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Dream Theater's John Myung: Prog is Back

BASS PLAYER magazine
January/February 1994

Popular music seems to go in cycles, constantly reviving itself. Seventies rock is as strong as ever in 1994, and even Black Sabbath lurks just beneath the flannel and Doc Martens of grunge. One wonders when the most guilty musical pleasure of the '70s progressive rock will be exhumed.

Dream Theater is doing its part. The band's lofty, poetic lyrics are supported by art rock pieces that frequently stretch from 8 to 12 minutes in length, not unlike the early works of Rush, King Crimson, and Gentle Giant, Considering that Dream Theater is just shy of gold-record status in the U.S. (and doing equally well worldwide), it would seem a full-scale prog revival is possible. "We're just doing our thing," claims John Myung, "not following any musical trends or anything. And we're just trying to do it the best we can."

Myung's humility may stem from the difficulties his band has endured. He met drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci while the three were attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. After drafting keyboardist Kevin Moore, the guys started jamming and soon found there weren't enough hours in the day for both rehearsal and school. John adds, "We realized the band was more valuable to us than the Berklee curriculum, so we decided to stay home and pursue our music full-time."

Home for all of the band members happened to be Long Island, New York, so the four returned and recruited vocalist Charlie Dominici. Through a friend, their tape made it to Mechanic Records head Steve Sinclair, who loved the group. Mechanic, which was distributed by MCA, released DT's debut, When Dream and Day Unite. Unfortunately, that's about all they did. "The enthusiasm at Mechanic was there, but MCA was never supportive of us. We had no video, no tour, no nothing. Things turned kind of sour when that happened." The band parted ways with both the label and Dominici. Undaunted, and considering the possibility of carrying on as an all-instrumental band, Dream Theater continued writing and recording in their rehearsal studio.

Derek Oliver, an A&R man at Arco Records and a huge DT fan, secured the group a deal on the strength of their vocal-less 4-track tape. Oliver's boss, Derek Shulman, had signed Bon Jovi and Cinderella to Mercury - but back in the '70s, he was the lead vocalist of Gentle Giant. "Shulman was really enthusiastic about us," remembers John. "He told us, 'Don't change a thing - we're signing you because we love what you do.' That's the best thing you could ever hear from the president of a record company!"

While the new deal went down smoothly, finding a suitable vocalist didn't. Over a period of a year and-a-half, 200 tapes were reviewed and several dozen singers were auditioned. "We had found a guy and thought it was going to work out. At the last minute, just before we committed, a tape came in that blew our minds. The singer was James LaBrie." With everything finally in place, the new Dream Theater recorded Images and Words, its current success. A full year of touring followed, as Myung and his fellow Dreamers watched their career grow on the road. "At the beginning we were playing 500-seater dives and sleeping in Motel 6's. Now we're playing 2,000-seat clubs and carrying our own lights and PA."

It seems as if the band's recorded sound, lush and polished to the extreme, would be difficult to replicate live. "It is, but we've worked hard on it with our soundman. I'm using all-MESA/Boogie amps and speakers, and I'm also using bass pedals. My bass parts sound huge." John's TriAxis guitar preamp (modified for bass) has presets that dial up countless tone variations, as if he had a dozen different amps. It feeds two Strategy 500 power amps and one Bass 400+ power amp. One Strategy drives two 8x10s, the other powers two Powerhouse cabinets (each containing four 10s and a 15), and the 400+ drives another Powerhouse. John's pedal system is a Roland PK5 MIDI Bass Controller, run directly into the PA.

Following the completion of Images and Words, on which Myung used a Spector NS-2 4-string, he made the switch to a Tobias Basic 6. As with every other hurdle he's encountered, he shrugged off the potential difficulty with the transition and just went for it. "The 6-string can be difficult, but it was kind of easy for me. I didn't think the extra strings were confusing - they were just there c to make my bass parts sound bigger. For instance, I cold double everything I played on the A string an octave lower." Was the neck width a problem ? "Actually, I think it makes the bass easier to play, because you shift your hand up and down the neck less than you do on a 4-string. The playing is more positional." He uses D'Addario strings, gauges .030-.130.

Given his proclivity for the low end, it may come as a surprise that Myung studied violin from age 5 to 16, encouraged by his mom. "A friend down the street had a band," John remembers, "and he said I should play bass. He said it had four strings like a violin, so I'd pick it up right away. I fell in love with the bass." His initial inspirations were Iron Maiden's Steve Harris, Rush's Geddy Lee, and Yes man Chris Squire. Myung still loves those players, although he now feels "Tony Levin is the king."

Strictly a fingerstyle player, John has developed some cool moves of his own. Check out the breakdown about 5:30 into "Metropolis Part I" on Images: Myung does a ridiculously quick yet accurate three-finger tapping figure that sounds like a sequencer, forming a 16th-note pattern that ends with 32nd-notes on the upbeat of four. Myung also often doubles Portnoy's complex double-kick patterns. "I deal with staff like that on my own time. if I have a tape of it, I'll just work with the tape. If I can't play it, I'll go home and practice it until I can."

All right, you - stop reading and go practice!

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