Soloing Seminar: Pickin’ with John Petrucci: A Backstage Plectrum Party with Dream Theater’s Guitar Hero

CALL IT PROG ROCK. CALL IT MATH metal. Call it chamber music on an arena scale, pumped through columns of Mesa amplifiers. It’s simultaneously all and none of these things. Whatever it is, it’s big, it’s popular, and it has helped sell out the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, this fine summer evening. It’s the globally renowned guitar style of Dream Theater’s 6-string sharpshooter, John Petrucci. And, on second thought, don’t call it prog or any of those things.

“We’re absolutely a hard rock metal band,” says Petrucci, warming up backstage in his dressing room. The band’s lead singer, James LaBrie, is also getting revved for the show, wailing operatically in another dressing room down the hall. It serves the point Petrucci is making. “There’s a lot of power and energy that comes through live, more so than on our albums even. We pride ourselves with going out there, getting in people’s faces, and presenting a show that has conviction, passion, and power. The music certainly has an orchestral nature to it, but the delivery is pure rock.

“When we’re off stage, though, that’s another story. [Laughs.] We defy any preconceived stereotypes of rock stars in any sense of the word. Nobody drinks, smokes, or does drugs, and a lot of times we even have our families on the road with us. I hate to sound boring, but step on our bus and all you’ll see are geeks practicing guitar or holding a laptop or a BlackBerry.”

The cool thing about all that practicing is it puts Petrucci in a great headspace to verbalize exactly how he plays, and exactly why his signature Music Man John Petrucci guitar is designed the way it is. A good topic to start with is picking.

“There’s nothing to get in the way of your playing on this guitar,” says Petrucci of his sleek namesake ax. “You’ll notice there are no mounting rings around the pickups— they’re mounted right into the body—so I’m actually able to comfortably plant my pinky under the first string next to the [bridge] pickup. This creates a fulcrum with my palm that helps my picking action. Also, the rounded plate on the bridge was put there very intentionally. I didn’t want any sharp edges, because I rest my palm there. Even the saddle pieces are rounded!

“The other thing is that I use these little Dunlop Jazz III picks, because they don’t bend. They’re made of a hard material, so if you’re picking something fast, all the energy that you’re putting into the pick gets returned from the string—there isn’t that sag you get with thinner picks. And these picks have a point, which enables the pick to glide off the string. And the third thing is I pick at a slight angle, so the pick is not parallel with the string. Whatever you do, try to stay relaxed when you’re picking.”

A fun Dream Theater riff that will put your plectrum to the test is “Take the Time.” To get rolling with it, first be sure you know how to make a C#5 power chord extra heavy by adding the 5, G#, in the bass, as shown in Ex. 1. (“It almost sounds like I am detuned or playing a 7-string when I play the chord this way,” says Petrucci.) You’ll also need to combine alternating picking with string skipping.

“You can practice string skipping on a basic triad, like this,” says Petrucci, looping Ex. 2 a few times. “The trick to this sort of thing is rhythmic consistency. You can’t sweep it. You have to be able to do that down-up-down-up string-skipping thing with your pick, which is difficult.”

The basic concept to the “Take the Time” passage [Ex. 3] involves jumping between the main chordal part (bar 1) and various single-note fills (endings 1-3). The string skipping comes into play in the third ending, where prismatic, random sounding 5th- and 7th-position harmonics come at you faster than moguls in the middle of a double-diamond Alpine chute.

“When you want to spice up a lick that doesn’t involve a lot of string skips but has a lot of alternating picking, a cool thing to do is pick only some of the notes and pull off the rest,” says Petrucci. To demonstrate, he plays the triplet-based pattern in Ex. 4, first picking every note. Then, he plays the example as written, slurring (pulling off) the last two pitches in the six-note pattern each time it occurs. “It sounds more fluid that way. And you can really give that last picked note in the cycle some snap, because it’s picked with an upstroke. Another thing you can try is moving the lowest note around [Ex. 5]. That has a cool sound. And whatever lick you’re practicing, be sure to rework it for other string sets [Ex. 6].”

Watching Dream Theater blaze through their elaborate arrangements on a huge rock stage, it’s striking how much information the band members carry in their heads. In some ways, it’s like performing The Rite of Spring without a score or a music stand. “Remembering the arrangements is usually fairly easy,” says Petrucci. “Getting the technical parts is more challenging. I’ve actually gotten smar lately, because now, after we record a new song, I have the engineer make me a guitar-only mix for my personal use. That comes in helpful later if there are any parts I need to relearn before a tour.”

Petrucci’s widely varied guitar parts often arise out of simple experimentation. For instance, in Ex. 7, he evolves the previous example’s six-note pattern into a wild-sounding 14-note line that extends two pitches into beat three of the measure. This raises the question: How does he typically phrase this awkward number of pitches when he’s looping the pattern? “One way is to kind of cram all [14] notes into the first two beats so it conveniently repeats on beat three,” says Petrucci. The more challenging tactic is to play the notes perfectly in time, as written. This displaces the pattern by two notes every time it cycles around, giving it an unpredictable, almost odd-meter sound. The challenge is to keep track of the downbeats each time the phrase starts again in its new rhythmic incarnation.

“There are a lot of great things you can do on guitar that are Zappa-esque,” says Petrucci, “and you can’t just do them the first time you think of them. They’re bizarre. You have to go over them, and then go over them again. And again.”


Replete with an iPod dock, a Boss DB-90 metronome, a CD player, a mixer, Edirol monitors, Boss Giga Delay and Tuner stompboxes, a Keeley-modded Ibanez Tube Screamer, a Mesa Express 5:25 tube combo amp, and a custom rack to hold it all—plus a rolling flight case to protect it on the road—Petrucci’s backstage rig damn near features everything but the kitchen sink. “I do keep a kitchen timer in there, though,” says the guitarist. “I took a tip from Rusty Cooley and use it to practice things in short five-minute increments. It keeps practice interesting.” —JG