Whether or not you recognize his name, Brent Rowan is one of the most recorded guitar players in the history of the music biz. For more than 20 years he has been a first-call Nashville session player, and in that time he worked more than 10,000 studio dates. When you think about guitar-playing success, consider this: Since playing on his first country hit back in 1981, John Conlee's "Friday Night Blues," Rowan's guitar playing has never left the Top 10. His guitar overdubs have flavored a chart-topping track every week for the past 19 years.
His usual session rig is enormous - more than two-dozen guitars, mostly vintage electrics; a collection of classic amps; and an arsenal of pedals and rack-mounted devices. But for his first ever solo recording Rowan decided to downsize. Considerably.
Bare Essentials, released on his own RoWest label, was recorded with one acoustic guitar and two microphones. The album showcases Rowan's commanding fingerstyle abilities and a gentle songwriting manner evocative of the best of the Windham Hill label. (To order the 14-track disc, visit Rowan's website: http://www.brentrowan.com/) Rowan recently spoke with Guitar.com about the effects first-time fatherhood had on his writing, his inspired initial forays into open tunings, and about the life of a very, very busy studio pro.
Guitar.com: Bare Essentials is certainly a departure from the hit country and pop records you work on all day in the studio.
Brent Rowan: Well it was something different. Probably 97 percent of what I do is electric, and this is a totally different approach.
Guitar.com: Why did you decide to go acoustic? How did these songs originate?
Rowan: Most of those were like little minuet's that I played for our son, who is now two-and-a-half years old, from the time that he was born. They're about different places we had been and things that meant a lot to me. Mainly, when he was born, he just kinda makes you wonder what's really important. I would rather him know that there were some cool little melodies that were written for him and about places that we had been together. More, I guess to him, instead of him having to listen on a record by a different artist to hear a solo that I had played. And it was just totally different. It was a much more intimate feeling.
Guitar.com: What kind of guitar did you use in the studio on Bare Essentials?
Rowan: This one was a Dillon. He's a maker that used to be in Taos, New Mexico, and now he's moved back to his home in Pennsylvania. If I'm not mistaken, it's Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which is odd, the same home of Martin, you know? But it's just a guitar that a friend of mine had. I bought it probably 6 years ago. I didn't really need another acoustic, but it just spoke well on tape for the intimate kind of music that we were doing. It's very piano-esque. It's got a lot of hype and depth to it. Some of my other acoustics focused on one certain frequency.
Guitar.com: Did you record this as straight acoustic guitar? You didn't plug this thing in?
Rowan: No, not at all. It's just straight through an AKG C-24 stereo.
Guitar.com: You used a lot of different open tunings on the album. Do different open tunings lend themselves to any certain mood, as far as you're concerned?
Rowan: I think so. One that I had goofed around with on the third piece called "Euphoria" was open E, which is just open D but a step up, but tuned up, not capoed up. And that just seems brighter if it's tuned up to me, I guess there's more stress on the neck and braces and everything. And in some of them, I took it down a half step or did an open D or open G. And then on "Mr. C," which was for Chet [Atkins], I just invented that tuning, I had never even heard of that at all. I just tried to become that tuning. For me as a session guy for 20 years, my goal is always that if they pull the vocal off of the track, that you would still at least know what that song was about by the guitar part. Whether it's mood or whether it's message. The tunings in the acoustic world sure make that easier to me, to just convey an emotion.
Guitar.com: You do tune down on a few songs - down to D. Is that a common thing you've done in studio sessions as well?
Rowan: Occasionally I'll do that. Like I said, most of what I do is on electric so probably the strangest tuning electric-wise I would do is either drop D to get that low D, and sometimes I would do the Keith Richards tuning with open G, and pull the sixth string off, for an electric rhythm part. For the most part that was it. I had never played in DADGAD at all. And "Cottonwood Canyon" was in DADGAD and it just sounds so majestic and grand. To me, you can almost close your eyes and hear the sounds bouncing off the Canyon walls. And part of that was because we were in DADGAD.
Guitar.com: What about with "Andalusia." You went to a D flat tuning? That's way down there.
Rowan: Yeah. Just to add a little bit of mystery and a little bit of words - if you've got the spoken word or the written word, it can convey those emotions. And I was trying to think, 'Okay, now how would I really get people to see this part of Spain where these horses are from?' And after goofing around with it that just sounded the best to me, to lower it. I mean they're just so majestic, if you see those horses - athletically they're unbelievable. So I just wanted to make it kind of dark, and mysterious, and majestic at the same time.
Studio Essentials: The Tools of Brent Rowan
Many guitar players ignore the possibilities of a career as a studio player. But Nashville session ace Brent Rowan saw the steady paycheck and close-to-home working locales as a better option than the constant traveling and unsure money associated with life as a professional sideman or recording artist. Success in his field has led to a huge guitar collection and a mastery of the instrument few players ever achieve, not to mention peace of mind and a simplified family life.
Guitar.com: You had never played in DADGAD before? Have you played in most of these other open tunings before?
Rowan: You know, just an occasional tuning down, but most of them - no, I have never played in open G much. I shouldn't say never, but very rarely had I ever done anything like that. And that was the mystery part of kinda getting inside and exploring a cave that you've never been in before. It was neat because being primarily an electric player, I think if not having the same influence, it will definitely come out different than if you grew up listening to Celtic music and playing only in DADGAD. I think it comes out harmonically different. That was what was fun to me.
Guitar.com: So, do you just put your fingers on the guitar, start moving them around, and see what sounds good? Or do you actually think, 'OK, now if I tune this string down to D that means E is over here?'
Rowan: Say you're in open D, and you know a barre chord on the fifth fret is gonna be G, so then basically, I think more in terms of numbers. If you're on the third of the chord, then you know if you go a step down that's the second of the chord. So, it's not just total fumbling, there are principles involved. Once they're outlined in you're mind, to me it's easier to follow where the melody wants to go.
Guitar.com: So how do you find the fingerings that work?
Rowan: Just goofing around with it a little bit. That's hard to explain. I guess it would be like being a pilot and you get in a different plane, a different small plane than you're used to flying. And the theories are the same. The gauges are different, maybe even the yokes are different where the flaps are, but you know the theory and the principles are the same, and to me, those principles would be consistent of just doing something that sounds harmonically right to you. And sometimes ignorance is a cool thing. If you don't know you can't do it, you go ahead and do it and don't worry about it.
You can visit with Brent at: Brent Rowan.com