Recently I found myself with headphones on, engrossed in Dream Theater’s new album, A View From the Top of the World, and I’m open-mouthed in amazement at the ever-impressive technical ability of their bass behemoth, John Myung.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him in person many moons ago, but in today’s pandemic world, meeting him this time is all about Zoom. I prepare myself for the inevitable cringe as I open my laptop. Video calls are not for the faint-hearted, I find. I hear a softly-spoken greeting as ‘John M’ enters the room. He says, “Hey Ellen! I remember you. Wembley, right?”
We take a moment to reconnect. It’s very early on his side of the world, so he’s keeping his laptop camera off, but I know it’s him because I can hear him noodling away on some recognizable Dream Theater-alike riffs on his signature Ernie Ball Bongo six-string. We get straight into his new album, which – prog-metal fans will be happy to learn – is distinctively Dream Theater, with blistering solos and opus-length tracks. I wonder what the writing process is like for a band of such virtuoso players.
“Each song has a different story to how it started,” explains Myung. “Usually someone will have the seed of an idea, and from there it will either flow or not. It’s weird: when the right idea comes along it kinda tells everyone what to do, and a song just unfolds naturally. We all put our heads together, and when the song is done it’s done.”
Okay, so how does he come up with the right bassline for a particular track? “Well, if it’s something really complicated, I’ll record it. When we’re writing I have a laptop with Cubase running, which means that I have my own little workstation set up in line with the studio – so if someone has a song part and it’s a little bit involved, I can record it.
“It’s usually a fast, complicated unison part on guitar and keyboards that I join in with, so I’ll record it, take a break and write it out. For that, I have an iPad with a really cool app called ForScore, which is a great way to take notes. It’s really been a godsend.
“Sometimes, though, if I feel a line is too complicated, I’ll try to simplify the line and play more groove-oriented notes against what’s going on. We might be in the middle of writing something, and I’ll feel really inspired to play a part, and we’re like, ‘Hey, let’s use that.’ I like that spur-of-the-moment creativity, where you’re in a certain headspace and you play something and it gets a positive reaction from the other musicians. It’s a really cool group effort.”
He reveals that he doesn’t use formal notation at these moments: “The notes that I take aren’t really written on graph paper and stuff, because I can’t really use that. If you saw my notes, it wouldn’t make sense. They’re just sort of letters, but it makes sense to me. It’s enough to tell me what it is I have to play. If I have to see the notes from a distance, it’s a lot easier to see block letters rather than dots that are just sitting on staff paper.”
Myung has been an avid Ernie Ball player for some years – I wonder if he still has his old Music Man, and the Spector bass guitars that he used on DT’s first two albums.
“No, I sold those basses a long time ago,” he says. I’m not really connected to things I’m not using any more, so over the years I’ve gotten rid of basses. In the past year I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with all my prototypes. I’m actually playing a real factory version of the signature Bongo bass that went into production last year, so this would be the one-year anniversary of the launch of that bass.”
The Myung signature Bongo six is a black beauty, with an unusual rosewood and roasted maple fretboard. Asked about this feature, he explains: “The two-tone fretboard is a cool way to differentiate the bass. It’s based on the Golden Ratio, from the world of geometry. It’s a really common ratio, especially in musical instruments.
“We didn’t know if it would work with my bass, but it actually worked out really well because the D string on the bass aligns right over the line where it splits between the two different wood tones. Sonically, it’s cool in a real subtle way: the top end has a real brightness that you get from maple, and down low you have the warmer EQ response you get from rosewood. You have this cool EQ going on because of the combined rosewood and maple.”
And the electronics? “Over the years I’ve used combinations of humbuckers and single coils, and I found that out of all those combinations, dual humbuckers give you five different, distinct sounds. There’s a five-way switch on my bass, where those sounds are pre-programmed depending on the polarity of the pickups. It was a real simple way to take the guesswork out of getting the right sound.”
He adds: “What’s really important to me as a player is that I need a bass that makes me want to play. It’s a psychological thing: the bass has to inspire me. I wake up in the morning and I look forward to playing my bass – it’s a personal thing. We’re launching a new color this year, along with a really cool silver.”
“It’s great for distortion – it has drive one and drive two,” he enthuses. “I found that drive one is really good for bass harmonics, and drive two is really cool for giving it that little bit of extra presence without getting in the way. Sometimes distortion pedals sound great when you’re playing them, but when you’re not they can cause feedback and noise. This one doesn’t do that, so I’m excited to check it out and see what it does live.”
And there’s more, he reveals. “I’m also working on a signature combo with Ashdown. It’s something I can bring on tour with me that works really well in terms of having all the outputs and inputs that you need to make it really user-friendly up on stage.
“It’s based on a 15” speaker, because I’ve found that for my playing style, there’s something about that size of speaker that naturally speaks to my playing and EQs things in a way that I really like. That’s another cool thing that’s in the works.”
What’s Myung’s practice regime, we ask? “Well, right now I’m just stressing out over a two-hour set of material that I have to have on playing form, as we’re back out on tour. Some of it is from the new record, and some of it is songs that I haven’t played in 10 years or more, so right now I’m busy trying to memorize as many notes as possible.
“It’s cool to focus on something that gets your hands strong and keeps you in shape. That could be anything – it could be as simple as playing scales. What I usually play as a warm-up is not very musical: It’s a series of trills, incorporating my fingers in every combination possible and focusing on dexterity. My hands aren’t really in shape until we start touring: Before that, I’m just trying to memorize everything.”
My final question for the maestro is... does he ever make mistakes? “Of course I do! I just hope nobody notices them. Hopefully I don’t make too many!”
- A View From The Top Of The World is out now on Inside Out.