Rascal Flatts' Joe Don Rooney picks 10 essential guitar albums
As the hotshot lead guitarist with Rascal Flatts, Joe Don Rooney has been a constant presence on the country charts for the past 15 years. But as a rock and metal-obsessed kid growing up in Picher, Oklahoma, Rooney dreamed about tapping licks and Floyd Roses, not chicken pickin’ and paisley Teles.
“Rock was what I loved,” Rooney says. “Rock and metal, and hey, even hair metal – those bands had some great players. My dad would tell me, ‘You won’t make any money playin’ that stuff. You’ll be living on the street.’ He wanted me to get more country. It took me some time, but I did get there, although I always kept the rock side. To me, there’s no good reason why they can’t get along together.”
Rooney’s guitar style is a true hybrid, one that incorporates rock, pop, metal, blues and even some jazz. “Too many guitarists get stuck in one box, and they don’t want to want to check out anything new or different,” he explains. “I’ve always tried to be a well-rounded player, and the idea that you can’t jump from one side of the fence to the other never appealed to me.
“In any genre, there’s great music being made. And if you can take a little rock and put it in country, or vice versa, you might wind up with something cool. That’s what I try to do, and it’s what Rascal Flatts does, too.”
On the following pages, Rooney runs down his picks for 10 (OK, he technically goes to 11) essential guitar albums.
Vince Gill - Pocket Full Of Gold (1991)
“Vince Gill is my absolute hero on so many levels. When I started getting into the guitar, my dad pushed me into country music. He’d be like, ‘There’s great musicianship in country. The players can pretty much do it all.’ When I heard Pocket Full Of Gold, it all made sense to me. Liza Jane, to me, was like Clapton being reborn. Vince was tipping his hat to Clapton in such a cool, fresh way. That pulled me right in.
“I learned that solo note for note. My dad told me, ‘If you learn that solo, you can play in my band. You can play clubs on the weekend with me.’ Here I was, 13, 14 years old, diving into some lead playing, and so you’d better believe I learned the solo to Liza Jane. It became part of my repertoire.
“I wasn’t so much into the country thing until I heard Pocket Full Of Gold. After that, my ears were wide open.”
Steve Vai - Passion And Warfare (1990)
“Steve always seems to play the right melodic notes, and even when he goes to something lightning fast, it’s still clean and smooth. He doesn’t lose the listener. All of his thoughts and ideas are so big and beautifully articulated. It’s like somebody breathing in and out – that’s how natural he makes it all sound.
“Passion And Warfare knocked me out. For The Love Of God is probably one of the most gorgeous melodies ever written for the guitar. The whole record is full of stunning music and fantastic guitar licks. I remember every kid at the Guitar Center was trying to play stuff from this album. The Audience Is Listening – that’s another amazing one. I could list ‘em all.
“It’s a real feat to make music that’s lofty and grand but not pretentious. Passion And Warfare is so full of emotion and creative ideas, and it all works. It’s one of those records that is conceived, played, mixed and sequenced perfectly from beginning to end. To me, Steve is like Jeff Beck – it’s like he’s from another universe. That’s how unique his talent is.”
Extreme - Extreme II: Pornograffitti (1990)
“I’ve hooked up with Nuno a couple of times. He’s such a sweetheart. I got to jam with him, and he showed me some of that tapping stuff – he’s so damn good. It’s bizarre how his fingers move. I remember sitting in the bedroom trying to learn the solos to these songs. He gave me something to work at – that’s for sure.
“Get The Funk Out is one of the grooviest, nastiest songs ever. It sets the stage for Nuno to do what he does so well. He plays a lot of notes, but you can sing everything he plays. I think he’s one of the greatest of all time, and it’s shocking to me how underrated he is. I put him with the best in the world.
“More Than Words was a very important song to me in my early years. I was playing a lot of electric, but I wanted to learn some acoustic. I noticed that More Than Words was a half-step down – that’s the way Nuno likes to play. The Everly Brothers harmonies are beautiful in this song, but the foundation is the acoustic guitar. What a fantastic arrangement; it’s sparse but complete. You can just play the acoustic part to this song and you know what it is. Brilliant.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan - In Step (1989)
“Stevie Ray Vaughan – what can I say? The House Is Rockin’ is such a great opening song. That Texas blues-rock sound he had was like a Mack truck coming at you. It was so huge. I had a cassette tape of this record, and it really felt like the thing was going to explode. What musicianship!
“Crossfire is the perfect mix of blues, rock and pop, but it leans toward blues. The piano and the horns set Stevie up to shine, man. Riviera Paradise is a beautiful arrangement. It showed his sensibilities for jazz – just a little bit. It reminds me of something Chet Atkins once said. He was asked, ‘Hey, Chet, do you know any jazz?’ And he replied, ‘Yeah, just enough not to hurt my playing.’ [Laughs]
“Again, the sound that Stevie Ray got – the fire and the power. I didn’t realise till later on that he used really heavy-gauge strings. He played .013s, which is like what an acoustic played uses. I tried it, but I learned pretty quickly that unless you’re Stevie Ray and you’ve got those big hands and those big wrists, there’s no way you can pull off those bends.
“I’ve got such respect for his aggressive playing style. He played like he was a man of the world. His playing was bold, his singing was bold, and he changed blues-rock forever. He blazed a new trail.”
Alan Jackson - Who I Am (1994)
“I’m a big Alan Jackson fan. He’s a great songwriter and singer, really a tried-and-true purist country entertainer. On this album, the lead track is Summertime Blues, on which he brought out the best and brightest of Nashville, and they brought out the best in Alan Jackson.
“From Paul Franklin to Brent Mason, everybody does brilliant work. I became such a Brent Mason fan – I went out and bought every video he did, all the Hot Licks stuff. I just wanted to sit down and learn how to play like him.
“Summertime Blues is the old Eddie Cochran song, so this is Alan tipping his hat to rock ‘n’ roll but putting his own spin on it. The Who did their amazing version of the song some years before, and who would have thought that Alan Jackson could do a country version of it and it would be a summer slam-dunk? I played with a lot of honky-tonk bands in high school and during my first couple of years of college, and whenever we played Summertime Blues, it packed the dance floor. Talk about a hot tune.”
Toto - Toto IV (1982) and Fahrenheit (1986)
“I have to go with both of these albums and give it up to Mr. Steve Lukather. He’s become a friend of mine, which is totally unbelievable to me. He’s such a hero of mine. The guy just steals the room every time he walks into it, without even trying, and that personality comes through in his playing.
“Toto IV – what an album! Rosanna, of course, has the shuffle that’ll never die. An unbelievable song with world-class production. Steve Lukather is a triple threat on this album – fantastic singer, guitarist and writer. Not many people can pull all of that off, but Steve does it like he’s tying his shoes. He’s got melody in his heart, and his solos are unreal.
Fahrenheit has Could This Be Love, which is such a cool tune. Lukather sneaks his guitar in so subtly. It’s such a gift, the ability to play unbelievable licks but knowing when to hold back. He’s a mature player – probably comes from all his years doing session work. He puts in just enough and doesn’t trample over the song. He’s somebody who other guitarists should study. I just love him.”
Van Halen - Van Halen (1978)
“What guitar player doesn’t love Eddie Van Halen? When I look at the landscape of what moved me, this is right in the foundation. Eruption – every kid wanted to play it. To learn it is such a task, and to this day I have to go back to relearn bits and pieces. Every time I do it, I’m blown away that somebody could even conceive of such a thing. It’s a masterpiece.
“He was so young and bold and full of ideas. Like Stevie Ray Vaughan, there was a brashness to him, a spunkiness that jumped right out. His playing was melodic and creative – and oddly mature, considering his years. He broke all the rules and wrote his own rules. In my opinion, he was one of the best trendsetters we’ve ever had.
“And there was a country thing to his playing. He had a funky James Burton-esque thing about him. I don’t know if that was a direct influence on him; maybe he just sort of absorbed it like something blowing in the wind. In any event, Eddie changed so much for us guitarists, and we’re all better for it.
“It’s hard to believe this was made in 1978. It still sounds unique and fresh. You listen to the phasey guitar on Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love, and it’s almost futuristic. It was pointing in the direction where a lot of rock music would go. I’m sure Kurt Cobain heard it, and that spirit went into his solos. Eddie Van Halen was having fun and being loud and brash, he was a pioneer.”
Jeff Beck - Blow By Blow (1975)
“A timeless album. Scatterbrain is one of my favourites. I love the sound, the chord structure and the guitar melody – it’s so good. The drum sounds are great, too. They just scream ‘70s to me, but only in a good way. It’s smart, well-crafted music.
“Jeff Beck is such a complex musician. His hands, his touch – there’s such sensitivity in his playing. He played a Les Paul on this whole album, but what’s amazing is to see him play a Strat these days – he gets the same sound! Not many people can get their own sound on different guitars. Jeff always brings his own tone with him, no matter what.
“Air Blower is another hot one – it’s so badass and crazy. You can’t help but move around when you listen to it. Beck had such a way of making it sound like he was playing with a slide, which he wasn’t, or a whammy bar, and he wasn’t. It was all on a Les Paul. Nobody manipulates a guitar and owns it like Jeff Beck.”
Merle Haggard - Rainbow Stew Live At Anaheim Stadium (1981)
“My daddy was such an influence on me in the country world. I was a rocker when I first started playing. I wanted to play rock, and he was pushing country. He pulled this album out in 1990 and blew my mind.
“Merle broke all the rules with his Bakersfield country sound. I love the fact that he had horns and all of this stuff going on. You look on stage and he had something like 25 musicians with him. Roy Nichols, to this day, is still one of my favourite guitarists. He had a jazz-swing-country thing happening, and he really expanded Merle’s songs.
“One of the highlights for me is I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink. It’s got some rough spots, but it’s so authentic and it feels right. It’s everything I love about country music. Luckily, I got to meet Merle, and he was just fantastic. My dad was thrilled that I got into this album. It was so different from the rock music I was listening to, but it was cool. I started to understand how mature and wonderful country music was.”
Metallica - Metallica (1991)
“I’ve always been a Metallica fan – Kill 'Em All, Ride The Lightning, all of it – but I was really knocked out when I heard the “Black Album.’ Bob Rock maximised their potential, and it was literally like that cliché of capturing lightning in a bottle. They were ready for the big-time. This wasn’t a band that got lucky with one hit album; they had put a lot of miles under their feet for years leading up to this.
“I love every song on the record. James Hetfield is an amazing songwriter. Kirk Hammett is another guy I put on my underrated list. He’s a very exploratory guitarist; it’s kind of mysterious. He has a tone that he likes to stay with, but he’ll sometimes throw on some wah-wah or do something else that makes you go, “Wow, what was that?”
Enter Sandman – spooky, exciting, just brilliant work. Nothing Else Matters has gorgeous guitar playing on it. Sad But True – what a badass riff, man. It’s massive. Man, there’s almost too much to love on this record. I remember playing it night and day – I couldn’t get enough of it. My parents had to sleep with earplugs in because I wouldn’t stop listening to it.”