John Petrucci: The Prog King
Originally printed in Guitar World, June 2008
In this personal lesson, John Petrucci celebrates the forthcoming Dream Theater retrospective and shares the tips, tricks and techniques that helped him ascend to the prog-metal pantheon.
There are a few things you must know to be a rock guitar hero, and the most important one is to play with attitude, aggression and passion. It can be hard to teach someone to play with these qualities, but there are some concrete elements that can be easily incorporated into one’s mindset and practice approach to get you on the right track. First and foremost, you have to have a heavy, overdriven guitar tone, or else whatever you play will sound wimpy.
One of the key elements of playing like a guitar hero is using vibrato. Not just a normal vibrato, but an over-exaggerated, really wide vibrato. If you use this technique in conjunction with artificial harmonics, string bending and overbending, it will help you achieve an aggressive, “in-your-face” style. For example, FIGURE 1a is a lick played in the key of G and and based on G the minor pentatonic scale (G Bf C D F), and I end the phrase by bending Bf (G string, third fret) up one whole step with the middle finger, and pull down to add a wide vibrato. I use the index finger in conjunction with the middle finger in order to reinforce and strengthen the bend and vibrato. Practice vibrato-ing in such a way that the string is repeatedly bent at least a whole step. In FIGURE 1b, I first apply a wide, whole-step vibrato to the G note on the D string’s fifth fret and then to the bent C note at the same fret on the G string, which I bend by pulling the string in toward my palm. Try achieving the vibrato by pushing the string away from the palm too. In FIGURE 1c, I begin with a wide vibrato, executed with the index finger, and end with a wide vibrato on the low E string, executed with the pinkie. Practice applying wide vibrato to bent and unbent notes with each finger on every string.
Coupling wide vibratos with artificial harmonics sounds even more aggressive and in-your-face. You can get the strongest artificial harmonics with the toggle switch set to the bridge pickup. It’s a good idea to first practice getting a clear-sounding artificial harmonic without any bending: as shown in FIGURE 2, I can sound a series of artificial harmonics by choking up on the pick and getting a little bit of the edge of the pick-hand thumb into the pick attack, what’s known as “pinching” the string. While fretting the same note repeatedly, I pick along the length of the string to seek out different harmonics found at various points along the string, allowing the pick-hand thumb to graze the string as it is picked.
Another heroic guitar technique is overbending, which means to bend a string more than a whole step. In FIGURE 3a, I end a lead phrase by sliding up to D (G string, seventh fret) and bending it one and one half steps up to F and adding wide vibrato. Overbending the fifth like this is a favorite technique of mine. In bar 2 of FIGURE 3b, I repeat the technique and add some artificial harmonics to the mix.
I like to demonstrate the difference between playing in a wimpy, non-expressive manner, one that’s lacking in personality, with playing in an expressive style with a lot of passion and point out how important it is to recognize the difference. “Attitude” is not something most people practice. That quality usually develops over time on its own. If I played any of the previous licks with each note articulated exactly the same, it would sound boring. But if you add some gain, dig in with the pick-hand and use the power of the left hand to add a wide vibrato, it makes a big difference in the spirit you convey to the listener. You will need to develop strength in your fretting fingers, wrap your fret-hand thumb over the top of the neck and support the bends with additional fingers in order to get the leverage and power you’ll need to boldly shake the strings. Using attitude and an aggressive style is something you should be able to bring to the recording studio, as well as the live stage, so it’s something the rock guitarist should be aware of at all times. This is something best learned by emulating what you hear in the playing of your favorite guitarists.
Another good way to add an aggressive, growly sound to a solo is to play two high notes at the same time. In FIGURE 4a, I pick a high F (B string, 18th fret) and a C (G string, 17th fret) and bend the C note up a whole step to D. This is an example of what’s known as an oblique bend. In FIGURE 4b, I bend the B and G strings at the same time by barring and pushing them with the middle finger.
Another way to bend two notes at a time is to bend a note on the high E string and then catch the B string under the fretting finger, as demonstrated in FIGURE 5a: while bending a high Bf (first string, 18th fret) up one whole step with the ring finger, I catch the B string under the same finger so that it “comes along for the ride,” producing a nasty, slightly out-of-tune sound. If you add a wah-wah pedal and some delay, you’ll be standing on top of Guitar Hero Mountain!
If you combine this technique— double-stop bending —with overbending, then you are really stylin’. In FIGURE 5b, I bend that same high Bf up one and one half steps while catching the B string under the fretting finger.
Playing flashy licks that incorporate open strings is another heroic guitar technique. I do this in the song “Paradigm Shift” that I recorded with the Liquid Tension Experiment. The cool thing about using open strings is that you can get a lot of “motion” without having to pick too much because the open strings enable one to easily perform pull-offs with any intervals. The lick in FIGURE 6a is in the key of G and is based on pulling off to the open G and D strings, so the sound of the open strings helps to keep the riff “rooted” in the key of G. The lick centers around the sound of the open G string followed immediately by a fretted G note, and the phrase overall elicits some interesting rhythmic syncopation as I vary the phrasing with two- and three-note groupings. It sounds cool to move the fretted notes in this lick up one octave, 12 frets, while still pulling off to the open G and D strings, as shown in FIGURE 6b.
You have to know the harmonic minor scale (spelled 1 2 f3 4 5f 6 7) if you really want to be a rock guitar hero. FIGURE 7a is a run based on the E harmonic minor scale(E Fs G A B C Ds) and also incorporates the use of open notes along with moving down one string in a legato fashion— using hammer-ons and pull-offs. To execute this lick, I use the index, middle and ring fingers exclusively. FIGURE 7b depicts the B Phrygian-dominant scale (B C Ds E Fs G A), which can be analyzed as the fifth mode of E harmonic minor. If I play FIGURE 7b over a B bass note, the implied harmony is B major with a Phrygian- dominant flavor.
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