John Petrucci Talks Gear, Dream Theater's Ultra-Heavy 'Distance Over Time' and Prog-Metal's Future

From his guitar technique and songwriting to the gear he's helped create, John Petrucci has been prog-metal's most vital influence for 30 years. Here's what he sees in its future...
Author:
Publish date:
048_gpr0120_players_petrucci-1

Among the many thoughts that pop into John Petrucci’s head during a lengthy chat with Guitar Player is the fact that 2019 marks a full 30 years since Dream Theater released their debut album, When Dream and Day Unite

Back then, Petrucci recalls, “there wasn’t much of a scene for the kind of music we were doing. The prog-rock scene of the ’70s had kind of passed, and even though some of those bands still were going strong, it wasn’t popular music anymore.”

What’s more, he enthusiastically continues, “prog-metal didn’t really exist. It was just a very small group of guys - us, Fates Warning from Connecticut, Watchtower from Texas and maybe you could even say Queensrÿche, with their early albums - that’s who was doing it. But today it’s so different. 

There’s this huge prog family tree, and the branches are reaching further and further out and have expanded into all these different styles of music. It’s really an incredible thing to see. It just keeps growing and growing.”

It’s not hyperbolic to say a big reason for that growth is due to John Petrucci. The now 52-year-old guitarist has been at the forefront of progressive guitar playing ever since Dream Theater released that first album - or, to be accurate, their breakthrough 1992 follow-up, Images and Words, which spawned a surprise hit single in “Pull Me Under.” 

Since then, Petrucci has continually pushed the outer limits of the six-string world in terms of speed, dexterity, technical facility and creativity. He’s also helped create new tools with which to achieve his goals. 

To that last point, his collaborations with Ernie Ball Music Man, Mesa/Boogie, DiMarzio and Dunlop, to name just a few companies, have produced pieces of gear that have managed to be both cutting edge and insanely popular with the public at large.

050_gpr0120_players_petrucci-5

All the while, Dream Theater have remained firmly ensconced as the leading act in modern prog. Their most recent album, 2019’s Distance Over Time, delivered some of the heaviest, most energized and tightly focused music of the band’s long career. Which is not to say they’re shying away from the prog universe: 

Their previous album, The Astonishing, was a 34-song, two-hour-plus opus. And the group’s current tour in support of the record has been another landmark outing, combining a hefty dose of new music with a celebratory 20th anniversary performance of 1999’s landmark Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory album in full.

In fact, when Guitar Player catches up with Petrucci, he’s about to take the stage with Dream Theater at the next stop on that tour, at the Capitol Theater in Madison, Wisconsin.

It’s one of the final dates on the second U.S. leg of the trek, but, Petrucci says, “We have so much ahead of us still - South America, then a full headlining tour in Europe, then Asia and Australia. So we’re not even halfway done. But it’s been great. There’s a really amazing feeling out there onstage every night, and in the audience I see a lot of smiles and a lot of people singing along. And it’s always fun for me, because I just love playing guitar.”

Prior to doing just that, Petrucci spent a generous amount of time talking with us about guitar - in particular, how his approach to playing has changed over the years, how he views the new generation of hypertechnical and often super-young guitarists and what keeps him going and feeling inspired. 

He also talked gear, offered some tips and advice for musicians, and discussed other artists he loves and admires, from his bandmates to Joe Satriani to…Barry Manilow? Read on.

On the current Distance Over Time tour, you’ve been playing a fair amount of new music as well as a full record from 20 years ago. When you’re diving into a range of material so intensely, do you notice any differences in your playing style between then and now?

Oh, definitely. I noticed that as soon as I went back and sort of relearned all the Scenes From a Memory stuff. First of all, the song arrangements were a bit more eclectic back then. And I noticed that I was gravitating toward a certain type of thing with some of the techniques I was doing. 

For example, the faster picking passages - most of them are in, like, a fast 16th-note or 32nd-note pattern. And that’s something that I had to reacquaint myself with. There’s also a lot of two-notes-per-string stuff, and some wacky things in songs like “Beyond This Life” [from Scenes From a Memory] which were challenging to relearn and get under my fingers again.

Then at the same time, yeah, there’s all this new material we’re doing, where I have to recreate live in front of an audience what I played in the studio only a few months ago.

That’s a whole different challenge because it’s not 20 years of working in a certain technique - it’s a new technique that I’m developing right now. But that’s what I love about playing guitar and being a performing musician: getting the opportunity every night to go out and try it again. [laughs]

051_gpr0120_players_petrucci-2

Needless to say, you’ve pushed yourself pretty hard over the years when it comes to the technical side of your playing. How do you maintain the desire to keep moving forward on the guitar?

There are a few different things I can say about that. First of all, like I said, I love playing guitar. That makes it easy to want to push myself and explore different things. And secondly, I get to play with some of the world’s greatest musicians. 

Some of the ideas that come just from bouncing off of players like Jordan [Rudess, keyboards] or John [Myung, bass] or Mike [Mangini, drums] - that in itself pushes me, because they’re doing some crazy thing, and I’m like, “What are you doing there? Let me see if I can do that on the guitar.” All of a sudden, I have this new thing that I’ve never tried before.

And for any guitarist, another part of moving forward is being inspired by other players. Maybe you hear something you’ve never heard before and try to learn it and incorporate it into your own playing. And it could be anything that causes you to go outside of your comfort zone. 

It doesn’t have to be technical. Maybe it just twists something in your mind rhythmically or syncopation-wise, and that will stimulate not only your hands and your motor skills but your brain as well.

Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of young guitarists - sometimes, literally, kids - who are capable of playing with jaw-dropping technique. Poke around on YouTube any given day and you can find dozens of them making incredible sounds. What do you think of this development?

First of all, it’s amazing. And you know, musicians and performers get better and build upon what came before in the same way that athletes continue to break new records. With guitar, when you think about rock music and how long electric guitar has been around in that context, it hasn’t really been around all that long at all. 

It’s not like classical guitar. So the skill level has just grown exponentially, and the instruments have gotten better and easier to play, which has contributed to it as well.

But probably the biggest thing is the way that people learn now. When you see a young person do something and it’s at a certain level, that becomes the new bar. Then everybody sort of rises to that level. And then somebody surpasses that and that becomes a new bar. It’s like gymnastics. And now with YouTube, you can see exactly how people are doing things, and there are transcriptions and tablature and videos and step-by-step instructions.

You don’t have to go far to figure out exactly how to do a technique - whereas when I was younger, the people that I can point to who were the greatest players had a certain level of technique, and the only way you could figure out that technique was if you got to see them live, or maybe you took a recording and tried to slow it down. And then there were some instructional videos that were just starting to come out.

052_gpr0120_players_petrucci-1

Can you imagine if you’d had the internet?

I mean, when I was a kid and I heard “Eruption” for the first time, I was like, “What the hell is that? That doesn’t even sound like a guitar!” I had no idea how Eddie Van Halen was doing it. I couldn’t even picture it in my mind. But if I had been able to go to YouTube and watch him, I’d have been like, “Oh, you put your hands like this, and that’s how you do it.” 

So now there’s this source of knowledge where you can see exactly how stuff is done. And combined with that natural evolution that we were just talking about, we’re at the point where, you know, an eight-year-old can play what I’m playing, or what Paul Gilbert is playing. And that has become the new normal and the new standard. Because if an eight-year-old is doing it, and I’m sitting here and I’m 30, 40, 50 years old, then it’s like, “Okay then, no excuses!”

Have you ever watched one of these YouTube players do something on a guitar and thought to yourself, I don’t know if I can do that?

[laughs] Definitely. And the funny thing is, some of the young kids who are doing this stuff, I don’t know what it is, if it’s just that they’re only kids and that’s the way kids are, but they do things in such a way that it seems so easy. 

The guitar’s too big for them, but they’re sort of smiling, there’s no tension in their faces and they just play. It’s like all the things that we get caught up on as adults, they’re not caught up on yet. They just have this confidence and ease.

So you’re saying that on top of playing great, they also look better doing it?

Right! It’s pretty funny. But you know, it’s cool. It’s really great to see.

That said, it’s also tempting to make the argument that, as much as people tend to hone in on the technical side of your playing, you’ve always been equally focused on melody and the more "musical" aspects of the instrument.

Probably the biggest focus of my creativity as a musician is melody and songwriting, even though it’s wrapped up in the progressive-metal style and it can get pretty technical. But as a musician playing guitar, I was always drawn to guitar players - whether it was Neal Schon or David Gilmour or Joe Satriani - who took advantage of the fact that the electric guitar, an instrument where you can bend and manipulate the strings in any such way, enables you to be so expressive. 

Because there’s something about how a strong theme just pulls at your heartstrings, you know? Think about a John Williams soundtrack and the way those haunting and beautiful melodies draw you in as you’re watching a film. 

It’s that tug at your emotions. And it’s the same with some of the greatest songs of all time. They have melodies that are written in such a way that they just connect to us. It’s why I love Disney and why I also love old Barry Manilow songs.

054_gpr0120_players_petrucci-3

I was actually going to ask if there is any music from your past or present that people would be surprised to learn that you’re into. But I think you just answered my question.

[laughs] Yeah. But you know, some of those melodies, if you were to play them on the guitar, you would see how well written they are. But I don’t know. There is some very sappy part of me that is just drawn to wanting to play beautiful, thematic melodies that help move the song forward and make that emotional connection within the different riffs and the different technical parts and the different time signatures. They’re parts that you can sing.

I mean, there’s nothing like playing in Rome and having 10,000 people sing the guitar melody that you’re playing. It’s absolutely unbelievable. And that wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t that connection. And that, in some ways, is a harder skill to develop and achieve than the technical thing. It’s something that definitely takes work.

As far as developing skills, you also recently announced the third iteration of your Guitar Universe camp [scheduled to take place in Irvine, California, from August 1 to 5].

I’m really excited about it, for a few reasons, but especially because of the players that are coming to do it. For example, Plini from Australia, Mateus Asato from Brazil and Joscho Stephan, who’s a monster gypsy jazz player from Germany. There’s Tom Quayle from the U.K. and Andy Wood from the U.S. And my wife, Rena, is going to be doing this with me, and she’s going to be a guest instructor and performer as well. 

I’m just so psyched about that, because we don’t get the opportunity to play together that often. And [former Music Man CEO] Sterling Ball is coming down; he’s going to barbecue. Larry DiMarzio is coming down too, and a bunch of my friends are coming down. It’s going to be a blast.

What has been your main guitar and amp setup on the current tour?

We’re celebrating 20 years of Scenes From a Memory, and it was actually 20 years ago, on the first Scenes From a Memory tour, that I had my first signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar. In fact, the one on the Live Scenes From New York release is, I believe, a prototype.

So it’s been 20 years with Ernie Ball Music Man, and we’ve developed just an incredible line of signature models over that time. And the Majesty has been the one that I am most proud of, and that’s the one I used on the new record and that I’ve been using live on this tour - everything from the new Tiger Eye Majesty that I play a lot to the Kinetic Blue one to the seven-string Enchanted Forest. 

And they have my new DiMarzio signature pickups, which is the Dreamcatcher at the bridge and the Rainmaker at the neck. Those pickups make that guitar a complete monster. It sounds like it’s leaping out of the speaker.

Then there’s a couple acoustic spots where I play a Taylor with the new V-Class bracing, which I used for the acoustic parts on Distance Over Time as well. And I wouldn’t be anywhere if all this stuff wasn’t being played through my signature Mesa/Boogie JP-2C. It’s just the greatest amp in the world. It’s a true powerhouse.

I’m also using the [Fractal Audio] Axe-Fx III in the effects loop for all the effects in my live rig. It’s doing my delays and choruses and harmonies, and all that stuff. And then there’s the TC Electronic guys, who do my signature Dreamscape modulation pedal and all the different TC pedals that are in a drawer and handle the front-end effects, like compressors and stuff like that. And it’s all controlled by an RJM Mastermind foot controller. So you could call it a big support team.

Petrucci with his Ernie Ball Music Man Majesty signature model.

Petrucci with his Ernie Ball Music Man Majesty signature model.

You’ve had a major hand in developing a lot of the gear that you play in the studio and onstage. Beyond that, it’s clearly very important to you to have a close relationship with the people who are actually making the guitars, amps, effects and so on.

It’s a very, very satisfying and humbling thing for me to get to do. My relationship with the guys from Boogie, with Sterling Ball and the whole Ball family, with Larry DiMarzio and his family, with people like Jimmy Dunlop and everybody at his great company who helped develop my signature picks and my JP95 wah - I’m not only proud of the musical instruments we’ve created but also the deep connections that I have with those people and their families. 

It’s so great to have all these people in my corner and to be able to talk creatively with them and develop amazing guitars, amps and pedals. And then, of course, it’s great to have other people have access to them and be able to make music and perform with them.

On that note, these days even hobbyists seem to be very into the gear side of things, especially when it comes to people who play technique-intensive styles of music. They want a guitar with seven or eight strings and other special features. They want amps and pedals that have modeling capabilities and do all sorts of things. What would you say to a kid who wants a good, solid shred machine but can’t afford, say, an Ernie Ball Music Man signature model?

One of the smart things Music Man did a while ago to address exactly this type of thing was license their designs to companies who could make more affordable versions of an instrument, but still have it be a signature instrument with my specs. It’s called the Sterling by Music Man line, and they’re made by an amazing Korean company. And there’s six-strings, seven-strings and models based on the Majesty and the JP15. 

So that’s a great place to start if somebody’s looking to get a great instrument but doesn’t necessarily have $2,500 to $5,000 to spend on a guitar.

Since we’re dispensing hard-won advice, in your opinion what is the key to being a successful working musician and staying in the game?

You have to work hard. And you have to put the time into it. You have to always remain hungry and not be complacent and not be fully satisfied where you are. And you have to just keep being a creative person. Dream Theater’s first album, When Dream and Day Unite, came out in 1989, so it’s 30 years old now, and we have been a recording and touring band since then. 

We’re not afraid to go out there and play all over the world, and we hit all corners of the planet. And then we also create music consistently - not only to further our creative desires as musicians but also to keep our story going as a band, to keep the catalog growing and to keep our legacy moving forward. It’s not something that you can be lazy about.

As far as that 30-year legacy goes, one crucial thing which I can’t help but think is unique about Dream Theater is that you’re one of the few bands that, even if fans have their favorite songs and favorite albums, they don’t necessarily prefer the “classic” material over the current material. The fans seem to want to hear all of it, and often seem most excited when you play new music onstage. That’s pretty unusual.

Yeah. And it’s awesome, and it’s something that we don’t take for granted. Dream Theater fans anticipate the new music that we’re coming out with. They look forward to where we’re going to take things. And when we play the new material live mixed in amongst the older material, it doesn’t matter if a song of ours was written 20 years ago or 30 years ago or six months ago. It all kind of gets the same acceptance and embrace from the audience. And that’s rare. 

I know that there are a lot of bands out there that have had long careers, and maybe it’s more the ones who have had a lot of recognizable hits that, when people come to the show, they just want to hear the songs that they know. And there’s something to be said for that. 

But I think Dream Theater fans welcome the rare tracks and the brand-new tracks as much as they do their favorites. And we welcome that, and we really enjoy it, because it keeps things fresh for us, too.

So what you’re saying is that with Dream Theater, the secret to success is to not have a bunch of hits?

[laughs] Yeah, exactly, that’s what it is! Dream Theater only had one hit, so that’s how we’re able to do this. That’s the whole thing.

RELATED