John Petrucci Recalls How Rise of Grunge Impacted Dream Theater, Weighs in on ‘Shred vs. Feel’ Debate

In the wake of his newly launched company Tonemission, John Petrucci sat down with Killer Guitar Rigs to discuss his first product John Petrucci IR Collection: Vol. 1, as well as a variety of other topics.

Among other things, he also looked back on Dream Theater’s beginnings, how they were affected by the rising popularity of grunge in the early 1990s, as well as the ever-present discussion about “shred vs. feel” among guitar players. You can read the third part of the interview below.

John Petrucci (Dream Theater) on his new company Tonemission, his new IR Pack, Shred vs Feel & more

If we go back to the late ’80s and the early ’90s, Dream Theater emerges just around the time when grunge was also blowing up. And this was also the era when the 1980s metal bands, all the faster guitar playing, was kind of impacted by this movement. Did you guys in Dream Theater ever feel threatened, or in any way worried, that you know you’ll need to adapt or that your band is not going to make it because of this sudden change in rock music?

“We really didn’t know what to expect from our career, you know what I mean? We were just young guys, we put out one record before ‘Images and Words’ which was the one that you’re talking about that was in ’92 when Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains and all that stuff was huge on the radio.”

John Petrucci's Solo (Live in Tokyo 1993)

“We were just kind of in our own bubble. We weren’t thinking about how we could change our sound to adapt to the new stuff. We’re just, like, in our own little world, writing these songs. And we hadn’t really had any commercial success yet.”

“So we were just doing what we did. To be honest, having commercial success at that time was just a crazy thing to have happened. Like you said, given that radio climate, our stuff just… Maybe that was part of the reason why it had some success because it really was so different from all that other music at that time when the most popular rock music was coming from Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains or Nirvana.”

“Still, a lot of great guitar music coming out of those bands, obviously, great players. But, you know, the more technical side of music wasn’t a part of that style. So our music being so, I don’t know, different and exhibiting more technical aspects and playing aspects — maybe that made it stand out more. I wonder if it would have been worse if all the bands at that time were all prog metal. [Laughs] Maybe we would have gotten lost.

Dream Theater - Live at the Warfield, San Francisco 1994

There’s this still ever-present discussion between shredders and those who play with “feel” and whatever. A lot of people would tend to say that faster, technical playing and prog music lack emotion. But do you think there’s sort of a middle ground where both this virtuosic shredding and “feel” can work hand in hand and do something together?

“Absolutely. There’s, there’s so many players that do, there’s so much music that exemplifies that. If it was, like, just exercise-type drilled, practicing, turned into a song — yeah, you might say that’s pretty drab and it doesn’t really go anywhere emotionally.”

“But most guitar players that can shred don’t do that. The good ones who could write have the ability to take the music anywhere they want to. And part of that — it is kind of like being a classical musician. If you listen to classical music and the symphonies and things that were made, all those musicians, they had to be able to have the skills to take the music wherever the composer wanted it to be.”

John Petrucci - Terminal Velocity (Official Video)

“And sometimes, that was to really sensitive places that took a lot of control and a lot of dynamic playing. And sometimes, it was really tactical places where you had to be on top of your game and be able to play these crazy lines.”

“So that’s the way I look at it. It’s being able to do all of that, it increases your ability to be expressive, I think, as a musician, because you could take it to all these different places. And I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

“I think that’s a really silly argument. I kind of never understood that, you know? Like that there’s one or the other or if somebody has a technical ability that that means that they’re not an emotional player. I think that’s pretty BS, you know? I really do.”

John Petrucci and Rena Sands - Jessica (Live Show at SEGA European Guitar Award)

You’ve been into weightlifting for a long time, but plenty of guitar players who I know have complained about how they cannot do one and the other. One of my friends, I remember mentioning you and he was like, “How can he do that? How can he deadlift? Whenever I try, after a few days, I’ll have sore fingers.” They lose mobility in their fingers. Did it ever affect your technical playing ability and did you like have to find a way to adapt to that?

“So I think that people that experience what you’re saying — maybe they injured themselves or they didn’t do it correctly or they didn’t have guidance or something like that.”

“I would say the only thing — as a guitar player who lifts as well, what I’ve learned is just how to do it in a way that it’s safe for my hands. And sometimes you do things that are a little scary, or you make a little mistake in the gym and then you’re like, ‘Okay, I’m never going to do that again.'”

In the Room with John Petrucci, Tosin Abasi, and Devin Townsend

“I think if you approach it in a way, where you’re disciplined about it, where you’re working out with a correct form, where you’re not just trying to lift the heaviest weight that you can… You gotta keep all this stuff in mind and work out responsibly as a musician.”

“Because, yeah, the last thing you want to do is injure your hands or injure your wrists or have a problem. And people who lift weights and go to the gym — we’ve all had those. We’ve all tweaked shoulders and backs and things and you do have to be careful. But the idea to say, ‘Oh, I can’t work out because it’s going to affect my playing’ — I know plenty of jacked guitar players. [Laughs]”

“I have Zakk Wylde coming into my camp in a couple of weeks and he’s another guy. He’s in just an amazing shape and he’s shredding like never before.”

Photo: Andreas Lawen, Fotandi (Dreamtheater – Wacken Open Air 2015-1619 (cropped)), P.B. Rage (Nirvana around 1992)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.