JOHN PETRUCCI About Writing Riffs in Odd-Time Signatures

JOHN PETRUCCI About Writing Riffs in Odd-Time Signatures

Dream Theater guitar master John Petrucci was asked during a recent Raleigh Music Academy event on how he approaches writing riffs in odd time signatures, to which he replied (transcribed by Ultimate Guitar):

What I find most interesting is how musicians think. Not only guitar players, drummers, vocalists, bass players, keyboard players – their philosophy behind what drives them, how they maximize their creativity.

A lot of times you’ll find that technique in itself is actually more derivative from being a creative person and trying to do something that you’re hearing. And the technique is sort of like just how you were able to do that.

And it’s not necessarily so mechanical like, ‘I have to do this, and I have to do that.’ It’s like ‘I want to do this so this is what I need to do to be able to do it.’ So that’s a great angle to teach from, I think it’s really interesting.

Along those lines, with odd time signatures, for me it stems from what I’m feeling or hearing musically as I’m playing guitar. And it’s more of that and less of, ‘Here is a mathematical equation of time signatures, now I’m gonna write something.’

So as far as the chicken or the egg – it’s the music first, and sometimes that stuff just comes out naturally in an odd time, sometimes it doesn’t. The cool thing about studying that is that when you are creating riffs and maybe you get to a certain point but you want to make it a little bit more interesting, you want it to turn around in a weird way, or have a little hicup, or just maybe not be so like ‘stock sounding.’

Then you can use your knowledge of odd time signatures and insert some things that are really cool. And I think it makes for real interesting riffs and musical passages. And the cool thing about that, as far as composition, is that when you’re writing a song and have something that’s a little weird and then you do break into a 4/4 section that 4/4 section feels so rounding, it’s so satisfying.

And that’s a really cool songwriting technique and we do that in Dream Theater a lot. It’s throwing you in a loop a little bit but then settles into this groove and you feel like really comfortable for a bit and then you go out of it.

John also said he’s no fan of songs loaded with nothing but power chords and plain strumming, saying:

I find that kinda boring, not only as a guitar player but as a writer. I want to listen to a song and have it go through all these sort of twists and turns and keep the listener engaged. It would be like watching a movie and a scene never changes. That’s kinda part of playing progressive music – there’s no real way to do it or not it.

Petrucci then¬†singled out the outro of “Pull Me Under” as one of the trickier DT bits to pull off live, saying:

It is hard to pull off. That technique where you’re muting down, you’re making those notes real tight.

There are a couple of things that go into that. One of the big things is the sound. If you have the wrong kind of sound it’s not gonna sound like that. First of all, that’s a Boogie thing all the way, to get that kind of real tight thing.

But it’s not only technique of muting the strings but you have to have an overdriven sound that’s not too overdriven where the notes get all soggy. They have to stop on a dime and have that chunk.

And you have to prevent the other strings that you’re not playing from ringing out and be really locked in with the drums. And that is an influence of listening to Metallica because I feel that’s such a Hetfield technique.

And you hear that in ‘Metropolis,’ those kind of rhythmic things that are muted and tight where the guitar sound is very solid and doesn’t have any spillover. You hit a note and then it just stops. That’s the kind of sound you need.