Some artists are happy to discuss their work with anyone who asks; others prefer to keep quiet and let the music do the talking. Dream Theater bassist John Myung is definitely in the latter group. One of only two founding members still with the group (the other being guitarist John Petrucci), Myung's intricate, harmonically rich basslines are the foundation of Dream Theater's epic compositions, and his infrequent lyrical contributions, like the song "Breaking All Illusions" from the band's latest album, A Dramatic Turn of Events, add to the emotional content of their music. We recently asked fans which Roadrunner artists they'd most like to read interviews with, and Myung's was one of the first names that came up. So we got him on the phone, while Dream Theater was in Minneapolis on their current North American tour, and now you can read the transcript of our conversation below.
Talk about your bass – what does a six-string offer you that a four-string doesn’t?
Well, it offers more ability to harmonize a line or an idea, to make it a little bit more chordal, fuller-sounding, and it also lends itself to more overtones for harmonics and things. You get a little bit more color out of the extra strings. It’s not that I don’t like four-string, it’s just that I can do more with it. It offers more in terms of being able to play guitar-like kinds of things, but from a bass perspective. And the bass I’m playing is something that’s getting much better over time. I started working with Music Man at the start of Systematic Chaos, and from that period up till now, it’s been a lot of living with the instruments they’ve made for me and making changes in terms of body weight, neck dimension, string spacing, and there’s always work to be done in that area, but I just recently got something from them that has a natural wood finish on the back of the neck, and we changed the neck to have a little bit more surface area and make it a little bit more comfortable in terms of playing, for me. And it’s the best-sounding bass yet. So it’s something that’s evolving, but I think this is it. I think where I have it now is probably the best that it could possibly be. At least that’s how I feel now.
Is that a signature model bass?
No, it’s just something that they make for me. The signature idea isn’t something they attach to their bass lines. But I’ve been fortunate enough that they’ve been really helpful and open-minded and hear what I have to say, and work with me on a custom level so that I have a great-sounding instrument and people who are willing to make these little changes that make it that much better.
What made you choose the bass over other instruments, and what do you like best about being a bassist in a band?
You know, that’s a really good question. For me, it was just sort of – I kinda fell into it, you know? Friends of mine needed a bass player, so I picked it up and started playing and realized I really liked it. So it was a bit of discovery, not really knowing that I would want to pursue it. It was something that I tried that I really liked and I stuck with it. I don’t know, I just identify with that instrument more so than any other. I like everything about it. I like the sound, what you have to do to be good at it, the discipline behind it and stuff like that. But it’s just a personality thing. Everyone has a calling in life, and they find their purpose and whatever they tend to have chemistry with, they stick with. So that’s really all that is, I think.
You play with your fingers rather than a pick – why?
Well, you know, I’m a big fan of [Iron Maiden's] Steve Harris and [Rush's] Geddy Lee and [The Who's] John Entwistle, but I’m also a big Yes fan and Chris Squire uses a pick, so – I don’t know, I just feel more connected in a lot of respects. I don’t think one way is easier than the other, I think it’s just whatever feels right. It’s not that I don’t like the pick, I do like the pick and what it has to offer, and I do try to use it sometimes if the part is something I can play on pick, it’s something I'll push myself to do because I like the sound value of it. But as to why I’m a finger player as opposed to a pick player, it’s just more what I’m into doing, it feels more like what I should be doing, and I think maybe a big part of that is that the majority of the players I relate to play with their fingers as well. Even with playing with harmonics and stuff like that, Jaco [Pastorius] turned me on to that, and that’s all stuff you really need your fingers for, at least the way he approached it, and I learned a lot from him. So because a lot of the players I looked up to and learned from and drew inspiration from were finger players, that might have something to do with it, too.
What’s your practice regimen like, and how has it changed over the years? How much of what you learned in school still applies, decades later?
Well, there’s stuff that is schooled that helps explain what we do, but it’s not something I necessarily feed off of. For me, I think being creative is just playing, constantly playing, and getting to a point where you feel like you’re in that moment, like OK, well, everything up till now was noise, but for some reason, in the moment now, I think this sounds really good, so I’ll start recording stuff. So it’s more just feeding off the physical discipline, the shape of the instrument, and just being creative with it, doing something with it and collaborating as a band, being a team player and feeding off each other, and working on that level. That’s what it’s about for me, really.
What was your most recent breakthrough as a player, either in terms of technique or philosophical approach to playing?
Well, you always kind of realize things, but I think an important thing I realized recently is that you have to put in a lot of time on stuff, and out of the time you put in, maybe 10 or 20 percent of it is really special and good. So it’s very relative; whether you play sports or are a musician or a writer or an engineer, whatever your discipline is, there’s definitely a day-to-day methodology that needs to be in place, and as you live through it, you come up with stuff, a lot of it tends to be just noise. In the moment you may think something’s really good, but then I’ll listen back to it and be like oh well, it’s not as cool as I thought it was. I realized that it’s all about getting through the noise factor, getting through the middle ground area and trying to get through to more clarity and better creativity. So that’s why it’s good to stay on top of it and be close with your instrument. It’s easy for me because it’s what we do for a living now, so it’s a built-in thing that we have to do, but I’m starting to see different aspects of it and how it works in the real world. You come up with something and you think it’s really good, and then you realize the next day that it’s not that good, and you wonder, what’s going on here? Well, it’s a process, so it’s just more work. You have to come up with 300 things and maybe three of them will be really good. So it’s about realizing just what you’re up against, and why you have to put the time in.
You contributed lyrics to the song “Breaking All Illusions” on the new album – the first time you’ve written lyrics since 1999. What inspires you to write lyrics rather than music?
Well, I had some inspiration – I had something I felt really strongly about that I wanted to put on paper, but the challenge is to have it be musical, in terms of how it sits in with the melody, and so that was a good experience, going back and forth with John [Petrucci]. John’s really conscious of melody, and once again, you’re back to that stage where you have something on paper and it needs work. But I’m only really motivated to do something like that if I feel like I have something that’s good enough. I had written a bunch of stuff and I kinda boiled it down into those words and those messages. I was real happy with the way it came out – the way James [LaBrie] sang it and everything. It was one of those moments, it came out of the noise area and turned into something really, really good and was part of something really special.
You’re one of only two founding members left – what’s your creative relationship like with John Petrucci, this many years in? How do you two write or play together; do you have a unique musical language between you?
Sure, I mean, there’s a real comfortable chemistry and the people that I play with inspire me. It's so great to be working with the people I work with. But as far as chemistry, sure. We’ve been working together for a really long time, and when you’re in the moment, working on stuff, it’s almost like you’re multitasking on the same thing but everything that’s happening is relative to the same page we’re on, so it’s definitely cool. I don’t know if you’d call it style, it’s more of a chemistry and a relationship and just getting whatever it is we’re doing done.
As Dream Theater’s bassist, did you have a special role in helping integrate Mike Mangini into the group sound? How quickly were you two able to lock into a groove, and from a bassist’s perspective, what kind of drummer is he to play with?
He’s very critical of keeping values together – we talk about this all the time, where he tells me the important things he learned, and those are the things that I love about playing with him. He says, "One of the biggest things I learned, one of my teachers told me, 'Why are you rushing? Why are you hitting that? Give each note its 100 percent value and don’t invade that space, don’t do that.'” And that’s one of the hardest things to do in life, is knowing your limits and thinking of the big picture and navigating on that level. So it’s really kinda cool playing with someone that has really high regard for that. It makes things a little bit more comfortable for me, and I’m noticing little things, like I’m hearing a little bit more sound, it’s a little bit more locked. So I don’t see it as me bringing anybody in. I see it more like him being a really cool guy and a great drummer, and being really complementary to what’s going on.
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