Rusty Cooley

From his humble beginnings jamming along to Ted Nugent songs on a tennis racket, Rusty Cooley has studied, practiced, picked, and swept his way to being the leading light of the post-Malmsteen shred-volution. He has parlayed his hard work into a successful teaching practice, a devoted Web following, signature model guitars, and a self-titled record with his band, Outworld.

You’ve been a teacher for a long time. What do you tell your students about keeping their musical priorities straight?
The most important thing I try to teach is musicianship. To me, that’s an equal balance between theory and technique. You need to understand how chords, scales, harmony, and melody work, but it doesn’t matter how much theory you know if you don’t have the chops to pull it off. It’s better to have an overabundance of technique than to be lacking, because your technique will always be there if you need it. I start everyone off by getting their fingers moving, and then I teach theory on a need-to-know basis. As we learn new things, we learn the theory behind them.

Do most of your students want to shred, or do you also get players who just want to strum folk tunes?
A teacher gets students from all walks of life, so I’ve had those who want to learn jazz, blues, and classical, and guys who want to strum an acoustic around a campfire. The message is the same: musicianship. Technique is not prejudiced. It applies to all styles. The campfire guy just won’t need as much theory or technique as some of the others.

Let’s talk about your Outworld record. What gear did you use on “Raise Hell”?
I played two Ibanez 7-strings on “Raise Hell.” One was made to my specifications with a custom mahogany body, a maple top, and a rosewood fretboard, so it has a warm, meaty tone. It’s not exactly like a Les Paul, but that’s what I was basing it on with those wood choices. The other is an RG I found in a pawnshop that I just love. It’s basswood, so it’s a lot brighter. The two together gave me warmth without losing bite. For amps, I’m using a Rocktron Prophesy preamp into a VHT Two/Ninety/Two power amp and a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier cab with V30 speakers. I combined that with a Bogner Uberschall and a Mesa 4x12. Those two amps together represent the best of both worlds—especially for really fast picking. As funny as this might sound, a tube amp by itself doesn’t have the warmth of the Prophesy, which is digital. I just got a great amp from Diamond Amplification, and I’m going to work that into my live setup in place of the Bogner. The Prophesy will stay in my rig, though. In fact, Rocktron has a new preamp called the Prophesy II that actually has six of my presets in it.

You switch to the neck pickup in a lot of your solos. What’s your reasoning behind that?
I use EMG 707 pickups exclusively on all my guitars, and which pickup I choose depends on the specific musical idea I’m playing. As far as alternate picking and legato playing, I just decide on the fly. When I’m sweep picking, though, that’s always the neck pickup. With sweeping, you’re running the pick across the strings, and if you’re on the treble pickup, it’s just too noisy. You get a bright and scratchy tone. When you sweep on the neck pickup, you get a really warm tone, and it almost makes the sound of the pick disappear.

What’s your main guitar now?
I have my own model coming out from Dean called the RC7. I think we’ve really taken the 7-string a step further, and this will appeal to players who want to push the limits of what they can do. If you look at my Dean, the cutaway goes beyond the 24th fret. The bottom horn is all beveled and sculpted, so when you slide your hand down there, the backside of the horn doesn’t hit the back of your hand. The neck joint is also beveled, so you get access all the way up. Another unique thing is that we sunk the neck deeper into the body, so the base of the tremolo can be flush with the body. That way, when you’re picking, you don’t have to reach your right hand up and over the tremolo to get on top of the strings. The fretboard is ebony, and the frets are Dunlop 6000s, which are the biggest frets on the planet. You can get the action so low it’s just laying on the frets. I play with a really light touch, and I like my guitar to be touch sensitive. I want to be able to barely fret a note and have it play.

Did massive technique always come easy to you or did you have to struggle?
I don’t want to say that anything ever came easy, but what made it easier for me was how much I loved it. As soon as I started playing, it was as if a switch went off. I had found what I wanted to do. Every minute I poured into it was fun and exciting, and the desire to get better was all that mattered. I’m sure that getting my technique together was a lot more work than I remember it being, but it was so much fun that it just kind of happened.