John Petrucci has dazzled Dream Theater fanatics for decades with his flawless technique, heavy riffing, and soaring leads. He’s also a fixture in the world of iconic axemen as part of Joe Satriani’s G3 tours and one of the biggest inspirations for the next generation of Progressive Metalheads and shredders. We caught up with John during a break on Dream Theater’s Images, Words & Beyond 25th Anniversary Tour to talk about his upcoming guitar camp, signature gear, and being John Petrucci…
[CG] There is a ton of buzz about your upcoming guitar camp – John Petrucci’s Guitar Universe. You’ve done lots of clinics over the years. How will this event be different?
[John Petrucci] Well, this is going to be unlike anything I’ve done before. Like you were saying, the clinics or Master Classes I’ve done have been have been one-off things where it’s just me for a few hours in certain cities. This is going to be a situation where we’re parked in one place for four days, and not only will I be doing multiple Master Classes and live performances, but there’s going to be a whole staff of unbelievable guest instructors doing their own clinics during the day and performances at night. So, it’s going to be a guitar event – it’s more than just a single clinic. There’s also more time to interact and to get to know the people who are attending. I think that they’re going to get a lot more out of this than they would just going to a single clinic where people ask some questions, you sign some autographs and leave. They don’t really have an opportunity to interact and really get more from that experience. It’s going to be really cool.
[CG] Is there anything students should do to prepare?
[John] You know, there’s not really much they need to do to prepare, other than just come with an open mind and a spirit to learn and share. What I’ve experienced in my life from not only going to Berklee Coolege of Music when I was younger, but also doing things like G3 and being part of different guitar events, is that there’s a real spirit of camaraderie that’s very unique to the guitar community. People love to share and show how they do things, like how they get certain sounds. A guitar player lights up when you ask them about their tone or about how to play something. I would say just come in with that kind of attitude, an open mind, and that willingness to learn and share, that’s really all you need. And you gotta bring your guitar… but you’re going to leave with a lot of knowledge and a lot of information.
[CG] It’s my understanding that you’ve remained a student of music all these years. What sort of things are you studying these days?
[John] So I think it’s like what you said, my student mentality hasn’t really gone away. It’s exciting. It’s really cool. Even within Dream Theater, when we’re backstage, on the tour bus, or at sound check, we’re constantly sharing ideas, picking each other’s brains on how you do things. Whether Jordan says, “Check this out!” or Mike has some crazy rhythmic thing, it’s just a constant state of mind.
I constantly try to expand my horizons on the guitar and get some new influences. Jazz always comes into play. Some of the Gypsy Jazz stuff is unbelievable and has really drawn me in. But you never know what it’s going to be, you know? Sometimes it’s the players that are gonna be at this camp. I go on their YouTube channels and listen to their music. I hear something and my mind immediately goes, “What are they doing? How do you do it?”
[CG] In a number of ways Progressive music is kind of like a heavier version of some of the seminal Fusion bands. Do you feel a kindred spirit with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, or the Dixie Dregs?
[John] Absolutely! Out of those that you mentioned, the Dixie Dregs is the biggest influence on me as far as that kind of music. Discovering Steve Morse when I was young, getting all of those albums, absorbing and learning all of that stuff, I can’t even describe the kind of impact that had on me. Same with Return to Forever because I was a really big fan of Al DiMeola. Hearing the kind of music they played together and what he did with Chick Corea was mind-blowing! As a young player, as you start to get better on the instrument and have some facility, you want to hear things and try things that are more challenging. That kind of music, whether it was Al DiMeola, Steve Morse, or Allan Holdsworth really got my attention. I would sit there and learn the solos, even violin solos, and try to really expand my ability. It was really cool and it definitely influenced the way I wrote because it turned me on to more harmonic possibilities. Like you said, Dream Theater definitely goes in a heavier direction. That has to do with my age, the music that was on the radio growing up on Long Island, and being turned on to Iron Maiden and Metallica and all that stuff. It just felt like a very natural thing to combine the Progressive stuff with Metal.
[CG] Last year you showed up incognito at Joe Satriani’s camp the day Steve Vai was there. That must have been kind of a cool homecoming for the three of you!
[John] Absolutely. Our friendship has grown over the years from doing so many tours and spending so much time on the road together. We’re three Italian guys from Long Island who play guitar that were able to have careers in music. There’s definitely a kindred spirit thing there.
The other thing about visiting the facility where Joe was doing his event, and where we’re having the Guitar Universe, is that it’s not too far from where I live and where I grew up. It’s a bit further West from me on Long Island, but it’s on the same coast, the North Shore where Dream Theater has recorded several albums. When we record, we move into a studio and we live there in that town. For me, I get to commute, but the other guys have to pack up and stay there in that town, so we know Glen Cove really, really well. In fact, the Glen Cove Mansion where the camp was being held was one of the hotels that we used when the band was recording there. I am intimately familiar with Long Island, the area and the culture. The history and importance of Glen Cove as it relates to Dream Theater is even more special.
[CG] Let’s talk about the Majesty. The angled headstock, stainless steel frets, neck-through body, mahogany neck with basswood wings, and maple top make for a very unique feature set – it’s an amazing piece of technology. From the point of design to having played it for several years now, what’s that experience been like for you and what continues to resonate most with you about this instrument?
[John] Well, thank you for saying that. The guitar is an absolute creative masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. And I don’t say that as the designer because I’m giving credit to Drew Montell, Dudley Gimpel, Sterling Ball, and all the people that worked on the Majesty who made it into what you see today. I say that with such respect and awe of Ernie Ball Music. They’ve been able to create these instruments that push the boundaries of artistry, creativity, and performance, and that do exactly what I want them to do as a player. That translates into other people being able to benefit from those innovations and loving the instrument just as much as I do.
With the Majesty, the biggest difference between all of the other guitars in my line is that it’s neck-through. All of the other ones are bolt-on necks. The neck-through allowed us to take the design to a place that was a lot more flowing and seamless, and really got all of the curves of the guitar right. It got all of the wood, and any sort of problems that would get in your way, out of the way. That neck-through is huge. Through these years with Music Man, it’s going on 17 years now, we made some decisions on my model as far as the neck carve, control placement, fret size, fretboard radius, things like that, that carried through on the Majesty, so there is a consistency with that guitar and all the other instruments.
Thinking about my first conversation with Sterling Ball about wanting to do this unique guitar, all the way to seeing the final version being realized, it’s just phenomenal. Having now played it on albums and on the road, it’s an unbelievable instrument that I’m 100% addicted to. I can’t go a day without playing it – it does everything! It’s a player’s instrument. It gets out of your way, it’s light, it’s easy to play, and it’s friendly. Tonally it has this huge, solid, massive tone with tons of sustain and clarity, and does everything that I need it to do. I can’t say enough about it. It’s unbelievable!
[CG] You’ve worked with DiMarzio for so long, and as your signature instruments have evolved, you’ve used different pickups along the way. Give us some of the background about that relationship as well as the new pickups and covers.
[John] I’ve been working with Larry for longer than I remember. There are so many facets to Larry himself and our relationship beyond the pickups. The first guitars that I played had DiMarzio pickups, and when I first started a signature model with Ibanez they had DiMarzio pickups. I met Larry back then.
As far as the pickups are concerned, the design and tone, me communicating what I want from the pickup and them creating something that ultimately goes into the guitars, that’s more of Steve Blucher’s world. I had conversations with Steve for hours, talking about pickups, trying things, prototypes, dropping pickups into guitars – he’d come to our shows and we’d drop them in and play that night. We even just did it recently at Radio City Music Hall. He brought his pickups down, I put them in the guitar and played, and they turned into the new Sonic Ecstasy’s. That kind of kind of long-term, tonal-pursuit relationship has been with Steve Blucher.
With me and Larry, there is absolutely that aspect as well, but it goes further because, as you know, Larry is more than just DiMarzio pickups. His interest in photography, videography, art, and food – things like that are all ways that we’ve cultivated our relationship. He’s a brilliant photographer. He shoots all of his artists, and he has that connection to where he brings their personality out. They’re his pickups and he’s also the photographer. It’s such a unique situation. It’s the same with the video demos. That’s all him doing all of that stuff. He’s actually done the art photo sessions for Dream Theater as well. Any one of these sessions, whether it was some of the first ones I did up through the one with Dream Theater – and all the ones in-between, Larry just has this spirit of enjoying everything in life. He brings in the most amazing food, drinks, and wine, and makes you feel so comfortable and welcome. And our whole Italian connection loving art, beauty, music, sound, pickups – it’s all wrapped up into one big thing.
The whole thing with the new Sonic Ecstasy’s and the pickup covers just shows you his whole desire to push the artistic limits and do something different and unique. The straps that we’ve done together are beautiful – he just has a real eye for art. Working with his family, with Gina and Christiana, it’s just unbelievable and a really amazing and cherished relationship for me.
[CG] The Mesa Boogie JP2C is an amazing amp with a ton of killer features. How did this project come about?
[John] My relationship with Randy, Doug, Jim, Tim and all the guys there is another family situation. With Ernie Ball Music Man, Sterling, Brian, and Scotty Ball, it really is a family relationship. With Larry DiMarzio and his family, it’s a family relationship. And with Mesa Boogie it’s the same thing. I’ve known these guys forever. I’ve begged them for years to do a signature amp. The fact that they eventually said, “Yes!” and trusted me to work with them to do something very unique and different than what they’ve done before is something that I treasure incredibly. I have so much respect for those guys and for Randy for being so open minded to doing this. The greatest thing about the JP2C, besides all the performance perks that I look for: 3 different channels, 2 EQ’s, MIDI, built-in Cab Clone, is that it’s finally a bona fide actual reissue of a C+. That hasn’t happened since the 80’s! The big transformer, the same circuit. . . it’s a C+ and it’s something that I know that the guitar community and Boogie lovers have been waiting on for a really long time. That is so important to me to say and make sure it is communicated because they don’t make those amps anymore. They’re out there and people collect them. They’re expensive and they’re hard to find. But now, with my amp, look no further!
I pinch myself when I think that there is now a Mesa Boogie that has my name on it. It’s bizarre. I’ve been playing through Boogie’s since I was literally a kid. Once someone told me, “If you want a real amp, you gotta play a Boogie.” I got my first one and I was hooked – I’ve never played anything else since. Through the years playing all of the Mark series models, Rectifiers, Lone Stars and everything else, I have such a knowledge of these amps. But one that I gravitated towards specifically was the Mark IIC+. Although I love the Mark IV and the Mark V with the C+ mode in there, the actual C+ was one of those iconic amps that they built in the 80’s that grabbed a lot of people. It’s on a ton of Dream Theater albums and my solo album as well.
[CG] The Dunlop guys were kind enough to donate some of your signature picks and a JP95 Wah as a giveaway for this issue. Have you always used a Jazz III style pick?
[John] I’ve been using Jazz III picks since I can’t even remember – I can’t remember using anything else. It’s so personal and it’s such a huge part of a guitar player’s arsenal. Picks can really make a difference in how you play and how you approach your technique, so the fact that we were able to refine something as detailed as the bevel of the pick, the material, the size and shape. . . it blows my mind. The great thing is that other players are able to benefit from that R&D.
The same with the JP95 Wah. I’ve gotten more compliments and positive feedback about what a great piece of gear that is. How beautiful it looks, the quality, the weight, the guttural sound of it. And again, that’s all from being open minded and talking to Jimi, Frank Arresti, and Sam over there. Having them make these things into a real musical instrument that other people can enjoy and that I’m proud to have my name on.
Whether it’s the Ernie Ball Music Man guitars, the Boogie amp, the TC Dreamscape, the DiMarzio pickups, or the Dunlop picks and the Wah, all of these pieces are in my gear arsenal. Every single one of them complements the other and makes everything sound as great as it can be. There’s not one thing that takes away from any other piece, sucks tone, or anything like that. To me, that’s so important. The design, the ingenuity, the quality, the craftsmanship, and the artistry are all things that are a part of my mantra. The best thing is when I talk to people who have this stuff and are enjoying it. Experiencing the joy of playing a guitar or amp with my name on it, and they tell me stories of what they recorded or how the pick helped their technique – that’s incredible. I feel like all together we’re contributing to the guitar community. It circles back around to that sharing, camaraderie, and willingness to be open and share your knowledge. That’s what it’s all about!
[CG] Although your signature electrics feature built-in piezo pickups, you’ve been playing Taylor acoustics for some time.
[John] I have been working with Taylor acoustic guitars for so long now, and they are a part of so many Dream Theater records – it’s another relationship that I value so strongly. Again, I couldn’t be more proud of being associated with all of these companies and all the people there and who I work with. They are real, genuine, nice, family people who are dedicated to making incredible instruments. Whether it is Bob Taylor, Sterling Ball, Jimi Dunlop, Randall Smith, or Larry DiMarzio. These are the kings of the guitar world and people who I respect so much. I’m just very, very grateful to be in this position.