A HANDFUL OF BANDS are so big that their labels take extraordinary measures to ensure their new music doesn’t end up on the Internet and downloaded for free a zillion times before it’s available for sale. They forgo sending advance CDs, instead granting journalists access to streaming audio on a secure server. In the most extreme cases—think artists such as U2 and country superstars Rascal Flatts—labels don’t even take that risk: They hold in-person listening parties where writers are practically patted down beforehand to check for recording devices.
Fortunately, GP was able to meet up with Flatts guitarist Joe Don Rooney in Salt Lake City, Utah, just weeks before the release of the band’s latest album, Unstoppable [Lyric Street], so searches weren’t necessary to protect the band’s livelihood. And what a livelihood it is. The Nashville-based trio has seen every one of its five studio albums go multi-platinum. And the band’s youthful exuberance, impressive vocal harmonies, and polished mix of anthems and ballads have earned it nine No. 1 hits in as many years, as well as crossover success with songs such as 2006’s remake of “Life Is a Highway” for the animated film Cars.
Despite what some might expect based on his band’s mainstream appeal, Rooney, a 33-year-old from Pitcher, Oklahoma, is an unabashed yet soft-spoken guitar junkie whose influences include Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Vince Gill, and Chet Atkins. Just hours before he was to perform for a huge crowd, Rooney was visibly stoked to talk about all things guitar in his firstever GP interview. True to his nice-guy reputation, he was a gracious host as he provided sneak previews of select tracks from Unstoppable by blasting them through his iPhone into the ceiling-mounted speakers in his plush tour bus. He and guitar technician David Graef then provided an up-close-and-personal tour of his rig— which is centered on a pair of Bogner 101B heads, a stable of lust-worthy vintage and custom Gibson solidbodies, and a Taylor 714ce acoustic—before inviting the GP camera onstage as he blasted out licks at sound check. (Visit GuitarPlayerTV.com for this and other exclusive footage.)
But Rooney wasn’t just excited to talk about his new album and his pair of delectable 1963 SG Juniors—he also wanted to set the record straight. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that Jay [DeMarcus, bass and keyboards] and I are really players and true musicians,” he explained with an easy smile as he cradled a black Les Paul Studio in the comfort of a recliner. “Early on, there were a lot of misconceptions that Rascal Flatts was put together by label execs or some management firm in Nashville. But that’s not it at all. We started singing together and playing in clubs back in 1999, sometimes for eight hours a night, and just got lucky and got a record deal. I mean, we write our own charts, we produce bands on the side, and we love to play. A lot of people know that now, but I want even more to know. And I hope they come out to a show and check out what we do live—because that’s the deal.” True to his word, that night Rooney settled all questions about his ability when the lights dimmed after the very first song, and with a cranked sunburst ES-335 in hand, he conjured deliciously “brown” tones for a furious duel with fiddle player John Jeansonne that was part “Eruption,” part Charlie Daniels, and part Paganini—and 100 percent badass.
Rooney received some guitar instruction from his father but was largely self-taught before a major shift a few years into Flatts’ career helped him grow by leaps and bounds. “My dad played a lot of Chet stuff growing up, and he passed the guitar-playing torch to me. The whole thumbpicking thing is really fun to try to do,” he says. “But I’m pretty well rounded, too. When I was 14 or 15, I studied with a couple of cats and really started getting into scales. But when I got into the blues, I realized that there are no rules. There’s not really a scale idea there. You just close your eyes and play—any note can work if you just bend it right. That’s what Chet Atkins used to say—you’re always a half-step away from greatness.”
Despite Rooney’s longstanding openmindedness to all styles of music, he credits his biggest progress as a player to legendary session guitarist Dan Huff. Besides helping the band get a record deal—he recommended them to Lyric Street records in 1999 after hearing a three-song demo—he also took Rooney under his wing when he came onboard as the band’s producer for 2006’s Me and My Gang.
Things were touchy for Rooney, then 30, around the time that Huff came into the picture. As musicians, he and DeMarcus felt trapped even as they appeared to be living the dream. “We had a rough time getting to play on our first three albums, because of the way things run in Nashville. It’s much faster if you get the ‘A’ cats [studio musicians] in and get it done.” Frustrated with only getting to flex his vocal chops on record, Rooney risked industry backlash and took things into his own hands by calling Huff to see if he was interested in working together. Rooney believed it was the only way for him and DeMarcus to get out of the box they’d been placed in. According to Rooney, Huff accepted without hesitation, and he’s produced every Flatts album since then.
“It’s sensitive stuff in a business when you’re friends with producers and you don’t want to cause disruptions in your relationships,” he explains. “But we wanted to bring more of what we’ve all got to the table on the records, and I knew Dan would take the chance with us, because he just gets it.”
According to Rooney, one of Huff’s primary objectives from the outset was to bring the band’s live energy to their studio tracks. “He’d been to a few of our shows, and he wanted to bring in that live atmosphere.” Given the radio-friendliness of Flatts’ material, naturally Huff didn’t just crank up amps and let Rooney wail. Huff’s guidance was as nuanced as one would expect from his past studio work with everyone from Michael Jackson to Faith Hill to Megadeth. “He opened my mind so much when it comes to tonality and playing to it. I was always that kid who plugged into whatever amp was there and tried to play every Van Halen lick I knew. In the studio, it’s not about that. It’s about finding that magic tone that fits in the track, and then playing to that tone. When you’ve got a bluesy tone, you can’t shred with it. You can only do what fits that tone, and I didn’t know that.”
As one of the most recorded studio guitarists of the modern era, Huff also had plenty of gear advice—leading Rooney to the rig he’s been relying on for the last three years. “I didn’t even play Les Pauls until I met Dan,” he admits. “Early on, he told me, ‘You’ve got a great style, but your sound just doesn’t have a lot of personality.’” Rooney laughs as he recalls his reply. “I said, ‘Are you going to show me some or what?’ And he handed me a Les Paul going through a Bogner Ecstasy 101B—which had a bigger, thicker, bluesier sound that I loved.” On the road today, Les Pauls make up half of Rooney’s complement of six Gibsons, with an ES-335 and the two ’63 SG Juniors rounding out the set. His other road guitars are a 1957 Reissue Fender Stratocaster and a Taylor 714ce.
“Dan was also good at sitting down with me and taking the time to plug in different amp configurations, cabinets, and miking positions,” Rooney says. “We’d have six to eight mics on each amp. Room mics. Outside- the-room mics. Mics on the front of the amp, and behind the amp—even if it had a closed back—just for woofiness.”
Huff’s influence even extends to how Rooney’s melodic lead style has evolved. “He taught me to sit and listen to a solo section and sing the solo to myself before I even grab a guitar. He’d say, ‘Sing something to yourself, or sing it out loud. What’s the melody you’re hearing?’ Because it’s all about hooks when it comes to mainstream music. And I had never thought about that. I’d just grab the guitar and play a pentatonic scale, because I was comfortable there. But when you hum your part, you might find yourself playing in a position you’ve never been in to pull off that melody in your head. It might be uncomfortable or a little weird at first, but it opens you up to different atmospherics.”
The evidence of how Huff’s mentoring has affected Rooney’s playing is all over Unstoppable. Slick production and chart-ready tunes notwithstanding, when Rooney turns up new tracks like “She’d Be California”— a rambunctious number with a wild solo and lots of power chords and wah licks—it’s clear Rooney’s still a fan of in-your-face guitar. “I love just plugging into an amp and playing,” he says as the song fades out. “But I’m a sucker for the big arena sound, too.” On the mid-tempo anthem “Love Who You Love,” however, he engaged the middle pickup position on a vintage Rickenbacker for a raw, gritty solo that’s anything but typical commercial fare. “That middle position is dirty man—it’s rock and roll. I played that through a souped-up old Matchless DC-30 or Chieftain, dry as a bone.” And though he favors gutsy bridge-pickup tone from his Gibsons for much of his live work, Rooney found the cluck of a Strat’s neck and middle pickups most suitable for the verses and choruses on “Things That Matter,” a bluesy, R&Btinged song with ten-track vocal harmonies. And Rooney’s neurotic vibrato and raw, discordant bends on the tune’s outro may very well be some of his most mature and headturning work to date. “I haven’t played a lot of Strats,” he confides, “but this song really lends itself to that rugged Strat sound.”
On Unstoppable’s first single, the ballad “Here Comes Goodbye,” Rooney dishes up a simple but tasty double-stop solo. “I don’t usually play that high,” he says as he demonstrates the double-stop bends on the high E and B strings at the uppermost fret on his Les Paul. “That’s a little Slash impersonation there. I played my red SG Jr. through a Diezel amp on the verse and chorus, with a Les Paul through my Bogner on the solo. I think that’s the funnest solo I’ve created with Dan.”
Much as Rooney obviously digs guitar, the more he talks the more it’s clear recording great solos and running down catwalks at the band’s spectacular live shows aren’t all it’s about for him. Images of his one-yearold son, Jagger, flit by on a digital photo frame next to him as he fondly recalls kids at meet-and-greets saying he inspired them to take up guitar. “It’s a tip of the hat to my heroes, who are with me onstage—inside me and in my hands—every night.”