5 Lessons You Can Learn From John Petrucci’s Guitar Playing

by Tom Hess

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When most musicians think of John Petrucci’s musical skills, the obvious things are repeated over and over, such as: “Petrucci has world-class shred guitar technique” or “Petrucci is a great songwriter”. Although both of the above claims are true, these general (and obvious) statements add no value to ‘your’ guitar playing. Fact is, there is A LOT you can learn from analyzing Petrucci’s guitar playing ‘if’ you look beneath the surface of things that most people give him credit for AND understand how to use this knowledge in your own practicing.

Here are 5 important elements of Petrucci’s guitar playing that most people don’t notice and how each of them can help you become a better guitarist:

1. Incredibly Tight Rhythm Guitar Playing

Petrucci’s ability to play extremely tight rhythm parts is nothing short of incredible and is just as (if not more) impressive as his lead playing. Unfortunately, most guitar players take rhythm playing (in general) for granted because rhythm guitar parts usually do not ‘sound’ difficult (to the average ear) compared to fast guitar solos.

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Fact is that playing (and recording) perfectly tight rhythm guitar riffs (even the most simple power chord riffs) is often just as difficult to do well as playing solos at 1000 notes per minute. There is a huge number of nuances to pay attention to when playing rhythm guitar that typical lead guitar players have never even thought about, yet 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 to do when playing triads or extended chords instead of only 2 note power chords)
  • Avoiding sloppy noise from strings that aren't being played
  • Avoiding sloppy noise during ‘rests’ in the music (between notes/chords)
  • Keeping palm muting totally consistent for EVERY note or chord
  • Playing pinch harmonics in key and having the accompanying vibrato match the rhythm of the music
  • Doing all of the above with totally rock-solid timing
  • Doing all of the above, not just once, but 2 (or 4!) times to double or quad track all rhythm guitar parts for the record.

In addition to the above, consider the fact that most of Petrucci’s rhythm parts are played in odd meter(s), using advanced techniques, syncopations, constant changes in note values and unexpected rests. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how it takes an unprecedented level of control and mastery to play even the simplest John Petrucci riffs perfectly.

What Is The Guitar Lesson For You Here?

First, you must understand that rhythm guitar playing (and practicing) means a whole lot more than simply ‘playing in time’ or ‘practicing to a metronome’. Next, you should do these 2 things to improve your rhythm guitar skills:

  1. Listen to John Petrucci’s music (buy any of the Dream Theater albums) and focus your attention ONLY on the rhythm guitar parts (and how tight they are with the drums) to pick up on the total perfection in all of the details I described above. Prepare to be blown away and never think about rhythm guitar playing in the same way again.
  2. Learn how to practice the nuances of tight rhythm playing by studying this free guide for recording guitar in the studio.

2. Consistent Live Performance Skills

One of Petrucci’s most underappreciated skills (one that is taken the most for granted by his fans) is his ability to ‘consistently’ perform his very challenging music every night at an extremely high level. Most music fans have no idea that it takes a highly specialized set of talents to ‘perform’ music - especially music that is as advanced and virtuosic as John Petrucci’s. Guitar players who can play well in their bedroom and most studio musicians who can flawlessly play difficult guitar parts in the studio in 1-3 takes would often crumble under the pressure of performing the same guitar parts live. Now add the challenges of playing in all sorts of unfavorable conditions such as playing with blinding lights on the stage, playing while you are covered in sweat from the show, not being able to hear yourself (or the band) clearly, playing while jet-lagged (from traveling), playing while tired from lack of sleep and a huge number of other possibilities that ordinary musicians never think about. Any one of these distractions can easily cripple your ability to perform music at the same level as you can play it for yourself in your bedroom, and it takes a true master (like John Petrucci) to consistently perform live at near-perfect levels.

What Is The Guitar Lesson For You Here?

Realize that ‘performance skills’ need to be practiced, just like any other musical ability if you want your guitar playing to be 100% reliable on the stage. If you want to play at a pro level ,you must set aside time to ‘practice performing’, taking into account any of the possible challenges that can distract you from playing at your best. The more you can set up your practice time to imitate the realities of live playing, the better you will be able to perform the music at your gigs.

Even if you don’t intend to tour the world and be a professional musician, you STILL need to practice performing so that you develop total confidence in your ability to play in front of others without suffering from stage fright. Read this article to learn the best stage fright remedy for guitar players.

3. Ability To Play Distinct Phrases In Guitar Solos

One of Petrucci’s least recognized ‘lead’ guitar strengths is his ability to seamlessly connect phrases in his guitar solos in a very fluent way. This makes his solos sound like a series of interconnected musical thoughts with clear start and end points for each phrase - similar to how one articulates statements during in a spoken conversation. There are countless examples of this in his music, and here are a few, taken from various 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”)
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When you carefully listen to the above solos (among countless other possible examples), you will not only hear the distinct start and end points for each phrase, but also that the ‘next’ phrase that follows always sounds like a natural evolution of what was played before. Thus the entire solo has a sense of forward motion that carries the listener through to the next section of the music.

Petrucci’s approach to phrasing is similar to that of Yngwie Malmsteen. Although Petrucci’s music/style sounds NOTHING like Yngwie’s, both musicians share the ability to write guitar solos consisting of seamlessly interconnected phrasing ideas and this skill helps them to be more creative in their respective styles. Read more about Malmsteen’s guitar playing in this Yngwie Malmsteen guitar lesson article.

This method is COMPLETELY different from how most guitarists approach soloing. Most simply ‘play the notes from the scale’ over the backing track without ever playing any distinct phrases. Unlike the above method (where the phrases in a solo are connected like statements in a conversation), this conventional approach has no sense of forward motion and sounds more like hearing random ‘words’ shouted at the listener (with notes/licks/guitar techniques) vs. playing distinct phrases that hold the solo together.

What Is The Guitar Lesson For You Here?

From now on, stop thinking about improvising and soloing as simply an opportunity to mindlessly play ‘scales over chords’ and instead think about:

  1. Coming up with distinct phrases that sound like musical statements (similar to how you would make statements in a conversation). Read more about how to do it in this lead guitar soloing article.
  2. Creating an underlying melodic theme that will be the foundation of your guitar solo that will then be developed/ornamented with other guitar techniques and/or faster playing. Doing this will become so much easier when you learn to think like a singer does when you create your guitar solos. See a demonstration of what it means to think in this way in this video on creating guitar solos.

4. Creative Use Of 7 String Guitar

In a past article on 7 string guitar playing, I pointed out a huge mistake that most guitarists make when playing 7 string guitar: playing most (or all) of their music in the lowest pitch register, making their riffs highly predictable and repetitive. John Petrucci is one of the few master 7 string guitarists who does NOT make this mistake. Petrucci uses the extended pitch range of the instrument in a way similar to a great piano player. A master pianist doesn't simply stay in the same register of his instrument the whole time while playing. Instead, great pianists (and, in the case of John Petrucci - a small handful of master 7 string guitarists), use their extended pitch range as an extra tool in their overall creativity arsenal rather than a ‘crutch’ to fall back on.

What Is The Guitar Lesson For You Here?

No matter if you play rhythm or lead guitar, you must avoid the common mistake of ‘only’ using the lowest register of your guitar for playing every guitar riff and ‘only’ using the highest register for all your solos. This is especially important if you play 7 string guitar (where this common mistake is much more obvious). Study these 2 resources to learn how to improve this area of your guitar playing creativity:

  1. 7 string guitar playing free mini course
  2. Article on how to write awesome rhythm guitar riffs

5. Mastery Of MANY Songwriting Processes

Petrucci’s band Dream Theater is known for using A VERY diverse range of styles, sounds and feels in their compositions (vs. being limited to a particular sound or style or having every album sound the same as the last). One of the main things that makes this possible is Petrucci’s use of MANY different songwriting 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 mastery and control over all elements of music and also having the freedom to choose from a variety of songwriting processes instead of always writing music in the same way.

Furthermore, even though Petrucci (the guitar player) is the primary songwriter in Dream Theater, his compositions are NOT all written with the focus 100% on the guitar parts only. Many parts of his songs are based on motives, themes and solos for drums, keyboards and bass with the lead/rhythm guitar taking a back seat to the rest of the music (when appropriate).

In contrast, the conventional ‘guitar player approach’ to writing music consists of little more than jamming on guitar to stumble upon ‘something that sounds cool’ and then through A LOT of trial and error 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 everyone else’s. Even though writing songs through random jamming and exclusive focus on guitar is a valid approach (and millions of songs have been written in this way), you must understand the severe limitations of this method and the fact that you are restricting your music to sounding a lot more like everyone else.

What Is The Guitar Lesson For You Here?

To make your songwriting more creative (and to write music MUCH faster and easier), you must do the following (in addition to continuously improving your general skills as a guitarist and musician):

  1. Learn a variety of songwriting techniques so that you are never limited to only one process for writing music. Read this 5 part article series on how to be a better songwriter to get lots of help with doing this.
  2. Learn 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 what elements make John Petrucci’s guitar playing so much greater than most give him credit for, start doing these 3 things on an ongoing basis:

  1. Invest some time into listening more of Petrucci’s band Dream Theater (do this even if you are not a big fan of their music). Pay attention to the specific aspects of his playing that I emphasized throughout this article and learn to hear them clearly. You may or may not end up liking their music a lot more after listening to it with a much deeper level of awareness, but that is not important. What IS important is for you to sharpen your own ability to listen and understand what makes some guitar players great (beyond the obvious elements).
  2. Analyze ‘your’ guitar playing strengths and weaknesses with a new level of clarity, to see where your skills can be improved in the areas I described in the article. Realize that all of these skills are universal, and you will become a much better musician by mastering them on a deeper level (no matter what style you play).
  3. Study the resources I referred you to throughout this article to improve your skills in the areas that are holding you back from playing guitar the way you want.

Doing the steps above will help you to improve your guitar playing much faster compared to the casual John Petrucci fan who only pays attention to the surface level elements of his playing.

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