The Guitars That Made Rory Gallagher

On the 50th anniversary of Rory Gallagher's recording debut, we get a first-hand look at the guitars behind his potent music.
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Rory Gallagher onstage in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1974

Rory Gallagher onstage in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1974

When the world learned of Rory Gallagher’s death in 1995, he was mourned almost as one might a friend, even by those who only knew him through his music. At 47 years of age, he was too young to leave the stage with such finality. Witnesses to Rory’s electrifying live shows knew what a formidable performer he was — coming back for encore after full-tilt encore, shredding with his battered ’61 Strat as long as the crowd cheered and stamped their feet for more. So it was all the more saddening that there could be no more curtain calls for a man who was humble by nature but whose guitar playing was loved by millions for its ecstatic energy and unaffected eloquence.

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Rory was also a prolific recording artist and left behind a back catalog as thick as a phone book. Like the wheels of his tour bus, the tape was always rolling, so there was always going to be more to discover in the vaults. Now, on what would have been the 50th year of his recording career, Rory’s family has unveiled Blues (Chess/Ume), a compilation of previously unreleased tracks, all linked by his lifelong love for blues guitar.

More than 90 percent of the songs featured on the new 36-track collection are previously unheard. Some show off Rory’s haunting affinity for old-time country blues, played on his National resonator, while others are full-flight rockers that send showers of sparks flying with every incandescent slide lick. The collection also documents rite-of-passage encounters between Rory and the American bluesmen who’d been his childhood heroes, including Muddy Waters and Albert King.

It’s an occasion worth marking. In that spirit, we joined Rory’s nephew, producer Daniel Gallagher, to take a close look at his best-loved guitars. Along the way, Daniel revealed how each instrument earned its place in his extensive collection, and how Rory used them to craft songs that still leave listeners spellbound today.

1961 FENDER STRATOCASTER
Rory’s main squeeze survived decades of gigs to become an icon

Rory’s famously weathered ’61 Stratocaster was his most prized guitar, but he certainly didn’t treat it with kid gloves. “Despite this guitar being his favorite thing in the world, he would still mess with it,” Daniel explains. “He’d rout things out, try different pickups and alter things. For example, the middle tone control is glued in a fixed position, and all the pickups work off one knob, which allowed him to do wah-wahstyle effects with his right hand. There is also footage of him in 1979 in Montreux, where he drags the Strat across the stage, front-side down. It sounds mad, because he’s got a phaser running at the same time, and I think he damaged the neck pickup when that happened.

“While it was being repaired, he had a black DiMarzio single-coil pickup installed in the guitar for a while. Around the same time, he found that the neck wasn’t holding its tuning properly, and he actually needed to dry it out. There was so much sweat in the neck that he took it off for a year or so. He put it above a fireplace, on the mantelpiece, and just let it dry out. He got a replacement neck from Fender, which was a suitable match for the era. I think that was around 1980 or late ’79. There are pictures of him with it.”

Daniel adds that Rory’s Strat was originally ordered for another guitarist, who decided to pass on it because he wanted one in a Fiesta Red finish, like Hank Marvin’s.

1959 FENDER ESQUIRE
A heavily modded machine that was a go-to guitar for slide work

The workhorse simplicity of this two-pickup Esquire belies its heavily modded history as one of Rory’s main guitars for slide work. “This guitar’s had so many changes,” Daniel observes. “Originally, it had a natural finish and a black pickguard — which you can see on the Beat Club Sessions DVD — with white etchings on it from when he bought it.

“He put in the second [neck] pickup and made it a Telecaster, effectively. Then an incident happened at an airport where it fell off a loading trolley, and a van behind it with the next load of luggage drove over it. When he got it back, the body and finish were damaged. I think it was given to [English guitar luthier/designer/dealer] Chris Eccleshall to refinish, and Rory said, ‘I need it back in two weeks, because I’m going on tour again.’ But in a certain light it looked green, and Rory kind of felt Chris was taking the mickey [ridiculing him] because he was Irish. Rory took it as a slight at first, but they made up and Chris painted it black.

“At a certain point, Rory put in a third pickup and turned it into a weird Esquire/Tele/Strat hybrid. He changed the pickups in that middle position a lot. You can see it on a Rockpalast [German TV] show around ’77 with that third pickup in. This and his white Tele were his two main guitars for electric slide until he got his Gretsch Corvette. He plays a mean slide version of the song ‘All Around Man’ on the new Blues record, using a Coricidin bottle. We have footage of him from ’76 using the Esquire for that song on the Old Grey Whistle Test.”

C. 1960 GIBSON MELODY MAKER
Lightweight but punchy, this spartan single-cut was a slide machine

One curious feature of Rory’s collection is that it contains many single-pickup Gibsons but no classic maple-top Les Paul Standards. Daniel attributes this to Rory’s tonal preferences for slide work. “Rory was a big, big fan of Melody Makers, and he eventually owned four of them,” he says. “With Gibsons, he liked having just one pickup, especially for slide. With the Strat, when he was playing runs of single notes, it was important for him to be able to work tone, volume and pickup controls with his right hand. But with slide, his tone came more from the slide itself.”

This example, however, was beefed up with a humbucker squeezed into the oval extension of the pickguard, which would have otherwise sported a slender, 7/8-inch-wide pickup with a plastic cover. The humbucker was mounted on a slab body that was just 1 3/8 inches deep, with a wraparound bridge/tailpiece that was at some point replaced by the intonation-adjustable six-saddle unit shown here, presumably to make it more effective and reliable for gigging. This example’s single-cutaway body would seem to place it within the run of early models produced from 1959 to ’60. A symmetrical double-cut Melody Maker followed in 1961 and an SG-style body in 1965.

“Rory started playing this Melody Maker in the ’80s,” Daniel says. “In 1991, Slash got up onstage and Rory handed him this to play, and they jammed for about 25 minutes. There’s a version of him performing ‘I’m Ready’ with this guitar for German TV. It was a favorite, and he played it live a lot.”

1957 SUPRO DUAL-TONE
A blues-inspired retro electric that sang with a slide

Redolent of juke joints and laid-back shuffles, this Supro is yet another homage to the American blues guitarists who first captured Rory’s imagination. “There’s a lovely art deco look to this guitar,” Daniel says. “Rory would have bought it on tour in America. Again, it would have been picked up with the idea of playing slide. The action on it is high enough to suggest that. He had another Supro Dual-Tone from ’63, but I think this is the sexier one.”

According to Palmtrees, Señoritas... and Rocket Ships!, Mark Makin’s comprehensive reference book on Nationals, Supros and related guitar brands, Rory’s example appears to be the second iteration of the Dual-Tone, which first appeared in 1954. This updated version, which went on sale in 1955, featured an asymmetrical, straight-sided headstock with so-called butterfly tuners and a 12-inch-wide single-cutaway body clad in an Arctic White, plastic-coated “No Mar” finish. At some point in 1957, this spec changed yet again to a wider 13-inch body with a more modern slot-style pickup selector switch on the top right bout in place of the distinctive rotary selector seen here.

“The strings on this have corroded, but they are the last ones that he put on the guitar and that he played on it,” Daniel says. “There are a few of Rory’s guitars, like the Teisco, that had batteries in them that had to be removed. But my preference is to leave them alone as much as I can.”

1965 TEISCO TRG-1
An oddball electric that saw service paying tribute to Peter Green

Rory gave serious consideration to oddities and used them as valid musical tools. If they had a sound or a vibe he liked, they got played. Such was the case with this Japanese-made 1965 Teisco TRG-1 with a built-in speaker, which was used on some of his final studio recordings.

“I’ve seen photographs of him playing this on one of the last albums he recorded, a tribute album called Rattlesnake Guitar: The Music of Peter Green [1995],” Daniel says. “It has two Peter Green covers on it, which are ‘Leaving Town Blues’ and ‘Showbiz Blues.’ We had the multitrack for ‘Leaving Town Blues,’ so we mixed that track again for Blues and highlighted the guitar work he did on that a bit more.

“Rory would have seen this guitar and enjoyed its weird- and wonderfulness. It’s got a very perfunctory headstock design, and at one time a battery in here operated the speaker. There’s a lyric in ‘Leaving Town Blues’ where Rory’s pretending to be speaking on a telephone, and he says, ‘Operator, get me the number for….’ And then the operator says back, ‘That line’s been disconnected.’ It really wouldn’t surprise me if he’d said those lines through this microphonic pickup and out the speaker, because it’s got that old telephone kind of sound.

“Rory would have loved the idea that you could take this guitar out on the street and busk with it. It’s a cool instrument. The action seems quite high, so it was used just for slide work.”

1932 NATIONAL TRIOLIAN
A jazz-era resonator that became a pillar of Rory’s sound

The new Blues collection includes an engrossing disc of acoustic music that’s dominated by the bold voice of this guitar, an early 1930s National Triolian resonator that is second only to the ’61 Strat as Rory’s constant companion. You might say it was the Strat’s acoustic counterpart.

“Rory loved old country-blues groups, like the Mississippi Sheiks [a popular American guitar-and-fiddle act from the 1930s], so he was very proud of this guitar,” Daniel says. “It was mainly set up for playing slide, although he’d often play barre-chord rhythms and then come back in with a slide. It worked really well, particularly with the playing he did using a steel slide.”

According to Mark Makin’s Palmtrees, Señoritas...And Rocket Ships!, the Triolian debuted in 1930 with this relatively low-key “walnut” finish and sporting a chocolate-to-cream-colored ’burst. The earliest examples had wooden bodies, but National soon switched to metal, as seen on Rory’s example. A 1931 CMI catalog boasted that the Triolian’s “ultra-strong construction, the tremendous power obtained by the large-cone amplifier, its ease of playing and sweet tone have built an enviable reputation for this guitar.” The catalog adds that the instrument was “made only with a Spanish-style neck, but may be had with an extension nut, if wanted for Hawaiian-style playing.” Rory’s Triolian, which his family have dated to around 1932, is a 12-fret model, although later Triolians featured a 14-fret neck.

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