For John Myung, who has been holding down Dream Theater’s low end for 13 albums, the band’s new rock opera meant taking on a different role than his usual speedy-fingered work of the past. On The Astonishing, Myung embraced the challenge of simplifying his playing by shifting his perspective to a root-first mentality that best serves the song. That’s not to say Myung doesn’t shine on the 34-song double disc, as his work alongside drummer Mike Mangini is still as powerful as ever on heavier tracks like “Lord Nafaryus” and “Moment of Betrayal,” or throughout the familiar shredding of “My Last Farewell.” Still, it doesn’t take strange modal shifts and odd time signatures to present a challenge. As the soft-spoken 49-year-old explains, sometimes it’s the simple things in music that can pose the biggest tests to a player.
Was creating The Astonishing the most challenging project you’ve taken on as a band?
Yes, it was a good challenge. John [Petrucci, guitars] orchestrated the whole concept, and for me it was a real positive experience being that it was a different approach to making an album. John and Jordan [Rudess, keyboards] wrote everything, and then I’d get the files and start to internalize what was going on.
Because there is such a strong thematic element, did you feel that you had to take on more of a supportive role?
It was absolutely more about holding down the root with the right feel. Many parts were written to have a guitar perspective and a keyboard perspective. I love the parts that Jordan came up with for the bass lines on piano. It has me inspired to get some piano music and apply it to bass—when you play that kind of thing on bass it has a really vertical feel to it.
Do you prefer playing the ballads or the more technical songs?
I love playing both, because they are challenging in their own ways. Just because something sounds simple doesn’t mean it is simple to play. Everything requires the same resources of concentration and feel.
Did you have any goals for your bass going into the project?
I just went in with an open mind, and went for a totally different bass sound compared to my tone on the previous album. The plan was to get away from having a processed sound. Rather than overthinking it, once we had a simple sound that seemed to complement the music, we just went with it.
How did you track your bass?
I had a music stand in front of me with my notes, and just recorded everything in bits and phrases, since it was all very new. I used a blend of gear that I always like to use, like my Bongo 6 with the double-humbucker configuration. And I used some new elements that offered different EQ perspectives, like the Suncoast B1P bass preamp.
Did any songs prove more difficult than others to play?
Bass parts in songs like “Lord Nafaryus” that have intense guitar and bass unisons are a challenge and require time to isolate and build the parts up slowly until it’s part of my physical memory. There are moments like that throughout the album, like on “Three Days,” “A Life Left Behind,” “New Beginning,” and “My Last Farewell.”
Why do you use 6-strings?
I like the expanded range. It’s really useful to have the lower notes and pitch bass grooves in that range. I also like having the higher range for playing unison lines written on guitar or piano.
What do you like about Music Man basses?
They are the perfect bass in my opinion. They have all the qualities that I want as a bass player. The bass is very dynamic and responds to different levels of velocity, and that is what makes them musical to me.
What’s your pre-show warmup routine?
I make a point of having one-and-a-half to three hours, on a good day, to play slowly and build myself up to where I can play with conviction. If I try to play with conviction without being warmed, that’s when I’ll get hurt. I always make a point of putting aside the time.
What is going on in your head during a Dream Theater concert?
I’m just trying not to think, really, and I focus on being locked in with the energy of the drums.
How does the bass as an instrument resonate with your personality?
Interesting question. I see it more as an extension of expression. When I listen to music, the bass line is what stands out the most to me, so it’s an extension of what I appreciate in music.
What advice would you give to other bass players?
Keep the hands moving!
Dream Theater, The Astonishing [2016, Roadrunner]
Basses Ernie Ball Music Man Bongo 6-strings
Rig Suncoast B1P 500 bass preamp, Demeter HBP-1 tube preamp, Demeter VTMP-2b tube mic preamp, Little Labs VOG 500-series Analog Bass Resonance Tool, Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II, Fractal Audio MFC101 foot controller, Matrix GT1000FX power amp
Effects MXR M87 Bass Compressor, MXR M83 Bass Chorus Deluxe, MXR M84 Bass Fuzz Deluxe, MXR M288 Bass Octave Deluxe, TC Electronic Vortex Flanger, TC Electronic Flashback Delay, TC Electronic Hall Of Fame Reverb, Mesa/Boogie Grid Slammer, RJM Music Mini Effects Gizmo, Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus, Ernie Ball volume pedal
Other Shure UR4 Wireless receiver and belt pack, Radial JX44 Air Control Switcher with remote pedal, Radial JDX 48 Reactor DI Box, Radial Workhorse 500, Furman power conditioner
Strings Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt 6-string (.032–.130)