After 20 years in the business, guitarist John Petrucci and Dream Theater decided to celebrate in a big way. On April 21, 2006, the band played nearly three hours to a sold-out crowd at Radio City Music Hall with a full orchestra in tow. The grandiose performance echoed the band’s career to a tee: from the attending fans who flew across the globe in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the show, to the awe-inspiring solo work from Petrucci and his bandmates. And for the fans that couldn’t afford the airfare to get to the New York City concert, the band also recently released Score, a DVD and CD of the live event.
recently talked with Ultimate Guitar about the making of Score, his work with the G3 Tour
(playing beside Steve Vai and Joe Satriani), and the fans who have kept Dream Theater
thriving for two decades.
Ultimate Guitar: How did the massive production behind Score come about?
John Petrucci: There are so many elements involved in it being the 20th anniversary - filming a DVD, playing at Radio City, which was sold out in our hometown of New York, and playing with an orchestra. It was really Mike’s (drummer Mike Portnoy) idea. The gears in his brain are always running. We were sitting down and we were talking about the U.S. tour. And he just said it all. He was like, “Hey, guys? We’ll end it in Radio City. We’ll film it. It’ll be our 20 anniversary and we’ll play with an orchestra!” And I’m like, “Okay.” It was great! It sounded like a great idea at the time, and then a year later or whatever it was, it happened.
Did it take an entire year to put together?
We were on tour, so as far as the incorporation of the music, that was kind of already together. We had been playing all those songs and it really wasn’t an issue. There were some things we had to practice up on from Six Degrees (2002 album, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence), but it was really no big deal. I think the bigger part of it was the orchestra part. It took some planning and it took several months in advance to determine what the songs were and then secure our orchestrator and then have him work on pieces. So a lot of it fell on his shoulders. His name is Jamshied Sharifi. He’s the same guy that we used for the orchestra on Octavarium (2005), so he was really excited about this one. And of course the DVD, in preparing for that, once again Mike directed that.
What is the songwriting process like when you work with an orchestra?
|"I feel incredibly proud to be the type of band that we are."|
A couple of songs were already orchestrated, and a few weren’t. Basically it all goes down the same way. The first thing is working with somebody who gets the music and understands what we’re looking for, which Jamshied Sharifi does. We’ll talk about what we’re for. Are we going for a grandiose, epic, movie-sounding thing or are we going for a more sensitive quartet type of thing. And then we talk about which part we want orchestrated, which sections of the music. And then he’ll take that home and work on it, and then try to do a mockup with a synthesizer overdubbed over the actual tracks. We’ll listen to it. Anytime you get it from the beginning we’re like, “Oh, that sounds great,” and sometimes we’re like, “Well, we don’t like that part. Can you pick it up or double this guitar line?” Stuff like that. That was a lot easier to do during Octavarium because we were in the studio. We were playing in one place. But the preparation for the concert happened while we were on the road. So thanks to technology we were able to get MP3 files back and forth. We would just check our emails and send comments back and forth.
How did you originally select the orchestra?
It’s really on the shoulders of the orchestrator and his management and the contractor for the orchestra. In our case, it’s not an existing orchestra. This was a collection of musicians that were hand-picked to do this particular gig because we needed a certain amount of people. That’s just the way that they did it. We really had nothing to do with that.
In the Score DVD, there is a segment before the concert showing fans from all over the world expressing their adoration for Dream Theater. After 20 years, how does it feel to know that fans will travel across the globe to see you perform?
It’s wild. I feel incredibly proud to be the type of band that we are and to have the history and the dedication of the fans that we have. It’s not something that every band has. It’s pretty unique. We see that all over the globe and it’s pretty incredible. Just for example, Score actually debuted at number 1 on the Billboards as the top-selling DVD. And that’s because the fans all went out and they got it. They support us. That’s not an overnight thing. That takes years of building. We are all very humbled by it and very grateful for our fan base.
When you listen to recordings of you playing 20 years go, what goes through your mind?
I think I would be very depressed if I didn’t hear an improvement! I put a lot of time into practicing and trying to learn new things and get better. I listen to the older album, everything from the guitar sound and the way it was recorded, to the playing and the technique and being a little underdeveloped. I do hear a progression and a strive for a progression. So whenever I go into record, I think about what I’ve done in the past. My goal is to try to make the next one better than that. It could be the smallest thing like some sort of intonation or it could be a kind of complicated technique or the sound and how it’s being recorded. So I definitely strive for progression in the overall guitar world.
How much time do you spend practicing the guitar each day?
I would say a couple hours of day. It really depends. This is a question that I get asked very often. When I was younger, I could answer that question a lot easier. I used to practice 6 hours a day. I had to do it. But now as a professional, my life is a lot different than it was then. So like right now, for example, we’re in the studio. We’re recording, we’re writing. I’ll play the guitar all day. I’ll do that for the next four months or whatever. So I’ll really play a lot.
As far as the road, we’re touring and playing 3-hour shows. There’s a fatigue factor. You don’t want to play all day and then play a show. So maybe I’ll play for an hour or two. When I’m home and I’m kind of relaxing, there’s not much of a pressing issue. I tend to scale back a little bit unless I’m preparing for something. But I always try to put an hour or two a day and make it a consistent part of what I do. It makes me feel weird if I don’t do it!
Does your practicing usual involve going over songs or trying out new techniques?
|"When you're live in front of an audience, there's things like stamina that's involved."|
It depends on what I’m doing. For example, I’m doing G3 in South America coming up and then in Australia. Right now, I haven’t touched that music in a long time. In a couple weeks, I’ll start to practice those songs and the techniques involved in those songs. But if I don’t have anything coming up, if I’m not supposed to be in the studio or I’m not playing something specific, then I’ll just work at kind of two levels. One is just a maintenance routine, kind of keeping yourself up to speed, and then trying to learn new things.
What is like playing with fellow legendary guitarists Steve Vai and Joe Satriani on the G3 Tour?
As far as my initial reaction, I was kind of like, “Are you serious?” I was really honored that they asked me. I was also kind of nervous because I didn’t really have any material to play. They’re both solo artists, but I didn’t have a solo album. I had to write music to do that. I was a little nervous about that. You know, “What am I going to play?” After doing it, first of all, both those guys are just super people. They’re just such great, great people. The whole vibe and atmosphere on all the tours I’ve done with them so far, it’s just like it’s real relaxed, musician-friendly. The way that the whole tour runs and everything, there’s just no B.S. It’s awesome. They couldn’t be nicer guys. Playing on stage with them and watching them solo right in front of me and watching them do their own sets, I’ve walked away with so much. I can’t even tell you. Everything from performance to technique to attitude - it’s really been a major influence on me, big-time.
Did Satriani or Vai ask you for advice on anything?
They’re so nice. The compliments are just flying all over the place. And when they say something to me like they really like something I did in a specific song or something that Dream Theater has done and that they’re a fan? Yeah. I’m like, “Wow! Coming from you guys, it really means so much.” Getting that type of respect from your community and your peers, there’s nothing like that.
Dream Theater is known for its highly technical compositions. Are there any songs that you still find extremely challenging to play?
There’s not a specific song, but there are certain parts within song. Almost every song will have something that’s challenging that you’ve got to buckle down on and focus in on and play.
Are there any times that you still feel a little nervous to play a particularly difficult part onstage?
I think that with that type of thing, no matter how much you practice it and you feel that you’ve mastered it, it’s not until you actually start playing it live in front of an audience that you really realize where you’re at technically. Let’s say I recorded a record and I did some crazy solo or lick. I’ll think all my chops are good, and then we’ll go up and play the first couple of shows, and I’m not where I thought I was at. I think the reason is because there are a lot of different elements that play into playing live. It’s one thing to practice a lick over and over in your room. It’s another thing to play that lick after you’ve just played three songs, or you’re into a 12-minute song and that lick is part of a bigger picture and part of a solo.
When you’re live in front of an audience, there’s things like stamina that’s involved. I think that that conditioning happens the more shows that you play. It’s hard to recreate that practicing by yourself. It’s a whole different thing when you’re standing, you’re playing live, you’re in front of millions, and everything’s loud. And then you try to play that stuff - that’s when you know you’ve really pulled it off.
With every band member doing his own complex part, was it ever hard to get in sync as a band?
We’ve been together for so long and there’s such a great chemistry with these guys. It’s never an issue. It’s just a natural feel and a musical communication that we have between each other. I mean, we might get lost every so often, but it’s something that we usually correct when we record.
You have signature models from Ernie Ball. Talk about how you go about selecting whether you’ll use your 6-string or 7-string model.
|"Satriani and Vai are so nice. The compliments are just flying all over the place."|
It all happens in the writing process. Anything that is E-tuned or that goes lower than standard, it’s gonna sound heavier. So if that’s what we’re going for, then I’ll choose to use the 7-string or something like that. It also has to do with the range and the key that we’re in. If there’s certain sets that are being played that require songs below E, then that’s another reason I’d use it. If there are a lot things that are going on in the 6-string bass, then I need to really go down there and make it sound right. It all happens during the writing and it depends on the style of the song.
Do you have a favorite guitar that you play?
Yeah, I do. I have a few of them. As far as one in particular, I have the guitar that’s called my name for years now. It’s one of the first ones that Ernie Ball made for me. It’s a little beat up, but it plays like butter. It sounds great.
Do you every try out new guitars?
My Ernie Ball, that’s the guitar that I play. I don’t play any other guitars, nor would I want to. They’re the best guitars in the world as far as I’m concerned. I have so many of them. We have different rigs that fly around the world and different tunings on the last tour. So I had 14 guitars with me. The thing about Ernie Ball that I love and that I really cherish is that the guitars all feel very consistent. I can get a brand new one and it plays amazing from the get-go. It’s a really, really important thing to have as far as a guitar. The way that the neck feels and the way it’s supported, there’s nothing to replace that.
What amps are you using these days?
I’ve been using Mesa Boogie for years. I have a few different ones that are my favorites for certain things. On the Octavarium record I used a Road King, as well as on Train of Thought (2003). I was using that on the Octavarium tour for a while, but I’m also a big fan of the Mark IIC Plus, which I actually used on Score with a rectifier power end, so it’s a little bit different sound. It’s not like a pure IIC sound. It’s kind of almost a hybrid of two different ones.
The Octavarium record was your last one with Elektra. Do you know if you’ll be signed on to do more on Elektra or will you go with a different label?
Actually, I don’t even know right now. We are in the studio and working on a record, but I’m not sure at this point what label the record will come out on yet. So we’re in the process of negotiating that.
You said that you are in the process of writing new material?
Yeah. We just started a couple days ago. We’re in New York City and writing away!
You’re band seems to have different feelings regarding bootleg CDs. While Mike Portnoy has made several bootlegs available to the public through his label YtseJam Records, is it true that you don’t necessarily agree with the idea?
It’s something that I’ve learned to accept, I guess. I think that the world has really changed a lot. I think that music is a lot more accessible. I’m still not into the concept of people illegally recording and then selling their music. I still think it’s wrong. I really do. I would never do that, so I don’t understand how other people can do it. But I’d say at this point, I kind of understand the passion about people that want to hear all the music and where they’re coming from. I realize technically now everything is so advanced where you can have a CD the same night as the show practically. But I would be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me that people are doing that and getting away with it.
With the Score DVD going to number 1 on the Billboards, it does sound like plenty of your fans want to support you by buying your music.
|"I definitely strive for progression in the overall guitar world."|
That blows me away. With a band like ours, we’re obviously not a pop sensation! You’re not going to get our music by turning on the radio, so the fans have to get out there and get to the stores. That support is just invaluable.
What advice would you give to guitarists, both those just beginning and those who may have reached a more professional level?
I think in both cases, there are a couple things that could apply. One of them is that there’s no substitute for practicing and the time that you put into it. It’s really like that with anything, whether it would be sports, gymnastics, guitar, piano. I have young kids. When somebody is motivated and they put the time into it, they’re gonna get the results. And you have to do that consistently, whether you’re just starting or whether you’re a professional or semi-professional. Everybody knows that you don’t just sit on the couch and miraculously get better. You have to put the hours in. I think in both cases as well, the biggest discovery for me - and I’ve said this a million times - was the metronome, practicing with the metronome. It’s the best way to get your skills honed in and get accuracy and consistency. I think your learning curve is a lot faster when you use a metronome.
The only other thing as far as people that are semi-professional or getting there or whatever, the biggest thing for me is learning music. You can practice all day long and be able to play the sickest lick in the world, but one thing I know I know about if you want to have a career, is the songs have to be there and you have to write music. You have to write your own music. It has to be something that’s special and unique and that people can relate to. There’s nothing to replace that. How many people do you know that are great players but they’re just sitting in their room? You’ve got to get out there. You’ve got to write. You have to be prolific and productive.
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