Dream Theater's John Petrucci: the Total Guitar interview

There's always plenty to talk about with John Petrucci, especially when it comes to a new Dream Theater album. And it's especially true with their 12th album. Ahead of the self-titled record's release, Total Guitar sat down with John to dissect every song and talk about the mindset, technique and gear that shapes his playing.

Interview: Peter Rinaldi

Can you explain the idea behind the opening track False Awakening?

"Basically, when we play live, before we go on stage there is some sort of music that brings the band on to stage. So when you're at the concert and you hear this track you know they're coming. We've done that in the past with movie soundtracks - for example one tour we used the music from Psycho, which was awesome and really built the anticipation. Last year we used some Hans Zimmer music from Inception, which was great, but it's not our music.

"So we decided we should write our own two-three minute opening track. The difference being that the pieces I mentioned are purely orchestral and ours would be with the full band and the orchestral sounds. So we bought in a real string section to do all that stuff, and we focused on making it cinematic to build the anticipation like something epic was about to happen."

How did you approach working with a string section?

"There are a couple of different approaches you can take. Firstly, as a player, you can see yourself as a member of the orchestra, and you have to find your place in there. That's kinda more how we did the whole Six Degrees opening part. Or you can do it the opposite way where the band is the focus, so the heaviness and the metal and rock thing has to be constant, with the strings providing more of a sonic soundscape. That is what it was in this case."

Which guitars did you use?

"The guitar is a seven-string. It's my [Music Man] JP13 with the preamp built into it. It's really big and alive-sounding. This track is also one of two songs on the album in which the seven-string is tuned down a whole step to A. In fact, the very last note I had to tune down even lower because I needed a G or something."

It has new DiMarzio pickups as well - is that right?

"Yeah, they're DiMarzio Illuminators. First of all they will work in a guitar that doesn't have a preamp in it just as well. The concept behind those pickups was to kind of go along with what the preamp does, which is to make the guitar more open sounding and tighter in the low end. I was talking to Steve Blucher [chief DiMarzio engineer], we're always trying to improve the sound so the Illuminators are based on my Crunch Lab and Liquifire pickups. But we wanted take it to the next level with tighter low end, a little brighter and more open-sounding."

Is any EQ being added in the preamp stage of the guitar?

"The preamp isn't really adding anything EQ-wise - we wanted to keep it pretty transparent. But there is a push pot on the volume knob that pops out; it's adding between 12 and 16dB of gain. In my case, I'm playing through boogies that are already pretty distorted, so if you do that it's like stepping on a clean boost."

There is a lot happening right from the start on The Enemy Inside. How did the song begin from the writing stage?

"There were a few songs on the album where we took the approach that we wanted to take all the elements that make us unique as a band and not compromise any of that stuff. Whether it's the technical stuff, the heavy stuff, the proggy stuff or the more angular weird things: big choruses we like to do. But rather than do it for 12 or 15 minutes, do it in like six or five minutes. It's actually really hard to do, making the arrangement work and deciding on which instrumental part should go where, it took a ton of editing to get to that point.

"At the same time we knew we wanted to write a fast, energetic, big kick-in-the-balls piece. So I was like seven-string, [laughs] it's gotta be heavy, and to me as a guitar player it's metal and it has to start with a riff. [laughs]

"I heard like a fast-moving cyclic kinda thing, and I just sat there, cranked the amp and it actually wasn't until I was tracking the guitars that I refined the note choice. The intro riff pedal is on the B string but has an E-based tonality. In contrast we used a technique of stopping that intricate movement in the chorus to allow the vocals to come through."

Can you explain the amp setup you used on this track?

"First of all we plugged the guitar straight into a Radial JD7 [class-A guitar splitter with DI]. We were always recording a DI at all times; I didn't want to run the risk of not having the option to re-amp later. We did a lot of reamping and a lot of experimenting and what we found for the most part was the Boogie Mark V in Mark IV mode sounded the best with the seven-string."

Can you take us through the next stage in your signal chain when it came to getting the sound from the cab to Pro Tools?

"I kinda changed my philosophy a little bit. On the albums leading up to this one I had the mindset that, 'If it's coming out of the amp the way I want to hear it, then lets not mess that up.' Then it would go through a mic into a transparent pre, and then no EQ or anything at the desk. It's just gonna sound like it sounds. This time I took the approach that I don't care what it took to get to the point that the guitar sounds like the finished guitar, but I wanted it to sound like the finished guitar from day one. So a lot of times when mixers mix guitar they crank some 3k and they carve out some of the low end, so we did that, and we tracked the guitars like that so I didn't have to imagine how it would sound. That way we could get all the instruments fitting right in from the get go, and it didn't have to change.

"So basically it's from the guitar straight to the JD7 with a track going straight to the board, then out of the DI into the Boogie head, then straight from the head to the cab. From there we had an SM57 and a U47 on the cab running into Neve mic pres and the EQ came from the SSL desk. For a large part this is where I took a step back and deferred to Rich [Chyki, engineer] on this. He blended the mics, EQ'd it and it was done. Whenever I would monitor I would have a big KRK powered monitor right in my face, blasting me, and I didn't care so much about how it was getting there. I knew it was pure coming out of my guitar, and if Rich was adding EQ then so be it. That's the way it's a bit different to the past albums."

How was it working with Mike Mangini during the writing process for this record? The drums are ridiculous…

"He's a monster. There were a couple of things that were different. He was there from the beginning, which is dangerous having a drummer there in the room with you 'cause they're known to fiddle and stuff. [laughs] But he was great, you know we would play something like The Enemy Inside's riff and say, 'Hey Mike, you got anything?' and he would play the most insane thing you have ever heard in your life, then ask, 'How was that?' Everyone would be on the floor cracking up saying, 'What the hell are you doing? How is that humanly possible!?' He did that throughout the writing process, and again because we were set up to record everything at all times with the finished sounds, we were able to keep a lot of those performances."

The guitar solo appears towards the end of The Enemy Inside. As it's the first on the album, can you take us through that? Which wah are you using?

"It's a pedal wah, a Dunlop 535Q. It has the Q on it so I am able to dial back the range a little lower. The first time I discovered that was on Scenes From A Memory on the song Home when the riff comes in; I really like that throaty, guttural sound.

"With the solo I always want it to be a musical moment, it should contribute to the song. With that song the solo is fairly late and its purpose is to get you back to the chorus, so it has to build gradually. So, I'm improvising through and start to see the shape of the solo, almost like big curves. Within that, in order to get that weaving sound and play over the bar I use chromatic notes which add some non diatonic notes but are still going somewhere."

Do you start out improvising, piece together sections you like the best, and then consolidate more technical elements later?

"Totally. The improvised nature is cool, because you're really feeding off the feel of the music and working off the melody and reaction to what's going on. I think if you plan it out too much it gets too sterile. You surprise yourself sometimes and that's great. But then sometimes you have like a definite thing that your trying to do, like maybe you want to play these arpeggios through the chord changes and you tried it but it was kind of sloppy, you don't wanna leave that. Then you go back, work it out, and do a clean take so that it's happening.

"For the most part I build the solos piece by piece, it's just like writing any piece of music really. But sometimes you get to a section like that and I would say to Rich, 'Let me have a go at that whole section?' and you would get a smoother take. Especially once you have it down and you have internalised it, you can't always do that but I like to go for it if I can."

The guitar tone on 'The Looking Glass' is totally different…

"There are two big differences, one is the guitar. That's the one song on the album on which I didn't use my signature guitar, I used a Music Man Axis. My tech Maddi [Matt 'Maddi' Schieferstein] had his Music Man at the studio and it was the Eddie Van Halen model from back when Eddie endorsed Music Man guitars. It has like a 12-inch radius, 22 frets, Floyd Rose, but every time Maddi would look at me I was playing that guitar. So I called up Music Man who have been so good to me over the years, and they made me one, the difference being they routed the body so the bar could pull back.

"So they sent it to me and I really wanted to use it on the album. By the same token Mesa/Boogie had sent me a Royal Atlantic, which Rich had worked with and he said, 'You gotta plug in'. I didn't even dial in the tone, which is really unusual for me. I was in the live room and he was in the control room, I had the Axis and he dialed in a sound and it sounded great. Very different to the Mark V sound, which is a very percussive, low-end sound.

"The Royal Atlantic was really easy to play; it has that compressed, grinding rock sound: very forgiving. For soloing and all those riffs, it was just like a pillow. That was another instance where Rich would put some teeth on it with EQ at the desk as the RA compared to the other Boogies was not as bright."

Are the clean tones in the pre-chorus the Royal Atlantic as well?

"We did some cleans with the Royal Atlantic but I think that one may have been the [Mesa/Boogie] Triaxis [preamp]. The Triaxis has a beautiful clean sound both mic'd and also direct. Again, with Rich he compressed it and EQ'd it and I just shut my eyes and played."

Is there some modulation going on there as well?

"Yeah, we did a bunch of different things to get that. Sometimes I would put a pedal in front of it and then we would double track that. Sometimes Rich would do stuff in Pro Tools. I think with that as well, we doubled with acoustic too."

At 3:00 there is a great bass breakdown before the solo, could you step us through the solo?

"That bass breakdown is one of my favorite moments, everything strips away and you know something is coming."

Is the solo the RA?

"Yes, it's the same amp."

Is there some modulation on there?

"I'll tell you what that is, it's a Roland Dimension D. I mean talk about Rush, there some things that Alex (Lifeson) did that Rich, having worked with Rush, he knows exactly how to get it. So I would say, 'How did he get that sound?' and Rich would say, 'Hold on a second' and I would be like 'I love that!' That solo really features that sound but it actually got used a bunch on the album. He actually found one and got it for me, which was really cool. One of the cool things about that solo is that I used the Axis and it has the Floyd whammy bar on it. You can hear the chirpy thing that bridge does. It's a little bit different than my signature guitars."

There are a lot of techniques integrated into the solo, how did it come together?

"That solo was highly improvised, I was just trying something and Rich would say, 'That was good, next!' The sweeping section is an example of something where I knew I wanted to do something like that, but let me work out the parts, and the final alternate picked run is an example of surprising yourself! That was the first take, we listened back and it was like, 'Cool, all that practicing paid off!' [laughs] We made the solo carry on through when the vocal comes back in at the end.

"When we wrote that section and we were jamming on it in the studio, we were playing it in more of a bluesy mode. Like almost Pink Floyd-ish, and I was playing more pentatonic stuff, which was totally cool. But I thought, I don't want to be too typical there so we changed the tonality to Phrygian so it has a darker sound with the chords Jordan is playing. So I had to conform to the scale of that and it changed the mood a lot."

How did the song Enigma Machine come about?

"We went in to do an instrumental, knowing we haven't done a stand-alone track like that since Stream Of Consciousness from Train Of Thought. We wanted to feature everybody so you'll notice throughout there are drum breaks, bass breaks, guitar solos, keyboard solos so it kinda gives everybody a chance to take a turn.

"We also knew we didn't want to make an extended instrumental track that went on forever, we wanted to write a song at the same time, so it has a form structure of a song, with vocals with verses, choruses and bridges. That helped keep the form of it in check."

Which guitar and amps did you use on this track?

"That's the JP13 seven-string and the Mark V again."

There are a lot of complex unison lines throughout the track, starting around 1:40, how do you compose those sections?

"I build it. That one started with a melody and it builds from there. The idea has a couple of stages, one is to make it use a bunch of different techniques creatively and sound interesting. The other is to make it musical which is the main focus, so the stuff happening underneath the unison is a really big part of the musical impact, or story, of that type of section."

The next section gets in to a guitar and keys solo trade-off section, how do you develop a section like that?

"Once we worked out that part of the song was the time to solo, we decided to go with a trade-off format. The riff comes first, and we used a technique where we used the same riff but we keep changing the keys. The solos come afterwards and the idea was of the four alternating solos you listen to what the guy did before you and try to take it to somewhere else. So you could use some different technique or a different tonality, which is what I went for. The first one was kinda slinky and weavy and the second one was very technical, a lot of picking. So that keeps it interesting. The same goes for Jordan as well, the first on a synth and the second one on an iPad!"

The Bigger Picture has a big chunky intro, do you use the boost in the JP13 on rhythm parts?

"No, I actually mostly use it on the single note stuff, when playing rhythm stuff it would have a little bit too much gain for playing tighter rhythms. Its mostly to get a little extra sustain and gain for solos. This song is again JP13 seven-string and Mark V setup. There is a very melodic solo that was played on the Mark IIC+, which was actually a scratch track take. Again, as we were set up to record at all times this was one of the takes we kept."

There is quite a nice tonal change between the solo and the riff that comes before it; you can really hear the difference between the two amps…

"Right, all of that has to do with the song and the arrangement and what I'm trying to do. The type of section we are playing will dictate the kind of amp or the way I set it up."

Which guitar did you use for the acoustic sections in the second verse?

"I use Taylor acoustic guitars, I have a bunch of them that I have been using in the studio for quite some time now. They're all different body styles, and depending on what I'm doing I can choose the right sound. If it's a strummy thing I might go for one guitar, if it's a more single note arpeggiated thing I would choose a different one."

How do you mic the acoustics?

"Its just one mic, I'm trying to think of the name of it, but it was something that Rich had and was using on vocals and he was really into. It translated really great to the acoustic guitars."

Are they double-tracked?

"Yeah, I always double-track the acoustics, I love that sound. The hard panned left/right of acoustic strumming or picking notes, it's a great sound."

Towards the end there is like a re-intro guitar section with a high E drone that is a different sound, how did you get that? Are there some effects involved?

"Yeah, there is a phaser on that sound, and I think the way we did that, which we do a lot, is we'll put the effect only on one side of the sound. So there would be a phaser on the right and then double-track it and leave it dry on the other side. I do that a lot with phasers and choruses and stuff, it kinda makes for a wider sound. You still get the effect but also a lot of clarity.

"The amp approach for something like that is way, way different - you gotta be careful. The normal heavy seven-string sound with a part like that would be to bright and too brittle as those sounds are designed for tight rhythm stuff where you need the attack. This sound needs more of a creamy low gain sound."

Towards the end there is some lovely harmonic movement with the vocal melody, how do you work with James when writing a part like that, which moves through different keys etc?

"When I'm writing lyrics I just strip it down. I'll have my acoustic guitar and I'll go into singer/songwriter mode and work on it strumming the guitar and singing until it gets to the point where it's a really strong melody. I'll then record that and sing it for James, and he'll sing it back to me and we'll discuss any changes or any words that need changing. The interesting thing when your working on the music for that is that you're kind of carving out these different chord progressions and changing keys, but once you put the vocal melody there and there's words, you don't pay attention to the key changes anymore."

(© Brian Patterson/Corbis)

After Jordan's cinematic intro on Behind The Veil, what is that guitar sound?

"That is the Mark IIC+; there's a reason why it's the 'holy grail' amp. It's that Metallica thing, and that's it right there, total signature C+ rhythm sound. We tried a whole bunch of different things for the riff there and reamping with the Radial JD7 came in real handy. I tried the Mark V, I tried EQ'ing the C+ to be really metal, really scooped. I tried a Mark IV. To be honest they all sounded great, but the sound we ended up with was just one of the standard C+ settings I would use on a rhythm sound, very similar to the settings that James Hetfield would use. It just sounds so thick and powerful."

In contrast the clean part has a chorus effect on it…

"Yes, we tried so many different things, so it's hard to remember. Sometimes we would use the Triaxis direct, sometimes just the guitar direct and process it with out any preamp. Sometimes the chorusing would come from processing Rich would do to the acoustic guitar that's underneath that by using a plug-in. A lot of times we used my [TC Electronic] Dreamscape pedal, sometimes we would put it infront [of the amp] and sometimes it would sound better in the effects loop if we were going for more of a stereo, digital kind of sound."

Can you take us through this solo?

"That's actually one of my favorite solos on the album. I just like the tone and the attitude with the combination of techniques that went into it, it flows to me.

"A lot of times in solos, I'll use combinations of techniques with sweeping and alternate picking and legato. The magic happens when you can get it to all flow seamlessly. That one is a stand out to me, I'm really proud of that one."

There's a mega sweep/tap lick in the last chorus…

"Oh yeah, it's one of those video game licks! [laughs] You know, you just sweep up on a bunch of strings, probably just a four-finger or so technique and then there's taps on top. So it's a combination of sweeping, legato and tapping all in one. Every time we would hear it we would say 'free man' like Super Mario Bros or something! [Laughs]."

There's something great about the orchestration of the chords on Surrender To Reason…

"That took a while to get that effect actually. We ended up re-recording that a bunch of times. At first, when we wrote the song, I was playing that all as one part. It was cool and sounded really big, but it's hard to get clarity.

"I decided to break the parts up and just have the single line going low and add in the top part as a counter line. I used 2 totally different guitar sounds, one is really full and thick which is a Mark IIC+, the other sound is clean and kinda nasally, very EQ'd to stand out for the arpeggiated part."

The solo is very different, it sounds like you're in the room with the amp just letting it rip?

"Totally, my mentality was I wanted it to sound like we were live in a smoky bar, just bass, drums and guitar. It drops down and the bass sets it up really nicely with all this attitude, and I just put my Dreamscape flanger on with a really heavy flange setting, there's no delay or reverb (which is unusual for me).

"So we made it purposefully dry, in your face and I'm kinda just going nuts, highly improvised, reckless abandon. A lot of vinegar and attitude, that was the whole point of that solo. It's a side of my playing that doesn't tend to come out on record, it's more of a live thing, so I was happy to be able to capture it."

What acoustics are you using on Along For The Ride?

"Taylors again, double-tracked and that's another example of Rich taking it and processing it afterwards. I'm not sure if it's the [Roland] Dimension D or if it's processed in the box, but it's really nice."

How did you get the sound when the electric guitar comes in with the arpeggiated chords?

"That's the other track that I used the Royal Atlantic on, so it's very different. Again, it's more compressed; there are lots of single lines in that song and its very creamy sounding, way different to the more aggressive Mark V sounds."

(©Erik Neldner)

Illumination Theory is a real epic…

"Going into this we knew we were going to write a big song, we went in with that mentality so we knew we had the space to stretch out. We wanted to start out in a big cinematic way, which really sets the mood and lets you know its gonna be a big song.

"In the middle we wanted to strip away the entire band as far as we were concerned and leave it to [Spectrasonics] Atmosphere and a real string section. Musically we wanted it to move very effortlessly between vocal and instrumental, so you hear some thematic stuff, you hear some technical stuff but there's always vocal coming in to save you from getting too meandering. It ends with a big soaring guitar moment to close out the album, which is fun. It's like hitting the grand slam at the end of the game."

The riff at the 11:00 minute mark is just awesome!

"Thank you, it is so much fun, I can't wait to play it live!"

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