John Petrucci

Groupology

  • Dream Theater
  • Liquid Tension Experiment
  • John Petrucci

Jurassic

Watch John Petrucci in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Ridiculous chops. Complicated compositions and self-indulgent music. Signature guitars from both Ibanez and Ernie Ball. John Petrucci is the last true Dinosaur Rock Guitarist to have gained any significant notoriety — back when Dream Theater hit in a major way with 1992's Images and Words. Petrucci arguably has the best overall technique of any Dino. He is often accused of overplaying, although that probably depends on your definition of the term.

Influences

Obvious: Steve Morse is the guy that John names as his number one guitar influence, and you can certainly hear a lot of Morse in Petrucci's picking technique. The other guy that's an obvious influence is Alex Lifeson — primarily in the rhythm style and his clean tones. "Lifeson chords" are a staple in most Dream Theater songs, and chorus abuse runs rampant. The other set of obvious influences you can pin on Dream Theater as a band, are: Yes, ELP, Kansas, Genesis, King Crimson, and Queensryche. There's even some Deep Purple in there on occasion.

Not-so-obvious: Dream Theater is a band that features fantastic musicians, but it's John Petrucci who puts the heavy Dino attitude in the band — and that's why he's featured here. For all of his extreme ability, John is, at heart, a metal style guitarist playing in a progressive band. There's a lot of extreme metal in his riffing — and that's a good thing — because all prog and no metal would make John a very dull boy. I hear elements from many different bands — Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, Napalm Death and even Morbid Angel. John also claims Black Sabbath and Steve Howe as significant influences.

Strengths

Technique. Most guitarists are known for one thing that they do extremely well. For example, Van Halen has two-handed tapping, Malmsteen has sweep picking, BB King has his vibrato, and they play to their strengths. Petrucci is a totally different animal. John does everything at an extremely high level. Watch John's Rock Discipline instructional video at your own peril — he'll make you want to throw out your guitar and become an insurance salesman. His alternate picking is in the top echelon of players of any genre. 16th note runs are precise and articulate at tempos over 200 bpm. He's also mastered legato technique — again, perfectly in time and articulate at all tempos. Frequently, legato passages that sound like two-handed taps are actually done with just his left hand, at insane speeds. He is also ridiculously well versed in chord theory and has full command of harmony, arranging, and orchestration.

7 string style. Where Petrucci sounds the most interesting and original to me is when he's playing 7 string. Perhaps because it's a newer instrument and not so well developed, he doesn't have such a huge storehouse of knowledge to draw on there. Listen to The Glass Prison, Mirror, Lies, or Acid Rain for some excellent examples of how he approaches the 7 string. A lot of his 7 string low riffing is borrowed from bands like Pantera and Metallica, particularly the rhythms.

Discipline. John has a very disciplined approach to playing and learning new techniques to incorporate into his playing. His practice routine is structured, regimented, and designed to produce results. His command of the guitar lets him reproduce even the most complex passages with little effort. He approaches the guitar the way a grad student approaches his master's thesis.

Versatility. Years of study have made John a very well rounded musician, who is clearly comfortable in a wide variety of styles. Although he primarily focuses on hard rock, metal, and progressive rock, he gives us glimpses of fusion, blues, and classical guitar as well. And as anyone who's ever seen Dream Theater tear up a set of cover tunes live will attest, he's extremely well versed in the classic rock and metal of the 70's up through today.

Weaknesses

This is a personal preference thing, and I'm sure Petrucci's many fans would disagree, but John's technique is so developed, that it virtually eliminates any sense of drama in his lead style. The amazing stuff he plays in the context of Dream Theater looks completely effortless for him. So what — right?

Well, contrast Petrucci, for example, with Gary Moore during his rock metal days. With Gary, you can feel him battling the guitar to make it do what he wants — he's on the edge of losing control, trying to get a feeling across. There's drama in that. Conversely, Petrucci makes everything sound too easy. Guitars are John's bitch — he completely dominates them. You know he's gonna be flawless. It's like the differences between WWII and Granada — one was an epic conflict, the other was like swatting a gnat. Which would you rather see a movie about?

Dream Theater's musical format. As good as John Petrucci is, his best riffs and solos indicate that he might be a much more interesting and effective player in a band with a simpler format and agenda. There are occasional glimpses of headbanging goodness in Dream Theater's music, but they're surrounded by odd time signatures, complex arrangements, flying keyboard solos, and pretentious lead singer melodrama. I would love to hear John in a more straight up rock band, where he could riff out to his heart's content. Instead, Dream Theater delivers three distinct flavors:

  • Progressive. Self-indulgent jams and concept pieces, featuring intricate parts and complicated time signatures that are designed to show off the band's musical prowess. Instead of big riffs, many compositions such as Erotomania, and 6:00, are made of intricate single note lines that are often as demanding to play as a high-end guitar solo. It certainly doesn't all suck — and sometimes it's great — but there's often little dynamic contrast between Petrucci's solos and the surrounding composition.
  • Sappy ballads. Things like Take Away My Pain, Hollow Years, and Anna Lee — our best guess is that they serve up this soft, runny cheese to appease singer James LaBrie. Interestingly enough, Petrucci usually delivers some of his most melodic and emotional solos on these tracks.
  • Heavy song/riff-oriented metal. It is when Dream Theater leans in this direction that they are most effective from a Dinosaur Rock Guitar standpoint. On songs like Peruvian Skies, Burning My Soul, Pull Me Under, Lie, and Take the Time, where Petrucci is given an opportunity to deliver the goods, he is more than up to it. But much of the time he's busy playing intricate parts rather than riffing out.

The Portnoy complaint. Dream Theater drummer, Mike Portnoy is a guy with great technical ability but no sensibility from below the belt. The man simply will not play a groove. The rhythm never stays locked down. Every 4 or 8 bars Portnoy's varying it. Add to this that bassist John Myung plays bass like a frustrated guitarist and you get a rhythm section that's weak on low end, incapable of groove, and devoid of sex. And it's pretty hard to bang your head in 7/8 time! Imagine if Petrucci were paired up with a rhythm section like Queensryche's Scott Rockenfield and Eddie Jackson — guys who are just as inventive, but also lay down a solid foundation and fantastic, heavy grooves.

Emotion. John's playing can sometimes sound a bit contrived and cold, which I feel is a byproduct of his technique and his Morse and Howe influences. To me, Petrucci's playing often sounds like it's based on thought rather than feel. For example, instead of varying his vibrato to express different emotions and feeling in his solos, he has one perfected vibrato that he seems to use for everything. I also think the constraints of the progressive format demand that he focus more on execution at the expense of emotion. There are some great exceptions to this — in fact, Awake is filled with intense, emotional guitar work, but in general, throughout Dream Theater's catalog, the guitar work often sounds very sterile.

Originality. John doesn't bring much new to the table, and I don't feel he gets much of himself into his solos, either emotionally or through signature techniques or licks. He's very broad, but not very deep. It's almost as if his approach is: This solo should be a Yngwie sweep picking thing, then I'll throw in a Steve Morse bit, then I'll toss in this Vai lick, and then a Blackmore lick . . . He's so studied that he puts different guys' licks together — almost note-for-note sometimes. While he definitely captures the essence of some of these players and executes it well, it's not too original.

Tone

John is a diehard Mesa man and has used everything from the Mark series to Formulas, Rectifiers, and the TriAxis. Consequently, his sound is more modern and processed than vintage. Recently he's favored Mesa Mk.II C+ heads which are older 80s models. These amps are based on souped-up old Fenders and rely primarily on preamp distortion for overdrive; the power amp stays relatively clean and does not contribute much to the sound. The result is a high gain tone that’s more buzz than bite. It's much closer to Metallica and other modern metal tones than to the classic (power amp distorted) tones of Dino bands Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. For clean tones, the inherent hifi quality of the Mesa power amp section works to John’s advantage, as he is able to get an almost DI’d sound.

John likes to close mic his cabinets with SM57s, and does not like any natural ambience at all in his recorded tone. This gives his notes the definition they need on fast, intricate patterns, and puts the guitar sound squarely in-your-face so it cuts through the wall of drums and keyboards that he competes with in the mix.

John always has a huge effects rack. He uses a lot of chorus and delay courtesy of various TC Electronics and Lexicon units, and is a big proponent of the Eventide Harmonizer. He uses lots of wah on his leads.

John historically used Ibanez John Petrucci signature model guitars, but recently switched to Ernie Ball John Petrucci signature model guitars with humbuckers in the bridge and neck position. Both models feature Floyd Rose style locking tremolos. His current Ernie Ball signature axe comes in both 6 and 7 string versions. See www.johnpetrucci.com for details.

Guitar Style

John is a schooled player, and studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston as did the core of the guys in Dream Theater. And he sounds like typical Berklee guitarist — everything is thought-out and and pulled off with ridiculous precision. It's definitely more from the brain than from the crotch, but John still has his moments where he'll put a tent in your trousers.

John's rhythm style features both clean and dirty flavors. The clean tones are frequently augmented with chorus and delay, and as mentioned previously, owe a lot to the guitar style Alex Lifeson picked up from Andy Summers. For example, he frequently lets the top two high strings ring open when playing barre chords. He often quotes that F#7add4 that opens Rush's Hemispheres album, as well as other chords used by Lifeson in that era. Another favorite is the stacked 5ths that Summers used on Every Breath You Take — this results in a 9th chord (root - fifth - ninth). When he switches to his dirty tone, he tends to simplify these chords some so that the notes don't get lost, but he doesn't shy away from playing dissonant chords. He also likes to riff on the low strings ala Dimebag Darrell or Hetfield, and let the keyboards outline the chord progression. Dream Theater frequently employ an orchestration technique where the guitar will play a simple power chord (root - fifth or root - fifth - octave) and have the keys augment that with more sophisticated harmonies. This lets John crank up without having to worry about the chords getting lost.

As far as lead goes, John truly can play just about anything — and you're going to hear everything he knows at some point. Alternate picked scalar runs, seamless legato passages, sweep picked arpeggios, pentatonic blues riffs, it's all there. John tends to favor the Aeolian and Phrygian modes primarily, although there are examples of all modes in Dream Theater's music.

Vibrato:

Medium speed. Not really wide. Songs are so regimented he doesn't get to work his vibrato much. Could be better, as it always sounds a little contrived to me. Again, from the head rather than the crotch.

John Petrucci in Action

Recommended listening

Dream Theater

Profile By John Walker. Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.