When you think of John Petrucci, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? Do you think of his 'shred' guitar playing, or his technical and advanced songwriting? Truth is, there is much more to Petrucci's playing style than these two things. In order to get the most benefit from studying him, you will need to look deeper than most guitarists and find the overlooked value that makes him a much greater guitarist than other players.
Here are the top five commonly passed over areas of Petrucci's style that will help you become a better guitar player:
Most people who listen to Petrucci completely overlook his incredible performing skills. Fact is, many guitar players and music fans are totally unaware of the amount of skill it takes to perform consistently on stage (especially when it comes to playing music of a very high caliber). In most cases, guitar players who play well while sitting in their room or recording studio have great difficulty being able to play their music consistently in a live setting.
Additionally, there are major challenges while playing live such as hot/cold weather conditions, playing while feeling tired from traveling, playing when you can't hear yourself (or other band members) and many or possible issues that most guitarists have never considered. It only takes 'one' of these things to impair your ability to put on a great show and play with the same level of skill you play with alone in your room. To perform perfectly under these conditions like John Petrucci, you truly need to be a master guitarist.
You must understand that performing is another thing you should be practicing in addition to regular guitar/musical skills. To become a pro, you must practice performing in a way that will imitate the different challenges you could face on stage.
Even if you don't have dreams of touring internationally as a pro musician, you must still work on becoming a better performer in order to gain confidence in yourself while playing in front of others. Read this article and find out how to overcome guitar player stage fright.
Although he is of course a superb lead guitarist, Petrucci's rhythm guitar playing is nothing short of phenomenal. Unfortunately, the majority of guitarists who listen to his playing never pay close attention to his rhythm playing because they don't think it sounds as challenging as his solos.
The truth is, it is often just as challenging to play and record tight rhythm guitar riffs as it is to play fast shred guitar solos. In fact, there are countless subtle aspects of rhythm guitar playing that most lead guitarists never pay attention to. Petrucci is well aware of these things and in fact has already mastered each and every one. Here is a short list containing some of these things:
Maintaining flawless intonation in every string (particularly while playing chords that are larger than typical two note power chords)
Another factor that makes Petrucci such an incredible rhythm guitarist is the fact that his music is written in a way that incorporates highly complex song structures, frequently shifting time signatures and other advanced musical techniques. This makes it a huge challenge for most guitar players to play even the most simple of Petrucci's rhythm guitar parts with much accuracy.
The first thing to realize is that rhythm guitar playing is not merely about matching the beat or playing along to a metronome. Once you understand this, do the following:
1. Check out Petrucci's music with Dream Theater while focusing primarily on his rhythm guitar playing and how it works together with the percussion. This will give you a total understanding of just how good his rhythm playing really is (while changing your view of what it means to be a great rhythm player).
2. Become a tight rhythm guitarist by studying this guide to recording guitar in the studio.
One of the things most guitarists don't recognize about Petrucci is how he writes highly melodic guitar solos that connect together in a very smooth manner. This gives his guitar solos a sound much like that of a spoken sentence - they have a clear beginning and ending. You can observe this all throughout his music with Dream Theater, but here are some examples to use a quick reference:
As you are listening to each of the solos from the tracks above, you will notice how they all have phrases with obvious beginning and ending points. You will also hear how every solo seems to progress in a very natural manner from start to finish with each phrase building off of the phrase before it. This gives the music a sense of progression that leads you to the next section of the song.
Petrucci creates his phrases in a way that is similar to the approach used by Yngwie Malmsteen. Although both players do not have a similar 'style', they both create guitar solos that smoothly connect from one phrase to the next. This helps them be much more creative in their respective genres/styles. Read this Yngwie Malmsteen guitar lesson and learn more about his specific guitar playing style.
The soloing method used by Petrucci and Malmsteen is nothing like the one used by most guitarists. Truth is, most guitar players simply memorize several scales and 'randomly' play through each one while hoping that something cool will come out of their efforts. Unlike the methods described above, soloing in this manner leads to very erratic phrasing that does not give the listener a sense of forward movement.
You must abandon the approach of mindlessly running up and down scales during guitar solos and instead focus on:
1. Thinking of distinguishable phrases that feel like clear musical statements. Learn how to do this by reading this lead guitar playing article.
2. Create a solo based on a specific melodic theme that will be ornamented using different guitar techniques. This will be much less difficult once you can think about soloing similar to how a singer writes his/her vocal melodies. Watch this guitar solo video demonstration to learn more about this concept.
Previously I wrote an article about 7-string guitar playing, and criticized one of the biggest mistakes that most 7-string players make: focusing too much of their playing in the lowest octave register, making their music extremely predictable. This is not a mistake that John Petrucci makes. Petrucci utilizes the entire pitch range of 7-string guitar just like how a pianist takes advantage of the natural range of the piano. The main thing that sets Petrucci apart from other 7-string players is that he uses the added range of the instrument to achieve great creativity in his playing rather than as a default starting point to go to when he has run out of ideas.
Regardless of whether you are a rhythm guitarist or lead guitarist, you need to avoid playing too much in the low register while playing riffs or too much in the high register while creating solos. This is particularly important if you are a 7-string guitarist (because this mistake becomes even more obvious). Use the following resources to become a more creative guitarist:
1. Mini course about learning how to play 7-string guitar riffs
2. Article about learning how to write rhythm guitar riffs
It is well known that Dream Theater (Petrucci's band) uses many different styles in their songwriting. This often makes listening to one album a completely different experience than listening to another (as opposed to having every album sound the same as the last). This is made possible in part because of the band's immense talent as a whole but also because Petrucci is highly skilled at arranging songs using a wide variety of different songwriting methods (increasing his ability to write creatively).
Although Petrucci is a guitarist, his songs are not written 'only' from a guitar player's perspective. In many cases, his music is written based on the specific playing styles of percussion, keyboards and bass with guitar playing a minor role in the composition as a whole.
Unlike Petrucci, the majority of guitar players write their music in a highly improvisational manner. In most cases, all of their songs are written by simply hoping that something 'cool' will happen while they are playing through the same licks or chords over and over. Then they will simply try to mold these disconnected, random ideas into a complete song. If you use this same approach, you have a lot to learn before you will be able to write in a highly creative and self-expressive manner. Although improvising new songwriting ideas is an approach that can produce results, you are greatly limiting yourself if this is the only approach you use. In fact, since so many people write music this way, there is a good chance that your music will sound a lot like the music of everyone else (rather than something that is 'unique' to you).
To become a creative songwriter like Petrucci (while also improving in general as a guitarist) you must complete the following steps:
1. Understand how to use a wide collection of songwriting techniques so you always have creative options. Read this five part article series about becoming a better songwriter for more information on this subject.
2. Become a more creative musician by using the concepts in this article about enhancing musical creativity.
Now that you have become familiar with the things that make Petrucci's musical skill go above and beyond that of other guitarists, do these three things to maximize the value you get from this knowledge:
1. Take the time to listen to Petrucci's music in Dream Theater (even if you don't usually listen to them). Focus on all the different areas I have discussed in this article so you can identify them clearly. Even if you don't end up enjoying the music after listening to it at a deeper level, it is still important that you do this. Listening to music in this way will help you understand what makes some guitarists truly great.
2. Observe your own guitar playing to see what needs to be improved. Understand that all the skills I've talked about can be applied to anyone who plays guitar and you will become a much better guitarist once you have mastered them.
3. Look through and study the resources mentioned in this article to greatly improve in the areas where your playing is weak. This will prevent your weaknesses from holding you back from achieving your musical and guitar playing goals.
By doing these steps on a consistent basis, you will become a better guitarist and musician in much less time that it would take if you viewed Petrucci's playing in the same way as most casual fans.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.