A Conversation With… John Petrucci of Dream Theater
Progressive rock fans know John Petrucci as one of the leading figures in techno-guitar mastery. His fretted prowess has been amply displayed through the years with his band Dream Theater, and on occasional solo jaunts he's made, such as during the 2000 G3 tour with Satch and Vai. If you haven't heard John play, there's just one thing you need to know: The guy f*#@in' shreds, man!
And while you're digging out your much rotated Dream Theater discs, you need to know that Favored Nations has just released a cool duet performance, recorded live, that John did with Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess. Titled An Evening With, it's a rare look at both guitarist (schooled at Berklee College of Music) and keyboardist (educated in music at The Juilliard School) relying heavily on their musical training, and their celebrated improvisational skills, because the performance was almost totally unrehearsed!
In this detailed Guitar.com interview, John talks about winging it live with only charts and a few hand-written notes for guidance, his recent change of gear to update the Dream Theater guitar sound, his recent Japanese guitar clinics, and his upcoming solo disc.
Guitar.com: Hi John, how are you?
John Petrucci: Good man, how are you?
Guitar.com: Doing well. I was just looking at your Favored Nations microsite. Cool Stuff. So are you at home today?
Petrucci: Yeah, I'm home for a couple months, then back out.
Guitar.com: I see you just did some clinics in Japan.
Petrucci: Yeah, I did a couple over there for Ernie Ball and Mesa Boogie.
Guitar.com: What goes on at an international clinic?
Petrucci: Pretty much the same thing. In Japan they're definitely more over the top. They had four Boogie stacks and 20 guitars. But otherwise it's pretty much the same thing, except there's a translator. It's really nice.
Guitar.com: A lot of the guys over there probably speak English, right?
Guitar.com: Are they any more or less specific with their questions?
Petrucci: No, not really. It's pretty much the same types of questions all around the world.
Guitar.com: What kind of questions do people ask you in clinics?
Petrucci: A lot of times they want to know how I write. They want to know how I play specific parts to certain songs. Or they have questions about what I'm talking about - I do a lot of teaching - so they might have specific questions like, 'How do you do this.?' 'How do you get speed?' You have your small amounts of questions that have nothing to do with music, like, 'Why did you cut your hair?' Stuff like that.
Guitar.com: This new CD that you and Jordan have put out on Favored Nations, An Evening with, you actually recorded in 2000, correct?
Guitar.com: And this was an unrehearsed performance, pretty much living on the edge
Petrucci: It really was. The idea of playing the show was presented to us while we were on tour. I remember being in Paris, and Jordan telling me about it. His wife produces shows at this small theater in New York, and it was a benefit concert she wanted to put on. And she had asked, 'Do you think Dream Theater would be interested in doing this?' And we decided that it might not be the proper environment, but the two of us could do something. And then we started talking about doing a little improvised duet show, and how we should approach it from a jazz standpoint. We'd have a jazz setting where we would play some pre-determined jazz heads, or melodies, and then just improvise throughout the middle, and then have some cues to come back. So that was the basic concept of the show.
Guitar.com: So you guys wrote a bunch of tunes the week before?
Petrucci: Yeah. We wrote them on tour, we'd get together in the hotel room on different days. I remember being in an airport waiting in line and Jordan was like, 'I've got this cool idea!' And he'd tap it out, and write it out the first time he had a chance. We did it that way.
Guitar.com: Did you have charts at the gig?
Petrucci: Yeah we had charts. Jordan had a lot of charts. I had some notes, a couple charts, some chord progressions - stuff like that. It really wasn't rehearsed, so we had to make sure we knew what we were doing.
Guitar.com: You both went to Berklee, right?
Petrucci: Jordan went to Juilliard, and I went to Berklee.
Guitar.com: And you'd probably highly recommend that to any young musician?
Petrucci: You know, it was great. It was an awesome environment for me. I went straight out of high school, and when I was 17, all I wanted to do was play guitar. And the only thing I had in my mind was that I was going to be a professional musician. So it was just the right environment. And to be in Boston, which is a great city and which is full of many colleges and young kids, and to be around that many people that were at the same point in their lives, who played guitar or whatever instrument - it was just perfect. It was a great environment.
Guitar.com: Do you still use a lot of what you learned at Berklee? Do you read music?
Petrucci: Yes, I read music.
Guitar.com: Do you still use that regularly?
Petrucci: Not as regularly as I did when I was studying in school. Since I'm in a band, and I'm not usually in situations where I need to read, it doesn't come up as often, and I don't rely on it as much. Jordan, he learned that way, and that's what he knows how to do. That's how he kind of approaches all music, whether it's to learn a cover song that we're going to play, or to review Dream Theater music - he always uses charts. That's what he knows. I really rely a lot more on memory. I'm definitely not as good of a sight reader as him, and I definitely don't rely on it.
Guitar.com: What about when you're just working on something new at home?
Petrucci: Yeah, sure. There's many different ways. If I'm not in an environment where I can record, it's great to be able to write something down, to be able to know how to do that, to be able to write notation. You grab a piece of paper and there it is. It's the cheapest recording equipment you can buy: a piece of manuscript paper and a pencil! (laughs)
Guitar.com: So your next tour dates are in July, in Europe?
Petrucci: We're going to Italy for three shows. We've already toured Europe. But this is a separate, three-show, kind of outdoor venue thing. It's a cool little summer thing. And then we're on tour with Yes starting in August, through the U.S. That should be cool.
Guitar.com: I imagine Steve Howe of Yes was a solid influence of yours?
Petrucci: Oh absolutely.
Guitar.com: Have you played with Steve or Yes before?
Petrucci: Yeah, I have actually. He played with us. We did a cover show awhile back at Ronnie Scott's in London. We did a Yes medley and he came up and played it with us. It was awesome.
Guitar.com: What was in the medley? Do you remember?
Petrucci: It's hard to remember. We had "Machine Messiah" in there, and. I can't even recall what we played. It was a whole bunch of songs that we put together.
Guitar.com: Let's talk about your gear a little bit. What made you decide to switch from the Mesa C+ amps to the Road Kings?
Petrucci: I wanted something different. I'd been using the C+ amps for a long time, and I love them - they're one of my favorite amps ever. But on this album I wanted - there were a couple reasons, actually. One is that I wanted a more aggressive sound, some more teeth and hair. The C+ is a very tight, focused amp. I wanted something that was a little bit more spread, and a little more mushy. That was one reason. The second was that I wanted to get more of a current sound into the band. The C+ is vintage at this point, and it definitely has a certain sound to it. I wanted something that was going to keep Dream Theater in more of a current musical landscape, as far as being the producer and producing the type of album I wanted to hear. And the third reason was wanting to have the lead sound be more creamy. That's something that you kind of can't get out of a C+, and I always had to switch to a Dual Rectifier or a Mark IV for a lead sound, or I would add distortion or something. But with the Road King, and with the Rectifier series, it automatically has enough creaminess and gain as far as leads. I wanted to have that all in one.
And one more reason is because I wanted something that was overall more versatile. With the Road King amp, you're able to switch power tubes and speakers and do all these different things. And I didn't want to have five different heads in my rack. And there's something about, when you do the type of setup that I have, unless you have a dedicated amp to a dedicated speaker and you're actually switching, you have to use the same power section of the main head that you're using. So if I used the C+ and used a Rectifier for the lead sound, I'd still be going through the C+ power section. But with the Road King I can change, I can add a tube if I want something to have more headroom or be fuller, or have more tightness. Or I can go to a vintage setting if I want it to be more squishy. So it was more versatile in that sense.
Guitar.com: And you can do all that with a footswitch?
Petrucci: It's all assignable. It's all switches on each channel, so when you switch the channel, it's whatever is assigned. So if you have four 6L6 tubes and a certain speaker and a certain mode on the amp, it just changes at that point. It's pretty cool.
Guitar.com: That is pretty cool. I know with Train of Thought you started exploring some alternate tunings. Were some of those tuned down, as a lot of newer bands are doing these days?
Petrucci: Exactly. They're not alternate as in being open tunings or really experimental at all. They're just that the guitar is tuned down a step or two steps or whatever. And again, in producing this album I wanted the sound of the album to be able to fit into a more contemporary sonic state, but I wanted the style to be Dream Theater, which is always consistent. And I think we did just that. It has the heavy sound to it, and at the same time, musically, really the signature of the way that we write music.
Guitar.com: What tunings did you use most? Was more of the album down one step, or was it down two steps?
Petrucci: The majority is down two-steps. There are three songs that are tuned down to C. One song is tuned down to D, and one is tuned to E-flat. And then I used a seven string on the other one. There are actually no songs that I played on my normally tuned six-string.
Guitar.com: Now these are standard, not drop-tunings, correct?
Petrucci: No, they're standard. Every string tuned down either one or two steps.
Guitar.com: And you used some heavier strings?
Petrucci: Yeah. I experimented a bunch with Ernie Ball in getting the strings to not flop around too much, but at the same time not to be too thick to where you're playing telephone cables.
Guitar.com: So what were you using on those C tunings?
Petrucci: I changed it a lot, but it was something like .012, .015, .018, .030, .040, .050 - something like that. Even during the tour I changed it. I think I used a normal set of 12s on the C guitar. I keep changing and experimenting.
Guitar.com: I did an interview recently with Rene Martinez who was Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar tech, and he told me something interesting. Everybody knows that Stevie used 13s, and Rene said he did, but he was just killing himself with it. And Rene said he had eventually convinced Stevie to switch down to 11s, and that maybe toward an end of a tour, he might jump up to the 13s.
Petrucci: Yeah, I can totally relate to that. You might be able to get a certain sound, and in the studio you certainly look at things under a microscope a lot more. You might hear more warmth out of a thicker string gauge. But in the practical world, like with us, we're playing "An Evening With" so it's three hours of music, and our music is pretty challenging as far as the technical aspect. And I found after awhile that I was killing myself. Real thick strings - your hands start to get fatigued. As much as you practice, and as much experience as you have, and as long as you've been playing, there is a fatigue point during the show, as with anything that's physical. So I wanted to basically pace myself better. It's a balance between getting the right string gauge that's thick enough where it sound good, and not rubber bands - but not too thick where your hands start to get real tired.
Guitar.com: So what about these "Not Even Slinky" strings that Ernie Ball has now, was that where you went with this?
Petrucci: That's too heavy for me. That's a little bit too heavy. They sound really good
Guitar.com: I meant for the drop tunings you used in the studio.
Petrucci: For the studio they didn't have those sets made up yet, so I just made my own. We just experimented. I'd call up and ask Dudley's opinion and he'd send me things. The bridge has to be sitting right and sometimes it's hard to get the action the way you want it when the strings aren't the right gauges. It's really hit or miss.
Guitar.com: Do you prefer a lower action?
Petrucci: Yeah, absolutely. You know it's kind of weird because the higher action, it feels better, and sounds better - it certainly feels better for playing rhythm parts, and big heavy chords and open parts, 'cause there's no fret buzz or anything. And it's cleaner and tighter. It sounds better as far as the notes, because you have more thickness and more string. But the low action is definitely more conducive to a more fluid playing style.
Petrucci: You have to kind of hot-rod the guitar if you're going to play a certain way. You can't win a race in a jalopy.
Guitar.com: Tell us about the OLP guitar I see mentioned on your website?
Petrucci: That's my Ernie Ball signature model guitar, but it's licensed by Ernie Ball to an offshore company, but it's been re-created in a more economical way so that it's less expensive. But it's pretty much my specs. Instead of buying a guitar for $2,000 or $2,500 - I'm not sure how much these are going for - but it's maybe $300 or something like that. It's more for beginners and stuff like that. Obviously it's not hitting the pros. And you can't get the Piezo pickup and the color-changing paint and the inlays and all the fancy things that my signature guitars offer, but you can get the general feel of the guitar - and the body style. It's cool. So many kids and parents ask me, 'What kind of guitar can I buy?' It's a great opportunity for those people to be able to buy a quality guitar that's not necessarily a little Fender or whatever. It's something that's more signature.
Guitar.com: So do you plan any more clinics, through the States, perhaps?
Petrucci: That's definitely a possibility. Usually I like to do clinics while I'm on tour, so it hasn't come up yet. But I'm sure there will be a couple.
Guitar.com: And what about instructional materials? I know you did "Rock Discipline" awhile back. Do you have any plans for a new instructional video?
Petrucci: It's something that I've been planning for awhile as a follow up to that. I'm finishing up my solo album now that's going to be ready and mixed by June, and actually I had plans of completing an instructional video, kind of at the same time, so hopefully I'll be able to do that. It's certainly been a long time since "Rock Discipline." It's been 10 years since that came out, so it's time to do something.
Guitar.com: I'm sure your fans would love to see a new instructional video. If you're doing something concurrent with your solo album, would the video focus on teaching those specific riffs?
Petrucci: You know, you just kind of gave it away! (laughs) It's certainly an idea that I had, and being in the studio, and being in that environment and filming, and then having the material fresh. It's a solo album, so it's all about guitar. It's all about licks and riffs and things that you would want to teach and learn. So that is my plan.
Guitar.com: And what label will be releasing the CD?
Petrucci: I'm not sure. I have offers from a lot of labels, but I'm not sure if I want to sign a record deal. It's my first album so I want to retain as much as I can. I might license it or do a distribution deal, or whatever.
Guitar.com: Elektra has first right of refusal?
Guitar.com: With the past projects you've done, like Liquid Tension Experiment, they didn't have any problem with you recording for another label on that project.
Petrucci: No. They gave permission. But that's something that I want to avoid. This is my own thing. I made it, self-financed it, and obviously the best way to retain the most profit is to not give any of it away. That's something that you certainly learn through the years.
Guitar.com: Sure. Do you have a home studio?
Petrucci: I will, in about a month. We just moved into a new house, and they're finishing the basement tomorrow. A home studio is part of that plan. I'll finally have a place to work here.
Guitar.com: What are you going to set yourself up with?
Petrucci: Pro Tools. I'll have a control room and a live room and a Pro Tools rig. And of course I've got plenty of gear to fill it with, as far as guitars and amps and outboard stuff.
Guitar.com: What will you do for drums? Do you play drums?
Petrucci: Very badly. My main objective with a home studio - I could get into doing full band demos - but my first objective is to cut things like guitar tracks and solos at home. Even with Dream Theater, we track in a big studio and everything. But when it comes to doing leads, I don't really require a lot of studio to do that. I need a good sounding room and a Pro Tools rig, and some Neve mic-pres, and I'm good.
Guitar.com: Does anyone else in the band have a home studio?
Petrucci: Jordan does, but it's all self-contained. I'll be the only guy with a fully built recording studio. So they'll have to come to me.
Guitar.com: The computer age is killer for recording.
Petrucci: Yeah, I'm psyched.
Guitar.com: Are you fairly computer savvy or are you going to have a heavy learning curve on this?
Petrucci: A heavy learning curve! But I'm not scared.
Guitar.com: Well John, thank you so much for your time, and we look forward to seeing you out on the road this year.
Petrucci: Cool man, thanks Adam.