David Graef is country at heart, but rock n’ roll in spirit. He was raised on a Texas farm thinking he’d end up a farmer. In the ’80s, he took a chance, moving to Nashville hoping to make a living with a guitar. Years later we can look back and say that chance definitely paid off. David is an accomplished guitarist and highly regarded guitar tech in Nashville. He’s currently on the road with Rascal Flatts as Joe Don Rooney’s guitar tech. We were able to catch up with him and ask a few questions.
How did you hook up with Rascal Flatts? Divine intervention or sheer luck?
I hooked up with Rascal Flatts while they were working on the Still Feels Good album. Their producer Dann Huff is an old friend of mine, and I’ve actually been his guitar tech since the early 90s with his band Giant. Now that he’s producing full time, he calls me in from time to time on some of the projects and Flatts happened to be one of those. I’d met Jay Demarcus a number of years earlier when he’d hired me to play as a sub on a gig with another artist. In the studio we rekindled our friendship, and I really hit it off really well with the other guys, Joe Don and Gary. I ran into Jay again at the ACM Awards in Las Vegas later in the year, and he asked if I was interested in going to work for Flatts. I think probably the biggest factor in the whole deal was that Dann Huff was telling them that they needed to hire me. Thanks Dann! That’s how it all came about, so I think it’s fair to say that, as with pretty much anything in this business, it’s all about relationships.
Is life on the road fulfilling or frustrating? How do you balance family life and work? What does your wife have to say about you being gone all the time?
Life on the road… Well it’s both fulfilling and frustrating from time to time. My introduction to the music industry was in 1982, so I’ve been doing this for quite some time as a player, tech, luthier, and whatever else I can find to keep me working. I’ve got to say that it’s really amazingly fulfilling to tech for a player who is much better than you, and in many cases in my career, a legend. It’s been an honor to work for players such as Dann Huff, Peter Frampton, Don Felder, Jerry McPherson, Mark Knopfler, and of course Joe Don Rooney. The list actually goes on and on, but I thought I’d stop there so as not to sound like I just can’t keep a job (laughs).
Fulfilling – traveling the world, taking care of great guitars and gear, working with wonderful players and people, learning from world class players, being affiliated with a good organization that’s well respected.
Frustrating – missing out on a lot of family things such as holidays, graduations, parties, and just day to day life with them. Though I’m not married at the time, my family is very close: mom, brothers and sisters and their kids. I just feel like I have missed out on a lot of things that are really important because I’ve been away on tour, and sometimes even on the other side of the world. When I was on the Michael Jackson Dangerous tour, we were in Russia and my grandfather passed away. I didn’t even know it until we got to Israel a couple of weeks later. Now that’s frustrating not being able to be close to family during that time. Another thing that’s frustrating is when working with people who just think it’s a party and aren’t as serious about their work. I love working with professionals, but these young kids trying to prove their manhood by how drunk or stupid they can get is my pet peeve and are hard to live on a bus with.
I do love what I do and have experienced sooooo much that most people just dream of, but I also feel that it’s come with a cost of missing out on a lot of things that are just normal to most people.
How did the opportunity to play live with Rascal Flatts come about?
First of all, to avoid confusion, I am a player and have played on many tours, but I’ve also done many tours as a guitar tech. Currently I’m Joe Don’s guitar tech, not actually playing onstage with the band. There have been occasions where I play off to the side of the stage just to fill in a part or two.
Are you also involved in the writing process or studio recordings? If so, how rewarding is that compared to the live shows with audience feedback?
I’ve not been involved in any writing with them, but I do work on the recording process, basically making sure all the guitars are set up and ready to go, and are there in the studio when needed, as well as having any other gear they might need in the studio ready to go at the drop of a hat.
I think the studio and the live performances are equally as rewarding, just different. I love the energy of the crowd, and the intense pressure of making it right and you only have one chance to do it and that’s right now… go! Knowing that someone who is in charge of entertaining 20,000+ people at a time is counting on you to make sure everything is right on, every time, is a real rush, and it’s rewarding to see his smile as he hands you the last guitar of the night and says “good job.” Also just as rewarding is to see the kid in the crowd whose day was just made because they just saw their favorite band play their favorite song.
Equally as fun is being able to experiment in the studio with different sounds, guitars, amps, pickups, effects. It’s hard to describe the goosebumps when a part is just right and the magic happens. Then you hear your handiwork on the radio. It’s pretty cool.
Who inspired you to play guitar?
My sister Leisa gave me my first guitar when I was 16. I was grounded from being a stupid teenager (laughs), and she let me play around on her guitar so I wouldn’t be bored. My first real inspirations on the guitar were most of my great uncles on mom’s side of the family. They were amazing musicians, and our family reunions were filled with music, mostly gospel quartets and old swing stuff. It was sure a lot of fun for me to watch them play and try to learn what they were doing. Neal Schon, Tom Scholz, Steve Lukather, and David Gilmour were four of my big professional influences. They are so tasteful and melodic. You can sing most of their solos, and their sounds were so different than everyone else’s. Then there was Eddie Van Halen… need I say more! His approach to solos was just mind blowing to a young guitar player, and his rhythms are even more so.
Can you give us a brief walk-through of the gear Joe Don is currently using?
The current rig – three Bogner Ecstasy 101 B Heads, one Hiwatt DG103 head, TC Electronics D-Two, Fireworx, Reverb 4000, Fractal Audio Axe-FX II, RJM IS-8 Amp Gizmo and Rack Gizmo, DLS RotoSIM and Versa Vibe, Exotic EP Boost, Dunlop Rack Wah, Earnie Ball Volume Pedals, Shure UR4D wireless, Fryette power amps, Midas Venus 160 mixing console. Bogner 4×12 an 1×12 speakers, and VooDoo Lab Ground Control Pro controllers.
Guitars we’re currently using on the road – Gibson Les Pauls and SGs, Paul Reed Smith SC-58 and Modern Eagle II and 305, Flaxwood Rautia and Leikki, Ernie Ball/Music Man John Petrucci signature, all with Ernie Ball 10-46 or 10-52 Slinky strings. Martin MM36, Taylor 714CE acoustics with Ernie Ball 11-52 phosphor bronze Slinky strings. We currently have Seymour Duncan pickups in several guitars. We’re using the Hot Soapbar SP90-2, P-90 Stack STK-P1, Antiquity P-90 Dog Ear, ’59 and JB.
What was your first experience using Seymour Duncans?
Let me see, my first experience of using Seymour Duncans… hmmmmm. I was playing in a band in college and thought I was pretty cool. One day I thought if I could say I made my own guitar I would even be more cool, so being quite handy in a wood shop, I set out to build myself a flying V. I needed pickups for it, and the other guitar player in my band had a Les Paul that sounded amazing, so I asked him about it. As it turned out, he had swapped the pickups out for Seymour Duncans. I headed out to the local music store right away to get me some of these Seymour Duncans. I don’t remember which model they were, but I thought they sounded great, and now I was really cool (laughs). I have to say that the Duncans have stood the test of time for me, and I still use JB, 59s and the Duncan Custom in my main guitars.