GP Flashback: Rory Gallagher, March 1978

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Blues is said to be a universal experience—as Albert King once preached, “Everybody understands the blues”—and Rory Gallagher is surely a case in point. Born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland, the first pieces Rory attempted to play were cowboy songs and Irish folk tunes on acoustic guitar beginning at age nine. American rock and rollers such as Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry had an early impression on Rory, though he discovered blues—a la Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie—by way of Lonnie Donegan’s British skiffle hits.

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At 15, Gallagher joined the Fontana Show Band, which toured England and Ireland. The constant work helped refine Rory’s playing, but the commercial nature of the repertoire caused him to look elsewhere for artistic satisfaction. In 1965, Rory formed Taste, the now-legendary blues-rock trio comprised of Eric Kitteringham on bass, Norman Damery drums, and Gallagher on guitar, vocals, and, occasionally, saxophone. Though the power trio preceded Cream by several years, comparisons with the English supergroup were inevitable.

In 1969, the band signed with Polydor Records, but by 1970, the group had disbanded, and Rory pursued a solo career. To date, Gallagher has appeared on over 20 albums, either as leader or sideman, and has graced sessions featuring such notables as Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Albert King. What Gallagher has to say about blues and rock and roll should be required reading for any aspiring guitarists, just as his many records and live performances should be required listening.

When you’re performing, don’t you consider yourself mainly a blues-oriented musician?
Yes, I do, but I think that I’ve always strived to forge ahead. At some point, when I’m 40 or 50, I hope I’ll have a very distinct sound, as Elmore or Muddy did, so that when you turn on the radio—that’s Rory Gallagher. It’s a thin line between studying the blues and listening to an awful lot of it on one hand, and loving the stuff and doing some blues numbers in your own style on the other hand. It’s hard to break it down into percentages, because some nights we might do something like “Messing With The Kid,” a well– known Junior Wells song, or “Bullfrog Blues,” or “Rag Mama,” the Blind Boy Fuller tune. By the songs I pick to do, you can see the kind of people I like.

Your changes of style seem to depend in part upon what instrument you are playing. Whereas, you seem to lean toward a lot of the acoustic ragtime blues people, when you play electric, you go into a completely different area of blues music.
Well, I’m a great fan of all the Kings—the Alberts, the B.B.s, and the Freddies. I wouldn’t want to say that these people have been overrated, because that would be an absolute insult, but I think they’ve been recognized to the point where the Earl Hookers and Hubert Sumlins have been underrated. And the guitar player who was with Wolf before Sumlin, Willie Johnson, was a hot player, as well.

What do you use for an electric guitar?
I have two different electrics. I have a Fender Stratocaster with Fender light-gauge Rock and Roll strings, which I use for basic playing and some slide work in straight tuning. I also have a Fender Telecaster for A tuning and other open tunings.

Why the Stratocaster?
Well, that’s the eternal argument among Fender fans. Buddy Holly had a Strat, and as a child you go after the appearance of a guitar. I don’t care what anyone says. You look at the shape of the thing, and that’s it. I’ve tried Gibsons, but I’m not a great fan of humbucking pickups.

Why is that?
Because as you bring down the volume from 10 to 9 to 8, after that—forget it, the guitar loses its sensitivity and drive. Whereas with the single-coil or P-90 pickups, the volume control goes down nice and gradually, and even at 6 the guitar is still doing something. I like a good bright tone, and I like the out-of-phase sound you can get with the switch set between the normal positions on a Strat. It’s comfortable, the scale seems right, and I like having the machine heads on one side—it just seems to make sense. But if you want, say, a more luxurious, fatter sound, the Gibson guitar certainly would do the job.

Is your Strat modified in any way?
It’s practically straight off the rack. The only modification is that the Tone control for the middle pickup is now a Master Volume control, because, over the years, I’ve found that when you jump from the middle pickup to the treble pickup you couldn’t adjust it.

Why do you usually switch to the Telecaster for slide?
I thought it had a certain steel-guitar type of tone that would work well with slide, but I was frustrated with the rhythm pickup. I thought it was too thin. So I put a Strat pickup there, and it remained that way for a year. Then I said, “To hell with it. I’ll do the Telecaster a la Strat.” So now I’ve got two Strat pickups and a Tele lead pickup and a five-way Strat toggle switch. It’s like the best of both worlds with the Telecaster lead pickup, which is slightly hotter than a Stratocaster’s.

Is it strung the same as the Stratocaster?
No, it’s kind of a blend. I have something like an .013 for the first, then .015, an unwound .018, and so on. On the Strat, it’s as they come out of the packet: .010, .012, .015, .026, .032, .038. That seems to be about the most balanced set I could find. I would prefer something like an .040 on the bottom—which I sometimes stick on if I have it handy—because I think the bottom end is a little too light for me.

Is the action higher on the Telecaster for the slide work?
The action on the Strat is quite high, as well. I like a high action—like on an acoustic.

What do you use for a slide?
It depends. I shift around. I sometimes use a bottleneck on my ring finger for electric stuff. Otherwise, I’ve got two stainless steel tubes, which I sometimes use on my small finger or the ring finger. They get a more stinging, Muddy Waters sound. You get a different sound depending on what slide you use. For instance, if you’re playing slide on a National with a glass slide, forget it. You have to have something like steel, or, even better, copper. Son House used copper, and I’ve got one of those, as well.

Were these slides store-bought items, or did you just go to a hardware shop?
I went to a hardware shop, got the proverbial bit of piping chopped up, and got a Brillo pad out and shone it up. There’s a bit of surface noise there, but Son House has that sound. It’s best, because it clings to the strings. I used to use copper on electric, as well, but I found that the stainless steel was a pretty good compromise between the copper or bronze and the glass. Glass is nice, because it works a little more like a Hawaiian or lap-steel guitar—it’s sweeter and softer. I change my mind every couple of gigs.

What type of amplification do you use?
For years, I used a Vox AC30—which is the best all-around European amp I’ve ever come across. I still have it. The Shadows used to use them, and the Beatles used them, so you know it was the popular amp. But I found that when using the treble booster, you got a built-in gain, because the transistors were fairly primitive. If I used the Normal input—which was very bassy, as opposed to the Brilliant input—I could get that nice rough edge without getting into a very fuzzy sound. I used that for years, and I’ve had odds and sods in between, but then I moved on to an old ’50s tweed Fender Twin, which I still have. Then, I got into a tweed Fender Bassman, and, recently, I got a Fender Concert—an old brown one, from around 1959, with four 10" speakers. I use a Hawk booster through that just to roughen it up a bit, or if it’s a quiet number, I plug straight in and keep the guitar clean sounding.

For those wanting to be professional guitarists, do you feel that playing in front of people is an important thing to do as soon as possible?
Yes, it brings something out. I know for a fact that if I’m off the road for a long spell—even if I’m rehearsing like mad and playing a lot at home—the real crunch comes when I get out in front of people. The things you thought were really hot in rehearsal don’t make any sense, because, quite often, you’ve forgotten the basic drive. In rehearsals, sometimes the basics get glossed over, because you’re fooling around too much with the frilly stuff. If you get out there in front of an audience, drop your pick or break a string, it toughens you up, and it brings out projection in your playing. You have to direct your playing somewhere—unless you want to sit in a room like the painter looking at the painting he’s just done, and he won’t show it to anybody.

In addition, there’s always a thin line between studying the old records by the old masters and trying to develop yourself. I think both can be done at the same time, because if you forget the old masters you miss out on a whole heritage and a whole world, really. But you shouldn’t get too clogged up with the old stuff to the point where you won’t be moving on yourself. —Excerpted from the March 1978 issue of Guitar Player