John Petrucci: The Prog Whisperer
Originally published in Guitar World, October 2009
Over the past two decades, Dream Theater have been the leaders of the prog-rock pack, guiding the genre forward with technical mastery and a sense of “darkness and light.” John Petrucci explains how the two blend harmoniously on the band’s new album, Black Clouds and Silver Linings.
“The greatest challengeis writing something simple that will work in conjunction with what is often very complex and intricate music. It’s all about the ‘arc’—the musical story that album, as a whole, has to tell. If all of the music is intensely technical and crazy, it might be interesting for a while, but there will not be enough substance, and the listening experience as a whole will not be as enriching.”
John Petrucci is discussing the philosophy behind the music on Black Clouds and Silver Linings (Roadrunner), Dream Theater’s latest release and 10th studio album since the band’s 1989 debut, When Dream and Day Unite. “There has to be a natural balance between the different musical perspectives,” he continues. “And it’s just as much of a challenge, if not more so, to write something simple that is as musically satisfying and original as the complex material.”
Dream Theater were formed in 1985 by fellow Berklee College of Music students Petrucci, bassist John Myung and drummer Mike Portnoy. Vocalist James LaBrie joined in 1991 and keyboardist Jordan Rudess in 1999. The band’s 1992 sophomore release, Images and Words, featured the hit “Pull Me Under,” and over the years the group has sold in excess of eight million albums worldwide.
A large measure of Dream Theater’s long-term success can be attributed to the band’s ability to seamlessly blend a leaning toward pop-style rock (à la the most accessible songs by Rush or Queen) with some of the scariest progressive metal ever imagined. Throughout Dream Theater’s 20-year history, they have shown a penchant for pushing the boundaries of progressive metal beyond the status quo. The great depth and substance of their music would not be possible without the remarkable musicianship of the individual members.
Guitar World caught up with Petrucci while he and the band were in the midst of a European summer tour, on the way to Belgium to play the humongous Graspop Metal Meeting Festival, which features a massive lineup of Mötley Crüe, Heaven & Hell, Slipknot, Korn, Journey, Mastodon, Killswitch Engage, Anthrax, Lamb of God, Death Angel and others.
Petrucci explains, “We’ve been playing festivals on the weekends and filling in between with headlining shows. The biggest one thus far was the Download Festival at Castle Donington in the U.K. There were 80,000 people there, and it was just insane. I was hanging out with Neal [Schon] of Journey, which was nice, and [Queen guitarist] Brian May watched our entire show from the side of the stage. On the expanded edition of Black Clouds and Silver Linings, we did three Queen covers—“Tenement Funster,” “Flick of the Wrist” and “Lily of the Valley”—and apparently Brian really liked it. It was a great feeling to get the thumbs-up from one of our biggest heroes.”
GUITAR WORLD What is the significance to the album’s title, Black Clouds and Silver Linings?
JOHN PETRUCCI Whenever we work on an album, we write all of the music first, and the title comes way after all of the lyrics have been written. Toward the end of working on the album, Mike told me he had a revelation: he was driving in his car and, while thinking about all of the different subject matter addressed on the album, he noticed that the sky was filled with black clouds. Though the songs are not tied together in any way, there is a running thread wherein many of the songs feel dark and ominous, but there is a twist as the songs progress where you can envision the bright spot on the horizon. So Black Clouds and Silver Linings seemed to describe this collection of music very well.
GW Jimmy Page has often talked about Zeppelin’s music being a balance between “darkness and light,” and there is a very similar feeling on this record. The threatening, dark side has always been a part of Dream Theater’s sound, but there are also some really uplifting, positive musical statements, with the impression of salvation lurking just around the corner.
PETRUCCI I think there is a good blend between darkness and light on this record, a push-and-pull between those elements, and the title is very appropriate for that reason. But it’s easier to write in a “dark” mode than the “triumphant” mode; it’s much harder to write something in a major key that doesn’t end up sounding corny.
When we were writing the main riff in “The Best of Times,” I had said to the guys, “Let’s write something in a major key, to balance against some of the other compositions.” In rock, it’s hard to write in major without it sounding, on a good day, like the Who, or, on a bad day, like a NAMM instrument demo or something. There can be “greatness” in those major keys, but it’s not easy to write something that sounds convincing.
GW The album’s closing track is “The Count of Tuscany,” which, at nearly 20 minutes, is the longest song on the entire record. The song is a journey through many different themes, moods and complex passages, but it culminates with a very anthemic, positive progression and a very uplifting, melodic solo. After having heard so many dark passages through the piece, and through the entire album as well, it’s a nice way to end the “movie,” so to speak.
PETRUCCI Absolutely. And if you think about the way the album, or the “movie” starts, it begins really dark with “A Nightmare to Remember.” We initially called that song “Halloween.” It could be in the next Tim Burton movie! You travel through the entire album and arrive at this triumphant conclusion.
For us, that chord progression at the end of “The Count of Tuscany” indicates a big-time Rush influence. They have always had the ability to write majestic-sounding music—very royal and uplifting. That chord progression evokes a moving and positive end to the story.
GW When working on an album, is there a point at which you look at the tracks and a possible running order and think in terms of an “arc” to the story that the album tells? In this case, you’ve bookended the album with the two longest songs.
PETRUCCI We do look at it that way, and I think we have gotten better at this as the years have gone by. We might be asking a lot from the audience, but we’d like it to be an overall listening experience, like how it was when [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon first came out. People would get together for the sole purpose of listening to and experiencing the entire album. Of course, “Money” was a single that was on the radio, but the way to experience that album was to listen to the whole thing, just like watching a movie. We try to make our records work in a similar way.
People may comment one way or another on the individual songs, that one song might not be heavy enough, or another is too heavy and progressive, but we are trying to create a sense of movement, so that the entire listening experience will be interesting and fulfilling. I compare it to classical pieces. Talk about long songs! Orchestral pieces by composers like Beethoven and Mozart have a long progression of themes and repetitive parts, segueing from the powerful and bombastic to the delicate and beautiful. Themes are allowed to evolve through many incarnations, and that’s how classical symphonies are written. We try to approach things with the same mentality, to take the listener through some sort of aural adventure.
GW You mentioned meeting Brian May recently for the very first time. Your solo on the Black Clouds track “Wither” has a strong Brian May character.
PETRUCCI That solo is like a “tag” to the chorus vocal, and though it’s not harmonized, it is double-tracked and I’m using a chorus effect and a wah. I was going for a very melodic, Ozzy/Queen vibe.
The neat thing about that is, first of all, I played the solo on a baritone guitar [a six-string guitar with a long scale length, normally tuned a fourth lower than standard tuning] tuned down to Bb, so the strings are like giant cables! While I was cutting it, a couple of the guys were like, “John, that totally sounds like Brian May. You can’t do that.” And I said, “Screw you guys, it sounds awesome. What, I can’t play 16th notes followed by eighth-note triplets?” I love Queen and I love Brian, so it’s obviously influenced by that. I’ve also heard Zakk Wylde do that type of wide, doubletracked solo that’s very melodic and more like a theme than a flashy solo.
It was great meeting and hanging out with Brian. He’s been in one of the most influential bands of our time and has written some of the greatest rock music ever, and as a guitar player he’s inspired and influenced millions of people. It’s incredible to me that a guy like that is such a warm, sweet person. Very humbling.
GW There are few bands that have dedicated themselves to continuing in that tradition, and in Dream Theater the art has become more finely honed over the years. It’s clearly apparent that, on Black Clouds, the band is completely in control of the genre.
PETRUCCI We are from that same school of thought; it’s just wrapped in a different package. It’s post-metal, so our music doesn’t sound like Yes’ Close to the Edge, but it is written in the same spirit.
GW Can you point to specific parts on that record that reveal the distinct personalities of each band member?
PETRUCCI Yes. In as much as we all found each other and we love the same stuff, each guy does have his own angle on things. Jordan is an incredibly talented, classically trained pianist. He went to Julliard when he was nine years old, but he is also really into psychedelic, progressive music and is constantly turning me onto all kinds of bands that I’ve never heard of. John and I are very similar in that we grew up in the same town and share the influences of Iron Maiden and Rush. We come from more of a similar background than any of the other guys. Mike is like a music library. He knows so much about the history of music, including the widest variety of musical styles and bands, including a great many new bands, many of which he brings along on the Progressive Nation tours [Dream Theater’s progressive-rock package tour, which debuted in 2008]. I think the combination of all of our different spirits and influences is what makes this band unique. It wouldn’t be the same if any of us were not there.
But I can point to examples of each guy’s distinct personality. Toward the end of “The Count of Tuscany,” there is a unison “odd time-signature” section between the guitar and keyboards that is a “Jordan” section. He also contributes some of the more classically driven chord progressions in that song. The verse sections that are very much based on guitar riffs are more indicative of my personality, but then the song breaks into the chromatic-like chord inversions that are more keyboard based.
GW At 3:25 into “The Count of Tuscany,” the guitar, bass and drums play syncopated accents over which Jordan plays a very unusual and angular melody.
PETRUCCI That section is a really good example of the combination of our personalities, because Jordan wrote that line he’s playing, but you would never hear that type of thing orchestrated in this way in the music of [Seventies British progressive rock band] Gentle Giant, for example. That’s an example of Mike and I creating a backdrop to the melodic theme Jordan had devised.
GW You guys incorporate some very complex meter and shifts in meter. How do you work that stuff out? Is it written down or do you hammer it out as you go along?
PETRUCCI We’ll usually analyze what’s going on in terms of the meter shifts, and we’ll write out some cryptic music notation for us all to follow. Jordan tends to write out everything note for note, but we’ll write the meter changes out on a big board so we can all see it together, and then it’s a matter of hashing it out. Mike is brilliant at taking something and interpreting it in so many different ways. We’ll play the same riff over and over, but he can make it sound like nine different riffs with his drum patterns.
GW A good example of that is in “A Nightmare to Remember,” at the 12:40 point, where he plays what feels like a twisted 12/8 over the 4/4 guitar riff.
PETRUCCI Something like that takes a lot of time to work out. That has become a signature of our sound, where there’s a “circular” type of riff that is interpreted in different rhythmic syncopations. We’ll try an endless amount of drumming/feel permutations. It’s like a math project: “What if I play in 9/8 and you guys play in 4/4, and it comes together when it comes together?” And it takes a lot of time to decide which version, or versions, we are going to use. Sometimes we use all of the versions, and that’s why the songs end up being 20 minutes long. And this is the fun of writing progressive music—you can do whatever you want to do.
If an idea totally sucks, everyone knows right away, but if a certain idea is valid but the discussion is whether it’s appropriate, we’ll let it live for a little while and have a lot of discussion about it. The policy is that we’ll never shoot anything down before trying it, and sometimes when you do that, the person that was the most against a certain idea all of a sudden sees the light.
GW After the crushing orchestral opening theme, ominous verse section, meter shifts through 5/4 and 6/8, and dream-like acoustic interlude, we eventually arrive at a very pop-like, highly accessible chorus.
PETRUCCI We’ve been talking about influences growing up, and one of the biggest ones for our band is finding that great big melodic hook that pulls a song together—the “ultimate” chorus. We always try to infuse our music with that, no matter how dark or crazy a piece might be. On “The Dark Eternal Night,” from Systematic Chaos, the chorus is a huge hook that opens up the whole song. As writers, that is a satisfying element that we are always looking to add to our music.
GW Let’s talk about the guitar solos for a minute. On “A Nightmare to Remember,” your solo develops very gradually, starting with very bluesy, Leslie West–type lines and slowly becoming more intense, until you achieve full-on shredding of the highest order, with alternate picking and sweep arpeggios.
PETRUCCI Yes, that is very Leslie West–influenced at the start, and this is an example of a solo that I wanted to blossom as it progressed. It starts in a way that’s intended to pull the listener in, by doubling the riff underneath; then I move to some Stevie Ray Vaughan–like octave skips, and then I kick it up a notch.
As Steve Morse says, if the solo is based on a rhythmically repetitive figure, it sounds really powerful and serves to drive the rhythm, as opposed to the rhythm driving the solo. As the solo moves to steady 16ths, it blossoms more and pulls you in more, and then at the end I shift to hyperdrive and push the momentum as much as I can.
GW Your articulation is startlingly precise and inspiring. How do you consistently achieve such a high level of performance?
PETRUCCI When it comes to recording parts like that—and this really includes the rhythm parts, too—I’m into the purity of the way the guitar sounds when it’s plugged straight into the amp and miked up—no equalizers, no compressors, no delays, no pedals. As long as you have the combination of the right gear, which, thankfully, I do, then you are set up with the right tools.
I used my Music Man signature guitar on the whole album, the BFR version, which is an alder guitar with a mahogany neck and tone block and a maple top. It’s a very rich-sounding guitar. All of the solos were done through a Boogie Mark IIC+ head, with the exception of the outro solo on “The Count of Tuscany,” which was played through a new Mark V plugged into a Boogie 4x12 Rectifier cabinet loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s. We put one Shure SM57 mic on it, put that through an API mic pre-amp, and that’s it. I get myself into a comfortable position, sitting classical style, and I lock my arms onto the guitar. And when I’m doing those highly articulate parts, I try to focus on technical detail while still playing with some real fire and emotional intensity. You’ve got to keep the “rock” part in there—the attitude. You might be able to pick it apart and find some imperfections, but those imperfections are part of what makes it musical.
There is a part of my psyche that wants it to be perfect in a technical sense, but there are natural, unpredictable things that will happen when you are playing with distortion, bending the strings and moving the pick attack around. But that’s what it’s all about—it’s that intangible feeling that makes it rock, and all of the great guitarists that we love have that fire, that passion and that attitude. If it’s only about absolutely pristine technique, it’s going to be boring and it won’t draw the listener in. You won’t get that blossoming effect. The solo will just roll by, and that’ll be that.
GW Another positively scorching solo is the one you play on “A Rite of Passage.” Is it ever difficult to achieve the level of precision that you are looking for?
PETRUCCI When I get into recording mode, especially when I’m working on the solos, I’ve already been playing the guitar nonstop for days at a time, so I get to a point where I feel like my chops are at the highest level. When I attempt to pull off what I’ve imagined, it might take a few tries, but I can usually get it. It’s not like coming in cold; I’m primed. I’ll prepare for two weeks in advance, practicing every day, working with a metronome and getting the scales up to speed. With work and focus, the fingers get stronger and the touch gets more assured, and you get in the zone. When I’m in that zone, I can pretty much pull off whatever I’m thinking of.
The challenge becomes, what do you do when you’re not in that zone—like when you’re on the road and haven’t picked up the guitar much during an off day or two and you have to walk onstage and execute that “Rite of Passage” solo just like the album? You do your best, but it’s not the same as when you’re in that optimum space in the recording studio.
GW Dream Theater fans have shown a high level of dedication and devotion over the years, and a new generation of fans has discovered the band as well. What do you think about when you look back over the band’s 20 years and the success you’ve achieved?
PETRUCCI It’s been an amazing journey. When we were 17 years old, we’d watch those Iron Maiden concerts and see the way the fans reacted, with banners and flags and T-shirts, and how totally into the band they were. Today, we have those same kinds of fans. For a band like us, one that you don’t necessarily hear on the radio, it’s our fans that keep us alive and keep us going, and it’s been an ever-growing base, especially with the younger kids that play guitar and want to play complex music.
When we first started and went out on tour, we played some clubs in Germany and France, and then we’d come back home and the fan base would be a little bigger, and it slowly built over time. Nowadays, all of that time building an audience has paid off. On the last tour, we went to Moscow for the first time and there were 10,000 kids there. That type of fan loyalty and passion does not happen overnight, and it cannot be fabricated. As a band, we are so unbelievably grateful for that.