The standout guitarist in a band of accomplished Berklee College musicians, John Petrucci is renowned for his masterful guitar playing. For much of his 30-year career in Dream Theater, Petrucci has trusted Ernie Ball Music Man with crafting his series of articulate, versatile and beautiful signature instruments. The crown jewel of this collection, the Majesty, represents the culmination of style and performance as designed by this true master of the guitar.
We caught up with John backstage at the Chicago Theater to speak with him about touring, being a “riff master,” and his line of Ernie Ball Music Man guitars. Check out our interview video above to get the lowdown!
zZounds: When did you first get started working with Ernie Ball Music Man?
John Petrucci: Well, you know, coincidentally we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of Scenes from a Memory, which we’ll be playing tonight live, and it was 20 years ago that I actually started up with Ernie Ball Music Man. In fact, on the live Scenes from New York DVD, I’m playing one of my first ones — I think it was a prototype.
But yeah, I started with an introduction. Our manager manages Steve Morse. Steve is a longtime Ernie Ball Music Man endorser, and I was looking to make a change, and he introduced me to Sterling Ball, we had a great conversation. He said from the beginning that they make tools for artists, and by the amount of prototypes that they’ll go through to get one of my ideas to fruition, you know they’re really standing behind that. And all of the whole Ball family — all of the engineers there, the whole team — they’re just all really in it for the art and the innovation and the spirit of guitar. They love it.
zZounds: How have you changed what you look for in a guitar, over the years?
John Petrucci: Well, when we first started, we developed the first model, which was a basswood guitar, bolt-on maple neck, rosewood fretboard. We did a six- and a seven-string, and that kind of started us off. I’ve always been used to playing that kind of Strat-style, double-cutaway, two humbuckers, Floyd Rose type of whammy — although we developed our own that’s specific to my guitar, which is unbelievable — and then it developed from there. Eventually we came out with a BFR model which did more of a tonewood combination, to experiment combining mahogany and maple and ebony and stuff like that, and we did a baritone version at one point.
Fast-forward a bunch of years, we had talked for a while about doing a neck-thru, and that is really what the Majesty became. So, the Majesty is a neck-thru version. We’ve also tweaked the DiMarzio pickups that have always been in the guitar. We developed things — like we put an active system in the guitar, which the early models didn’t have, so there’s a buffer, there’s a +20 dB boost on the volume control — things like that. And so it’s just like all these innovations that started from the first one.
I think on the first one, we got a lot of it right as far as the layout of the controls, the ergonomics; the different details as far as what we use for volume knobs and things like that. And then we sort of tweaked it along the way ever since — and every one of them, you know, is a beauty and is amazing.
zZounds: The term you mentioned is “ergonomic”… That was what really struck me about the guitar: it’s almost like a tool.
John Petrucci: I mean, there’s a few different requirements…obviously, sound and feel are ultra-important. You want the guitar to sound unbelievable — and they all do. As far as the feel of the guitar, and the way the whole thing just gets out of your way…the instrument is your vehicle to express your art, so you want it to be as easy to play as possible. You want to be able to get to everything really quickly and comfortably, and you want to just look…sleek and stunning. Obviously, these guitars do.
zZounds: You mentioned the pickups — the new Dreamcatcher and the Rainmaker? Talk a little bit about what you’re looking for when you’re spec’ing those out.
John Petrucci: Yeah, so again, I’ve been with DiMarzio for as long as I’ve been playing, and they’ve always been in all of the Ernie Ball Music Man models. And we’ve tweaked them here and there along the way. In a conversation I had with [DiMarzio design engineer] Steve Blucher about the Majesty, we sort of realized that we never really designed this specific pickup for the neck-thru mahogany version guitar. And so I sent him one, and the idea was, “Listen to this instrument acoustically — it has so much resonance and volume and everything — what would you do pickup-wise to just bring that out?” And so they’re not very different from what we previously did, but they’re even more dynamic, more expressive, and just, you know, they scream.
zZounds: Again, playing that one — it’s not a very heavy guitar, it’s got a lighter body — even unplugged, how much resonance it has, when there’s not that much wood there to move.
John Petrucci: Yeah, I mean, that has to do with the design…if you think about it, from the headstock down through the neck and in this sort of shield shape here, that’s all one piece of mahogany. And so the pickups in the bridge and everything are directly mounted into that. So that’s where you’re getting that big, bold…
zZounds: That really locks in the sustain.
John Petrucci: Yeah. And in the case of this — this is a seven-string, this is called Enchanted Forest, this green — this is an all-mahogany guitar with a maple shield, neck-through, ebony neck, stainless-steel frets, and that’s that version. But you know, there are also sort of different versions. Like this one, this is an opaque color. This is actually a color change version — it’s called Kinetic Blue, but in this instance with this opaque color, it’s a basswood body, so it’s that same mahogany-thru, right? But the sides are basswood. No maple top, and then you have black hardware again, always the two humbuckers, always the two DiMarzios, and a piezo system so you can get a clean sound.
zZounds: Clean out — so you can do “acoustic” parts as well. Especially with your music; it’s so dynamic that you kind of have to do a lot of different tones, and get there really quickly.
John Petrucci: Exactly. You need to be able to change on the dime between acoustic and electric. And then — this is kind of cool — for the first time, and new for 2019, this is called the Tiger Eye. This is actually a limited edition. So, for the first time: again, mahogany thru, but we did an alder body. So it’s a bit different in the sound, and this has a full maple top as opposed to just the shield. But you can see also on the back, the three-piece neck…isn’t that beautiful?
zZounds: That’s a really cool tiger stripe, and it has its own burst on it…that’s one that you get to see, and no one else gets to!
John Petrucci: Right, exactly.
zZounds: There’s tons of of young musicians who look up to you…For some kid who wants to be this little “riff master” himself, what kind of advice do you have for focusing and sticking to it, and really mastering the guitar? You’re a person who’s done that.
John Petrucci: Well, I think that a lot of these little “riff masters” can give me some advice. Have you seen any of these…? It’s unbelievable. There’s so much talent out there, and I think it’s great. It’s one thing to learn from other musicians and bands that you like — that’s how I started, for sure. But I think the thing that’s going to set you apart is creating your own music. We have some bands that are influenced by us, that never heard of bands like the Dregs, or Yes, or whatever.
But you know, the whole thing about trying to become a professional “riff master” or be successful in the arts…there’s not just one piece. Because there’s so many talented people out there, but you also have to be…so many things: You have to be a go-getter, you have to be social, you have to be business-minded, you have to be hungry at all times, and it’s not just enough to just have the skills and be in your room practicing. That’s one part of it — you want to develop the craft — but there’s so much more. You want to get your music out there.
zZounds: Especially now…the music industry is a lot different than it was when you guys were growing up. You really have to just fight tooth and nail to even have people care about your band.
John Petrucci: Yeah, exactly. You have to be in it, and get out there. And you know, it’s a social industry…it’s all about sharing music, and performing is a big part of that, and trying to be productive and prolific is really important. So you have to sort of keep your eye on all those different balls at once.