Theater Major

Whether it’s trading gravity-defying licks with the likes of Satriani, Vai, and Gilbert on the G3 tour, or plowing through odd-metered passages at breakneck tempo during Dream Theater’s epic three-hour-plus concerts, John Petrucci regularly puts himself in playing situations that are not only musically challenging, but physically demanding as well. “Obviously, music should be first and foremost about expression,” declares the axe master, “but there’s a definite physical conditioning component to it. I can’t just not practice for a week, drink a few beers, hop on stage, and expect to play well. I approach a concert like a gymnast approaches a meet. If you’re gonna do your routines perfectly, you’ve got to work on the techniques involved in those routines.”

Okay class, you heard the prog-metal maestro. This ain’t no blues lesson. This is about hitting the ’shed to shed some of that fretting-hand flab, so get out your 6-strings and metronomes, and allow Petrucci to be your personal guitar trainer. The Long Island guitar hero’s initial advice for shred school freshmen may not exactly be a revelation but it’s so sound, it bears repeating: “If you want to play fast you’ve got to practice slow. Start out playing the licks and exercises at around 60 beats per minute until you can play them cleanly and accurately. Only then should you increase the speed.”

Maiden Voyage

Monstrously wide vibrato—a prominent aspect of Petrucci’s style—is something the guitarist developed as a kid. “I used to play my Iron Maiden records at slow speed to try and learn the licks, and I noticed that whenever Adrian Smith ended a phrase you’d hear this ree-owr, ree-owr, ree-owr sound as his note trailed off,” says Petrucci. “It finally clicked that he was rapidly bending the note up and down to get that effect.” Ex. 1 stems from a vibrato exercise Petrucci developed years ago and has been doing ever since. Whole-step bends in rapid succession may not be Club Med for your poor little 3rd and 4th fingers—typically the weakest digits on the fretting hand—but these calis-thenics will train you to accurately bend into any note at any time with any finger. A slight variation on this drill, Ex. 2 starts each vibrato series with a whole-step grace-note bend and follows it with several half-step bends and releases. For best results, practice these exercises on all six strings and at various fretboard positions.

Phrase Shifting

“Phrasing is just as important as note selection,” says Petrucci, “and phrasing a line all on one string will give it a different quality than playing it across the neck, so it’s important to practice scales linearly as well as in position.” The upwardly mobile Ex. 3 is built on a six-note pattern in G major that ascends the high-E, but can be practiced in different keys on different strings. Ex.4 stretches a descending incarnation of this pattern across the first and second strings. Watch the fingering in the last three measures or you’ll wind up playing some notes that are out of key. Another diatonic two-string pattern, Ex. 5 is multi-functional—it works in B Phrygian, G major, and E natural minor—and can be articulated legato as shown, or played entirely with alternate picking. Make sure to lead the position changes with your 1st finger on the way up and with your 4th finger on the way down and you won’t trip over your own fingers.

Lucky 13

“Building great technique is crucial but it’s only half the battle,” warns Petrucci. “You’ve got to apply what you know.” Ex. 6, one of the main themes from “In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 1,” from Dream Theater’s latest CD Systematic Chaos [Roadrunner], combines two Petrucci staples—single-string linear motion and metric modulation. It may take a while to get used to hearing the 13-count pattern broken into alternating measures of 7/4 and 6/4, but eventually the lick will roll off your fingers faster than you can say “triskaidekaphobia.”
Imagine a sonic love child of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” and Rush’s “Natural Science” and you might have Petrucci’s riff to “Constant Motion,” shown broken into two metrically identical parts in Examples 7 and 8. “I hear this song as a quarter-note pulse with a few stray eighth-notes tacked on at the end,” he says. “But it’s possible to count it as straight eighths. Often you can ask the four instrumentalists in Dream Theater how we count some of the more intricately timed passages, and you’ll get four different answers—all of them equally correct.”

Sweet Dreams

Lest you perceive Petrucci to be only about speedy scales, counting conundrums, and linear logic, the melodic arpeggios from the verse of “The Ministry of Lost Souls” [Ex. 9] show his moving, lyrical approach to harmony. Flavored with lush color tones such as the #11 in the Am#11 chord in the first bar (a D# that reappears as the #5 in Gaug5), this simple chord sequence would surely get a passing grade from Bach.