There are certain aspects of John Petrucci’s tone that have remained relatively consistent over the years: a flutey, rounded neck pickup soloing voice and a zingy, almost acoustic-like clean sound. His rhythm tone, however, has jumped all over the shop: thick and warm on Images & Words, Falling Into Infinity, Scenes From A Memory and Black Clouds & Silver Linings; somewhat scooped and harsh on Awake, 6 Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Train Of Thought; and somewhere in between for the rest.
First of all, that clean tone. Petrucci’s guitars have two humbuckers and a three-way pickup selector switch. The middle position combines one coil from each pickup, and the end result is conceptually similar to the middle setting on a Telecaster: two single coil pickups in parallel. Now, if you have a multi-channel amp and complex effect-switching system like Petrucci you can set up all sorts of effects to optimise this sound: delay, chorus, compression, sometimes even a phaser like in ‘Peruvian Skies.’ Personally I like to start with some high compression with a very fast reaction time (Petrucci’s live clean tone is particularly compressed in most cases), then sometimes I will either add a pitch shifter parallel to the chorus, or instead of it all together. Set the pitch shifter for a slight doubling just a few cents above the original note, and you’ll get a stereoriffic, hi-fi kind of sound which doesn’t waver and wobble like a chorus would. Check out ‘A Change Of Seasons’ or ‘The Count Of Tuscany’ for examples of this sort of tone – although keep in mind that Petrucci has the luxury of also using the piezo pickups mounted in the bridges of his guitars to get acoustic sounds too. That dude thinks of everything.
As for that flutey lead sound, there are some things that you just can’t dial in with EQ. You need a specific pickup to get them. Back in the earliest days of Dream Theater, Petrucci used the DiMarzio Humbucker From Hell, which is designed to have the frequency response of a single coil but the output of a humbucker. Later he shifted to the Air Norton, and a modified version of it for his Ernie Ball Music Man signature guitar, but nowadays he has the LiquiFire. These pickups all share that rounded tone that seems to emphasise pick attack as well as legato phrasing. One key aspect of that classic Petrucci alternate-picked neck pickup sound is the consistency from note to note, and the only way to get this is to practice. When playing fast, Petrucci typically anchors his pinky finger on the bridge pickup to minimise the distance his hand might stray from the string.
As for the bridge pickup, Petrucci used the Tone Zone – a very mid-and-bass-heavy pickup originally designed as a possible bridge pickup for the Ernie Ball Music Man Edward Van Halen signature guitar – on Images & Words; a midrange-scooped Steve’s Special on Falling Into Infinity and Scenes From A Memory; a custom-designed pickup based on the Steve’s Special but with some tweaks for his Music Man signature guitar; and in more recent years the D-Sonic, a pickup particularly suited to low tunings, before shifting to the new signature Crunch Lab model. He used the Blaze model in his Ibanez Universe 7-string on Awake, and tonally this pickup (which was designed for Steve Vai and is all over Passion & Warfare) is quite similar to the Steve’s Speical. One thing’s for sure, you’ve got buckley’s chance of getting close to his tone unless you use a high quality valve amp. It also helps to have a guitar with quite low action and to use a softer picking attack than you might use for other styles. Think of it as a precision-guided missile rather than indiscriminate bombing.
Photo by Larry DiMarzio