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John Petrucci: “If some of it sounds like pop-punk, who cares? This is instrumental guitar music – you can do what you want!“

John Petrucci
(Image credit: Per Ole Hagen/Redferns)

In 1995, three albums into Dream Theater’s career, John Petrucci released his Rock Discipline instructional video through REH. It would quickly become one of the most insightful tutorials of its kind – a shredder’s bible highly lauded to this day for its close-up examination of alternate picking, inside picking, arpeggios and beyond. 

Fast-forward a quarter of a century and some of its performance excerpts have made an unlikely comeback on the track Gemini from the guitarist’s second solo album, Terminal Velocity... 

“I haven’t seen the DVD in a long time,” he says, talking to TG from his band’s headquarters in Long Island, New York. “Someone else actually reminded me it was on there! I always liked that piece, I don’t know why. It was a guitar demo thing I wrote to do clinics and masterclasses. 

“Something about it felt really cool and I always wanted to record it for real some day. So when I had to relearn it for this album, I had no reference! I had to go on YouTube and find it – all I got was some crappy version recorded in the audience and all distorted. I was like, ‘All right, I can just about learn it from that and try to remember what the hell I was thinking!’ That was a fun challenge.”

The new music, which arrives 15 years on from his solo debut, also sees him reunited with ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, who parted ways with the group in 2010. Though the guitar tracks were actually recorded first, Portnoy’s input was “very lively, energetic and off-the-cuff ”, benefitting from an old familiarity that stretches back to their late teens (“As soon as we pressed record, he knew exactly how to respond”).

Naturally, as with all things John Petrucci, this latest collection of songs is thrillingly complex, though also noticeably more upbeat and less dark than his main band’s output over the last few decades. There’s even a Happy Song that sounds more like the radio-friendly rock associated with Green Day than the down-tuned metal mastery Petrucci has long typified...

“I didn’t want to do a lockdown record that felt depressing,” explains the virtuoso. “That would have been horrible. I wanted to keep this album positive and uplifting – celebrating the fun of experimenting in different styles I don’t normally do. 

Happy Song is a good example of that, I wrote it years ago and played it on G3. The fun thing about solo stuff is that I can stumble on an idea that really wouldn’t fit in the band I’m normally associated with. And if it sounds like pop-punk, who cares?! This is instrumental guitar music – you can do what you want! So that’s what I did, and no apologies there [laughs]!

Who doesn’t love Satch Boogie?! The best moment of the show is always when Joe goes into that

Snake In My Boot is another one, exploring a less serious and more fun side of rock. It’s basically a I-IV-V blues, but I change up the five chord to make it more of a modal thing.

“I love that style of rock, you might not hear me doing it much, but a little bit of Joe Satriani, Van Halen and AC/DC is always in there. Who doesn’t love Satch Boogie?! The best moment of the show is always when Joe goes into that.”

It should come as no surprise that the guitarist stuck with his own signature gear for the recordings – his line of Majesty guitars being among Ernie Ball Music Man’s best-sellers, and newer models featuring the Dreamcatcher and Rainmaker DiMarzio pickups (“We pulled back on the output so they’re a little more expressive but still very big and bold”). 

More specifically, three instruments were employed for the recordings – a 2019 Enchanted Forest Green Majesty, 2020 Purple Nebula Majesty and one of the guitarist’s new silver seven-strings for Temple Of Circadia – all fed into his own Mesa/Boogie JP-2C. 

A high-gain beast it may be, but that didn’t stop Petrucci from dialling in some truly mouth-watering crunch tones for arguably the bluesiest song he’s ever put his name to...

I have my go-to blues guys just like any player. Stevie Ray Vaughan was definitely the biggest for me

“I honestly think Out Of The Blue shows how great the amp is,” he proudly grins. “From full-on shred and huge three-dimensional rhythm sounds to that Carlos Santana blues, it has everything. It’s a Mark Series amp... Thick lead blues is what they’re famous for! 

“Parts of that song are very traditional-sounding, almost like Gary Moore or Larry Carlton. Then I took it into my world, throwing in chords that were a bit more unconventional for a turnaround, taking it out of the blues as the title might suggest! It goes out of a shuffle feel to a more straight Steve Morse Band/Dixie Dregs melodic vibe. 

“I have my go-to blues guys just like any player. Stevie Ray Vaughan was definitely the biggest for me. Robben Ford is definitely one and, though he’s more jazz, I admire John Scofield.”

Also making an appearance was John’s gypsy jazz acoustic for the Latin fusion parts of Gemini – an idea which arrived by pure chance and ultimately cemented “the Al Di Meola-esque solo on there, eventually ending up as an electric and acoustic unison duet”.

Some phaser was added to parts of The Oddfather and Glassy Eyed Zombies courtesy of a Boss PH-3, while any chorusing effect heard on other tracks came via the TC Electronic 2290 plug-in. 

“Of course, years ago I had the old 2290s in my big racks, it’s one of my favourite effects,” enthuses the guitarist, adding, “I’ve been using the plugin version since the Distance Over Time album because it still has that big classic sound. It comes with a little outboard controller thing that you can use with your DAW.”

Not that I don’t do arpeggios with Dream Theater, but it felt like I let arpeggios develop a bit further than I usually do

Elsewhere, on tracks like Temple Of Circadia, Petrucci weaves through extended arpeggio sections that are – even by his own measures – meticulously orchestrated. 

“Not that I don’t do them with Dream Theater,” he admits, “but it felt like I let them develop a bit further than I usually do, allowing them to take over big parts of the song – and you really have to have your arpeggio chops together in order to get through those! 

“Some are two note per-string arpeggios, adding in a lot of 7ths and 9ths. In order to do that, you have to get used to big stretches. They repeat in octaves and therefore span a lot of the fretboard very quickly. Instead of playing in one spot, you’re going across three octaves, which is always a good thing to practise.”

Then, of course, there are those devastating four-note-per-string runs, which have been a staple in the Petrucci arsenal since the early years in both modal and chromatic forms. It makes the string changing feel more natural, he notes, because it guarantees an even amount of notes per-string and is less intensive overall on the picking hand compared to three-note lines...

“I forget when I discovered that specific technique but once I did, I couldn’t stop doing it. There are a few moments like that on this album, where lines really jump out by shifting into four-note ideas. 

“It’s a fun way of changing how the rhythm of the fast notes syncopate against the beat, displacing the notes by one. It keeps things interesting and avoids sounding too clinical, where listeners can predict the repeats. Once you’ve got it down, it’s a great way of making your lines feel a bit more random!”

Like he’s pointed out from the beginning, it all boils down to the discipline.

  • John Petrucci's Terminal Velocity is out now via Sound Mind Music.