John Petrucci Re-Imagines Dream Theater

The Long Island Sound. To nautical buffs, it’s a vast Atlantic Ocean estuary traversing the northern coast of Long Island and the southern coast of Connecticut.
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The Long Island Sound. To nautical buffs, it’s a vast Atlantic Ocean estuary traversing the northern coast of Long Island and the southern coast of Connecticut. But to enthusiasts of virtuosic, full-shred rock guitar, the “sound” of Long Island is best defined by the remarkable number of big fish who hail from this New York City suburban outpost, including Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Al Pitrelli, and John Petrucci. Of this esteemed crew, credit Petrucci with having forged his individual status as a 6-string icon while still being closely associated with one band—prog-metal pioneers Dream Theater—which he founded while studying at Berklee College of Music and has captained for nearly three decades since.

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Originally called Majesty and inspired by Rush, Yes, and Iron Maiden, Dream Theater became a prog-rock island oasis amidst the raging seas of grunge’s low-fi sonic hurricane. And despite boasting several ten-minute, polyrhythmic, multi-part song suites, the band’s breakthrough 1992 release, Images and Words, went gold and got some MTV airplay, empowering the trend-bucking explorers to continue pursuing success on their own terms. Gracefully weathering several lineup changes (the most recent and dramatic being when original drummer Mike Portnoy left and was replaced by Berklee professor Mike Mangini in 2011), the Grammy-nominated outfit has gone from strength to strength, garnering an ever-increasing world-wide audience that zealously follows every cerebral album concept, intricate sextuplet-laden ensemble passage, and dramatic Wagnerian minor riff.

The current lineup (which also features vocalist James LaBrie, bassist John Myung, and keyboardist Jordan Rudess) is featured on the band’s latest album, Dream Theater [Roadrunner], and upcoming Live at Luna Park concert DVD. Meanwhile, Petrucci’s six appearances with Joe Satriani’s G3 tour, multiple instructional DVDs and books, and various clinic appearances—not to mention his spellbinding chops, creative compositional approach, and all-around stellar musicianship—maintain his high profile in the guitar community.

Dream Theater’s album titles, concepts, and lyrical themes have always relied heavily on images and words. What’s the significance of an eponymous release?

We felt so strongly that the music was speaking for itself this time around that we didn’t want a title to give listeners any preconceived notions about what’s inside. This is our 12th album and as such we wanted it to be a landmark album. Going in, we had a list of things we wanted to accomplish, most importantly putting more focus on the vocal melodies. Melodically, I feel this is one of our strongest albums. We took extra care with the arrangements so that they would highlight James’ vocals, and the melodies really lay in the sweet spot of his range. Also, with the album cover graphic we wanted to make it simple and iconic, like the Superman logo you’d see on a movie poster.

The beginning of “False Awakening Suite” sounds like it might have been inspired by “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

It wasn’t a direct influence, but we were thinking cinematically for sure. I definitely had composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer in mind. When we wrote that, I was thinking about the opening of our concerts and not just the opening of an album.

“The Looking Glass” is about the closest Dream Theater has ever come to sounding like late ’80s-era Van Halen.

I’ll totally take that as a compliment because as far as I’m concerned, Eddie, Alex Lifeson, and Pete Townshend are the undisputed masters of the gigantic E major arena rock riff. It’s really hard to write one without sounding too clichéd. It’s funny you should mention it too, because that was the one song where I played an Ernie Ball EVH guitar, which was the guitar Eddie was playing during that era. I also used an Aphex Aural Exciter on that track to get a bright, sparkly sound. That song came out of me just playing in the studio with the amp cranked up trying to work out the parts. After you play long enough, you kind of push past all the clichés and home in on something that feels right.

How specifically did the arrival of Mike Mangini change the way you write and play?

I’m not sure if it affected anything tangibly. Last time around, Mike came in and did a fantastic job but was essentially playing parts that I had already programmed. He was an integral part of this album from the beginning. By the time we went in to write and record, we’d already done a world tour with him and there was just a level of comfort and relaxation that I think translated into the overall vibe of the album.

You have a new Ernie Ball signature guitar with an onboard preamp. Tell me about that.

It’s called the JP13 and it’s similar to my other signature models, but with a few changes. It has a basswood body with a maple top, and a mahogany neck and tone block. It has new DiMarzio Illuminator humbuckers, which have more range and clarity. Also, just by pulling on the Volume knob, there is a transparent 20db boost, which is fantastic for when I need to make a quick change from rhythm to lead. I find this more convenient than stepping on a Tube Screamer or a footswitch. For the new album I played both a 6-string and a 7-string. The guitars also have a custom-designed floating tremolo bridge equipped with a piezo pickup, but for the acoustic guitar sounds on the record I used a Taylor 12-string.

Despite the density of some of the arrangements and the low tuning, the overall mix—and your guitar sounds in particular— are amazingly well defined. It’s like Led Zeppelin’s records: heavy but not muddy.

Credit [engineer] Richard Chycki for that. This is the first time we’ve worked with him, and another goal we had for this album was to not “fix anything in the mix.” To that end, we wanted the sounds we dialed in during the first week of recording to be as close to the final, fully mastered sounds as possible. I even agreed to let my guitar be EQ’d at the board, which is something I normally don’t like to do. Also, I get squeamish about bleed from my amp when the band is close-miked in a small space, but Richard had bags of this stuff from Home Depot brought in called Roxul to make a little fortress around my Boogie cabinets. We also used a Radial JD7 Injector re-amper, which is an amazingly useful device that allows you to record a track once, but play it back through multiple amps to see what sounds best. I can tweak guitar tones all day, so it was great to have that option. On this record I used a Mesa/Boogie Mark V, a Mark IIC+, a Triaxis, and a Royal Atlantic.

Since we last spoke, Rush and Genesis have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a whole new generation has been exposed to classic guitar rock playing through video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Have you seen a change in your audience or an increased interest in guitar?

Absolutely. We’ve had lots of young people get turned on to the band over the last few years. For a while, there was this whole negativity towards technical proficiency and skill in music, but that’s totally changing. Kids today are being exposed to more knowledge and learning more, faster than ever before. There’s also so much information available online. I definitely see a push among young players to constantly be better. There also seems to be a general resurgence in the popularity of progressive rock now—we even recently received our first Grammy nomination for “On the Backs of Angels,” which is an eight-minute song! You’re also more likely to hear progressive-sounding musical passages from bands in other genres. That’s certainly the case in metal, and I like to think we represent the progressive branch on the metal tree.