Dream Theater's John Petrucci: 'You Have To Be Prolific'

John Petrucci talked with UG about the making of Score, his work with the G3 Tour, and the fans who have kept Dream Theater thriving for two decades.

Dream Theater's John Petrucci: 'You Have To Be Prolific'
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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. Petrucci 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.
"I feel incredibly proud to be the type of band that we are."
What is the songwriting process like when you work with an orchestra? 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!
"When you're live in front of an audience, there's things like stamina that's involved."
Does your practicing usual involve going over songs or trying out new techniques? 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.
"Satriani and Vai are so nice. The compliments are just flying all over the place."
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. 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.
"I definitely strive for progression in the overall guitar world."
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. 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. Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2006

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    Guitar_Poet
    SonicMessiah wrote: Eh, he's ok ... mostly overrated. A million people play like him.
    millions can play like him, meaning they can play his songs.. but how many WRITE like he does? hes not a guitarist, hes not a musician... hes an artist. he doesnt just kick back and play guitar. he involves the guitar in the music in ways most other people do not. he is, in my opinion, an absolute genius. hes an amazing guitarist in every aspect... i really wish i coulda seen him with satch and vai in the g3. i got the DVD, but i really wish i coulda been there. i saw DT's 20th anniversary show in san francisco... amazing.. loved that show more than like.. anything else ive ever seen... as for a recommendation on a DT album (this is for Nedir Kire)... their albums are simply amazing.. the only ones that i put on a slightly lower level (still high) are "when dream and day unite," and "falling into infinity." id recommend any other album. if you like more of the metal side of things though, grab Train of Thought. DT is simply amazing... i love all their stuff. took me like a year and a half to get used to labrie's voice though, hehe. =)
    chubb666
    petrucci is amazing. seems like a nice guy and hell even the skit Youtube.com videos with the pyscho exercises keep me entertained. he is a living god! (of guitar anyway)
    emindead
    "John Petrucci on guitar" -James LaBrie- Gig after gig after gig after gig...
    axe_2_grind
    I was stoned off my ass for the SF show, but a good show nonetheless. And Petrucci is perhaps the best guitarist on the face of the planet!! I should be so lucky to have the kind of discipline he has (and I don't BTW!! ). Yeah I don't quite get the Ernie Ball sucking up bit, being that he used to play Ibanez (which he didn't even mention BTW). I wonder if he still owns his old Picasso guitars?
    SonicMessiah
    [quote]Guitar_Poet wrote: SonicMessiah wrote: Eh, he's ok ... mostly overrated. A million people play like him. millions can play like him, meaning they can play his songs.. but how many WRITE like he does? [QUOTE] Everyone that comes outta Berklee, dude.... and I wasn't talking about the fans who waste their time learning cover songs, either.
    Guitar_Poet
    SonicMessiah wrote: [quote]Guitar_Poet wrote: SonicMessiah wrote: Eh, he's ok ... mostly overrated. A million people play like him. millions can play like him, meaning they can play his songs.. but how many WRITE like he does? [QUOTE] Everyone that comes outta Berklee, dude.... and I wasn't talking about the fans who waste their time learning cover songs, either.
    i dont think hes overrated at all. steve vai came from berklee but he doesnt play like petrucci at all. plus, petrucci dropped out of berklee.... and i need an example of a person who writes and plays like petrucci who has come from berklee to solidify your point... cuz i havent heard anyone...
    7_seven_7
    AcrosstheTracks wrote: Great interview! Petrucci is a very humble and helpful guy, and I really do look up to him as an influence, even though his Rock Discipline CD is difficult as hell!
    LOL i hav that dvd! and it is difficult lol.. maybe cos im not at that level but yea hahahah.. petrucci can't teach beginners he's too good lol. [not that im a beginner]
    emkaybee
    I've heard one song by dream theater which is like instrumental epic metal stuff, could anyone tell me what the song is or what album it's from? Or is that to vague?
    shmooty
    He's a guy I have great respect for. He doesn't seem to take where he is for granted. For that I will always be inspired by him and respect him.
    Guitar_Poet
    Shinozoku wrote: I only hae one album with his stuff on it, hta'ts "An Evening With John Petrucci & Jordan Rudess", and I love it! I'm learning "State of Grace" to play at my art class's next showing in the spring, and I intend to transcribe the piano part by ear so I can get a friend to play it and make the song complete. But, in case I can't transcribe it, does anybody know where to find the music, if it's even out/transcribed?
    State of Grace is a Liquid Tension Experiment song (liquid tension experiment = john petrucci, jordan rudess, mike portnoy, and tony levin)... friggin awesome experiment indeed... and that CD that you have Shinozoku is amazing... i have it as well... but yea, just thought id let you know where that particular song came from. like you said though, its (an evening with john petrucci and jordan rudess) an amazing CD. i dont believe its out/transcribed, sadly. wish it was... id buy both liquid tension experiment books, i really want to learn those songs! =)
    goon316
    Very cool guy as always. He was my main inspiration when I started playing guitar, I guess thats why I have his custom guitar Cant wait for the new album.
    Guitar_Poet
    unholy_alliance wrote: Petrucci is brilliant. Just brilliant. I haven't listened to too much Dream Theater but I've always had respect for Petrucci and I always will. I think I might start listening to more DT now...
    thou must!
    unholy_alliance
    Petrucci is brilliant. Just brilliant. I haven't listened to too much Dream Theater but I've always had respect for Petrucci and I always will. I think I might start listening to more DT now...
    kt_guitarist
    yeah a real pretruccianiac speaking, like all of his work but am a bit dissapointed by his views regarding bootlegs. there is no such thing like bootlegging shows an get big underground flows of music. It creates rarity and the great feeling when you get a hold on something uniqe
    Guitar_Poet
    emkaybee wrote: I've heard one song by dream theater which is like instrumental epic metal stuff, could anyone tell me what the song is or what album it's from? Or is that to vague?
    probably "stream of consciouness"... awesome song.
    ICX357
    emkaybee wrote: I've heard one song by dream theater which is like instrumental epic metal stuff, could anyone tell me what the song is or what album it's from? Or is that to vague?
    The glass prison
    urnonav
    Guitar_Poet wrote: just as Train of Thought if the best intro to DT's music for metal fans. =)
    Pull Me Under could do as well I guess, but yeah!
    Guitar_Poet
    urnonav wrote: Don't get me wrong: Falling into Infinity is a good album, but compared to DT's other albums, it's really below par. Most songs are unoriginal in the sense that they sound like your "typical rock band". Just Let Me Breathe and Hell's Kitchen are great great stuff though. Actually, for rock (non-metal and non-prog) fans, FiF is the best intro to DT's music.
    just as Train of Thought if the best intro to DT's music for metal fans. =)
    rockergurl09
    Nedir Kire wrote: can one of you recommend a petrucci album and dream theater album? Thanks.
    for Dream Theater, it depends on what you like about dream theater. for the metal: Train of Thought for overall signature dream theater: Octavarium for prog: Images and Words for prog/metal: Awake (my personal fave) For epic concept albums, try Scenes from a Memory and/or Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.
    Rabshred
    He is a compete master of guitar, up in the top 5 of the gretset players of all time without a doubt. Shred on Johnny boy!
    HopePoisoned
    Some words of wisdom. And the reason for switching from Ibanez to EB was REALLY practical, it was just like he couldn't get the guitars he wanted from ibanez or they wouldn't make them or something and he switched, i don't really remember what it was but i remember it was really simple (something like what i said)
    _zac_
    Raoulbanez wrote: Man, that guy is amazing!!! why ernie ball? what's wrong with Ibanez Anyway, hes the GuitarGod.
    i agree on both points. He seems like a humble fellow. cant wait for the next album
    urnonav
    Don't get me wrong: Falling into Infinity is a good album, but compared to DT's other albums, it's really below par. Most songs are unoriginal in the sense that they sound like your "typical rock band". Just Let Me Breathe and Hell's Kitchen are great great stuff though. Actually, for rock (non-metal and non-prog) fans, FiF is the best intro to DT's music.
    Havenspear
    He's very down to earth. :] I want to hear some of that solo stuff. can't wait for the G3 dvds with him.
    ironwolg
    luckeas : This is one of the least cocky guitarist i have ever read about. Noverion is right, most of the guitarist that have been around are dicks. For example James Hetfield. Don't get me wrong i love the music he has produced and been apart of but some guys just can't grow up. screw you! James Hetfield is awesome!!!!! John Petrucci is my 3rd favorite guitarist, he's very original and just flat out amazing! good interview but too long lol
    utahotc
    Petrucci is amazing; he's the reason I started playing. Inspiring, and one of the few players who can be technical and emotional at the same time. Plus the variety... heavy metal, flamenco, ballads, etc. That Glass Prison solo in the beginning is absolutely ridiculous! . I'm waiting for album #9.
    Guitar_Poet
    ICX357 wrote: emkaybee wrote: I've heard one song by dream theater which is like instrumental epic metal stuff, could anyone tell me what the song is or what album it's from? Or is that to vague? The glass prison
    the glass prison is not instrumental. "Life here in my glass prison, a place I once called home.. fall in nocturnal bliss again..."
    urnonav
    As for overrated,etc., comments, I have only one thing to say: just look at the humility, which by the way is a sign of greatness ! True a lot of guitarists can play fast. Look at Batio or Herman Lee or even Laiho and they are all good, no doubt about that. To get what makes Petrucci stand out, listen to Hollow Years, Overture 1928, Home and The Glass Prison. He's good all round, which is very rare!!! DT album recommendation: Images and Words and Metropolis 2: Scenes from a Memory for the more progressive side of things or Train of Thoughts for heavy stuff or Awake for more experimental work. Instrumental: Overture 1928, Ytse Jam, Dance of Eternity are all great instrumentals. Could be Stream of Consciousness, but I don't really like their heavy stuff that much. Great interview - can't wait for the next album!
    Guitar_Poet
    Fongie wrote: If you like Petrucci.. or music at all for that matter, you have to listen to "An evening with John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess". Id give almost anything to have been there on that show.. just wow
    haha, me too. *envious of crowd*
    ripewithdecay wrote: what's with all the hate on falling into infinity? i love that album just as much as all the others, peruvian skies is such an amazing song.
    i like that song too, but labrie's voice... i dont like it that much on that song. =/ "Vicarious" (the Tool song) reminds me of "New Millenium" (DT) for some reason.. am i the only one?
    FRANCIS777
    Nice work UG, You've show us how great Petrucci is. Confessing his concepts. A bow to petrucci!!
    Fongie
    If you like Petrucci.. or music at all for that matter, you have to listen to "An evening with John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess". Id give almost anything to have been there on that show.. just wow
    ripewithdecay
    what's with all the hate on falling into infinity? i love that album just as much as all the others, peruvian skies is such an amazing song.
    Shinozoku
    I only hae one album with his stuff on it, hta'ts "An Evening With John Petrucci & Jordan Rudess", and I love it! I'm learning "State of Grace" to play at my art class's next showing in the spring, and I intend to transcribe the piano part by ear so I can get a friend to play it and make the song complete. But, in case I can't transcribe it, does anybody know where to find the music, if it's even out/transcribed?
    metalhead04
    John Petrucci is, in my opinion, THE best guitarist in the world. He combines blazing technicality and musicianship w/ power and emotion, and with DT, it's about the band and the song/album as a whole, not just about showing off on a solo. He's my hero
    phatdog13
    Petrucci is the most techinical guitarist in the world. He not only can play fast, but he plays with technicality and musicianship. Cant wait for the next DT album