To commemorate his surprise return to DT, here’s everything you need to know about Portnoy.
Who is Mike Portnoy?
Mike Portnoy co-founded the progressive metal band Dream Theater in 1985 with Berklee classmates John Petrucci and John Myung.
He has also played drums with Avenged Sevenfold, The Winery Dogs, Liquid Tension Experiment, Adrenaline Mob and more.
His son, Max (Sabian’s Max Stax/Max Splash cymbals are named after him) currently plays drums for the bands Code Orange and Tallah. He also has a daughter, Melody, whose name adorns the TAMA Melody Master snare drum.
Portnoy is the youngest living member of Modern Drummer’s Hall of Fame (Neil Peart previously held the title).
Discovering his love for bands like The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin and KISS, he got his first drum set on his 11th birthday, and he immediately taught himself how to play along with his favorite records. He can also play bass and keys.
It was rare at the time for a self-taught drummer to develop the technical prowess Portnoy later demonstrated in adulthood, but his love for music compelled him to challenge himself, and he eventually received a scholarship to Berklee, a music school known for its strict entry requirements.
“You won’t meet a bigger Beatles fanatic than me,” he said in an interview with DRUM! Magazine. “Half my leg is tattooed with Sergeant Pepper and Yellow Submarine images. They just mean more to me than any band did in the history of music and my love and respect and admiration for them goes incredibly deep, and that applies to Ringo as well.”
Neil Peart and Terry Bozzio eventually moved to the top of his list as he started to take a liking to more challenging progressive music, and looked to Frank Zappa as a non-drummer inspiration. As his notoriety grew, Portnoy became known for his groovy patterns, odd time signatures and linear drum fills.
How did Dream Theater start?
On a scholarship to Berklee in 1985, Portnoy met fellow students John Myung and John Petrucci (who were childhood friends). The classmates bonded over bands like Rush and created a group called Majesty, inviting Petrucci’s friend Kevin Moore to play keyboard and Chris Collins on vocals.
The original trio soon left Berklee to focus on the project when their school schedules began to get in the way of their growing band. When another band called Majesty came forward with a cease-and-desist, they changed their name to Dream Theater – the name of a small California theater.
It wasn’t until 1991 – after the launch of their debut album, a brief record contract, and multiple short-lived vocalists – that James LaBrie came into the fold as Dream Theater’s current singer.
Mike Portnoy was inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame in 2004.
Who writes the songs in Dream Theater?
It’s not the case in many bands for the drummer to have a heavy hand in songwriting and lyric writing, but Portnoy has taken a primary role in composition and has contributed backing vocals to the band.
“John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess will be the most hands-on with the notes, riffs, runs, and chord progressions,” he said in a 2003 interview with Blabbermouth. “They kind of mold the song. I tend to be the grand architect, working out the form using a blackboard behind the drum kit and directing. We write something and then start recording it. We focus on one song before we start another.
“Once the music is done, the lyricist will have the biggest part in writing melodies. Usually, we’ll discuss the melodies, but on the new album we left the melodies solely up to the lyricist. John, James and I take turns writing the lyrics.”
In 2010, feeling burned out from 25 years of constant writing, recording and touring with Dream Theater, Portnoy proposed they take a hiatus so he could take some time off and explore other creative outlets. He never intended to make this break permanent, and in the meantime was filling in with Avenged Sevenfold after their drummer, Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan passed away.
But his bandmates pushed back, so he stepped down from the band entirely. His last show with Dream Theater was in Chiba, Japan on August 8, 2010.
While he enjoyed playing less “mathy” music (“My brain just needed a break“), he was only set to work with Avenged Sevenfold until the end of the year. The media explosion surrounding his Dream Theater departure also made things messy for the A7X camp – especially while they were grieving the loss of their bandmate.
When he tried to come back to Dream Theater shortly after, it was too little too late: they’d already invited Mike Mangini – a seasoned world class drummer and Berklee professor – to fill the role following an extensive and well-publicized audition process.
What other bands has Mike Portnoy played with?
After leaving Dream Theater, he burst out of the gate with new bands Adrenaline Mob and Flying Colors (members include alumni from Deep Purple and Spock’s Beard) and stayed busy during the years that followed.
In 2020, he tracked drums on John Petrucci’s solo album and would appear live with the project on tour dates in 2022, causing fans to speculate about a possible return to Dream Theater.
Both before and after his DT departure, Mike Portnoy has enjoyed a huge roster of bands with whom he’s either collaborated, played live/recorded with, or which he’s co-founded. Many have been supergroups that have given Portnoy the chance to work alongside some of the top musicians in metal, prog, and rock:
Sons of Apollo
The Winery Dogs
The Neal Morse Band
Metal Allegiance (With Alex Skolnick, David Ellefson and more)
Liquid Tension Experiment
PSMS (With Tony Macalpine, Billy Sheehan, Derek Sherinian)
Hail! (With ex members of Megadeth, Judas Priest, Slipknot and more)
G3 (Joe Satriani)
Yellow Matter Custard (Beatles tribute band with Paul Gilbert)
Hammer Of The Gods (Led Zeppelin tribute band with Paul Gilbert)
Amazing Journey (The Who tribute band with Paul Gilbert)
Cygnus & The Sea Monsters (Rush tribute band with Paul Gilbert)
Naming many of them “monsters”, he originally had a few identical kits in the ’90s meant for touring in different regions: the “Green Monster” in Europe, the “Red Monster” in Asia, and the “Purple Monster” (1996-2000) in North and South America.
Outside of these, his most notable kits were the “Siamese Monster” (2001-2004), the “Albino Monster” (2005-2006), the “Mirage Monster” (2007-2008) and the “Black & Silver Monster” (2009-2010):
Most recently, he’s been touring with a clear acrylic TAMA Silverstar Mirage, a smaller configuration of his “Mirage Monster“. It’s the kit he was playing with the live John Petrucci dates and with The Winery Dogs:
Here’s one of his setups according to his TAMA.com profile, which features a variation on his “Black & Silver Monster” (a Starclassic Bubinga kit in Black Clouds & Silver Linings):
Portnoy takes you on a tour of some of his more recent kits here:
With a cymbal setup as diverse as his ever-changing kits, Portnoy has used a variety of configurations over the years. He typically uses a combination of AAX/HHX series crashes and chinas, Max Stax and Max splashes.
Portnoy composed the drum parts for many of Dream Theater’s biggest singles before his 2010 departure. Here are a couple of cool sections you should learn.
A drummy, technical solo somehow still packed to the gills with groove, the song’s intro includes 32nd notes on the hi-hat, barks, Octoban rolls and more.
If you’re a longtime Dream Theater or Mike Portnoy fan, you’re probably familiar with this drum solo where you hear a version of the “6:00” intro about halfway through:
“The Dance Of Eternity”
A cool proggy riff with constantly changing time signatures and off-beat hi-hats, this intro features one of Portnoy’s most memorable parts:
“The Glass Prison”
This section right before the outro (at the end of ‘revelation’) has a cool snare and tom part over constant double bass:
“The Count Of Tuscany”
This section has Neil Peart written all over it, from the open-close hi-hats to the tom rolls and syncopated snare.
If Mike Portnoy is one of your favorite drummers, the best way to channel his energy is by learning the parts he’s written! There are over 30 Dream Theater songs (along with 5000+ other tracks) in the Drumeo members area – with options to practice along without the drums, slow down and repeat sections and more.
Just like in this example:
What are you waiting for? Try Drumeo free for 7 days. Let’s go!
is the editor of The Drumeo Beat. She currently drums with Conquer Divide and has been featured by outlets such as Sick Drummer Magazine and DRUM! Magazine. Sam proudly endorses Mapex Drums, Sabian Cymbals, Evans Drumheads and Los Cabos Drumsticks.