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John Petrucci is a jack-of-all-trades for prog behemoth Dream Theater, taking on the role of guitarist, writer, and producer. One of the most celebrated guitarists alive, he says he still practices and
believes in the “use it or lose it” mantra.
John Petrucci is a man who wears many hats and assumes many different guises. He’s a writer, producer, teacher, and sometimes an engineer. Above all else, though, Petrucci is a guitar player, and unsurprisingly, this is the role that he’s most personally comfortable in assuming. Despite being universally acknowledged as one of the best who’s ever laid a hand on a fretboard, Petrucci refuses to remain content in his own abilities. “I still sit there with the metronome,” he declares with pride. “I still practice, I still warm-up and do all the stuff that’s required.”
Petrucci brings this progressive spirit and drive to all his projects, including his latest, the self-titled 12th album from Dream Theater. The record adheres tightly to the group’s prog/metal influences without a trace of stagnation one might expect from a group this deep into its career. Much of this is due to Petrucci’s drive and meticulous nature in his triple-role of producer, composer, and guitarist. We recently spoke with Petrucci about the new record, his latest gear explorations, and what’s next for Dream Theater.
Tell us about the writing process for Dream Theater. How much time did you spend composing the tunes, and how did you work on the songs?
The first step happens throughout the year leading up to the actual recording of the album. It’s just sort of collecting ideas, little riffs, melodies, and chord progressions. I compile all that stuff on my laptop and phone, just so I can come in with some ideas to use as springboards. Then the next step is discussing what sort of album we want to make. Two months before we get into the studio, we all get on the phone and email each other to talk about it, so everyone coming in is on the same page.
This time around was very similar to a lot of our past albums going into the studio. We set up all our gear in a kind of rehearsal setting, but in a recording studio with everything mic’d and ready to go. Then we start to work on these ideas and hammer them out. Sometimes we use some of those seeds that were collected; sometimes we just start from scratch. That goes on for a few months until all the songs exist in instrumental form awaiting lyrics, and then I’ll sit down and get that process going. It’s very interactive—there are many different stages, but the great thing is that everybody is involved and invested in it.
How do you conceptualize and craft a song as large in scope as “Illumination Theory,” which runs well over 20 minutes and contains such a vast array of time, tempo, and mood shifts?
It’s done a little bit at a time for sure [laughs]. It is a big project and it is a big process and the first step is in knowing the kind of song that we’re setting out to write. Then we have ideas kind of mapped out, whether they be from things we’ve been jamming on from the past couple of weeks or from previous soundchecks or some of those seeds I talked about and we’ll discuss, “Oh, that would make a great ending piece.” There was this great theme that I’d pictured in the beginning and we’ll map it out—literally draw it out, like storyboard it on paper for everybody. Once we have that kind of storyboard and that structure, that’s when we start writing.
How do you approach your solos? Do you map them out as well or are they more spontaneous?
To me, guitar solos are always those moments that are make or break. They can be an opportunity to further the song musically—further the story you’re trying to tell—and that’s the way I try to approach it. I think about my role in that moment: Where is the song going? If the solo happens kind of later in the song and it’s leading toward the out-chorus, I know that my job is to lift the song at that point, make it exciting and carry it to the end. If it happens like in the case of a song like “The Looking Glass,” where it’s sort of in the middle and it’s stretched out, then I know it’s going to be more of a free, improv thing that’s going to make the song feel a little freer in general.
Sometimes I have solos that are right at the end like the very last thing on “Illumination Theory” where I know my job is to carry the torch and play the mighty solo standing on top of the mountain [laughs]. That’s always the first thing I do—think about what’s going on musically—then I just start going for it and improvise a lot over those progressions. Sometimes while that’s happening I’ll change things we’ve written, like in the case of “Surrender to Reason.” The solo seems really kind of reckless and there were some chords going by that [keyboardist] Jordan [Rudess] did and I decided, “Let’s take those chords out and not put any restrictions on the harmony, so I can do something a little more raw.”
How do you balance your role as a guitarist with that of a producer while in the studio?
I love doing it. I’m really fortunate and very thankful that the guys trust me in that position and give me that flexibility and responsibility to be the producer. It can be really difficult to be a band member and to produce your own band, but it’s worked out incredibly well because I am the guitar player in the band, and I know the guys incredibly well, which is something I use to my advantage as far as how I approach each person. Everybody is different in terms of temperament and work method, so I’m able to get the best out of everybody in that situation.
I think the key for me—and I wrote about it in the song “The Bigger Picture” on the album—is being able to step back to see the forest through the trees. To see what it is we’re trying to accomplish in a larger sense. This way everything you do works toward that goal. You do have to separate yourself out, you have to step back, you have to get out of the microcosm of playing guitar and being a band member, and pull that into the bigger picture.