John Petrucci Interview - Systematic Precision
Dream Theater’s John Petrucci is a guitarist’s guitarist. Articulate and precise with speed to burn, he slashed a lonely trail through the barren wasteland that was the post grunge era and lived to tell about it. From his very first note, he had captured the ears of serious rivals and shred fans alike and he continues to this day to dazzle and inspire.
Let’s learn a little bit more about the man known as the human metronome, who graciously took the time to chat with us during the recent G3 tour of America. John called from sunny Las Vegas to be precise.
A Brief History
John was raised in Kings Park Long Island, a suburban bedroom community not that far from New York City the Big Apple. Future musical colleagues John Myung & Kevin Moore also grew up there, and the boys all attended school together. He was inspired by several highly technical influences very early on and those helped develop his steadfast determination to become like his idols. Some of those early influences included Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads, Iron Maiden, Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as the prog rock stylings of Yes and particularly Rush. As the rise of thrash and darker metal hit the musical community, John started listening to the likes of Metallica and Queensryche. Despite loving this heavy music, he still needed the technical challenge of learning works by artists like Morse, Vai, Holdsworth and Al DiMeola. He also enjoyed the jazz work of Mr.’s Stern and Scofield. In the popular rock area he also listened to Satriani, Schon and of course Eddie Van Halen.
John started to take music very seriously with a music theory class he took in high school. He continued to be mostly self taught, but did take a few lessons prior to enrolling at Berklee. While at Berklee John and John Myung met Mike Portnoy and started a band called Majesty which would later develop into the first rk of Dream Theater. To date John has recorded 8 albums with Dream Theater, and has also been involved in several side projects including Liquid Tension Experiment with Tony Levin, Age of Impact and even a Sega Saturn game called ‘Necronomicon’. Last year he released his first solo record ‘Suspended Animation’ John lives with his wife, Rena, and 3 children, Sami Jo, Reny and Kiara in New York City. The new Dream Theater album ‘Systematic Chaos’ will be released later this month.
The Early Days And Formative Influences
These questions, and there are a lot of them to get through in our short time, are a collaborative effort from the boys at alloutGUITAR. If any particular question seems really stupid, it is NOT mine ok?!
The first question is my own… a truly “burning” question and one I am very proud of. I have in fact been waiting years for just this opportunity to pose it! Many years ago, live at the Marquee you performed an awesome instrumental called “Bombay Vindaloo” remember it?
So, any truth to the rumour that the album “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” resulted from that vindaloo?
Never mind, lets move on…
Oh I get it now – that’s pretty funny!
Did you grow up in a particularly musical family or environment?
The environment was musical but the family was not really. I had an older sister that played a little bit of keyboards but that was it. My brother followed in my footsteps a bit but chose bass. So I guess it is kind of weird that I play guitar. But in my suburban neighborhood (Long Island, what a spawning ground!!) many of the teens had garage bands that actually practiced in the garage with the doors open. That was what first inspired me to get in on the action.
When did you actually start?
At about nine I started with some lessons on a cheap little acoustic guitar. I hated it. So I stopped and it probably wasn’t until I was about twelve that I really wanted to play again.
When you started again at twelve did you gets lessons or learn on your own?
Nah, totally self taught, those early lessons were not inspirational.
Were you happy with your early learning and rate of progress? Was it fairly natural for you?
You know, in the beginning I remember being frustrated at not being able to switch chords quickly, crisply and noiselessly. I learned from records and remember the feeling of having no clue what those guys were doing. I started watching and listening more and more closely and of course eventually figured all that stuff out and then concentrated more on technique.
And so when was the first band experience, at what age?
Pretty early on don’t remember exactly but as I said I was in the neighborhood for it. There were so many incarnations of the various local bands, school bands, church bands party bands etc. plus all these different influences around too, guys that were into blues, others into rock etc.
When did you first develop an interest in theory and did you see it as a necessity?
As I got better and better, and started listening to stuff that was way more accomplished, probably around high school age, I started to feel the necessity to explore all that. Particularly if I wanted to follow the realm of the greats like DiMeola, Vai and Scofield and that quest ultimately led me to Berklee.
Who was the first player to really knock you back on your ass, for me it was in fact Mr. DiMeola?
For me it was Steve Morse. A friend loved the Dregs and played me the live album and of course “The Bash”. I listened to that and did not think that that was possible on the guitar to play that fast and that clean. Another friend turned me on to DiMeola’s ‘Casino’ and that is to this day, one of my all-time favourite albums. Later on it was Yngwie. When I first heard Alcatraz it was like ok here is a guy playing all that super fast super technical cool stuff, but he is my land, in the land of rock!
And along the way Eddie must have hit you hard to?
Absolutely, the first two albums in particular were a big influence. Also Randy Rhoads those first two Blizzard albums. There was a particular solo I taped from the King Biscuit radio hour a Randy Rhoads solo I used to play every single day before heading off to school.
At that same time were you developing any interest, particularly from a compositional point of view in progressive rock and particularly Rush?
Oh yeah totally! Another bunch of friends were totally Rush heads, I particularly remember being introduced to the song “The Trees” I just fell in love with all that stuff; Yes was another band. Looking back, thank God for my wide circle of friends into so much different music!!!
How about all the neoclassical stuff that followed YJM on Shrapnel – did that have a lot of impact?
Actually for me it was even well before all that because I had started out with Morse and DiMeola in high school and by say ’86 I was already at Berklee.. but hey Tony Macalpine and Vinnie Moore? Of course I listened to that stuff – and it was totally inspiring too!
And you coming from the breeding ground of Long Island were you also aware of the local shredders say Romeo, Stephen Ross, Vai and Satch?
Not really, but of course once I heard those guys they too were inspiring.
I once asked another Long Island shredder why he thought so many great guitarists were spawned in the urban sprawl of the Big Apple what is your take?
What was really cool was that living in the suburbs the folks there were really open to all sorts of music progressive fusion etc.
Had you started working on jazz standards earlier or did that start with going to Berklee?
Nah, that started at Berklee but prior to starting I did bone up so to speak on theory etc because I was self taught up until that point; but that was really classical theory. Once I started though, I was introduced to the Berklee books.
Did you ever have any interest to gig traditional jazz stuff?
What do you consider to be your first gig in a somewhat professional realm?
It’s hard to say because when Dream Theater formed we really did not gig a lot. We practiced all the time, but shows came much later. I would even say not until long after our first album was released. We did not tour until 1992’s ‘Images and Words’
What specifically drew you Berklee instead of say GIT or others?
It was the guys who went there particularly DiMeola, Vai and Scofield.
At what point did you really think: “Hey, I can make a career out of this music thing!”?
I was always – even from high school – really focused almost with a tunnel vision that I was going to do this. I developed a tenacity that I was really made for this.
Why the choice to leave Berklee? What were the immediate plans at that time?
Well, John, Mike and I were practicing so much and writing music etc, that we decided we wanted to do that full time: and school was not going to leave us enough time to accomplish all of that.
Other than meeting those guys and others what did you take away from the Berklee experience? Did you discover other genres or players of influence?
Probably jazz fusion – and particularly Alan Holdsworth – but I would also say it definitely helped me better know my way around my instrument of choice and in particular chord melody.
Did you ever do an extended period of teaching yourself?
Yes, after Berklee. First in a music store and later in my own home. Before the band became successful that is basically what I did for money.
Did you ever play in the cover band circuit or – as you mentioned earlier – were you more focused on developing and practicing your own music?
Yeah we were totally focused on that: our own music -practicing together several nights a week.
How did you first hook up with Charles Dominici?
Through auditioning. He basically answered an ad.
How did you land that oh so elusive first record deal?
Basically with having a lot of demos and a lot of leg work. Remember we were not out gigging clubs so we had to draw the interest inwards.
The First Album And Into The 90’s
Owen, our Editor at alloutGUITAR, bought that very first album based on a great review you guys got in Raw, a UK based rock print mag. Do you remember how well that first album was received and how many units it may have moved?
Nah probably not too many units sold but I remember it did garner a lot of critical praise and we thought that that was really cool. Too bad it had no tour, marketing or label support.
How long afterwards did things start to fall apart with Charles?
We wanted to take things to the next level, get the next record happening and we felt he just did not fit in, he was much older and so we asked him to leave.
Did you have a hard time finding a replacement? There was a long time between the first and second records?
Yeah we spent about a year and a half with countless demos, tryouts etc with many others.
So now we arrive at Mark II of the band, to me a light year jump both compositionally but also in your playing.
Yeah we did so much demoing and practicing in that year and a half that things did leap forward. It was also just a natural maturing process as people, writers and musicians.
Were any new influences impacting your work during that time or was it the evolving group work?
Definitely the group work. We were working very hard and it was truly a second job with lofty goals.
How did you meet Derek Oliver and how did the second record deal come about?
He actually wrote a review on us in a rock magazine, maybe Kerrang and then he joined ATCO in the A&R department and of course Derek Shulman was the President at that time.
And so when did you realize you had a hit on your hands with ‘Images and Words” at the time of release or even earlier?
No we were happy with the recording but because the songs were long and progressive we had no inkling that it would be so well accepted, go gold and give us a rock hit – especially since Nirvana was just coming out, the total opposite really of what we were all about.
Was your first endorsement deal around this time and who was it?
Yes around that time and probably Ibanez if I recall correctly. I still have DiMarzio and Mesa Boogie which were amongst the first as well.
So now you obviously started touring. Do you remember those early tours and which artists were good or evil to/with you guys the young upstarts?
We did not do a lot of support touring – and I particularly remember Maiden and Marillion. We actually did a lot of one off stuff in smaller clubs as well; when ’Pull Me Under’ became a hit the clubs got fuller and we were asked to perform at more of them – so it was a natural progression.
Now we reach ‘Awake’ in 1994 to me a darker more organic album and production. Do you agree and was that what you were after?
Well suddenly we were in a position of having to crank out an album in four months as opposed to a year and a half. I also got my first seven string guitar and the heavier bottom end.
How long did it take to adapt that into your work, a seven string?
Immediately, I remember getting it and writing ‘The Mirror’ immediately, right away.
h3 Do you remember how sales were? We were now of course hard into the grunge era and the resultant backlash against anything progressive or vaguely technical…
It did not really affect us, we were so focused on our own path and developing a fan base around the world.
Next was “Change of Seasons and with that came all the famous Ronnie Scott jazz club shows. How and why did you decide to do all those cover shows?
It has always just been a part of what was fun for us and to this day we still do that stuff for fun. It breaks things up and makes things more interesting for us you know.
When Kevin Moore left how did you go about finding your next keyboard player?
Well we were sort of in a rush because we were in the middle of recording and we in fact also had an important gig at that time, in fact Jordan Ruddess did that gig (_Editors Note: The Ronnie Scott gig we presume…_), but he did’nt end up in the band at that time. We had word of mouth out, and that is how we in fact found Derek (_Sherinian_) – I got a call from guitarist Al Pitrelli about him.
Over in the UK there were rumors that you were in talks with current Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airey – any truth to these?
No, not at all.
Around 1996 you made your instructional video, considered by many to be one of the very best out there, any plans for another?
Thanks! And yes – I definitely will.
Your ‘Wild Stringdom’ compilation book came out a few years later…
I had just done so many articles that at one point it was decided to compile them into a book.
In the late 90’s we have the first Liquid Tension Experiment project. What was the genesis of that project?
Well that was on Magna Carta and was in fact the first time we got to write with Jordan. That experience planted the seed of the idea of “Wow! How great would this guy be in Dream Theater?!” Of course it was also awesome to work with a magical musician like Tony Levin. We only had a week to put that whole album together but it flowed very naturally. We even played a few shows afterwards because the vibe was so good.
Some of my very favorite work of yours was on “Age of Impact” can you tell us much about that?
Well, I did not do any of the writing on that and basically had a day to add the solos to the work that’s all.
Other than the obvious, how did the addition of Jordan change the way ‘Scenes From a Memory’ develop?
Well because of the Liquid Tension experience, we wrote and recorded that one immediately in the studio. We did not develop the songs outside of the studio before starting to record as had been our norm…and, of course, for the first time we also produced the record ourselves.
A lot of your fans consider this particular project the encapsulation of the band and its style. What do you say to that?
‘Scenes From a Memory’ was the first album that Mike nd I produced. It was the first concept album and it was in fact the first album with Jordan in the band as well.We were very happy and very confident as well with that one particularly given that we produced it. Also that we were able to develop a concept and themes and link them all, we were very happy. With all the great work that has passed before the last thing you’d want to do is create a cheesy concept album right?
Owen, our illustrious editor, recalls seeing your gig to support this album (Scenes) at the Shepherd Bush Empire and states that it was the best single concert experience he ever had period.
Wow! The tour stands out in memory because of course it was the first with Jordan as a full time member of the band and I recall how excited we were about the idea of sharing this new work of which we were so proud.
The New Millenium
So would you ever consider another concept type album?
Sure, but they sure are a heck of a lot of hard work to do. It is fun though, the ultra drama of trying to tell a story in a rock setting.
By this point – the turn of the decade – were your record sales pretty consistent? A lot of bands at that stime operating loosely within this genre were suffering…yet I remember a real buzz amongst music fans about ‘Scenes…’
Yes, that album was really well received by the fans at large for sure… and you know – to this day – that album has not stopped selling! We just celebrated twenty years and of course things are better than ever for us.
How did your involvement in the 2001 G3 tour come about and did you enjoy that experience?
I loved it! Basically Joe just asked me and of course I was scared because I did not really have any solo material so to speak. I had to write some material for the tour. It was great fun and now I am in my sixth G3 experience.
Do you see the album ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’ as a bridge between the bands more overtly progressive and conceptual work and the heavier work that followed – i.e. ‘Train Of Thought’?
Our crowds really seem to respond to the heavier stuff and it is also fun to play, so we just decided to do a whole album like that.
How long did it take to create and produce your first and only solo record? Also how did you approach the writing as opposed to writing for DT?
My premise for that album was very close to say jazz form where there were going to be melodies and of course a lot of improv over a main groove returning to and twisting around the various melodies.
Particular favorite tune on there?
‘Jaws of Life’ always gets me pumping and it is a cool seven string metal progression.
‘Octavarium’ is a very varied album stylistically and others have indicated that they hear a sprinkling of Muse influence in there – do you think that is a fair comment?
Definitely, they are a band we enjoy very much. Mike, Jordan and I are big fans so yes they may have crept into a couple of those songs.
What approach have you taken on the next album ‘Systematic Chaos’?
Pretty much the same approach, writing right in the studio in New York. It is a mixture of styles but does not depart very much from a generally heavy theme. From a guitar point of view there’s tons of shred on there but also tons of melody too.
Which tracks should we guitar players in particular be on the look out for?
‘Constant Motion’ is one – and maybe also ‘Dark Eternal Night’ – lots of major seven string riffing happening on that one!
Who from a musical standpoint has influenced you lately and might show up some how some way in your present or future work?
There is a guy who kicked my ass in a major way – Rusty Cooley who I have become friends with. He is an ultra technical ultra shred monster man, a real kick in the ass. As I’ve said, it’s like you really think you can play and then you hear that stuff!
So when you come up with riffs is it more ear through the heart or a theory work out?
Really a combination of both, we write based around a lot of improv, so that’s how it usually happens. Not too worked out…. I must say though, that because of our schooling we always have tons of options on where to take the music and as a result we never get stuck very long searching for an idea which is a really cool feeling indeed.
Your music and theory, do you keep on top of it? Up to scratch?
I don’t really keep on top of it unfortunately…I cannot practically use and apply music reading – for example – to my every day life…unlike Jordan. I mean that is what and who he is.
Other than the new DT album what is in the works for you?
Well, really just finishing this G3 thing and then getting ready to world tour the new Theater album.
Thanks for your time.
Pleasure, anytime – but only in person or by phone please – I cannot type worth a damn!