John Petrucci on Dream Theater's New Concept Album, 'The Astonishing'

“It’s not something you do every other record,” deadpans John Petrucci about Dream Theater’s recently released two-act concept album, The Astonishing [Roadrunner].
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“It’s not something you do every other record,” deadpans John Petrucci about Dream Theater’s recently released two-act concept album, The Astonishing [Roadrunner].

This is a rather obvious factoid, as the epic 34-track project drops almost 16 years after the band’s previous rock opera, 1999’s Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory. Part of the reason for the long wait was due to Petrucci wanting to give Dream Theater fans a “special moment.” Two and a half years ago, he finally felt he had the right story—a tale about rebels fighting oppression—and he decided the resulting production would be a multilayered, all-encompassing extravaganza involving full orchestras and choirs (arranged by David Campbell), a multimedia tour, and even a video game and a novel. He also gave himself, well, not exactly the easiest of assignments. He wanted The Astonishing to be different from anything Dream Theater had ever done in the past, while still sounding like Dream Theater.

A monumental task here, mister! So how did you simultaneously expand the soundscape of the band and keep the music identifiable as Dream Theater?

I gave the guitar that job. This project is huge and dramatic. We’re asking our fans to take in more than two hours of new music based on a story they’ve never read, and to stick with us as we go places musically we’ve never gone before. There are symphonic instruments, dialogue, sound effects, choirs, and other things that are not typical stylistic elements of Dream Theater. I felt I needed to ground it all somehow, so I was really conscious about making the guitar sound as signature to myself as possible. My tone had to be identifiable and consistent throughout the album, and provide some glue for the listener. He or she has to hear my guitar, and no matter what else is going on, know that this is Dream Theater.

Was it a challenge to keep your guitar tone from being overwhelmed by the frequency onslaught of a full orchestra?

Not really, and for a couple of reasons. David Campbell mentioned to me that when you use real people and real instruments, the sonic space they take up is more manageable than if we had used samples—which he sees as a digital source coming at the listener like a wall. The touch and dynamics of the orchestra musicians could actually create space—even though there are a lot of people playing. If a symphonic part did get too big, we could do EQ tricks such as carving out the low-end stuff that clogs up the guitar tone. Most importantly, the original concept was that the orchestra is there to contribute to the overall dramatic effect—not to swallow up the band. This wasn’t “Symphonic Dream Theater.” We also had Rich Chycki mixing the record. He’s a master of the art, so the band wasn’t compromised sonically at all.

It’s interesting that you tackled such a huge musical concept—one where I’d assume a ton of guitar gear would be deployed to voice the work’s myriad themes—with just your new Ernie Ball Music Man Majesty, a signature Mesa/Boogie amp, Taylor 6-string and 12-string acoustics, and a new Dunlop signature wah. That was pretty much it, right?

Pretty much. But a couple of very cool things happened to make that possible. Regarding the electrics, I used my latest signature models, the Music Man Majesty Artisan 6-string and 7-string, and they are unbelievable instruments. Actually, I did use my JP-15 for one song, but all the rest was all Majesty.

What made you go, “Okay, I’m not touching another guitar for every part on the album”?

That’s a good question. All of my signature models are amazing in their own right. For the Majesty, we kept all the things that felt comfortable and right on the money from designing my guitars all these years—the neck shape, the radius, fret size, and all that stuff. But the Majesty is the first neck-through we’ve done, and the weight, access to the higher frets, and the contours make this guitar feel like it’s an extension of my body. It’s an ergonomic and easy-to-play instrument that sounds very alive. It has this resonant quality that makes it very expressive, and it records well. I did bring a few of my other models to the studio, but whenever I picked up one of the Majesty guitars, it was like, “Why am I searching anymore? This is the one.”

How did your previous signature models help evolve the features you now have on the Majesty?

We developed prototypes in a very detailed way. Sometimes, the discussions were based on what I felt and experienced while performing with my earlier models, and, other times, it was a conceptual thing like, “If we change this, it might make it a little bit more comfortable.” The original Music Man bridge, for example, had individual saddles that were sort of square. I rest my hand on the bridge all the time, and I could feel the sharp edges of the saddles, so we rounded them off. Also, I’m always looking for more access to the higher frets, and there were two things we changed on the Majesty that made it better. One is a lower horn, so it doesn’t bump into your wrist, but it still feels comfortable on your leg when you play sitting down. The other one was an idea that Sterling [Ball, Music Man CEO] had. Everybody always talks about the bottom horn, but nobody looks at the top one. But as you go up the neck, if you’re doing bends on the higher frets, your thumb can only go so far until the body meets the neck. So Sterling had the idea of carving away the upper horn so you can get your hand all the way up there.

What’s the story with the Boogie?

This is really exciting. After begging Mesa/Boogie constantly to do a signature amp, they finally agreed. So the amp on the entire album is my new signature Mesa/Boogie, the JP-2C.

Can you give us a little background on the amp’s development?

One of my favorite Boogie amps of all time is the IIC+, and they haven’t made those since the ’80s. I love those amps! They have C+ modes in the Mark V, but I wanted a real deal, updated reissue of a C+ designed by Randall [Smith, Mesa/Boogie president and designer]. I showed them one of my cherished C+ amps, and they used it to design the JP-2C. Then, some of the things I could offer as a performing musician were questions like, “What were the shortcomings of the original?” and “How could we make the amp more versatile?” They were really open to that stuff. They’re up for challenges. They never seem to say, “Oh no, we can’t do that.”

So what kinds of features ended up on the JP-2C?

There are three channels—Clean, Heavy, and Lead—instead of the original amp’s two, and each channel has independent tone controls. Also, there are two graphic EQs to choose from, so you can have your Clean sound with no graphic EQ, the Heavy sound with EQ 1, and the Lead sound with EQ 2. You have the ability to have three completely customizable sounds. The JP-2C is MIDI capable—which is something their heads up to now haven’t had—and it has a built-in CabClone as a direct output. It even has a feature I wanted called Shred, which revoices the upper harmonics. If you’re playing a 7-string, or if you are in a low tuning, the Shred setting gives you more clarity. It’s almost like a mastering technique. The JP-2C is an authentic C+ reissue, but one brought into the modern world.

How much tweaking did it take until you were satisfied with the amp?

Not much at all. The first prototype was unbelievable, but Randall said they had a “happy accident” while working on the Presence control, so they revoiced it for a second prototype. I played them both, and I could not choose between them. I was driving myself crazy. But Doug [West, Mesa/Boogie Director of R&D] said, “Let’s put both on a push/pull Presence knob on the Lead channel so that you don’t have to decide.” They did the same thing with a gain stage. You pull the Gain knob up for more gain, and push it in for the standard C+ gain. The JP-2C is the most versatile amp I’ve ever played. You can do anything with it—which is why every guitar sound on The Astonishing is that amp.

Why did you fall so head-over-heels in love with the original IIC+?

For me, the C+ does something that other amps don’t do. It has this immediacy, articulation, and a sort of “gank” factor in the heavy-crunch sound. When you’re playing a heavy riff and you mute the chords, it does this certain thing that’s unbelievable. It doesn’t get mushy. It responds to you immediately. That’s the main thing. As far as lead playing, it’s extremely expressive. You’re able to get everything out of it you’re looking for—sustain, liquidity, heavy sounds, bluesy sounds, and notes that kind of envelop you. It does all that stuff in a way that no other amp does.

Can you tell us about the new wah?

That’s another cool thing exclusive to this album—I developed a signature wah with Dunlop. I got my first Dunlop 535Q wah around 1999, and I found this really expressive, vocal-like sound that I fell in love with. I would set the wah to that sound and never change it. You can hear the sound on “Home” from Scenes from a Memory. There’s a wah riff, and it almost has a talkbox-like sound. It’s very throaty. That’s my wah sound. So I thought, “What if I could just put that one exact sound in a signature wah?” So that’s what we did. I also wanted my wah to improve your sound—not suck anything out of it. No noise. No volume drops. It had to have a musical and usable frequency spectrum, as well. Many wahs don’t go low enough for me, and, on the upper end, I don’t want the tone to be shrill and annoying.

Did any other pedals make the scene?

My signature TC Electronic Dreamscape was my go-to chorus and flange on the record. I also did a TonePrint for their Helix Phaser, and I used that, too.

What about the Taylor acoustics?

I’ve been using Taylors for many years, and I wanted to get a new acoustic for the album—something special. Taylor had just redesigned the 916CE, and I loved it after playing one chord. It just sounded so rich and full. It’s on the entire album, along with a Taylor 856CE 12-string.

Your Match the Master Contest is about guitarists emulating your riffs on The Astonishing. What are some good creative strategies for players who want to compose their own riffs?

Well, you can’t always expect to sit down with a cup of coffee and come up with a riff. It doesn’t work that way. But sometimes, it does, and in those cases you need to trust your intuition, because something will just pop out. That’s a great feeling. Divine inspiration. However, if I’m having trouble coming up with something, I tend to do the opposite of what some people say, which is, “Walk away. Come back to it later.” I’ve found that if I keeping playing, I eventually break past the cobweb thing, and I start to get into this tantric, free-flowing creativity. It’s hard to focus on one thing for a long time, so I also tend to go off on tangents, and the tangents are almost like cracks starting to break open a shell. Pretty soon, you’ve cracked open the creative part of your brain. Here’s another trick: If you’re traveling and suffering from severe jet lag, you’ll be surprised at the creative headspace you’ll find yourself in. I’m telling you, scientific studies need to be done on that one [laughs].


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Most of us have heard this old chestnut…

Question: “How many guitarists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

Answer: “One to screw in the bulb, and a thousand to say they could do it better.”

Now, whether you happen to be one of the joke’s one thousand naysayers, or just someone looking to assess your skills, Ernie Ball and John Petrucci have partnered to offer the perfect contest to have some fun challenging yourself.

Here’s the deal: The Ernie Ball/John Petrucci Match the Master contest invites all unsigned guitar players to click to, and study videos of Petrucci performing ten riffs from Dream Theater’s The Astonishing. Those who dare can upload a video submission of themselves performing one of Petrucci’s riffs.

Starting January 29, 2016—and continuing each week over a two-month period—one lucky player will be chosen as the weekly winner and receive a Sterling by Music Man JP60 Series Guitar, as well as gear from Ernie Ball, TC Electronic, DiMarzio, Dunlop, Mesa/Boogie, Fractal Audio Systems, and more.

At the end of the contest, a grand prize winner will be crowned, and he or she will get a private master class with John Petrucci backstage at a Dream Theater concert, a VIP trip for two to see Dream Theater live, an Ernie Ball Music Man Majesty Guitar, a year’s supply of Ernie Ball strings, and gear from TC Electronic, DiMarzio, Dunlop, Mesa/Boogie, Fractal Audio Systems, and more.

So check out the videos and get your fingers flying. After all, you’re taking on a legend. Good luck!