Joe Don Rooney arrived in Nashville 15 years ago. Since then he’s made a big impression not only on his fellow guitarists in Music City, but on the country and pop charts as a charter member of the platinum selling group Rascal Flatts.
The band has recorded eight albums that have retailed 20-million copies and cut 35 pop- and 50 county-charting singles, including a string of number one hits running from 2002’s “These Days” to last year’s “Banjo” from the album Changed.
Along the way Rooney has dipped into his extensive vocabulary of country, rock and blues licks to create memorable riffs and solos, ranging from the classic double stops of “Here Comes Goodbye” to the David Gilmour-like textures that support “Changed.” And lest anyone think that country’s focus on tightly arranged recordings would straightjacket his playing, check “She’d Be California” for the 60 seconds of sheer guitar madness that ends the tune. Or the video on YouTube of Rooney taking a guitar and Theremin solo during one of the stops on Rascal Flatts’ 2012 arena tour.
“The bottom line for me is that it’s all about freedom,” says Rooney, who learned by studying the licks of everyone from Metallica to Brett Mason. “I love heavy metal. I love rock. I love country. And I like to wrap it all up into one. I don’t see why there has to be a boundary. As a player I need to think outside the box — especially within the structure of a great tune — and be expressive.”
Rooney uses a complex wet/dry rig on stage to recreate the vast array of sounds he and producer Dann Huff, an extraordinary guitarist in his own right, have printed on Rascal Flatts’ studio albums. An essential part of Rooney’s live arsenal is an armada of several Gibson Les Paul Studios and a ’59 reissue Les Paul Standard, and in the studio he employs Les Pauls, a ’63 SG Junior, an ES-335 and a Gibson Southern Jumbo.
One of Rooney’s fortes is creating countermelodies to enhance the song while also making his own playing stand out in the mix.
“I preach countermelody,” he attests. “In country, where the singer gets ‘front and center,’ us poor guitar players don’t always get respect. That’s why countermelody is so important. It creates another hook and gets your playing noticed while supporting the song.”
He also uses textural pads a great deal. “Changed” and “Here Comes Goodbye” are excellent examples. “The idea is to support the song,” Rooney relates. “Something has to occupy that space and improve it, so a pad’s got to be just right. And with a song where the melody’s that good, you need to give it the space it deserves.”
And yes, Rooney is a Pink Floyd fan. “Man, I love David Gilmour. He’s a singer on the guitar. That’s an idea that Dann introduced me to when he produced Rascal Flatts for the first time, for our fourth album Me and My Gang. I was getting ready to cut a solo and he said, ‘Okay, set your guitar down. Let’s find out where you want to go by singing it, and then plug in and play.’
“That is such a good idea. Otherwise your fingers want to go somewhere familiar. Once you start seriously thinking about melody — the concept of singing with the guitar — that opens you up to places you’ve never been before.”
Rooney also credits producer Huff with getting him hooked on Gibson Les Pauls. Dann took me aside after a show and said, ‘You’re a wonderful player, but you don’t have a personality yet.’ I said, ‘What’s your idea?’
“We were cutting ‘Life Is a Highway’ for the Cars soundtrack. That was the first song I ever cut with Dann, and he got out one of his old Les Pauls and told me, ‘Plug this guitar into that amp and just feel it.’ He also had a Keeley compressor pedal and a Fulltone overdrive chained into his 4x12 Bogner cabinet and head set on channel three, which is the rhythm channel with a little more dirt. We cranked it up. It was really hot. I was sold.
“When I’m recording a solo I like to play to the tone,” Rooney continues, “so I dial up a new sound and then see if it fits in the box. I try to avoid going back to the same tones I’ve used before. I really want to be inspired. If something doesn’t work, I’ll get another guitar, another amp, change the setting… And I don’t wig out when I make a mistake. Mistakes are sometimes where the real emotional stuff occurs. With ProTools and the other electronic gear we have, it’s easy to go in and make things tic-tock perfect, but sometimes a bend that isn’t quite right fits the emotions in a song best.”