John Petrucci: The Prog Whisperer
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.
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