10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Rory Gallagher

March 21, 2008

Born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Gallagher (pronounced Gall-a-her in Gaelic) played around Ireland with a local R&B outfit called Fontana (later renamed the Impact) before forming the Taste (soon shortened to Taste) in Cork City in 1966. Arguably the era’s first power trio, the band’s lineup solidified when bassist Richard McCracken and drummer John Wilson came aboard in 1968. Following two superb studio albums (Taste [1969] and On the Boards [1970]), the band recorded a pair of live shows (one documenting their triumphant appearance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival), but neither was released until well after their final performance in Belfast that same New Year’s Eve.
The eternal pub rocker, Gallagher melded his flair for fiery improv with a more traditional blues-rock approach and soldiered on with the Rory Gallagher Band, which evolved through several lineups that toured and recorded relentlessly from 1971 through 1990. Gallagher and company released 14 memorable albums, including Rory Gallagher, Deuce (both 1971), Live in Europe (1972), Blueprint, Tattoo (both 1973), Irish Tour (1974), Calling Card (1976), Top Priority (1979), Jinx (1982), and 1990’s Fresh Evidence, his final studio album. Along the way Gallagher had the opportunity to perform and/or record with some of his musical heroes, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Albert King, Muddy Waters, and Lonnie Donegan. Tragically, Gallagher failed to recuperate from a liver transplant performed in April of 1995, and passed into the realm of musical legend on June 14th of that same year
Gallagher could certainly play traditional acoustic and electric blues with the best of them, but there was something unique to his electric playing that one didn’t find in the Clapton, Beck, Page, and Hendrix vocabularies—especially during his trademark extended improvisations—and that’s what we’re going after here. So fire up your Strat and get ready to rock out beyond the blues. First, you gotta ...
1. Catch Strat Fever

Informed by many different musical styles early in his career, Rory Gallagher was a fan of skiffle, folk, rock and roll, and blues, and he strived to combine all those elements in his playing. Initially inspired by folk musicians such as Lonnie Donegan and Woody Guthrie, Gallagher soon tuned his ear to rockers Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly (the reason Gallagher gravitated towards the Fender Stratocaster), and blues artist such as Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Buddy Guy. Gallagher was also a self-taught blues scholar, and was especially well versed in the acoustic styles of Leadbelly, Josh White, Son House, and Blind Blake. Additionally, he played killer electric and acoustic slide guitar in both standard and open tunings. Both of these techniques, however, are subjects in themselves and have been excluded from this stylistic analysis in favor of the standard-tuned Strat wailing that gave Gallagher his most identifiable individual voice. 

2. Walk Tall and Carry a Big Shillelagh

Rarely has one guitarist been so identified with a single instrument, but let’s set the record straight: Over the years, Gallagher’s signature beat-to-crap Stratocaster (recently replicated in a limited edition by Fender) has been mistakenly referenced as a 1959 model, but, in truth, it’s a ’61. Reportedly the first Strat in Ireland, Gallagher bought the guitar in 1963 for just under £100 at Crowley’s Music Store in Cork, and it wasn’t long before the instrument became part of his psychic makeup. Gallagher’s extensive modifications included replacing the tuners, nut, scratchplate, and pickups, as well as the installation of a 5-way pickup selector, but none of these alterations detracted from the guitar’s original vibe. (Debatable but intriguing is the Wikipedia tidbit claiming that what remained of the guitar’s nearly non-existent original sunburst finish was partially the result of its being stolen and left out in the rain for several days.) Coupled with a single vintage Vox AC30 that he used for the bulk of his career, plus the occasional tweed Fender Twin, Bassman, or Concert amp, Gallagher used this beloved ax to virtually define the perfect Strat tone for decades. Gallagher’s additional axes did include a 1957 maple neck sunburst Stratocaster purchased from a man named Robert Johnson (!) in Ft. Worth, Texas and used only in the studio and on occasional gigs, as well as a ’59 Fender Esquire and ’67 Telecaster, both of which were retrofitted with Strat pickup assemblies.

Other Gallagher goodies included a 1963 Gretsch PX6134 Corvette purchased at an L.A. pawn shop for $50 (!), a mid-’60s Danelectro 3021 “Short Horn” (an even bigger pawn shop score at $15!), and a 1968 Coral Vincent Bell Electric Sitar named “Philby.” Gallagher’s acoustic arsenal consisted of a Martin D-35 (newsflash: A Rory Gallagher signature model acoustic should be available from Martin by the time you read this), a prototype acoustic-electric Takamine, a Martin mandolin, and a 1932 National Resonator. Early on, Gallagher plugged a Dallas Rangemaster treble booster into his AC30 (apparently the sound that Brian May pinched), but he generally steered clear of effects. Gallagher also experimented with various Ampeg (VT-40 and VT-22) and Marshall combo amps throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

3. Expand Your Horizons

While Gallagher drew much of his blues and rock vocabulary from the same melting pot as most of his peers, his considerable prowess as an alto saxophonist also had a major effect on his overall guitar style. This factor is particularly evident during the extended group improvisations that marked Gallagher’s live concerts from the earliest Taste shows through his final gigs. On the Official Rory Gallagher website (rorygallagher.com), Rory’s brother Donal relates how, during his early years with Taste, the guitarist became enamored enough with the free-form jazz antics of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman to go out and procure a Selmer alto saxophone: “Within a couple of weeks, he was playing the thing, and the next thing it was on the album On the Boards. You could hear that free-form approach translated into his guitar playing when he soloed.”

Right on.

Listen to any extended Gallagher solo, and you’ll hear all sorts of sax-like note choices and slurred phrasing techniques. Though very little of Gallagher’s sax playing has been documented, you can check him out on “It’s Happened Before, It’ll Happen Again” from Taste’s On the Boards and the extended live version circulating on YouTube, “Can’t Believe It’s True” from Rory Gallagher, and “I Ain’t No Saint” from Defender. Those who have never heard him blow will be nothing short of amazed. (Fact: Gallagher also played a mean harmonica.) Gallagher’s other musical X-factor was that the man sang his ass off. His soulful voice (sometimes a dead ringer for Clapton at his best) was virtually inseparable from his guitar playing—one simply picked up where the other left off. In this department, Gallagher was on a par with Hendrix himself. 

4. Develop Good Taste

Our stylistic tour-de-force begins with a look at Gallagher’s pioneering power- trio work with Taste. Compositionally speaking, “Blister on the Moon,” the opening track from the band’s self-titled debut album, displays one of the earliest recorded examples of slash chords (triads played over bass notes other than their roots) to appear in the rock idiom. Ex. 1a, which recalls the part of the song’s intro and verse figures, features full E and D chords played à la Townshend over a pulsing E bass pedal tone, and the sum of both parts creates a now-familiar Mixolydian tonality that has since been exploited by everyone from Jeff Beck to Prince. (Tip: Try replacing the lowest note in the D chord with E.) Gallagher veers into proto-metal mode for the repeated power chord riff in Ex. 1b and its arpeggiated counterpart in Ex. 1c, either of which would sound at home in the Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden catalogs. Surf the net and you’ll discover a great video of “Blister,” complete with Gallagher venturing into near-Holdsworthian territory during an impromptu bass-and-guitar dialogue. (It’s that sax thing!) Search a little harder and you’ll find both sides of the original single by the Taste cut with original members Eric Kitteringham and Norman Damery in 1968. (Tip: It’s misspelled as “Blistrer.”)

 NOTE: Examples 1a–c and 2a–b were omitted due to copyright.
5. Acknowledge Your Roots 

That said, Gallagher rarely flaunted his Irish heritage in his electric music. One exception can be found on the previously referenced Taste single’s B-side, “Born on the Wrong Side of Time,” which has a pronounced progressive-rock vibe and features layered acoustic and electric guitars, key and tempo changes, an intro that could easily pass for a lost Rush tune, and perhaps the song’s most endearing riff: the piper-flavored clarion call shown in Ex. 2a. Repeat as written, then segue directly to the adventurous harmonies and contrasting low-register single-note triplets that comprise the quirky, repetitive six-bar rhythm figure in Ex. 2b. Note how that Fmaj7(6) functions as Dm(add9) with F, the b3, in the bass.

NOTE: Examples 1a–c and 2a–b were omitted due to copyright.
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