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This article was originally published in issue #5
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A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Petrucci soon fell in with some like-minded souls, childhood friend, bassist John Myung, drummer Mike Portnoy and keyboard player Kevin Moore, joining them to form the progressive Rock band Dream Theater (originally called Majesty).
Andy James meets the man many regardas America's finest Prog-Rock guitarist - the guitar player's guitar player, Dream Theater's John Petrucci. Tim Slater offers an appreciation of the stellar axesmith, with additional comments from Andy James and Gary Cooper.
John Petrucci belongs to that incredible triumvirate of Italian/American rock guitarists – alongside Joe Satriani and Steve Vai – who have elevated instrumental rock and heavy metal guitar playing to a whole new level.
Like Satriani and Vai, Petrucci’s playing demonstrates prodigious technique combined with a gift for deeply engaging melodies. His phrasing is also extraordinarily expressive. Weaving sinuous hyper-speed alternative picking around complex chord changes is Petrucci’s stock in trade and his playing is clearly much informed by the work of one of his most important influences, fellow rock/fusion virtuoso Steve Morse.
Petrucci’s intense dedication and focus played a huge role in making him the awesome player that he is today, absorbing a massive range of influences including Blues, Classic, progressive Rock and even Jazz standards that would often emerge as little musical references in his own compositions later on.
A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Petrucci soon fell in with some like-minded souls, childhood friend, bassist John Myung, drummer Mike Portnoy and keyboard player Kevin Moore, joining them to form the progressive Rock band Dream Theater (originally called Majesty). To a man Dream Theater demonstrated stunning technical proficiency, each individual member gained numerous awards and music industry accolades for their skills, with Petrucci’s formidable talents, in particular, coming under the spotlight.
Petrucci is capable of finesse as well as pure shred; the song ‘The Spirit Carries On’ features a perfectly measured solo that David Gilmour would be proud of. Petrucci rides the crest of the song’s majestic soaring melody like a champion surfer, teasing and playing around the chords before unleashing a brief but impeccably judged solo that gradually winds down into a clean Nashville-inflected coda.
In 2001, John Petrucci was invited by Joe Satriani and Steve Vai to tour with them on the hugely popular G3 guitar tour, which exposed him to a massive number of new fans and inspired him to record a solo album. The album, Suspended Animation, was released on March 1, 2005, and was made available for order from his web site. Petrucci also appeared on the 2005 and 2006 G3 tours, and in 2007, went on G3 tour again, this time with Paul Gilbert and Joe Satriani. In fact, Petrucci has been named as the third player on the G3 tour a record six times, which is more than any other invited player! In 2009 he was named the No. 2 best metal guitarist by author and musician Joel McIver in his book The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists whilst Guitar One magazine also named the guitarist as one of the "Top 10 Greatest Guitar Shredders of All Time".
It seems incredible to think that Dream Theater has been working as a fully settled lineup since signing their first record deal way back in 1988, despite shedding several lead vocalists along the way! When the band originally formed in the mid 1980s, their beloved progressive Rock was fairly unfashionable and even well established bands like their heroes Rush were having trouble making their presence felt in a musical scene either dominated by hair metal or heavily synthesized pop.
Nevertheless, in common with Rush, Dream Theater’s hardcore fans have helped the band maintain its momentum and they have found a level of acceptance that reflects the huge respect that they command despite their refusal to compromise their impeccably high standards. Dream Theater were even honored with a place in the Long Island Music Hall of Fame alongside such fellow Long Island luminaries as Kiss, Cyndi Lauper and the Long Island Philharmonic!
Petrucci’s work with Dream Theater isn’t without controversy, however. As a highly technical guitarist, Petrucci is one of those guitar players whose work is often accused of being ‘soulless’ or ‘robotic’ by those who apparently place more emphasis on ‘feel’ above technique. In some cases, this may ring a bit true – the somewhat overblown intro to the ballad ‘Through Her Eyes (Live Scenes from New York)’ is an example where histrionics possibly take precedence over good taste - but Petrucci redeems himself towards the end of the track with a stirring solo of epic proportions, whose masterful technical delivery enhances the powerful emotions driving the song.
John Petrucci has also embarked on several projects beyond Dream Theater, most notably the all-instrumental Liquid Tension Experiment with Mike Portnoy and King Crimson bassist/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin. Ironically, Petrucci wasn’t the first choice for the gig. Founder member Portnoy actually wanted the late Dimebag Darrell to fill the guitarist's spot but when he proved unavailable Petrucci was the most obvious choice. The band’s complex music, replete with tightly synchronized interplay between guitar, bass and keys, tips more than a passing nod to Steve Morse’s proto-fusion band Dixie Dregs and gives full vent to Petrucci’s staggering lead work. The track ‘Acid Rain’ is a great example of the band’s monster-sounding fusion of metal and…well…fusion! Brontosaurussized riffs stomp out of the wings accompanied by Portnoy’s tireless hyperactive drumming, whilst Petrucci unleashes salvo after salvo of molten fire from his Signature Ernie Ball Musicman guitar.
The band decided not to follow up its first two studio albums Liquid Tension Experiment (1998) and Liquid Tension Experiment 2 (1999) due to concerns about the band sounding too much like Dream Theater but they did release a typically off-thewall LP of studio outtakes Liquid Trio Experiment (2008) and a live CD that captured a spontaneous jam during a gig in Chicago, when a malfunctioning keyboard saw the band swapping instruments in an effort to keep the audience amused until the problem was fixed. Which it wasn’t!
John Petrucci’s distinctive guitar sound is based around his own Ernie Ball Musicman Signature guitar. Available in range of different versions, including a 7-string and a baritone model, the Ernie Ball Musicman JP features two custom designed Dimarzio humbucking pickups (a Crunch Lab in the bridge and a LiquiFire in the neck position) that are specially designed to deliver the ‘scooped’ tone (with less mid-range than many conventional high output humbucking pickups) that Petrucci prefers. Needless to say we have the latest version, the JPXI, reviewed in this issue, along with Petrucci's choice of amp - a Mesa Boogie Mk V!
Mesa Boogie Mark V amps also play a major role in helping to set the John Petrucci signature tone; plugged into a formidable wall of eight Mesa Boogie 412 speaker cabinets fitted-out with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers.
Like most of his contemporaries, Petrucci is a heavy user of effects of many kinds and has recently been working with Danish FX specialist TC Electronic. Currently in his pedal board are: a TC Electronics C400XL Compressor/ Gate, a Keeley Modded Tube Screamer, MXR EVH Flanger, MXR EVH Phaser, a Digital Music Corp. System Mix Line Mixer, a TC Electronics 1210 Spatial Expander/Stereo Chorus/ Flanger, three TC Electronics M3000 Reverb/ Delays and an Eventide H7600 Harmonizer.
As we always say - you can replicate the gear but you can't copy the brain and the fingers! With a player as gifted as John Petrucci, though, that probably goes without saying!