs. It seemed a whole generation of self-proclaimed “anti heroes” were swapping their Ibanez RGs for reissue Fender Mustangs, and eschewing what they perceived as the burgeoning excesses of guitar-dominated rock. Yeah, 1992 seemed like a very bad year to release a progressive metal album.

But in a classic case of “if you build it they will come,” Berklee refugees John Petrucci, drummer Mike Portnoy, and bassist John Myung joined forces with keyboardist Kevin Moore and vocalist Charlie Dominici to form the prog-minded metal band Majesty in the late ’80s. Shortly after protest from an identically named act forced Majesty to change its moniker to Dream Theater, the group released a debut album, When Dream and Day Unite, to little fanfare. Soon Dominici left, and it seemed as if the majestic dream was over before it had begun. By 1992, though, Dream Theater had found a new record label, a new singer in operatically trained crooner James LaBrie, and a new lease on life. The protracted ten-minute suites, odd-metered instrumental gymnastics, and sci-fi-themed lyrics of their second album, Images and Words, resonated with fans weaned on the unabashed instrumental heroics and symphonic ambitiousness of early Rush, Metallica, and Yes. Against all odds, the album went gold. Dream Theater was finally in business.

Throughout the ’90s, the band stuck it to mainstream punk with its unapologetic grandeur. Before long, fans were doing things like petitioning the band to release a studio version of its 23-minute long, in-concert favorite “A Change of Seasons.” Emboldened by such overwhelming support—as well as the recruitment of ex-Dreg Jordan Rudess to handle the keyboard duties as of 1999—42-minute epics such as “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence,” and concept albums like Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory soon followed. Dream Theater became the new musical outsider, and quietly earned a worldwide cult following that bought several million of the band’s CDs and DVDs.

At the center of Dream Theater’s prog-metal maelstrom is composer, chief lyricist, co-producer, and second-generation shredder extraordinaire John Petrucci. Listening to Petrucci play is a bit like reading a graduate thesis on ’80s guitar. The ideas expressed are his alone, but the sources—Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, Steve Morse, Alex Lifeson, Kirk Hammett, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Trevor Rabin—are well cited. It was no surprise, then, when Petrucci’s canonization among the patron saints of the fretboard became official. In 2001, he was summoned by Satriani to be part of the annual G3 collective. To date, he has been a featured artist on the tour more than anyone save Vai and Satriani himself.

Guitar Player caught up with Petrucci as he was winding down a sixth G3 tour of duty, and preparing for the release of Dream Theater’s ninth and latest magnum opus, Systematic Chaos [Roadrunner].

Images and Words broke at a time when it was anathema to play guitar solos and write conceptual songs. Were you surprised by the favorable reaction to the album?
We were really surprised. When our first album came out in 1989, there was still a scene for progressive metal. King Diamond was making concept albums, and Queensryche hit big with Operation: Mindcrime. But when Images and Words came out, we went from being on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball to there not even being a Headbanger’s Ball anymore. So we were amazed that we were not only able to survive, but prosper. Somehow, we had a gold record that kick started our worldwide career.

Your guitar sound on Systematic Chaos has a bit more presence than it exhibited previously.
There are two reasons for that. Early in our career, I used Mesa/Boogie Mark IIs, but for the last few records, I switched to the Boogie Road King—which has more of a “Rectifier” sound. For Systematic Chaos, I went back to the Mark series—I’m using a Mark IV—which is more defined, punchy, and articulate. You can get a lot of gain with those amps without loosing high- or low-end clarity. The other big difference is my new Ball Family Reserve John Petrucci F-1 signature model by Ernie Ball/Music Man. It’s the second incarnation of my Music Man signature guitar. The main difference is the wood. The earlier model was basswood, but this one is a combination of alder, mahogany, and maple. It has a maple top and a mahogany neck and tone block, so there’s more sustain and density to the sound. It has a sparkling high end, which the Mark IV really brings out.

Did you use your new guitars on Systematic Chaos?
I used the new 6-string for just about everything except “Forsaken,” which was the original 6-string model. The 7-string prototype hadn’t been completed while we were recording, so for “Repentance” and “The Dark Eternal Night”—the album’s two 7-string songs—I used the older model. [For more info on Petrucci’s gear, see the sidebar “Field of Dreams” below.]

You have a piezo system mounted into the bridge of all your guitars. Where does that fit into your sound?
I’ve blended in the tone of the piezo pickup with some of the clean sounds in the studio before—particularly on Train of Thought—but, mostly, I use it for playing live, because some of our songs have acoustic sections that I have to switch in and out of fairly quickly. Grabbing an actual acoustic guitar for those parts wouldn’t be practical. In addition, as far back as “Pull Me Under” [from Images and Words], I’ve overdubbed an acoustic over my clean electric sound, and the piezo system helps me recreate this layered guitar effect in concert. I can blend in the piezos with my clean tone via a stereo output on my guitars, allowing the piezo sound to go directly to the house sound system.

How do you tune the 7-string?
It’s just standard tuning with a low-B added.

What amps did you use on the sessions, and how did you mic them?
For the most part, I used one Mark IV head—which was set up in the control room—into one Boogie 4x12 Rectifier cabinet that was placed in the live room. I usually go through a few Shure SM57s until I find one that I like, and then I place it in front of the sweet spot—which, for me, is about halfway between the center of the speaker and its edge. When it sounds as good to me through the control-room monitors as it does in the live room, I know we’re good to go.

What were your amp settings?
I set the Master at about 2, Gain at 8, Treble at 72, Bass at 2, Middle at 3, and the Lead Gain anywhere from 6 to 10. I set the graphic EQ in the classic “V” shape. The power amp voicing-selector switches were set on Simul-Class for full power, and Pentode Mode for more punch. I like to push my sound when I record, but there’s a fine line, because if I push it too much, the lower frequencies can get really woofy.

When you do double guitar parts, do you use the same tone on both tracks?
Mainly. I might add a bit of phaser or chorus to one track, and, sometimes, we’ll position a Sennheiser MD421 as an additional cabinet mic, and blend that sound with what the SM57 is capturing.

I suppose being Dream Theater’s co-producer—with Mike Portnoy—requires that you be attuned to how the guitar sound will fit in the final mix.
Right. It would be very easy for me to lay down 15 tracks, and get this massive stereo sound that might not fit into the overall picture. When we record, we try to isolate the individual parts as much as possible to have maximum control over them. We generally don’t track live as a band. We’re very methodical, because our music has so many time and tempo changes. We’ll program a click track with all the tempo changes, section markers, and time signatures using Digital Performer. It’s a very involved process that can sometimes take two whole days.

Systematic Chaos begins with the nine-minute “In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 1,” and ends with the 16-minute “In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 2.” Is this because you intended the new CD to be a concept album?
No. Those two songs represent more of a story line. Originally, they were one big work, and that’s why you hear recurring musical themes throughout them. But we didn’t want to begin the record with a 25-minute track, so we broke it up into two parts that bookend the album. One of my favorite records is Rush’s Hemispheres, which has a side-long suite written as a continuation of a story line from a song on their previous record, A Farewell to Kings. I think the idea of having musical bookends to an album—a “to be continued” story line—is very much in keeping with our identity as a progressive band.

What do you feel are the key musical elements that make something “progressive?”
First off, there are no boundaries in the style. Within any given song, you can change direction any which way you want. You can have a jazz section, a ragtime breakdown, and then a full-on metal assault. Also, the songs tend to be longer, because you can be more creative with arrangements. You don’t have to stick to a strictly verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus format. There’s also a more intense musicality. Everyone’s musical ability is used to the fullest.

Does the band have a typical songwriting process?
Generally, when we write, we’ll find the biggest room we can, and just set up in a circle and jam. As ideas come, we’ll document them. After we have an inventory of riffs, melodies, chord progressions, drum beats, and so on, we’ll develop specific parts further—always working within the demands of the song or album. For example, we knew that Scenes from a Memory was going to be a concept album, so we were guided by a story line that all the musical themes had to fit. On Systematic Chaos, a song like “Repentance” had a specific mood and purpose, so we deliberately tried to keep it simple, mellow, and hypnotic. We didn’t want to break the flow and feel of the song. “The Dark Eternal Night” on the other hand, was really heavy and aggressive, so we knew we had more freedom to explore tempo changes and add left-of-center instrumental bits.

On a song such as “Constant Motion,” which starts with alternating measures of odd time signatures, do you have the counts worked out before the notes?
No. We’ve been writing songs in odd time signatures for so long that it feels natural to write something like “Constant Motion.” Because we were influenced by Yes, Rush, and Zappa, writing long songs and odd-meter riffs isn’t something we consciously have to think about. They just come out. Actually, it feels very unnatural for me to write things that are too straight!
You see, within our little assembly of folks, there are certain combinations of metric modulation that just feel right. Somebody will come up with a riff, and we’ll say, “Let’s try it alternating between bars of six and seven.” Then someone else will say, “That doesn’t feel quite right. How about we try adding the seven every fourth bar instead?” Also, the way the phrasing physically falls on the guitar or keyboard or drums—whether it’s smooth or herky jerky—will sometimes determine the metric phrasing. It really is systematic chaos! It sounds chaotic, but a lot of consideration was put into what works best. We’re not just trying to assemble the most obtuse rhythms we can to confuse people.

Are the vocal melodies and lyrics the last parts of the writing process?
Yes. James is around to offer ideas and opinions, but our writing is very instrumentally based. We know ahead of time which sections will be vocal, and we try to give them definite melodic shapes and forms, but, in general, the lyrics—which I write most of—come last.

Do you work out solos in advance?
They’re generally created in the studio as I’m recording. I’ll make a loop of the section I’m going to play over, dim the lights, and tell everybody else to leave the room. Then, I’ll keep playing until the ideas start to come.

Have you ever come up with a cool lick you couldn’t fit in a particular song and banked it for future use?
Yeah, that’ll happen. The classical section on “Erotomania” [from 1993’s Awake] was originally the middle to “Pull Me Under” [from 1992’s Images and Words]. It just wasn’t working as originally conceived.

How did you get involved with G3?
Joe asked to do the tour in 2001, and I was scared, because I’d played in Dream Theater my whole life. I didn’t have any solo material to speak of, so I decided to compose a set from scratch. Those songs eventually became my first solo album, Suspended Animation.

How is your playing on the solo album and G3 tour different than with Dream Theater?
I have to cover a lot more ground because there are no vocals or keyboards. It’s just me, Mike Portnoy on drums, and Dave LaRue on bass. I’m responsible for chords, melody, and most of the solos. Also, the songs are composed like traditional jazz forms. “Glasgow Kiss,” for example, has a definite head melody up front, and then a wide-open vamp in E that we extend for jamming. I’ll usually go back and forth between the E blues and E Mixolydian scales, and hopefully tear it up.

Live, your G3 trio sounds very full.
I have a stereo rig with different delay settings on the right and left sides—usually 400ms and 800ms—that create this nice bed of residual sounds and ambient overtones. I’ll also play melodies in a linear fashion up one string, and bounce the notes off an adjacent open string, and I use more open-chord voicings than I do in Dream Theater. In addition, I use a lot of chorusing. I really look to Alex Lifeson as a role model because he made Rush’s trio format sound so full. He always put the chorus on pretty thick—even when he was playing with heavy overdrive.

What’s going on at the beginning of the live version of “Lost Without You”? It sounds almost like a synthesizer.
That’s just an extended intro where I articulate notes by fading them in with a volume pedal, and then have them trail off using a ping-pong setting on my Eventide delay. I think I have a phaser and a chorus on there, too. I got the idea from seeing Steve Morse do something similar at a clinic, where he would use a volume pedal and a delay to create these loops of sound, and then start jamming over them.

Do you ever use the volume pedal just to control levels?
Actually, one of its main functional purposes is to turn my sound on and off between songs and during guitar changes. Sometimes, I’ll use it when I’m using the piezo system to fade the electric sound in and out behind the piezo sound. Mostly, it’s there for volume swells. I like using it for swells more so than turning the volume pot on the guitar, because it’s after the preamp, so you swell in with all this full-on sustain. When you use the guitar’s volume knob, you’re fading the amount of sustain in, and I don’t think that sounds as strong.

Do you regularly dime the volume and tone controls on your guitar when you play live?
Yes. I rarely, if ever, touch the tone knob. Sometimes, I might back off on the volume knob a bit during the more mellow parts to a solo, but, essentially, my guitar sounds are designed to be played with everything full on.

How do you balance creativity with a healthy sense of competition, especially when you share the G3 stage with guitarists the caliber of Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert?
The biggest thing is to listen to what the other guys are doing. At the end of Joe’s set, he goes into this mixolydian vamp over an A to E to B progression on the tune “Always with You.” Then, Paul and I come back onstage, and it has collectively evolved into this long jam section where we play off of each other. Maybe Joe will do something bluesy, and I’ll respond with something bluesy, or Paul will pull something really off-the-wall out of his hat—which pushes me to respond in a similar manner. When they play something, I go through a little Google search in my brain’s lick library for a response that matches.

Have you tried to pick up any cool licks and tips from your G3 tour mates?
I’m always asking questions of those guys. When I hear them do a cool lick during a show, I’ll immediately bug them afterward to find out what they did, or solicit their advice on how they’d approach something I’m currently working on. I come from the Steve Morse and Al Di Meola school of straight-up alternate picking, but, lately, I’ve been trying to incorporate more one-note-per-string arpeggio sweeps into my playing. However, it wasn’t sounding quite the way I wanted it to, and I noticed that when Paul played arpeggios, they sounded as smooth as silk. So I went to him to find out what he was doing that I wasn’t. He said he wasn’t voicing them one-note per string at all. Instead, he’d play one note on one string, then skip a string and play three notes. We were playing the same notes, but he showed me a completely new way to phrase them.

Did you transcribe a lot of other player’s solos when you were first learning guitar?
I’d heard those stories of Steve Vai transcribing Frank Zappa’s solos, so I went through a phase of writing things out. I remember transcribing Steve Morse’s guitar part to “The Bash” by he Dixie Dregs. Mostly, though, I learned by listening, and through trial and error. It’s funny, because so much of being a good guitar player is phrasing, but when you’re a beginner, the last thing you think about is how the notes you’re playing should be phrased. You’re just happy to learn the right notes. I remember figuring out the “Stairway to Heaven” solo by ear when I was young. I had all the notes down, but I didn’t account for the fact that Jimmy Page was bending up and/or sliding to a lot of the pitches. Eventually, I learned about bends and whatnot, and I started applying it. That was a revelation. I thought, “Oh, that’s why my version has sounded wrong all this time!” It’s those little mysteries of guitar playing beginners have to solve. They can either have a good teacher show it to them, or they can figure it out on their own. Sometimes, that takes a bit longer, but the end result is that you’re forced to develop your own voice a bit more, and think about the “why” as well as the “how.”

Your wife, Rena, is also a guitar player. Has she had any input into your style?
Absolutely. For one thing, she taught me how to sound heavier. When I first met her, she was in a band called Mean Streak, and she was playing these riffs that were really dark and gritty, because she was often voicing her power chords with the 5th in the bass. She was the player who first got me into that. She also has a great set of ears that I trust completely. I’d bring home a rough mix from the studio, and she’d have the exact same comments as the engineer and the producer. Currently, she has her own band called Mixxed Company, and she’s taking her playing in a more jazz- and R&B-influenced direction.

Most people who comment on Dream Theater—even those who don’t necessarily like the band’s music—generally acknowledge the high level of musicianship. What’s your definition of a great musician?
I think it’s somebody who is able to translate what’s going on inside of them creatively and emotionally onto whatever instrument they happen to be playing. It’s someone whose whole being is involved in being a musician, and who uses the instrument as his or her outlet for expression. They’re people who are always trying to learn more and get even better. They see music as a lifetime quest. I’d put all my bandmates and G3 tour mates in that category.

When Dream Theater toured with Yes a few years back, you included the instrumental section of their song “Machine Messiah” in your set.
That was Mike’s idea. We’re big fans of the Drama record. It’s the only Yes album that Jon Anderson doesn’t sing on, and since he’s back in the band, they never do any material from it.

What was their reaction?
I assumed they didn’t have a problem with it, because they never said anything. I actually talked to Steve Howe more than anyone else in the band, because he was the only one who showed up for soundchecks.

Considering the Yes influence on your music, what did you learn from talking with Steve?
Steve is the kind of guy who is always growing as a musician. He sees music as an ongoing quest—which, considering how long he has been around, and all that he has accomplished, is pretty inspiring.

How so?
We are both about taking our musical roots, and seeing how we can expand and develop them. In Yes’ case, they’re building on the music of the Beatles and the Byrds, and taking it to a whole new realm. We’re doing the same thing with Rush and Iron Maiden, and, in fact, I’ve always thought of Dream Theater as sort of like the heavy-metal Yes.

What did you think of the YouTube spoof where someone did a voiceover on your instructional video, making it sound like you were explaining your custom strings that withstand the heat on the sun’s surface, your ability to play four million notes per second, and how your guitars were hand painted by Michelangelo?
When I saw those clips, I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my chair! The only other guy they spoofed was Yngwie Malmsteen, so I’ll take that as a compliment.

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