John Petrucci: The Ultimate Evolved Guitarist
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.
In addition to a 17" fretboard radius and chrome finish, the most outstanding feature of the John Petrucci Music Man JP13 is a preamp. “It lets the guitar be more alive and open sounding,” Petrucci says. “Also it allows for a boost that you can tap to add 20 dB of gain right from the volume control, so you don’t need an overdrive or a clean boost pedal.”
Photo by Larry DiMarzio
How do you mic and mix your guitars, and how much time do you dedicate to crafting your tones on record?
That’s actually a really big process and is also one of the most fun times I have in the studio. We spend a ton of time with it. I’ve done it so many different ways, but this time the approach was to get a guitar sound from day one that pretty much was a finished sound—it’s the sound you hear when you hear the album today. I really left it up to [engineer] Richard Chycki to do what needed to be done in order to get there. I basically had my Mesa/Boogie amps all set up in an iso room in the studio and Richard set up a couple of different mics—a [Shure SM] 57 and [Neumann U] 47. Then he went through whatever process it had to go through after that. I didn’t really concern myself with how it was happening. What was important was the sound coming out of the studio monitors, and we would spend days on that.
We also used a Radial JDX to re-amp, so every time I recorded a part, we’d have a DI [direct input] track as well. Depending on the song, we’d re-amp the part and experiment by setting the amp EQ differently to get it to really match up to a particular song. You hear a lot of different types of guitar tones on the album, and they were all tailored to each song.
Were you listening to any music while writing and recording Dream Theater, and how do your influences continue to define what you do?
I purposely tried to not listen to anything. When you listen to stuff while you’re in the studio or before you go in—especially if it’s not something you discovered on your own, if it’s something that somebody went, “Oh, you have to hear this”—it can be dangerous. All of a sudden it seems like you need to pull this thing into your style.
My original influences go back to being a teenager in those formative days. Bands like Metallica and [Iron] Maiden got me into the whole metal scene, and I was also a big Rush and Yes fan. That fusion of metal, rock, and progressive music molded my style, and subsequently Dream Theater’s sound, because we were all into the same thing. Those core influences determined our style from the beginning, and I think it’s important for us to stay true to this and continue developing from it, and not lose sight of the band’s original vision.
How do you balance trying to push the music forward conceptually and technically with the desire to stay true to your roots?
It’s very easy to remain grounded if you just play what comes from your heart. You work off of the inspiration you receive from each other when you’re playing together. This band has a ton of musical chemistry. We write together and we inspire each other to push ourselves in that spirit. That’s automatically reflected in our metal-progressive style. You can’t lose sight of that inspiration when it feels really natural to you. If you’re doing something that doesn’t feel natural, usually it’s not going to come across convincingly.
This being DT’s 12th studio album, why did now seem like the right time to release a self-titled record?
I think it’s because it made a strong statement this many albums into our career. We wanted to make a bold, strong, confident album that really projected our musical attitude at this point in time and pushing forward. We felt that the best way to illustrate what the album is about was to self-title it. To not pick a title that would distract from it at all or lead to any preconceptions. Keep it strong and keep it a little bit of a mystery.
How much time do you spend perfecting and adding to your technique as a guitar player?
A lot—it’s really important. First of all, it’s something I love to do and I’m addicted to doing. I really have to practice, it’s such a use-it-or-lose-it thing. I have routines, especially while I’m in the studio and I’m ready to push the envelope and record something that takes the music further or challenge myself as a player.
Speed kills and so does John Petrucci in the solo on "Constant Motion." In this performance, Petrucci lets fly with a truly staggering display of agility and dexterity—dive bomb to hell and back included.
As Dream Theater gears up for another epic world tour, Petrucci says he hopes to have a solo album out by 2014, his first in eight years.
As a longtime Mesa/Boogie devotee, what Boogie amps did you use in the studio, and what, if any, other amps did you throw into the mix?
The studio was all Boogies, and for the most part it was the Mark V. We did a ton of experimenting using the Radial to re-amp, which was a blast, but a lot of the time we ended up going with the Mark V. I ended up playing a lot of 7-string on this album, and the Mark V really seemed to work with the range of my new Music Man JP13, which sounded very broad and alive through it.
I also set up three of my old Mark II-C+ amps. We’d go back and forth between different ones for solos. They all have different tonal aspects that are just beautiful. I used a Triaxis for clean stuff and for writing, and for the first time I used a Royal Atlantic, which is a Boogie that has a different sound from any of the Mark amps. You can hear it on “The Looking Glass.” The amp has more of a big, grindy, rock sound, not as metal sounding, but really appropriate for that song. I also used it for “Along for the Ride.”
You mentioned using a lot of 7-string guitar on this record. What attracts you to that extra string and how does it alter your approach to playing?
My technical approach pretty much remains the same. To me it’s all about the range. When you’re composing, it’s freeing to play chords or lines that go below that standard E without tuning down. Keyboardists have that in their left hand, 6-string bass players have it too. It also adds some other options as far as the tonal aspect of keys. When you’re tuned to standard, you have your basic E, A, and F# keys, which you can mix up when you’re using a 7-string. Your centers can revolve around B or C# or D, and then if you tune the guitar down they can revolve around A, so it gives you options you don’t have with a 6-string.
Your Signature Series Music Man guitar lineup is currently up to its 13th iteration. How has the JP guitar evolved over the years and how much creative input do you have with each new model?
The lineup has changed with things I discover, whether in the studio or playing live, that help shift the design and construction of the guitar as time goes by. The very first JP guitar was my first experience making a guitar with Music Man, and it came out absolutely amazing. It has that scoop for the right arm, for example. As I learn about tone woods, neck dimensions, fretboard radius, fret size, and body shape, I talk to Music Man and they make adjustments.
All my signature guitars—the 6-string, 7-string, and baritone—are tweaked a bit differently. They’re different spices in my spice rack, but they’re all me. Having said that, there are also a lot of consistencies in the way we lay out the controls and the bridge. Once we nail something that’s just perfect, it stays that way. I have a ton of input and involvement in that process, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to work with literally the best guitar builders on the planet. I put these ideas forth and the engineers turn it into an actual physical guitar. It’s an incredible experience.
What makes the JP13 different from what has come before it?
This guitar continues the evolution. It has a preamp in it, which none of the others have—that’s the main difference. The preamp enables the guitar to be more alive and open sounding, and it also offers a boost. You can tap the volume control to add 20 dB of gain, so you don’t need an overdrive or clean boost pedal. We also went to a 17" fretboard radius, and, of course, the guitar looks different with all the chrome and silver finish on the knobs and everything.
TC Electronic released the John Petrucci Dreamscape Signature TonePrint three-in-one modulation pedal with chorus, flanger, and vibrato. How did that come about?
TC’s chorus and flanger effects have been a huge part of my sound forever. I remember discovering TC stuff when I was really young, and I just fell in love with the sound and design. They approached me. They’d never done a signature pedal before and neither had I, so it was a first for both of us.
We started to talk privately about what this might be. I mentioned that their modulation pedal was my favorite pedal of all time and maybe we could take it to the next level by making it quieter and more compact, more roadworthy, and expanding its features. They were 100 percent for it. Once we started exploring the new technology they’ve developed, we discovered that this pedal could do a lot more than just chorus and flange. We’re going to be able to take this as far as we want, especially with the TonePrint technology. In the end, this pedal is probably one of the most versatile modulation pedals you can get, and it ended up being one of my main secret weapons in the studio.
What other pedals do you currently have in your chain?
Only a few. I have a big pedal collection I bring into the studio to experiment with a bit, but live I just use a small drawer of maybe four. In addition to my Dreamscape, I use a Boss PH-3 Phaser—I also use the MXR Van Halen one, which I like—and usually some sort of overdrive. But I don’t really need an overdrive anymore because of the JP13’s boost. We’ve experimented with Mesa/Boogie’s new line of pedals, which are really cool for that, and we’ve used the Analog Man King of Tone. I also really like the sound of compression pedals, and the Carl Martin Compressor/Limiter is great, but the one that I really fell in love with on this album was the Analog Man Juicer.
What is next for you and Dream Theater?
Business as usual, as far as supporting this release. We have a world tour planned and that will start in Europe in January and continue across the globe. I’m also working on a solo album that’s been a long time coming—my last one was in 2005—and I’m hoping to finish that by the end of the year. We’re going to continue to stay busy, that’s for sure!