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This article was originally published in issue #27
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Dream Theater’s dense and complex soundscapes can seem impenetrable to the non-fan, and on occasion it does feel like the guys are perhaps wheeling out certain chops just because they can. On the other hand, isn’t this what precisely guitar heroes are about?
John Petrucci remains one of the world's most respected guitarists - and one of Guitar Interactive's most requested interview subjects. Tom Quayle meets the Dream Theater wizard. Richard Morgan provides the words and later in this issue Jamie Humphries brings you an exclusive John Petrucci Tech Session. We're even giving you the chance to win a Music Man John Petrucci signature guitar! How's that for service?
The importance of knowing a bit of musical theory is a hotly debated issue among guitarists today. Most players fall into one camp or the other, in that they either think the knowledge of scales, modes and so on is either essential or - and no, there is generally no middle ground here - utterly pointless. While we’ll never have a truly satisfactory answer for which is indeed best, though we can certainly form our own opinions based on our favourite six-stringers and the influence they have over our own daily guitar-related toils.
John Petrucci, who falls squarely into the ‘knows his sharpened subdominants and diminished sevenths’ category, is most definitely one of our favourites here at Guitar Interactive. Such is the man’s brilliance, in fact, that he’s the first player to feature on our cover on more than one occasion (the first time was in Issue 5, should you wish to delve back and catch up). Heady stuff indeed.
And yet Petrucci, with his overwhelmingly impressive and comprehensively strung guitar techniques bow, is one of the most divisive figures in the guitar world today. The millions of music fans who are familiar with Petrucci’s output - through Dream Theater, his main day job, his solo and other material, and his regular G3 jaunts with Joe Satriani and other guitar heroes - are aware that this is a man who can play anything in any style. His detractors, however, have accused him of being cold and emotionless in his playing.
On the one hand, you can understand the criticism. Dream Theater’s dense and complex soundscapes can seem impenetrable to the non-fan, and on occasion it does feel like the guys are perhaps wheeling out certain chops just because they can. On the other hand, isn’t this what precisely guitar heroes are about? Go to a Dream Theater show, and you’re far more likely to hear people discussing the mind-blowing musicianship going on onstage than shouting song lyrics back at vocalist James LaBrie. Three-chord punk rock this is not, and everyone who’s there and loving it - onstage and off - knows it.
Indeed, the desire to make himself a better musician is precisely what led a young Petrucci to his future Dream Theater bandmates in 1985. As students at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts - incidentally, a place where many other top guitarists have perfected their chops (although previous Guitar Interactive cover star Gus G only lasted a matter of weeks before dropping out!) - Petrucci joined up with drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist John Myung to form a progressive rock and metal group called Majesty.
The band’s humble beginnings saw them playing Rush and Iron Maiden cover songs in the rehearsal rooms at Berklee before they ventured out into the big wide world of touring and original material, and by 1989, the first Dream Theater album - When Dream And Day Unite - was released. The name change, by the way, came about because a Las Vegas-based band of the time (also called Majesty, and from whom not much else has ever been heard) threatened legal action.
A quarter of a century, 12 million records and DVDs and a number of Grammy nominations later, it’s fair to say that Petrucci and the boys have made a huge impression on the state of progressive music everywhere. And, with each member seen as a master of his respective instrument, they’ve carved themselves a bit of a niche as poster boys for the technical guitar music scene.
Petrucci himself is a goldmine for guitar and musical instrument companies, as his ream of signature six-strings and related equipment would attest. His long-term relationship with Ernie Ball/Music Man has resulted in a current roster of at least six signature Music Man axes, including a six-string, a seven-string, a baritone, and a wealth of options to worry about for the player who wants to sound like their hero but can only afford one of the many axes with his name on the headstock (we're helping by giving one away in this issue's great competition - Ed).
The standard features on the Music Man Petrucci models are 24 frets, superstrat style double cutaway bodies - for unimpeded access to all 24 of said frets, presumably - and a range of hardware and pickups chosen (and in some cases, even co-designed by) Petrucci. What’s nice about this arrangement is that there should be a model out there to suit every Petrucci fan, and with so many different feature sets, there are guitars in the line-up that will appeal to players who aren’t even Dream Theater aficionados.
Pickups-wise, Petrucci is a DiMarzio man through and through, and the signature guitars typically feature a LiquiFire at the Neck, and a Crunch Lab at the bridge. Again, Petrucci himself has had a huge say in defining the sound of these pickups over the years, and there’s no surprise that they feature on his six and seven-string models. When it comes to amps, he's full-on Mesa Boogie all the way, having made use of the gain-friendly Californian rigs since Dream Theater’s early days. His sounds have come courtesy of classic heads like the Mark IV, Mark V and Road King, used in conjunction with a variety of cabs, Rectifiers and Traditional Rectifiers among them.
Somewhat unusually for such a high-level pro, Petrucci is remarkably happy to reveal the most intimate secrets of his playing to his legions of fans. As well as his gigging day (or should that be evening?) job, he can often be found undertaking clinics for the likes of Ernie Ball and Music Man. Most recently, he went off round the USA in April 2014 to do a bunch of clinics at one of the county’s biggest guitar stores - let’s just refer to it as a center for guitars here - and he also continues to write technique columns regularly for guitar publications (there are other guitar publication!? Who knew? - Ed).
A gear page on the official Petrucci website is also a great place for fans to go if they want to try replicating some of their main man’s sounds. It’s interesting to note that Petrucci’s main guitar tuning is your basic standard EADGBE, but he also goes into detail about the other tunings and string gauges he uses - a useful tool indeed for wannabe sound-alikes. More interesting still is Petrucci’s FX list, which includes all manner of big name stompboxes, and that evermore-popular metal and rock player staple, the Fractal Audio Axe FX, which has become perhaps the key component in the Petrucci rig. He even tells us what kind of picks and cables he uses (Jim Dunlop JP Shield Black Jazz IIIs and Mogami/Neutrik respectively).
Whatever the few disparaging online voices say, it’s clear that John Petrucci is a man that many of us lesser players put on a pedestal. Figures at GI show he is perhaps the most requested interview subject by our readers, which is why we're unapologetic for featuring him so soon after the first time. Dream Theater continue to sell out cavernous venues across the world, their albums and live DVDs are shifting in vast numbers, and Petrucci himself remains a hugely influential player across the gamut of Rock, Progressive and Metal.
Here’s a nice closing thought, though. Despite his obvious and unquestioned mastery of the guitar, his love of all things technical, and the fact that he would appear to be totally the opposite, Petrucci was - in the early days at least, apparently - a pretty much self-taught player. He’ll most likely have done things the way plenty of fledgling guitarists did back in the day before YouTube and things like the Internet handed us everything except talent on a plate - listening to records and working things out by ear for six hours a day. And while we’ll no doubt carry on with the debate about whether it pays or not to learn the rules of music theory, why not look at it this way: only when you learn the rules of the game first, can you know how to go on and break them later. Do that, and you might find your own theater of dreams…