John Myung plays a custom Music Man Bongo 6-string bass. “It’s a 6-string on a 5-string neck,” he explains. “It’s the perfect comfort for my left hand in terms of feeling like I’m not struggling.” Photo by Ken Settle

Years ago, you were asked about how you continue to improve your craft. You said you enjoy writing things that are beyond your technique, which forces you to improve. Is that still something you do?
Petrucci:
Absolutely. In fact, I did that on this record. I’m very scared to figure out what the hell I did! Something that’s wonderful about being in a studio is you can take the time to come up with stuff that’s pushing your level. For me, it has to stay interesting. I always have to think of different things that I didn’t do before. But from a technical perspective, it’s literally grabbing my guitar, transcribing what I did, and trying to remember what the fingering was or the technique I used. It really is the key to becoming better.

What’s an example of that on the new album?
Petrucci:
There’s a bunch of stuff. I did a solo in the song “S2N,” where I don’t know what the hell I did. I had some crazy moments and some wacky stuff on “Pale Blue Dot” that’s just insane, precision and speed-wise. There are a lot of guitar solos in this album, which is fun for me. So those moments are all over the record.

John [Myung], how has this album pushed your playing?
Myung:
In my case, it’s the tools. It’s the different basses that I’ve played over the years. And it’s the experimentations over the past 10 years with getting the 6-string [Music Man] Bongo to a point where I’m really happy with it. It’s about evolving as a player, but also being able to evolve because I feel that my instrument is getting better.

“We’re all older now, and I think we’re at a point where the best stuff is yet to be written.” —John Myung

There’s always been a real musical connection with Music Man basses and my playing, because I have a very heavy and percussive attack. I come from a school of players like Geddy Lee and Steve Harris, and that noise element is part of the sound. Of all the basses I’ve played, it’s only the Music Man that gave my style justice.

What’s different about your Music Man Bongos than stock versions?
Myung:
It’s a 6-string on a 5-string neck. It seems like it’s the perfect comfort for my left hand in terms of feeling like I’m not struggling. That was a breakthrough: being a 6-string player and being able to have something I could grasp and that actually felt comfortable. And that also translates into the musicality of it. If I’m more comfortable behind it, everything just flows better.

You’ve been working on that instrument for a long time. Are we ever going to see a Music Man John Myung signature model?
Myung:
You know, I’ve frequently been asked that over the years, and I can actually say we’re all working on something. So the answer to that question is, yes.

I rarely hear bass so clear and so full of character on heavy records. Aside from the bass, how did you go about getting that sound?
Myung:
Well, our engineer Jimmy T (James Meslin) is probably a big reason for that. Working with a new engineer on this record, I was willing to break from the traditional recording gear that I have. One of the things we used was called the Neve Shelford Channel.

Guitars
Custom Ernie Ball Music Man 6-string Bongo with 5-string neck

Amps
Ashdown ABM-1200 head
Neve Shelford Channel (for direct recording)

Effects
None

Strings and Picks
Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt 5-string set (.045–.130) with added .032 for high-C string

That was the main sound, in terms of getting a really pure tone. And then for amp tones, we just miked up an Ashdown—the ABM series. And that sounded great too. It just gave us what we wanted to hear without having to mess around with the knobs. So, it’s really just those two things: the Neve and the Ashdown. It really made a difference in this album.

Did you get the grind right from the amp?
Myung:
Yeah. But the grind is also attack-driven. It’s how much energy is being created from the hand. It had that breadth of dynamic, where you can really lay in to it. You can play hard and it fattens up in the low end and it pushes and grinds. And if you back off, it cleans up and gets more subtle. So that’s the magic. There was a sense of space as the sound is moving rather than being non-responsive. I can’t deal with a non-responsive bass sound.

Petrucci: If I can say, this is an amazing bass record. Really. For bass players, you can really hear what he’s doing. He just kills it. And that goes back to that producer hat thing. We really wanted the bass to have a voice. It was, “Let’s make sure we get the best bass sound we can when we’re tracking. Let’s make sure when it’s being mixed that we let [mix engineer] Ben Grosse know we want the bass to be featured.” When the bass is out front like that, it’s amazing. Something like “S2N,” “Pale Blue Dot,” even “Untethered Angel” … what he’s playing on bass just sounds so cool. And it’s really exposed in a nice way. In fact, I didn’t record any rhythm guitar tracks when it’s a guitar solo, so it just sounds like it would if we’re playing live. If I go to play a solo, a lot of the orchestration is just bass, drums, and piano.

A great example of that is “Untethered Angel.” You and Jordan are playing harmonized lines, and it opens up and lets the bass breathe so much. It also elevates the lines you and Jordan are playing.
Petrucci:
It doesn’t get more naked than that! There’s a drum groove, John is doing a Steve Harris thing, and the guitar and keyboard are left and right and very dry. You hear everything so clear. And that’s what I’ve been getting at with the whole direction of this record. We want people to hear what Dream Theater sounds like when we play. This is us.

That’s apparent as soon as you put on the album. It really highlights your individual performances and tones.
Petrucci:
But how do you get that? You just record everything pure. You don’t add anything. It’s just John’s bass. There’s no extra stuff going on. It’s just my guitar plugged into my amp. It’s just Jordan playing the organ. That’s how you get it.