When most musicians think of John Petrucci’s musical abilities, obvious things are repeated over and over again: “Petrucci owns a world-class shred guitar technique” or “Petrucci is a great composer.”
Although the two statements above are true, these general (and obvious) statements do not add value to ‘your’ technique. The fact is that there is a LOT that you can learn from analyzing Petrucci’s technique ‘if’ you look beyond the surface of things that most people give you credit for. And you understand how to use this knowledge in your own practice.
Here are 5 important elements of the Petrucci technique that most people do not perceive and how each of them can help you become a better guitarist:
1. Incredibly Accurate Rhythm Guitar Technique
Petrucci’s ability to play extremely precise rhythmic parts is nothing short of incredible and is as (if not more) impressive as his solo technique. Unfortunately, most guitarists take the rhythm technique (generally) as guaranteed because usually the rhythm guitar parts do not sound difficult (to the middle ear) compared to fast guitar solos.
The fact is that accurately playing (and recording) accurate guitar riffs (even the simplest power chords riffs) is often as difficult to do well as playing solo at 1000 notes per minute. There are a large number of nuances to watch out for when you play rhythm guitar in which typical solo guitarists have never thought, but Petrucci has completely mastered them all. Here is a partial list of these elements:
- Keeping the intonation of all strings absolutely perfect (this is especially difficult when playing triads or extended chords instead of just 2-note power chords)
- Avoid residual noise from strings that are not playing
- Avoid residual noise during ‘breaks’ in music (between notes / chords)
- Keep the palm muting completely consistent in EVERY note or chord
- Play chord harmonics in pitch and make the accompanying vibrato fit the rhythm of the music
- Do all of the above on time in a totally solid
- Do all of the above, not once, but 2 (or 4!) Times to double or quadruple tracks on all rhythm guitar parts of the recording
In addition to the above, consider the fact that most of Petrucci’s rhythmic parts are played in strange metrics, using advanced techniques, syncopations, constant changes in the value of notes and unexpected silences. With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see how unprecedented levels of control and mastery are required to play perfectly even with John Petrucci’s simplest riff.
What Guitar Lesson Is Here For You?
First, you must understand that playing rhythm guitar (and practicing it) means a lot more than simply ‘playing in time’ or ‘practicing with a metronome’. Next, you must do these 2 things to improve your rhythm guitar skills:
- Listen to the music of John Petrucci (buy any Dream Theater album) and focus your attention ONLY on the rhythm guitar parts (and what you need with the drums) to fully realize all the details I describe above.Prepare yourself to fly through the air and not think the same way about the technique of rhythm guitar ever again.
- Learn how to practice the nuances of a precise rhythm guitar technique by studying this free guitar recording guide in the studio.
2. Live Interpretive Skills Consistent
One of Petrucci’s less appreciated skills (one taken for granted by most of his fans) is his ability to consistently play his very challenging music at an extremely high level each night. Many music fans have no idea of the highly specialized set of skills required to ‘perform’ music – especially music as advanced and virtuous as that of John Petrucci. Guitarists who can play well in their rooms and most studio musicians who can easily play difficult guitar parts in the studio in 1-3 shots, often fall apart under the pressure of playing the same parts live. Now add the challenges of playing in all sorts of unfavorable conditions like playing with blinding lights on the stage, playing while you’re covered in performance sweat, not being able to listen to yourself (or the band) clearly, playing with jet- lag (to travel), play tired from lack of sleep and a vast number of possibilities in which ordinary musicians never think. Any of these distractions can easily mutilate your ability to perform music at the same level that you can play for yourself in your room, and it requires being a true master (like John Petrucci) to consistently perform live at near-perfection levels.
Assimilate that ‘interpretive skills’ need to be practiced, just like any other musical ability if you want your technique to be 100% reliable on stage. If you want to play at a professional level, you should reserve time to ‘practice the performance’, taking into account any of the possible challenges that can distract you to play at your best level. The more you can prepare your practice time to imitate the reality of playing live, the better you will be able to interpret your music in your performances.
Even if you do not intend to tour the world and be a professional musician, you STILL need to practice acting to develop total confidence in your ability to play in front of others without experiencing stage fright. Read this article to learn the best remedy for stage fright in guitarists.
3. Ability To Play Distinctive Phrases In Guitar Solos
One of Petrucci’s lesser known strengths is his ability to seamlessly connect phrases in his guitar solos in a very fluid way. This makes their solos sound like an interconnected series of musical thoughts with clear beginning and ending points for each phrase – similar to how one articulates utterances during a spoken conversation. There are countless examples of this in his music, here are a few, taken from several Dream Theater albums:
- “The Spirit Carries On” (from the album “Scenes From A Memory”)
- “Forsaken” (from the album “Systematic Chaos”)
- “Ministry Of Lost Souls” (from the album “Systematic Chaos”)
- “Voices” (from the album: “Awake”)
“The Best Of Times” (from the album: “Black Clouds & Silver Linings”)
When you listen carefully to the previous solos (among countless other examples), you will not only hear the unmistakable start and end points of each sentence, but also that the ‘next’ sentence then always sounds like a natural evolution of what has been interpreted before . Consequently the whole solo has a sense of forward movement that transports the listener to the next section of the music.
Petrucci’s approach to phrasing is similar to that of Yngwie Malmsteen. Although Petrucci’s style / music does not sound like NOTHING like Yngwie’s, both musicians share the ability to write guitar solos consisting of perfectly interconnected phrasing ideas and this skill helps them to be more creative in their respective styles. Read more about the Malmsteen technique in this article on a guitar lesson by Yngwie Malmsteen.
This method is COMPLETELY different than how most guitarists approach solo. Most simply ‘play the notes on the scale’ on the accompaniment track without even touching any distinctive phrase. Unlike the previous method (where single phrases are connected as statements in a conversation), this conventional approach has no sense of forward movement and sounds more like listening to random ‘words’ yelled at by the listener (with notes / licks / techniques of guitar) instead of touching distinctive phrases that keep the solo united.
From now on, stop thinking about improvisation and solo technique as simply an opportunity to play meaningless ‘scales on chords’ and instead think of:
Develop distinctive phrases that sound like musical statements (similar to what you would do in a conversation). Read more about how to do this in this article on solo guitar technique.
Create an underlying melodic theme that will be the foundation of your guitar solo and that will later be developed / adorned with other guitar techniques and / or a faster interpretation. Doing this will be much easier when you learn to think like a singer when creating your guitar solos. Watch a demonstration of what it means to think in this way in this video about creating guitar solos.
4. Creative Use Of 7 String Guitar
In a previous article on 7-string guitar technique, it indicated a huge mistake most guitarists make when playing a 7-string guitar: playing most (or all) of their music on the lowest tonal record, making their riffs highly predictable and repetitive. John Petrucci is one of the few masters of the 7-string guitar that DOES NOT make this mistake. Petrucci uses the extended tonal range of the instrument in a similar way to a great pianist. A master pianist does not simply remain in the same record of his instrument all the time he is playing. Instead, the great pianists (and, in the case of John Petrucci – a small handful of master guitarists of the 7 strings), use their extended tonal range as an extra tool in their total arsenal of creativity, more than one ‘crutch’ on which to fall.
It does not matter if you play rhythm guitar or solo guitar, you should avoid the common mistake of using ‘just’ the lowest record of your guitar to play each guitar riff and use ‘only’ the highest record for all your solos. This is especially important if you play a 7-string guitar (where this common mistake is much more obvious). Study these two resources to learn how to improve this area of creativity in your guitar technique:
5. MASTER IN MANY Composition Processes
The band of Petrucci Dream Theater is known for using A VERY diverse range of styles, sounds and feelings in their compositions (as opposed to being limited to a particular sound or style or that ultimately the sound of each album is the same). One of the many things that makes this possible is Petrucci’s use of MANY composition techniques to create not only his own guitar parts but also to arrange and orchestrate the instrumentation of most of the band’s compositions. This requires total control and mastery over all elements of music and also having the freedom to choose from a variety of composition processes instead of always writing music in the same way.
In addition, even though Petrucci (guitarist) is the lead composer in Dream Theater, his compositions are NOT all written with 100% focus only on guitar parts. Many parts of his songs are based on motifs, themes and solos for drums, keyboards and bass with rhythm guitar / soloist backing up for the rest of the music (when appropriate).
In contrast, the conventional guitarist’s approach to writing music consists of little more than improvising with the guitar until he stumbles upon something that sounds cool and then LOTS of trials and errors to connect many cool sounding ideas into a finished song If this is the only way you approach writing music, there will be MANY similarities between your music and that of everyone else. Even though writing songs from random improvisation and focusing exclusively on guitar is a valid approach (and millions of songs have been written this way), you must understand the severe limitations of this method and the fact that you are restricting your music to sound much more like that of everyone else.
To make your songwriting more creative (and to write music MUCH faster and easier), you must do the following (as well as continually improve your general skills as guitarist and musician):
- Learn a variety of composition techniques so that you are never limited to a single process for writing music. Read this series of articles in 5 parts on how to be a better composer to get lots of help to do this
- Read more about becoming a more creative musician by reading this article on musical creativity.
What Should You Do Right Now?
Now that you understand a lot more about the elements that make John Petrucci’s technique much bigger than most appreciate, he begins to do these 3 things continuously:
- Spend some time listening to the Petrucci Dream Theater band (do it even if you’re not a big fan of their music). Pay attention to the specific aspects of your technique that I have emphasized throughout this article and learn to listen clearly. You may or may not end up liking your music much more after listening to it with a deeper level of attention, but this is not important. What is important to you is to sharpen your own ability to listen and understand what makes some great guitarists (beyond the obvious elements).
- Analyze your strengths and technical weaknesses with a new level of clarity to see where your skills can be improved in the areas I have described in the article. Realize that all these skills are universal, and you will become much better musicians dominating them all on a deeper level (no matter what style you play).
- Study the resources I refer to throughout this article to improve your skills in the areas that are hindering you from playing the way you want.
Carrying out the above steps will help you improve your technique faster compared to Petrucci’s casual fan who only pays attention to the surface elements of his technique.To make your songwriting more creative (and to write music MUCH faster and easier), you must do the following (as well as continually improve your general skills as guitarist and musician):Learn a variety of composition techniques so that you are never limited to a single process for writing music. Read this series of articles in 5 parts on how to be a better composer to get lots of help to do this.
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