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John Myung: The Progression Towards Excellence – Bass Musician Magazine, April 2014 Issue

John Myung - Bass Musician Magazine - April 2014

There are few players that can be attributed to having pushed the boundaries in their respective genres. Not only in sheer influence but also in technical mastery of their instruments. Among bassists, we have known one man who has held down the foundation for the band that has reshaped progressive rock as we know it for 29 years: John Myung.

Through a journey that has spanned 12 million records sold, 30 releases (between studio, live, special edition, and compilations), tours that have spanned the globe, and a fan base that is as loyal in Long Island as it is in Sydney, Dream Theater has been there through it all. John has made a name for himself among legends like John Entwistle, Steve Harris, Chris Squire, and Geddy Lee. With incredible technical prowess, a mysterious and powerful onstage persona, and a tone that has now become the biting thunder of Dream Theaters heavy sound, John has earned his place.

On September 24th, 2013 the band released its highest praised work in recent memory, “Dream Theater”. With its revitalized energy, compositional ingenuity, and awesome tones, the bands self titled is a watershed for the band and especially John Myung, whose new adventures in tone shaping have led him to some amazingly musical worlds.  When we spoke John was in Poland getting ready for a very long stretch of touring all throughout Europe, he was kind enough to sit down with us and have a few words.


The new record has been getting high praise among bass players due to the prominence and great tone of the bass this time around. What was your mentality going into the studio when crafting the sound for this effort?


We started the process with this really cool electricity in the air, right from the get go we setup all the gear to be in record mode. This way we wouldn’t have to go back later for songs we recorded weeks back and redo them to go get different sounds. We could record in real time. Working with Richard Chycki who has worked a lot with RUSH, helped adjust putting a few foot pedals in between my bass and the input of my preamp. Something that I had been adverse to in the past, since it had given me issues at certain points in time when I tried it. He explained to me though that if we kept everything at line level, that it could add weight and color to the tone without overloading or “overheating” the signal in a negative way. As long as the output level was monitored it worked well. We got some interesting results just using an MXR compressor pedal and a Mesa Boogie Grid Slammer pedal, which gave it a bit of overdrive, and the compressor gave some breath to the signal. It gave me a cool effect of basically adjusting to my dynamics; hard attack would come off as distorted, fiery and vibrant. And when I backed off it would mellow out.


This record sounds very cohesive and well crafted. What was different about the writing process this time around that led to you guys feeling it deserved the self-titled stamp?


As I had mentioned earlier there was a really awesome energy in the air when we started this. We had a lot of fun on this record and we hit our influences a bit this time around. There are a lot of cool moments on this record where we were able to use our influences, including some new stuff that really captured our minds. It reminded us of why we started playing in the first place. One of my favorite tracks is “Enigma Machine” which has a lot of bass breaks. On “Illumination Theory”, after the little keyboard moments, comes a really great part that I enjoy very much. Sometimes when you go in the studio things just start rolling. This is just one of those records that, I don’t know but from the get go everything just started working. The best way I can put it is that we just let it go where it needed to go and it ended up working wonderfully.


You and John Petrucci have been the two-core member throughout all of the bands incarnations. What would you say is the key to keeping a working relationship like yours working successfully after so many years?

Dream Theater - Main Pub


Well to start off we support each other. Just out of respect, it’s important to establish a culture where we give and take, and there is no such thing as a “wrong” idea. We see things at the end as a “well will it work?” for the band or not. It is important to establish a shared leadership mentality, not a “my way or the highway” mindset. We choose to take the shared direction because we are a band and we respect that fact.

The other thing is also that he is a great guy and a good person. We have a mutually assured relationship, and nothing is disregarded. We try to use every piece of input that we can and try and hear out every one of them. Even if they do not end up on the record, everyones ideas are allowed to be brought to the table and are never ignored.


Starting Feb 5th you will be embarking on a 3-month world tour. Being such a seasoned tour veteran what have you felt is the key to keeping centered in sane on long stretches away from home on such a frequent basis?


Consistency and getting enough rest. Figuring out when to sleep is very very important, when to take breaks and what works for you. Your eating habits are important as well. Its hard to practice basic survival skills on the road actually, even though it seems obvious to do all these things at the end of the day the most important thing on the road is you health. Touring can be a nightmare if you are ill.

I have been reading a lot of nutritional books and I invest in things that allow me to keep healthy when I am out there. It is also important that you make the time to warm up before a performance, and making sure to not hurt your hands. Sometimes my hands get tired but it’s a positive trade off at the end of the day. It’s a strange thing, I could be tired, or my hands could even ache a little, but once I get onstage and start receiving the energy of the crowd all of that goes away. Its kind of a strange phenomenon, almost like a give and take. It kind of temporarily heals your hands and you don’t even think about it when you have a big night. Its awesome the way also a song will transform in front of an audience as well. You could have a song you’ve rehearsed a ton in the studio, but once you go out in front of a crowd it brings a whole new life to it and makes it truly exciting.


In prog lore your practice regimen has been described as somewhat of mythical discipline. Could you go over what you work on practice wise and what your long terms goals are if you have any bass wise?


I play bass to play music with other people, so its not so much as what I can do by myself, but much more about what I can do with other human beings. The idea of improving on songwriting, what I should play, and the ideas that come along with it. Those are at the core of what my aspirations are all about. How can I add to these songs or what groove or idea/sound that could work or be creative? Also what are ways of getting different tonalities? One of the things, once I get more time is to work getting better playing with a pick, also different finger-style variations that could emulate that sound. There is always another place you can go, and there is always another level you can reach. The cool thing about music is that you will never reach the point where you are done.

The other things I sometimes work on are really basic things. What I do is sort of   combination of different position drills. I don’t really bog myself with all these difficult passages and stuff. Because when I just try and play one thing like that I don’t feel like it is the best use of my time. I sort of have these drill exercises that combine my 3 right hand fingers and all 4 of my fretting hand fingers. If I do these for a while my hands will get stronger and more flexible and fret easier, then I will not need to worry about these parts that are so hard to play, because my hands will be conditioned to place me on a level where I will be ready to play anything rather than one particular thing. At the end of the day there is no “one pattern” to achieve this, its just time. Time and imagination to find the spots you feel you can improve on. At the end of the day this is not really exciting, so you have to be patient. But then after a while you will start to see things start to happen.

Playing along with recordings is probably one of the best ways to internalize and learn your instruments. Scales are only useful once it is applied in the context of the music. Record yourself if possible and get your ideas down, this is very valuable as it gives you perspective. But at the end of the day if you do not love what you are doing, you will not spend the time you need to get your goals done, so love playing so that you can truly spend the time needed to get where you need to go.

That’s how you really learn and that is how you really do it. It’s all basic stuff in the end ha-ha.


Your Musicman Bongos have been your main basses for a few years now. Could you tell us a bit about the gear you are taking on this tour and how the bongos are setup this time around?


Well I have two custom ones that are currently were really perfect for the record. One of them is a HS setup, humbucker and a single coil, and the other is an HH, double humbucker model. And you can kind of hear on tracks like “Illumination Theory” and “Along for the Ride” the double humbucker. You get this really warm, kind of 70’s tone. And then the HS is a little bit more infused with a transient sore of aire. Has a bit more of upper mids and shine to it. At the end of the day the Bongos have been great, it has take a lot of work of around three years of dialing exactly what I felt my hands needed and it ended up being a combination of taking the original 6 string production body, and then swapping the original neck in for one with a 5 string spacing and then making sure the curvature on the back was that of a 5 string. I originally wanted the factory specs but it ended up not being what I needed. We experimented with the mass, making it a little flatter, and I took the paint off and now it’s just a slight veneer finish. I felt that the originally finish felt unnatural to my hands, and I also felt that it trumped the sound. I believe this helped bring out a bit of tone of the instrument and with some increased body mass helped substantially. Swamp ash is a decently heavy/dense wood and gives the basses great resonance. I’ve been through all these different phases through each album playing different basses, and being at the mercy of what was out there. “Systematic Chaos” came out and I asked music-man if they would make me a six string and that began the journey towards getting something working. What I have right now, I will probably be sticking to it for a while. I don’t feel the need to be changing anything because there’s certain realness to that instrument and what it asks of you playing it. Once thing that I have noticed when playing rock, especially big places, is that you can’t really have any action anymore. As appealing as it sounds, you really have to raise the action. So right now I try and keep it as close to factory as possible and then slightly raise it. It gives it a little more acoustic power and allows me to dig in in a way that allows me to really be heard in a mix. Even to this day I am still appreciating it, even in the studio it allows me to do what I always want. Actually if you pick it up you will find it is not that comfortable to play, but I find that the rewards outweigh the losses and you get a greater tonal reward do to that. Its like anything worthwhile in life, you have to work at it.


In your personal opinion where do you see the future of the music industry going for the prog community, also where do you see Dream Theater in the foreseeable future?


The music industry works in a very cyclical manner, and I do not try and worry about it too much. As far as Dream Theater we are going to continue doing what we do and I believe there will always be a way for us to have a great time doing what we are doing. As far as the industry it is going to change and it is constantly changing. From my personal perspective the effects of technology has allowed us to do a record like the one we just did in half or even a third of as long as it used to take. I asked our engineer during the recording process “ hey what would it be like if we were working with tape?” he stated that the record would have had to have taken an extra 7MONTHS! The technology helps us write and to accomplish thing we could not do in the past and we embrace it as it makes our lives much easier.


What would be your final parting word for people who want to follow in your footsteps?


If you love what you do, and it is something that you really need to do, the rest will take care of itself. Always remember to put in the time, you need to work very hard, but it has lead to me having a very interesting life. There are a lot of obstacles, but if you love what you do and you have the time for it… It’s all that it takes.

Buy the new record here!

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