John Petrucci: "G3 made me rise to the occasion and gain more confidence as a soloist"

(Image credit: George Fairbairn/Future)

MusicRadar's best of 2018: John Petrucci needs no introduction, but we'll give him one anyway: for nearly 30 years, the Long Island native has dutifully served as the most prominent – and most revered – guitarist in progressive metal.

Over his 13 studio albums with Dream Theater, two more with the instrumental supergroup Liquid Tension Experiment and his 2005 solo debut, Suspended Animation (which he says probably won't remain an orphan forever, but more on that later), he's curated a musical legacy that's influenced forward-thinking acts ranging from Animals As Leaders to Avenged Sevenfold, as well as past DT tour mates such as Trivium, Opeth and Periphery.  

In January, Petrucci joined Joe Satriani and Def Leppard's Phil Collen on a G3 tour of North America, which featured his first performances as a solo artist in more than five years. (When the tour hits Europe in March, it will feature Uli Jon Roth instead of Collen.)

Each night, he performs a 50-minute instrumental set before returning for a show-closing encore jam, during which he trades licks alongside his tour mates and occasional guest stars such as Neal Schon and Vivian Campbell.  

On stage in Los Angeles, Petrucci called the tour “the most fun a guitar player can have,” a sentiment he echoed by phone several days later when we caught up with him in Denver.

In a wide-ranging conversation, he discussed how the G3 tour has made him a better player; what's next for Dream Theater, who recently signed a new record deal with Sony/InsideOut; how he'd approach “The Astonishing” differently if he had to do it all over again; and what – if anything – people should read into his recent selfie with former band mate Mike Portnoy.

This is your seventh G3 tour. What makes it so enjoyable?

"The people that we're touring with – the entire entourage, not only the musicians – there's just this really special sense of community, and it's been like that on every G3 tour. You're traveling with a lot of people, but there's no weirdness, there's no attitude. Everybody is pulling for one another and having a great time.

As a guitar player, playing instrumental music is a blast. Then getting to jam with Joe and Phil every night and whatever guest stars – I mean, what could be more fun?

"As a guitar player, playing instrumental music is a blast. Then getting to jam with Joe and Phil every night and whatever guest stars – I mean, what could be more fun? I'm smiling the entire time, because we're playing to an audience that appreciates that kind of music, and then getting to jam with some of the greatest players on earth and be in this incredible community."

In Los Angeles, you were more expressive than you are during a typical Dream Theater show, even though you're under more of the spotlight as a solo artist.

"In one way, more pressure is on me, because I'm carrying the weight of playing all the melodies, all the solos. I don't get a chance to really step back and let the vocals or the keyboards take the forefront. In that sense, it's more pressure, but it's also liberating in a way as well, because it's only a trio. There's a lot of space there, and it's a different vibe.

"Dream Theater music, there's a lot of background and context to the songs, as far as the subject matter and the albums they come from. There's a lot more intensity in those kind of performances. I don't feel like I'm the main focus at all times, so I'm able to sit back a little bit when I need to.

"In this case, the guitar is the main focus, so I have to deliver the goods and make sure that I'm communicating with the audience. That's probably [why you're] seeing me be a little more expressive toward the audience, because I feel more of that responsibility being the sole soloist."

What have you learned from Satriani over the years?

"How to be a consummate professional. How to be incredibly consistent, as far as his performance – he's playing incredibly night to night. The way that he interacts [with] and treats his fans. The way that he takes what he does very seriously, and at the same time, enjoys himself every night. He just has a great attitude, and I love that. It's really infectious."

(Image credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

What about Phil Collen? Have you picked up anything from him during the first few weeks of the tour?

"Phil is one of the easiest guys to get along with. He puts on no airs given all of his success with Def Leppard. He's just the sweetest, nicest guy. From the get-go, you just automatically feel comfortable hanging out together and playing together. He's a great, great player, and when me and him and Joe get into the circle where we're trading, he's a great listener. He reacts to what's going on, to what Joe plays, to what I play.

"He's a tremendous musician, and – again, it's a common thread with these guys – extremely professional. The guy is always there, always on time, always looks good, always plays good, always sounds good. It couldn't be better playing with him."

What would you say to people who don't understand how the lead guitarists of Dream Theater and Def Leppard – two radically different types of bands – can get along so famously?

"People would be way, way off base. When I was younger, and Iron Maiden and Def Leppard and all that stuff was coming out, I was learning all those songs and trying to play guitar and develop my chops. I was a big fan. It's not unusual at all to be playing together and to have respect for him as a player, as a songwriter, as a musician. It's a really cool feeling to be playing with him."

For your first G3 tour, you wrote four songs from scratch. How did that tour help you grow as a player?  

To see how the other guys that had been doing that for a long time, like Steve Vai and Joe, how they kind of carried that responsibility, I think it made me a better player

"It was something that brought me out of the band context and more to the front as a solo artist. By putting more of that responsibility on my shoulders, it made me rise to the occasion and gain more confidence as a soloist. To see how the other guys that had been doing that for a long time, like Steve Vai and Joe, how they kind of carried that responsibility, I think it made me a better player. It made me more aware of my responsibility on stage to the audience, and made me a better performer."

You wrote and debuted two additional as-yet-unreleased songs for a G3 Latin American tour in 2012. 

"I had done a bunch of G3 tours already and just didn't want to play the same set over again. Even with this [tour], I decided to add something different. I don't want to bore any people that have seen me before [laughs]. Ultimately, I have a lot of new music that's not on any album, that's not recorded, that's demoed. I'd love to put it on a second solo album, a follow-up to Suspended Animation.

"With me, it's always just a matter of finding the time, because I'm so consumed – in a good way – with Dream Theater, and all the time we spend on the road and in the studio. It's really, really hard to carve out a chunk of time to get in the studio and record."

This year's addition is a rendition of Hans Zimmer's Is She With You? – more commonly known as the theme from Wonder Woman.

"I'm a big fan of sci-fi and all those kinds of movies, and I thought that movie was so well done. I loved the soundtrack – I thought it was real dark, real moody, and had a really cool, kind of modern vibe to it. When I heard that main theme, I was like, 'It sounds like something I would play.'

"I started to fool around with the melody a little bit on the last [Dream Theater] tour. Because it has this dark and evil sort of sound, it sounds so metal already. I started to work out an arrangement for fun and thought, 'This might be really cool to actually play.' The arrangement that we did, it feels very natural."

Are you using any new gear during this tour?

"Because we just came off the Dream Theater tour, the gear I'm using is actually my Dream Theater touring gear – the same rig I use for that. The main thing is my signature [Mesa] Boogie JP-2C; that's the main sound.

"The guitars are Ernie Ball Music Man signature guitars. At NAMM, they debuted a couple of new colors. They're not new models per se, but they're new colours and aesthetics to the Majesty and to the JP6 and BFR. They're always cutting edge and always coming up with new and amazing things." [See our recent rig tour with John for a closer look at his almighty setup.]

Speaking of Dream Theater, The Astonishing was a fairly divisive record among the band's fanbase. Looking back, would you do anything differently?

"I couldn't be more proud of the work that Jordan [Rudess] and I did as far as the writing, and that the band did in every aspect of the recording, and the enormity of the project, and the job that Richard Chycki did in engineering this insane amount of music – all these orchestral and choir elements – and then the crazy tour that we did with a production that took a year to build.

"If I had the chance to do it over, I would do it differently, though. We have the novel coming out now, but in a perfect world, I think I would have had the novel done [first]; release the novel so people could read the story; and then do the tour and have the album available at the show when you leave. I think that would have given the whole experience a lot more meaning to fans.

"I understand that stylistically, it might not be every Dream Theater fan's cup of tea. Some people think it's one of our greatest works, and some people, it's not something that they're into. As a standalone album, it's a soundtrack to a larger piece – to a live show, a novel, a movie, whatever – and sometimes, that's hard to absorb in that big of a chunk, given there's over two hours of music.

"But the consistency as far as reaction has always been to the show. When we did that live show and people walked away and really saw what it was about as far as the story and the presentation, there was a common response that this was something really special." 

After you finished touring in support of The Astonishing, you revisited Images & Words for a 25th anniversary tour.  

"Not that we haven't played those songs over the years many times, but playing that reconnected me to our head space back in the early '90s, the kind of music all of us were listening to, and how that sort of combined into this progressive metal thing that we turned into.

It definitely was influential and helpful to be playing Images & Words again, so when we go in and move forward with our writing, we're going to have that in mind

"I think we're going to carry that into the writing of the next album. Not to say that this next album is going to be a throwback to 1992, but it definitely was influential and helpful to be playing that music, so when we go in and move forward with our writing, we're going to have that in mind.

"After The Astonishing – which was such an experimental piece of work, and something that had such a broad scope – we definitely want to return to doing something that's more definitive and classic, but hopefully also staying current and using the things that we've learned as writers and as a producer to take it to the next level so we're not ever repeating ourselves. It's like staying rooted and grounded in the initial sound of the band and moving forward as far as trying to create something that's new and interesting and exciting. I can't wait."

We have to ask about the picture with Mike Portnoy that you recently posted. 

"Mike and I have maintained a relationship and have been friends all these years. Our families are all good friends, and we've gotten together several times. That just was the first time we took a photo and posted a photo. [There's] nothing to read into, other than it's good to maintain good relationships. That's really all it is."

On that same note, since you're now label mates, what do you think of Sons Of Apollo?

"Mike gave me the record. I haven't listened to it yet. I heard the first song that came out. It sounds great. Those guys are all amazing, and Ron is an incredible guitar player.

"Mike's funny. He handed me a whole bunch of stuff that he had done – Flying Colors, Sons Of Apollo, the Neal Morse record which I hadn't had a chance to listen to – so I have a lot of listening ahead of me."