Conversations With Rusty Cooley - A RHB Exclusive Interview

Rock House Instructor Rusty Cooley is one of those rare musicians that has the ability to relate to musicians on all levels. He has been where we all have been, the beginning. He has taught himself to the top of the metal guitar world. A true pioneer in the shred music field, he has been recognized as one the top 10 guitarists in the world. We at Rock House are lucky and privileged to have Rusty and his family as part of our family.

With out further ado, I give you. Conversations with Rusty Cooley.

Rock House Blog: The last time I saw you was out at NAMM Rusty, what have you been up to since then?

Rusty Cooley: I’ve been working on some more material with Derek Sherinian, I just did some scratch tracks for him last night. I’m going to be doing a column for Premier Guitar called “Fierce Guitar”. I’ll be doing that column every other month in rotation with Greg Howe, who is an amazing player. I’m also going to be going back up into New York and Connecticut at the end of May and do some more stuff for Rock House. I’ve got a bunch of clinics lined up including a Master Class Clinic in June.

I’m also working on an 8 string guitar for Dean.

RHB: I saw that Rusty, tell me more about that guitar.

Rusty Cooley: Well, I’ve been playing an 8 string guitar since 2001. When I finished work on the 7 string with Dean we wanted to dive into the 8 string guitar. My 8 string guitar actually goes higher than the high E string but then I also play an 8 string that goes lower than the B string so I’ll need to get into a couple of versions of it.

It would be cool to ultimately have a double neck 8 string and have one of each, one higher and one lower. To be able to utilize that with both ranges in one song would be cool.

RHB: That’s just crazy Rusty!

Rusty Cooley: I know (laughs)

RHB: Rusty, tell me how you became interested in playing guitar, where do your musical roots come from?

Rusty Cooley: That’s kind of a funny story Curt. I had some encounters with the guitar, through my childhood, where I would be at someones house and they would have one or a friend of my parents would have one and I would kind of fool around with it. But it never went any where beyond that, I never thought hey I want to get a guitar. Then when I was in about 8th grade me and some friends were really beginning to get into music and we had been air guitaring with tennis rackets to some records. I got this brilliant idea and said hey why don’t we get some real guitars.

So it kind of started there and it was nothing more than that. It wasn’t like I had been listening to music for a really long time or that I was really into it or that I was wanting a guitar really bad. It was just kind of out of the blue and I went with it. Pretty much from the time I got it. It just hit me and it was the perfect time in my life and there was no looking back.

RHB: So did you take lessons?

Rusty Cooley: No, I’m self taught. I tried lessons a couple times with different teachers but I just couldn’t get into that aspect. The problem was that I started playing guitar right when the whole shred guitar thing happened. It was Randy Rhodes and Yngwie and Vai and all those shrapnel guys. The problem was all the guitar players that I was listening to, and none of the teachers could play like that on a local level. So there was nobody around that cold teach me what I wanted to play.

So I ended up teaching myself how to play. There wasn’t anything on-line thing back then so I learned through a mail order course, which was Metal Method. I taught myself through that for like the first 3 or 4 years of playing guitar. I studied and mastered everything they put out. From there I went on and continued to study books and videos. The books back then came with cassettes. I went on to take music theory in high school and I took some music theory in college, but aside from that it was all just pretty much just at home, hard core working and practicing and studying on my own.

RHB: So when did you figure out this is what you wanted to do?

Rusty Cooley: Oh man, I had such a heavy work load when I got out of high school. I was teaching at 2 guitar shops, I was going to school (college), I was playing in a band and spending 4 or 5 nights a week rehearsing and writing and I was working at a record store a couple days a week. It was pretty overwhelming and it was a hectic schedule. It came to a point where I had to ask myself what is it that I really want to do and what’s the most important thing to me. From that I eliminated everything that wasn’t important to me, that didn't have to do with music. So I dropped college and I dropped working at the record store and I went full speed at teaching and playing in a band.

RHB: S0 in essence you gave everything up to live the dream.

Rusty Cooley: Yeah, I mean, you know I don’t know if it was so much the dream as it was my passion for music. You know, I guess everybody wants to be a rock star but my thing was just being the best guitar player that I could be and making music more so than be a rock star. I didn’t really buy into that scene of I want to be popular. I was more about playing killer music and being a kick ass guitar player. Being a rock star might have been the icing on the cake but that wasn’t the intention. A lot of people pick up an instrument because they want to be popular with girls and be famous and all that kind of stuff, but it really wasn’t all about that for me.

RHB: Do you feel like you have accomplished that Rusty? Are there things in the music business that you still want to do?

Rusty Cooley: There always things to be done and accomplished. As a musician I feel I always take the mentality of the student because there is always so much more to learn. That’s the beautiful thing about music. It’s never ending as long as you have the desire to progress and learn. The knowledge of music is infinite as far as what you can do with it creatively.

As far as being successful, man I always welcome more success. In many ways I am successful and many ways I’m not. It’s kind of a hard question to answer. I get great exposure, I got a good thing with Rock House that gets my name and face out there. I’ve got my own signature guitar, records and I’m on other peoples records. So, successful in that way, yes. But like anything there is always room for growth. I’m always looking for ways to grow. I mean if you feel like you’ve got it all what is there left to strive for.

RHB: You still teach also?

Rusty Cooley: Yep.

RHB: Do you teach everybody or do you limit that to advanced players?

Rusty Cooley: Man, I teach everybody. I really enjoy the diversity and here’s why. I find that when I have too many advanced guys I get bored because I feel like I’m doing the same stuff with every student, it gets old man, so I like having beginners and intermediates. I like guys that aren’t just metal or shred. I like guys that just want to learn some rock or the older guy that comes in because he is at a point in his life where he wants to pick up a guitar and strum some chords on an acoustic. I like it and it gives me more stimulation. Other wise I just get bored because it just more of the same old stuff.

Another thing that has just recently happened is that I am now the co-owner of Pro Music Teaching Studios in the Woodlands (Texas). Myself and 2 other people opened it up, we have a total of 8 teachers including ourselves. We're teaching guitar, bass, piano and drums. One of the teachers is Matt Smith who is teaching drums. He played with me in the band Outworld, he’s pretty amazing. We have world class bassist David Piggot who is Monte Montgomery’s bass player. Larry Asher is one of the other guitar instructors and Mike Blattel (Drop Trio) on drums and all the other guys there too. So it’s kind of like an all-star line up at our teaching studio. It’s a great opportunity for people to get professional instruction from people who have some very legitimate credentials. These people who are also making music professionally.

RHB: Going back to your comment about teaching the guy that just wants to pick up the guitar and strum some chords. For me, I can literally spend hours just kicked back with an acoustic in my hand and play chords.

Rusty Cooley: Yeah, hey, that’s what it’s all about man. You're making music that you want to make. You know, everybody that picks up the guitar doesn’t have to strive to be a virtuoso or something like that. Music really is for everyone.

RHB: Dean Guitars has certainly been a shining moment in your career. Were there any other moments in your life that made you feel like you had made it in the business?

Rusty Cooley: Well…..yes and no. I mean, certainly having a signature guitar and having full page ads run in magazines with them, there is a certain level of making it. Having my own signature over drive pedal and having my own DVDs with Rock House and CDs. But there is still a lot of work in progress for me. There’s still a lot of things I want to achieve, strive for and do. Back in 2003 I was listed at number 7 on the 10 fastest shredders of all time list. I didn’t even know I was going to be in it and I looked at the guitar magazine and I was like holly crap. Here I am with half the guys that were my guitar heroes and inspiration as a kid. So, to be listed among those guys as one of the top 10 shredders was a pretty successful moment.

RHB: I saw you play Wimbash at NAMM and I thought you just knocked that performance out of the park.

Rusty Cooley: Thank you. I did feel really good about it. I needed a good performance that night because sometimes I get off that stage and say to myself “that sucked”. I was just talking to somebody about this earlier and a lot of your performance has to do with the people you are playing for. In this instance, your playing at NAMM and your really playing for people that appreciate what you do. The crowd is just really into it and responsive, so you just feed off that. When it’s all good and it’s all right you just lock in and you play good and that was just one of those nights. When your at a venue like that you really need to knock the ball out of the park because not only are you playing for people that are into it but you are playing to one of the toughest crowds there is as well because most people in the crowd are other musicians.

A buddy of mine was standing next to a couple of big names in the business, Richie Kotzen and Herman Lee, and he said “both of those guys were just frickin’ floored“, so that just couldn’t have been any better for me. It’s cool to finally have names like that watching you instead of me being in the audience watching them.

RHB: You have put out a couple DVDs with Rock House called Fretboard Autopsy. Can you comment on your relationship with the company?

Rusty Cooley: Well sure man, I think that all the guys that I have come into contact with at Rock House, which are mainly John, Joe and Jimmy and then all the wonderful people that I met that are associated with Rock House that I hadn’t met before at NAMM give off a great environment. It’s just a very family oriented business in a way, meaning, that when you are a part of the Rock House team it becomes a kind of family. Everybody is there for everybody. To make it the best, most fun and comfortable place to be. Joe and John are very professional. They know what they are doing and they know how to get the best out of the artist they are working with. One of the big things that I really like is that they get out there and really push the artist. They are running ads in the guitar mags and trade mags, they work hard at getting your stuff in stores and getting you visibility. You know, if your not out there pushing it and promoting it then it’s just going to sit there on the shelf or may not even possibly get on the shelf. You have to have promotion and a good team behind you, and that certainly is what Rock House is.

Rock House is the cutting edge for instructional material for this era in music. They have taken it to the next level and that’s very cool.

RHB: I watched the DVDs that you for us and I got to say Rusty you are so comfortable in front of the camera, your DVD is very easy to follow along and your explanation of everything was just right on point all the time.

Rusty Cooley: I honestly have gotten nothing but positive feedback from it. I think that one thing that people don’t realize is that just because you are a good player doesn’t mean you are going to be a good teacher. I have so many years of teaching experience and so many years of experience teaching players on all different levels and you have to be able to break it down to the most basic level. You have to be able to explain to somebody that doesn’t have a clue as to what it’s all about to begin with. You can’t assume that everyone knows what you know and that they are on your level. You can’t just say to them “hey check this out” you know? There’s just so much more to it than that.

RHB: I know that when I first sat down and looked at the DVDs I was a little intimidated but you did such a good job of explaining everything that I feel if someone wanted to play that style of music they could learn what they need by popping that DVD in and truly learn how to play it.

Rusty Cooley: Thanks, I am looking forward to doing more stuff with Rock House.

RHB: Anything you think you can mention yet?

Rusty Cooley: Yeah, I don’t see why not. I’m going back up to Connecticut and New York at the end of May and we are going to be starting on my next batch of DVDs which is going to be called Arpeggio Madness. It’s going to be much like the Fretboard Autopsy but based on arpeggios and my approach to arpeggios.

We’ll talk about some substitution stuff. I think a lot of guitar players out there think of arpeggios as one dimensional sweep picking kind of stuff. When I do arpeggios it can be anything from alternate picking, to sweep, to tapping or legato. So I’m going to be covering multiple approaches to arpeggios, not just a one dimensional sweep picking thing. So I will be covering a lot of stuff, hopefully it will be pretty cutting edge. It will be a lot of new information for striving guitar players out there.

RHB: Tapping arpeggios, that should be interesting.

Rusty Cooley: Yes, arpeggios you can tap. It’ll involve using more than one finger on your tapping hand so we will be using 2 and up to 3 fingers to do that. I’m getting the tabs and the lessons laid out for it right now. But I use all kinds of techniques to utilize arpeggios in music.

RHB: Rusty what kind of advice could you give someone who wants to try and get into the music business?

Rusty Cooley: In the aspect of breaking into the business first of all you need a product, you have to have something that you can give people. The best way that I can tell people to do this is just based on what I have done. It might not be the best way but it’s what has worked for me thus far.

The thing in the beginning is you have to become visible. So get a web site and get a my space site. Make sure you have MP3 samples of your playing and video samples of your playing and performance. Have a lesson section where your teaching some of your style. Start working on a demo and a record then start sending your material to other web sites that are interested in what you do. Try to get reviews, interviews, write ups, swap links with everybody that you can and just get out there and make you face and name known. Of course be ready to back it all up with your playing. Don’t sacrifice your playing for visibility.

RHB: So basically get out there and make some noise right?

Rusty Cooley: Yeah, don’t sit around and wait for it to come to you. You’ve got to go out there and make it happen. Back in the day I was banging on everybody’s door saying “Hey listen to me. Check this out”. The companies are not going to sit around and find you, I mean there is that possibility of being in the right place at the right time, but I wasn’t waiting for those moments I was busting my ass off in between all those times.

RHB: What about some advice on practicing?

Rusty Cooley: Practicing is a very important part of your playing, I think that there is a big misconception that a lot of players have and that is if they are playing the guitar they are getting better. Playing is not making you better, practicing is what makes you better. So make sure you set aside enough time each day that works in your schedule. I mean if you’re a High School student, I think you should be able to practice a minimum of 2 or 3 hours a day. When you get out in the real world or if your going to college then you adjust your practice based on the amount of free time you have around your other commitments. You have to have a practice schedule, you have to be disciplined and you got to practice every day. A good practice schedule helps, divide it up into sections like technique, improvising, learning new chords, scales, theory and applications. Everybody’s going to be different so that’s just kind of in general.

But, you’ve got to be serious about it you know? Finding a great teacher helps, although sometimes it’s not possible. Nowadays with the internet there’s lots of good instructional resources out there. You know, go get yourself a big batch of Rock House DVDs and start working your butt off.

RHB: So what does it take to get to your level of play, were you one of those guys that walked around with a guitar literally in your hand all the time?

Rusty Cooley: Well back in High School I always found about 3 hours a day to practice and I kept a log of everything I did and a log with the time spent practicing and what I was practicing. But when I got out of High School, I was playing when I got up, then I would go to work and teach and then go and rehearse so I was playing all day long. That would probably equate to about 16 hours a day. Now that’s not individual practice but a combination of 3 different guitar activities in one day.

RHB: What about the guys like me out there that have maybe an hour a day that they can dedicate to practice, what can they do?

Rusty Cooley: Well you split it up into smaller sections. You got to hit on most of the levels. If you are only practicing an hour a day you want to figure out a way to divide your hour into technical exercises, chord changes and learning new material. You can actually divide your schedule up into multiple sessions by days. You know, 5 days or 7 days, depending on how many days you have to practice. That way by the end of the week you hit on multiple subjects and you don’t keep hitting on the same thing everyday. It also depends on what you need at that individual moment. I mean, I change my practice schedule up based on what I’m doing. Do I have session, do I have a gig, am I getting ready to do a DVD. My practicing is based on what I have got to do now. You may even want to get out and play from time to time with other musicians. The big thing is to surround yourself with musicians that are better than you, don’t always be the big dog because then who do you got to learn from? So it’s good to be surrounded with guys that are better than you.

Thanks to Rusty Cooley for this interview and getting to know a personal side of one of the best shredders in the business today.

Check out more information about Rusty Cooley at his websites:
Rusty Cooley's My Space
Pro Music Instruction
Rusty's Rock House Instructor Profile


Anonymous said...

Great blog! Can't wait for the new stuff he will be working on. Not only is Rusty an amazing musician, he is also a fantastic instructor as well. Kudo's to RHM and Curt for taking the time to put this together.

MJK (Mike) said...

Yes - Kudos. Interviews like this make the guitar community that much better and worth joining. While I am struggling at the beginning phase of learning, I know that one day, I can make it big...but I need to practice.

Great interview...

Anonymous said...

This as a very insightful interview. Rusty put it out there and told readers like it is. I found a lot of inspiration from this particular one...even if I do play bass!