If there’s one name that can make metal guitarists’ heads turn at a million miles a minute, it’s John Petrucci. And having kicked the year off with both a stunning new guitar and a ripping new Dream Theater LP, 2019 is shaping up to be a mental year for the multi‑hyphenate icon. Words by Matt Doria.
Now is the best possible time to be a Dream Theater fan with a soft spot for nostalgia. Not only are the venerable Long Island prog-metallers celebrating four enormous milestones (30 years of When Dream And Day Unite, 25 of Awake, 20 of Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory and ten of Black Clouds & Silver Linings), but they’ve also got a scorching new set of solos and shred under their belts.
Their 14th album in total, Distance Over Time is a landmark release for Dream Theater in a way that, had it been any other band we were talking about, certainly wouldn’t be grounds for acclaim. After 30 years of upping the ante with their convalescent displays of prog-metal despotism and soul-tingling theatricality – peaking with 2016’s The Astonishing, a piously titled conceptual epic that spans a mammoth 130 minutes over two breathtakingly grandiose acts – the band have made the shock decision to step back from the narrative angle, go back to the loose ’n’ livid walls of sound that made them a household name to begin with and, perhaps most importantly, break free from the shackles their addiction to perfectionism.
“This record is like a peek into what Dream Theater really sounds like as a band,” according to guitarist (and defacto frontman) John Petrucci. “Because of the way we went about creating and recording it, there’s a very live feeling to it, and a live sound as far as the arrangements go. You can hear the room that we’re playing in breathe; you can hear the atmosphere, y’know? And when we were writing the music, we demoed all of the songs live – we’d just play through them and record them as a band when we were coming up with the ideas, and the album itself is really not too far removed from the sound of those original demos. They sound better, sure, but the spirit of the band and the raw, genuine playing – it’s all captured on this album.”
It’s a bit of a catch-22: Distance Over Time is the second shortest Dream Theater album (at 57 minutes – still a very decent chunk of music, when you think about it), but it’s also the most authentically Dream Theater. And not just because of the stripped-back feel it embraces: a byproduct of that whole process, it’s also their most collaborative effort, with all nine cuts showcasing an equal slate of its four constituents’ talent.
“We purposely did [the recording process] a bit like a guys’ getaway trip,” Petrucci jokes. “We went to a place where we could all get together with no distractions, play music, barbecue, drink, and y’know, just hang out. And so there’s a real collective spirit on this one. Everybody was incredibly invested in the record and what was going on – everybody played their own parts and contributed to the writing – and I think you can really feel that on the record. There’s a really fun spirit in these songs.”
Of course, the star of the show across the nine nuggets of prog-metal gold on Distance Over Time is Petrucci’s fretwork – some of the fiercest and most enthralling in Dream Theater history. It’s a testament to his palpable love for and explicit connection to the instrument that even after sprinkling his magic over more than two dozen records in 35 years, Petrucci still manages to revolutionise his techniques as a guitarist and find new ways to assault his strings. His secret, as it turns out, is resoundingly simple: treat the guitar less as something that you work to control, and more as something you work in tandem with. At the risk of making Petrucci sound like some philosophical nutjob, become one with the guitar.
“I think it starts when we figure out what type of album we’re doing – that sort of dictates my approach to the guitar,” he explains. “With this record, we decided to do something that was a lot more organic and more live-oriented, so I approached the music with a much looser and more primitive mindset. But y’know, I always want to make the guitar interesting. As a player, I have to like what I hear, and it has to keep my own interest piqued; I do that by really contributing to the song and what makes sense in the context of it – that’s the most important thing. And then I try to challenge myself as a player, and maybe do some things that I haven’t done before; try out some new techniques or explore different options with the equipment we have.”
One important thing to note here is that this isn’t just any old guitarist we’re talking about – this is John goddamn Petrucci. For a player whose fingers have mastered so many of the technical challenges the guitar can present, learning new skills came mostly in the form of toying with what he already knew, and looking for new ways to bend and break the techniques he’d already made a name for himself on.
“A lot of the new things I did were in the solos,” Petrucci says, “Taking a few different techniques like dealing with arpeggios, string skipping and tapping and that sort of thing, and then combining them with some of the more standard picking stuff that I normally do. And you can really hear that on some of the tracks like ‘S2N’ and ‘Paralyzed’. It’s kind of fun to explore some of those things where, if you’re familiar with my playing, you might hear it and think, ‘Woah, I haven’t heard him do that type of thing before!’ If it makes your ears perk up, I’ve done my job right. And I try to make that happen for myself, as weird as it sounds – when I’m listening back to the music, and the guitar parts in particular, I’m trying to make my own head turn. I want to be able to say, ‘Wow, that came out really cool!’”
It helps to nail new techniques on the guitar, of course, when you have your own line of state-of-the-art signature models to bust them all out on. Across almost two decades working closely with Ernie Ball Music Man, Petrucci has released a veritable warehouse worth of critically acclaimed axes. The latest to come from metal’s favourite partnership is a new series of JP Majesties for 2019, all of which feature a standard Music Man Piezo floating tremolo bridge, Schaller locking tuners, a specially customised set of DiMarzio Dreamcatcher and Rainmaker pickups, and a push/pull volume control capable of churning out over 20 decibels of native gain boost.
There are seven new finishes in the line, each with their own unique quirks – some as little as the difference between chrome and black hardware, but others more significant, like all-basswood bodies or a combination of mahogany and flame maple. And although Distance Over Time was finished before the new JP Majesties hit the production line, Petrucci is stoked to point out that a prototype for one of them made it to the studio for a couple choice cameos.
“We had one of them ready in time, which was the Tiger Eye, and you can hear that on the record in a couple of places,” he says. “We were able to get a few of the new pickups as well, and I put those into my JP16 Majesty, so you’ll also hear the sound of those pickups on the album. You’ll also get a good idea of what my signature JP-2C Boogie sounds like, because the whole record was recorded with just that one amp. All of that clean, heavy sound, and all the lead guitar parts – that’s all the JP-2C, just screaming away in an open room.”
Despite being lauded in particular for their metallic clang and mosh-nificent grunt, one key reason Petrucci’s guitars have become such a staple in rigs worldwide is how ambidextrous they are. Hell, we’ve seen bands ranging everywhere from pop-punk to soul whip the Majesty out on occasion – something Petrucci himself is tremendously proud of.
“All the guitars in the JP line have not only a great identity to them, but a versatility as well,” he boasts. “You can get so many different sounds out of them. It’s not like you have to play metal or prog-metal to enjoy one of these guitars – you could play the blues, or country, or rock, or jazz, or Latin… And they adjust to those styles, because they’re just such great sounding instruments in general. But in saying that, y’know, they’re all different for a reason. The Majesty is a neck-through version, compared to the BFRs and the other JPs which are all bolt-ons, and they have different wood combinations, so they all offer something a little bit different. The JP15 delivers more of a bigger, more midrange-y, throaty sort of sound, and then the Majesty is a very powerful, resonance-sustaining, out-front type of metal sound. It all depends what you’re looking for in a guitar. But they’re all amazing. They’re all gorgeous, and you can’t go wrong with any one of them.”
It might sound like Petrucci is just trying to plug his brand – and let’s be honest here: that is absolutely the case – but there isn’t a lick of insincerity to his prose. Because the relationship between Petrucci and Ernie Ball far usurps the licensing of his name and a few meetings about what kind of pickups the New York native likes. Petrucci is as hands-on as can be in the design process, partnering scrupulously with the luthiers to hash out every last detail on his
six-(or seven)-stringed beauties.
“The hardware is always important,” Petrucci swears. “Very early on, we made some decisions about the shape and the feel of the hardware – everything from the bridge to the saddle pieces, to the tone and volume controls – because everything has a purpose and a point. Everything is meant to feel good on your body and under your hands, and everything is meant to facilitate a good live performance, so that everything is in the right place, it feels good, and it’s easy to get used to. Because y’know, you’ll have things that would bother a guitar player, like a slippery volume knob or a pointy saddle piece. But you don’t have any of those issues on these guitars, and that’s something that, to me, was really important to consider.