• Gain a deeper understanding of complex, shifting time signatures.
• Learn fast-paced, alternate-picked riffs.
• Create phrases that use legato, sweeping, tapping, and alternate picking. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Formed in 1985 at Boston’s Berklee College of Music by drummer Mike Portnoy, bassist John Myung, and guitarist John Petrucci, Dream Theater continues to be one of the titans of progressive rock and metal. While the group would consist of this basic trio at the core until Portnoy left in 2008, over the years they’ve had a handful of keyboard players and several vocalists. (Current keyboardist Jordan Rudess has been in the band since 1999, and singer James LaBrie has been in the fold since the band’s second album, released in 1991.)
There’s no disputing that Dream Theater is the quintessential prog band for fans of proficient instrumental skills and metal. For over 30 years, Petrucci’s trademark style has influenced generations of players through the group’s 13 full-length studio albums. The band’s sound has evolved a lot over the years, from the softer rock albums like Falling into Infinity, to the classic prog-rock of Images and Words, grand concept albums like Octavarium, and heavy metal shred-fests like Train of Thought. Each one is underpinned by Petrucci’s astonishing technique. He’s developed into an absolute master of picking, legato phrases, sweeping, tapping, and more.
In regard to his tone, any nice humbucker-equipped guitar through a modern high-gain amp will do the trick. However, if you’d like to be a little more authentic, Petrucci has signature guitars, amps, and pedals from Ernie Ball Music Man, Mesa/Boogie, and TC Electronic, respectively.
Because the examples in this lesson are going to get pretty hard, I thought it would make sense to start with a simple-ish riff that sticks to 4/4. Petrucci likes to flesh out his voicings beyond the basic power chords heard in most metal, and with his thick distortion, certain intervals create a lot of dissonance.
In Ex. 1, beginning around the E5 chord, there’s a rich cluster added on the high strings that contains both E and F#. These notes are a whole-step apart and create a pleasing tension. The final measure features a rich Csus2 chord, as the 2 works a lot better with distortion than the 3. This allows you to let the chord ring out as you arpeggiate it.
Ex. 2moves between 5/4 and 9/8 time. If you’re new to time signature changes, I covered them in detail in my Obsessive Progressive lesson “Get a Grip on Odd-Time Signatures,” so check that out here. [LINK: https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/26063-obsessive-progressive-get-a-grip-on-odd-meter-time-signatures]
In my mind, I’m counting: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 |
This yields a measure with five full beats, and then a bar where the fifth beat has been cut in half. It’s possible to count to nine, but since the number seven contains two syllables, it can be easier to count both measures as “five” and throw out the extra count. If you’re going to count to nine, you want to count one, two, three, four, five, six, sev, eight, nine.
Ex. 3is conceptually similar to the previous idea. There’s a measure of 4/4, which could be thought of as a full measure, and then a measure that’s just short of being full. This creates a jarring sensation—like the music trips.
I’ve written this as a measure of 4/4, then a measure of 7/8, but you’ll often see the same idea written as 15/8.
The next example (Ex. 4) changes time signatures every measure and moves between 4/4, 7/8, and 3/4. This is a pretty tricky example, so spend time to really come to grips with the counting before learning the part. Rather than attempting to maintain a strict count when tackling a passage like this, try to internalize it—so you can feelthe line as you play it—especially as the note choice doesn’t conform to any key or scale.
Ex. 5is as rhythmically complex as it’s likely to get, shifting between four different 16th-note-based time signatures. The secret here is breaking down each bar into smaller groupings and counting those (an idea that’s integral to mastery of the Indian Konnakol system). I’ve grouped the notation with this counting in mind, so it’s easier to see.
Measure one consists of a group of three (an eighth-note followed by a 16th-note), which is repeated, before playing a group of four, then a group of three to end. This gives us the following pattern:
1 2 3 | 1 2 3 | 1 2 3 4 | 1 2 3 |
See if you can break down each of the remaining measures with this method.
The final three examplesshowcase Petrucci’s technical prowess in soloing, beginning with his formidable legato chops. Ex. 6 moves from the 2nd fret up to the 15th rather quickly. In essence, you repeat an eighth-note motif played within the three-note-per-string patterns before shifting up to the next shape (using the first finger) to repeat. To get this one down at speed, you’ll need to be confident of your three-note-per-string patterns, which in this case are in the key of G.
The next idea (Ex. 7) is a tricky lick combining sweep picking, tapping, and a tough stretch on the fretting hand. Taken from the E Lydian mode (E–F#–G#–A#–B–C#–D#), the idea requires you to stretch between the 12th and 18th frets, with a gap between each finger. This applies to both the sweeping arpeggios and the legato moves on the top string.
Another interesting part of this lick is the “glitch” in the sweep, where you repeat the note as you change direction. At speed, these create a cool sound. (Note: They’re also a big part of Tosin Abasi’s style.) It also makes the lick a little easier, as you never have to skip over a string.
The final bit of advice here is to sweep with the pick over the fretboard as you’re going to need to come in and tap at the 19th and 21st frets. Keeping your picking hand hovering over the pickups will make this extremely tricky.
The final example (Ex. 8) takes cues from Petrucci’s unison and harmony runs with keyboardist Jordan Rudess. These are common in Dream Theater’s music with “In the Presence of Enemies Pt. 1,” “This Dying Soul,” and “In the Name of God” being great examples.
There’s no hiding from the fact that this example requires some astonishingly accurate alternate-picking skills. Petrucci’s picking is known for being near perfect. Combine that with the tight harmony with Rudess, and you can see how any picking fluctuations will completely ruin the overall effect. In this example, I added a keyboard a third away from the guitar line. Naturally, you’ll want to take this lick extremely slowly and build up speed over time.