'I try to keep the balance between madness and technique'

Rory Gallagher

talks to John Dalton


In his dressing room at Hammersmith Odeon, Rory Gallagher was a quiet, almost shy man talking with affection of his music and guitars.  When he appeared on stage half an hour later a complete transformation had taken place – he bounded across the stage with his battered Strat and immediately launched into a powerful rock blues tune, Let Me In, supported by his regular band of Gerry McAvoy (bass), Lou Martin (keyboards) and Rod de’Ath (drums).  This first number got the audience from their seats, and for the whole set there was a crowd pressing the front of the stage, waving at Rory, who was always the focal point, a player who combines blues guitar virtuosity with showmanship, and who works himself very hard.  The set was mostly tunes from his more recent albums, like Against the Grain and Calling Card, driving rock blues tunes with exciting solos from Rory, often using bottleneck.  Towards the end of the set he switched to acoustic guitar, Dobro and mandolin, and when he sang the Leadbelly tune Out On The Western Plain, accompanied by his Martin, the whole audience sang along with him.

Rory began playing guitar at the age of nine, and at 15, while living in Cork, he joined the Fontana Showband.  In 1966 he formed Taste, a blues-jazz group, and his first internationally successful band.  When they disbanded in the early seventies he began the formation of the line-up which played at Hammersmith.  Since the interview they have disbanded, and Rory is now recording with Gerry McAvoy.

 Back in the dressing room, I began by asking Rory where he had collected his various instruments:

I got the Dobro in America somewhere in Missouri.  In America you get these travelling guitar salesmen. They buy vans and collect all these outrageous guitars and go along to respected musicians on tour. So I got that from him.  The National is one of the early ones, I think 1932 or 1933. The mandolin is from the OM Orchestra Model series also from the thirties.  Stephan Grossman has a guitar of that series, a beautiful sort of folk model, which I think he had on the front of that album Hot Dogs.

The Stratocaster I got in Cork in Ireland, and I think it's 1960. I got it in '63, second hand.  The Martin D35 I got in London in '69.  It's getting better.  I had to get a new bridge part made for it because the intonation was, a bit peculiar, but it's OK now.  The Telecaster, well the Esquire, this guy phoned me up one day and said he had an Esquire, and it was cream coloured, and he had put a Telecaster rhythm pickup on it, so it was essentially a Telecaster, maple neck as well.  So I got that and now, seeing as I use it for open tuning, slide guitar, I might replace the Tele rhythm with a Strat pickup, put a Strat in between the lead and rhythm pickup. and a Strat toggle switch, so it'll be essentially a Stratocaster, except with a Telecaster lead pickup, which has a much more mid rangy sort of sound than a lead Strat pickup. Some people don't know that, and say it’s the same sound, but the telecaster breaks up in a slightly different fashion.  They are the main stage instruments.  I have a few others I use for recording and swopping around.  I have a Junior, A TV model with the one black single coil pickup, and that's really nice.  I’m hoping to try and get to use that, but you get very used to having all the machine heads on one side of the guitar, and the controls on Fenders come very close together. And I got a Fender Tele-Deluxe with the humbuckers, might as well see what they’re like.  There’s no doubt they have that heavy fat  sound the single-coils don't have, but the main problem with most guitars with humbuckers, until recently, is that they used to put the wrong values in the tone pots and volume pots, so when you took your volume down to 8 the guitar went dead, and you couldn't get that natural fade away sound.  So Gibson have lately changed their Les Pauls from 500k pots to 300k volume and 100k for the tone, because they noticed that that was a problem.  Now you can get a fairly decent sort of 6 and 7, and so on.  That was more the reason I didn't like them, but with the right pots on with humbuckers I'm quite fond of them, but there's always the slight worry that the real ultra high frequencies are going to be clipped off because of the nature of the pickup.  But then, some nights you're on stage and can't beat a Strat pickup for absolute twang, and another night, depending on the acoustics of the hall, you say Oh for a fat humbucker sound, because you're doing all these various tricks with your amp to try and get a sound.  But I seem to be lucky enough.  I strive to get as fat a humbucker type tone as I can and still retains a certain clarity.  It involves getting your amp really cranked up and a graphic equalizer on so you can boost the mid-range, which usually helps.


Rory's stage instruments - Martin D35, Martin Orchestra model mandolin,

1960 Stratocaster. 1932  Dobro and Fender Esquire

 Are you very interested in sound effects?

No. I usually use a pre-amp, to boost the amps and get those speakers flapping.   At present I have a Firmin parametric unit, which I got in America, and the handy thing about it is it works on the mains instead of batteries or transistors.  It's an integrated circuit but it's very advanced so you don't get that transistorized sound which cuts away the bottom end of your sound if you use gadgets.  It's got a pre-amp which can boost 20dB or something, and then each of the three areas, bottom, mid and top-range, can be adjusted.  I really only boost the mid range.   Up until recently I was using a Hawk II, a small battery operated treble and bass boost with three little graphic things on it which was quite handy, but with all these gadgets you always end up with slight noise from lights and so on, so I used to wrap that in tin foil.  The main problem is that Strats tend to be a little bit noisy anyway and old Fender amps that I use get a little bit noisey.  Still, it's worth it for the warm sound you get.

 Which bottlenecks do you use on the various guitars?

For playing bottleneck on the National you'd have to use the steel one, because a glass bottleneck would be just too smooth altogether.  I use either the steel or the copper, which has got more of a sting.  Son House, if you listen to any of his records, always used a bit of copper piping and I use that on the small finger in order to get over the twelfth fret because the later Dobros and Nationals joined the body at the 14th fret, but this joins at the 12th.  I also use the steel for electric slide if it's going to be a really stinging sound, but if I want more of a steel guitar type round sound I use this aspirin bottle on the ring finger.  It's an American Corsidon aspirin, and they're good cold tablets actually.

Duane Allman used to use this sort of thing, and I think Toddy Daniels too.  It's very handy because it doesn't fall off your finger, and for one dollar 79 you get a great bottleneck. I've had various wine bottlenecks, but I find this is really the best, because it’s so smooth.  I buy as many as I can when I'm over there because you can't get them here.  

I've used ones I've made myself from microphone stands, cutting off a few inches, but usually you find there's only the one.  Ry Cooder uses only a wine bottle, and John Hammond and Lowell George use these socket wrenches from Sears Roebuck, an American department store.  They use six/eight inch wrenches which fit the small ringer, and they're really heavy, and very good.


                                                                               Playing bottleneck, using the aspirin bottle

                                                           Would you use a lighter one on the Strat, to stop it pushing the strings against the frets?

Well I have a high action anyway, but I mean that's reasonably heavy.  I have a couple of other ones that are heavier than that.  Some of them I put tape inside to make it even more clinging if I can.  The length is important.  It should be long enough to span the six strings, but sometimes if they're too long they don't give you . . . it's nice to have them just loose enough so you can slightly bend the finger inside, so you can grip it.  Whereas if it was absolutely long and rigid it would be difficult.  Depends though, Muddy Waters for instance has one that only covers half his small finger and he works at it from a different sort of position.

 Would he thus be freer with his other fingers?

Possibly yes. but I'm afraid of getting one that I'd not be able to get off my finger one night on stage.  A real Beano story!  Even halfway through a number, if it's a complicated sort of part, a bottleneck solo for instance with the rest of the tune fairly complex, very often I'll leave it in my back pocket and just try and get it out in time during a drum roll or something.  Because I've been using bottleneck in numbers that aren't really in your standard bottleneck vein, like Elmore James or Earl Hooker.  It's nice, and that's why I really think it's important, to take it out of the bottleneck tradition of numbers.  If it’s just modern songs, and if you want to do bottleneck solos out of the blue, you can always do like a synthesizer part with it if you get enough treble off the guitar and enough distortion, and really get a sweet sort of singing sound.

There's one story of Elmore James playing with two bottlenecks, which I tried one night, but I'm sure it's only of gimmick value.  Looks great you know, but unless he's doing some kind of a trick. . . . It's feasible that you could probably be playing harmonies, but in any case it really looks great, looks like this guy is really going to do something with his instrument.

 Do you play a lot of bottleneck with ordinary tuning?

Yes, on Secret Agent, or Jackknife Beat, or any of those numbers.

That would be sort of the way Earl Hooker does it, he plays a number and out of nowhere the slide comes in.  Usually you get to play in E and D, but now I can play slide in the ordinary tuning in any key at all, and it's got a totally different character to the open tuning style, because that's very much for more traditional country blues.  In the open tuning style you're not limited chord-wise, but you have to work within drone chords and sevenths and things like that, whereas with the other style you can play for instance a really difficult jazz number and all of a sudden get out the bottleneck.  That’s stretching it you know, but the limitation of the ordinary tuning is that you can't get the full Elmore James sweep, although you can almost get it.  People like Jeff Beck and Lowell George play in ordinary tuning except for the first string which they take down to D.  That gives them a sort of G chord on the twelfth fret.  I find that a bit awkward.  Of course I use the capo a lot too.

 What tunings do you use on the Telecaster and the Dobro?

The Dobro is G or D, because the sounds are down on the neck key.  The Telecaster is A or E, and I use the capo, because electric numbers are that tone up.  The Martin is either the ordinary tune or the various folk tunings, the dropped D or the DADGAD, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham type tuning.  I use that bagpipe tuning on, Western Plane, a hillbilly song which I like to do because you get a nice clash between the Celtic thing and the blues number.  But there are other tunings like B and C but there are none really feasible for the music we do. You could use them in a Joni Mitchell or Tom Rush context, that big low drone.  The C tuning is from the top, E, C, G, G and C, and the B tuning would be the same except one half tone down.

 Do you use the Telecaster only for bottleneck?

Yes, but I use it in the studio too for lead parts. It's ideal for country.  James Burton type songs.  Telecasters are really fantastic, there's so much character about the lead pickup.  You get that Bruce Springsteen clang off it, and you can get that James Brown sound when you mix the rhythm and lead pickups, and get a sort of milky tone.

 And that out of phase sound too.

Yes. On some Teles you can and on some you can’t.  In fact the out of phase you get on a Tele is really out of phase whereas the out of phase so-called on the Strat isn’t, it's just that the pickups work in parallel and you get that... so it's always louder than an out of phase sound.  It’s all complicated.  No, the out of phase on a Telecaster is really almost like a banjo swallowing a glass of milk, it's that kind of whang.

 You're expert at playing harmonics. How do you do it?

I can do it either way.  The classical style I only use once in a blue moon, but the main kind of harmonic stuff I do with a plectrum and a bit of flesh or nail from the first finger.  Eventually you become so used to it you can do it with freak ways of hitting the string in different spots.  You can get a true harmonic, or you can get a freak one.  It really makes the guitar very lively; it really gives you a sense of being in charge of the instrument, instead of having to press a button to get that effect.  Obviously some people mightn't find it an important thing, but I think it is because it gives the guitar a kind of an extra register.  I mean if you use feedback for pure effect, and bend the string at the same time, you can create exciting things.  It’s great if you're doing say a double section of a solo, and the second part you really want to get an insane sort of leap forward - harmonics come in handy then.

Harmonics seem to come better from either the middle or lead pickup, and you move your hand round unconsciously, probably the distance of twelve frets away.  But it depends; if you want to get a really high squeal you hit an appropriate spot. (Rory plays some harmonics on the Strat) If you work towards the neck you get more of a boxy sound, you can almost get a split octave, whereas the ones more towards the bridge are just the pure squeal ones.  The way I play them is very percussive, and it really does depend on a lot of electricity and high treble to help you do it.

 How often do you change strings?

The Strat, say we're on the road seven days, I’ll change them every second night, because the third night they always break. The acoustic guitars I change every four nights, the mandolin every five nights, and the Telecaster every four or five nights. It's quite a lot, but my hands sweat during shows, plus the fact that I play them fairly hard.  I always use Fender Rock'n’Roll, so they're nice and bright.  The Silver bullet Fender strings I only tried once, but I believe they're even more responsive to pick-ups and so on.  But I don’t know, the thing with Fenders is that it’s a handy gauge already.  It's not every shop in the world you can go in and pick out a custom gauge.  I use a 10, 11, 15, 26, 32, and 38.  Ideally if Fender made a set with 40 in the bottom I'd be happier, but it's pretty well balanced.  If you go for that heavy bottom, light top, it becomes a little unbalanced.  It's a matter of taste, because I use the medium gauge strings, which are fairly heavy going, on the National and the Martin, so I never feel about getting too lazy with light strings.  I think that’s a fairly reasonable compromise.  To a jazz player starting off with a 10 is a sacrilege, but to a rock'n'roll player, some of them start off with .008.  I remember a guy came into the local music shop at home once, brought his guitar in, and said to the man who owned the shop, “I can’t get this guitar in tune, something's wrong with it.” And he looked, and the guy had an uncovered fourth, a .20 or something.  And there was a story of a guy in Belfast who actually had an uncovered fifth, which is really taking things to extremes!  But originally it just started with you using an ordinary set of strings but with a banjo string on as a third.  The next thing follows were changing firsts and seconds, and then the whole thing. 

 You get a clean sound, so wouldn't really light strings suit you?

No, because I like to be able to get a crisp enough chord, and so you do need some reasonably strong strings, and also keep the action fairly high.  I have had it higher, but with the height you get more of a definite note. You don’t get that nice comfortable ride that you get with the lower strings.  I find it handier, you can also get underneath the string, and it also works with the one hand playing style too.

 How do you approach improvising?

I don’t have any set pattern.  One night I might start a solo from an Irish jig position, and another night it could be a pure Buddy Holly thing.  Any element of jazz in my playing is more from the theory point of view, a freedom point of view, where the sky's the limit and you can hit notes that aren’t necessarily the Orthodox notes.  Whereas if you actually start playing very obvious jazz type progressions it soon starts to make certain songs sound over sophisticated, and I like to keep that bluesy sound.  At present I'm trying to keep the . . . Celtic blues might be right.  Let's put it this way, I like to leave a lot of open strings hanging on during solos, when I'm up in the seventh or eighth fret, keeping things running below.  Richard Thompson does it a lot, and Townsend too, in a way.  It goes back to playing in showbands with no rhythm guitar, and you had to play a bit of rhythm at the same time.  You get a sort of sitar effect.  But one keeps changing every couple of months.


Rory's bottlenecks (from front to back) of copper, aspirin bottle and steel

 Do you think there's an affinity between Celtic music and the blues?

Well, some writers have said there's a similarity in tonality and so on, but I think Celtic music is closer to Turkish or Indian music.  There are certain little parallels between Irish music and the blues but I don't like to consciously delve into the reasons why and why not.   But there's a certain . . . say in the minor key blues, in the more weird blues of say Sleepy John Estes or Son House, you can see the parallel.  Definitely apart, but similar.   Then of course some of the songs, folk tales from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, by the time they got to the States and to the blues players, they used the folk song story aspect of it.  Otherwise they'd still be singing very much in the pre-pre-ballad stage.  A lot of Leadbelly songs were almost like ballads you'd be singing here, except they were his own songs.

 Do you think there's a Celtic influence in your writing?

I buy a fair few folk records, I'm fond of that music, so it creeps in when I'm playing the Martin or something like that.  I don't like any influence to be too obvious in the music.  As a rule you try to be instinctive about it and just purely work on impulse, and in a completely primal sort of way you just do it, and try and keep a balance between the madness and the technique, and not become just a technical player as opposed to a raw, emotional, gutsy player.  Try to keep that balance even.  I think that’s the best course to take.   You could become just a wizard, whereas I try to keep aware of the mad Elmore James, Little Richard type of thing, which is totally raw.

I get tunes in my head, in taxis and buses and hotels, and jot down a couple of lines.  As often as not you’re sitting in the dressing room and a riff will come out of the guitar, and then naturally it'll tend to be the Stratocaster, or at home it’ll probably be the Martin.  If you’re in a bottleneck or open tuning the mood that comes out of a chord can sweep you over, which is the great thing about it.  The seventh chord you get with an A tuning is really strange.  I've written what I thought would be an acoustic song and it's turned out to be an electric number.  It's very rare that an electric will become an acoustic number.

 Have you tried more modern guitars, aluminum necks for instance?

Yes, I tried a Travis Bean.  They gave me one of those, luckily, but I haven’t been able to come to terms with it yet.  It's quite a heavy guitar for walking round the stage with, but it’s a nice guitar, got that infinite sustain.  Let's think . . . I'm still an 11 year old at heart, go to all the shops, try an Ovation Breadwinner, the Music Man guitars.  The sad thing is that most new guitars just don’t look nice.  What used to be paint is now very much a plastic skin, and what used to be a yellow kind of wood is now absolutely bleached white, and what used to be ivory is plastic.  They are standard show cribs.  But I don't think the standard of guitars has gone down as badly as people claim.   Are you thinking of any other new ones?

 The Ibanez Artist, which has a lot of built-in electronics.

That’s the one Steve Miller’s playing and that's definitely one I'd like to see.  It’s got that three-way graphic thing, which could be really hot on a guitar as a boost.  I'd like a guitar to have a built in treble and volume boost, because it cuts down the noises and buzzes.  The Music Man does have that built in battery thing, but I’ve got this old Vox 12-string from the days of Beatlemania, which I've had for a couple of months.  It’s got an out of phase switch, you pull this up and it turns on this whole section.  This I’ve turned into a tone control instead of a repeat tremolo thing, which isn't quite effective.  The fuzz is quite good, but fuzz on a 12-string is unnecessary.  Treble, you need, bass you need, top boost you might need.  The mid boost is very good, flick this on and you get three positions which I haven’t seen on any guitar yet,  but if you had this on a Stratocaster . . .  the only thing is, with a battery inside it and a surge of power, you're a little bit up and down on batteries.  But I'll use this for recording, I've used it on stage once or twice.  But when you consider that this was 1970 when this was made.   People only ever see me with the Strat, but I would certainly be happy to have, not all these controls for instance but let’s say volume and tone, pickup selector, and sonic mid boost things so you can change the sound.  At 500 cycles there is a particular sound that creeps in - you can get a Strat sounding like a Junior.

 Are you interested in having a guitar custom-built?

I had one actually.  Chris Eccleshall made it, a guitar maker in Ealing Common.  It's got a sort of Fender scale neck, body . . . I wish I had it here but I haven’t used it yet because I’m not too happy with the pickups he put into it, they're not the real P90 type Gibsons.  They're single coil, Japanese ones we were trying out because they were supposed to be more trebly.  I have a couple of other weird things, like a Danelectro, a plywood guitar.  It's great on records, has a great twangy sound, and I got one for 15 dollars once.  Sometimes you find that with cheap guitars.  A lot of the old bluesmen used to just have ordinary dime store guitars, and they used to get really honky.   I mean they’d tear the guts out of an amp but really get that raw sound, whereas the sophisticated guitars leave a little bit to be desired sometimes.  For instance the old Hofner guitars, there was a bad attitude against them at one stage but if you hear the odd Hofner now, the old Coloramas wasn’t a bad guitar.  I also got one or two guitars in Japan from companies, an old Rickenbacker, older than the one John Lennon had.  It's a short scale, which makes it slightly annoying because I like a full scale guitar.  I've also got a Gretsch Corvette, a bit like a Gretsch version of a Gibson Junior, but the pickup is useless, really weak, so at present I'm trying to get a P90 on that, which I really think are great pickups.

 Have you tried the DiMarzio and Mighty Mite pickups?

I haven't tried the humbuckers yet but I have tried the DiMarzio Telecaster lead pickup, and I changed back to the Telecaster.  Naturally if DiMarzio, or any of these companies, I'm not criticizing them because they obviously have a lot going for them, they don't squeal and they're nicely made and so on, but they go for a more mid range louder sound, a broader tone, whereas if you're fond of the Fender standard sound you do miss that little one percent top.  Mighty Mite I haven't tried, but as the years go by I’m definitely going to try them all out.  What I'd like to do is get another Strat just for experimentation, and take the Fender works right out of it and start by trying these things.  The trouble is you can’t fight it because the Strat set up is still pretty hard to beat.  There the Schekter unit, they make complete assembly things, the whole pickguard and everything.  There’s one volume and one tone, which is more or less what I have at present, the one tone covers the whole guitar.  But the Schekter also has three toggle switches, in the middle it's off, to one side it’s the standard Strat sound, the other side is like the Strat plus 5dB or something, so you can really get a pungent sound.  I'm always inquisitive about improving the sound and as often as not you might collect this guitar and that and you end up back with the stock one, and do your best with that.  But still, you never know.  I might end up with a Strat with a P90 on it.   As a rule you get so accustomed to one guitar you get to know it.  I've got a nice bridge on the Strat which I got from a shop called Stars Guitars in San Francisco.  They make these really thick brass bridges which don't budge and they don’t corrode as much as the normal ones.  I was going to get a brass nut as well which gives you a much cleaner open string, but I didn't.  I got a five way switch from them too.  From the last couple of months all Strats have been fitted with the five-way switch, which is much handier than running around trying to find the place.  I used to be luckier because I used to bend the toggle switch back a bit so it got stuck in the plastic, but it’s much better to have the switch.

 Do you have any desire to work with other line-ups, like brass for instance?

I wouldn’t mind using brass for the odd occasion, but I'm not particularly crazy about big line ups.  There’s a lot of clutter.  For what we do occasionally I'd certainly like to have another guitar player, or a bit of a brass section would be nice.  But it's not a question of being unadventurous.  I like small groups really, there’s plenty of room then to move around, and to do numbers on the spur of the moment without having to prearrange it too much.  But certainly as the years go by I'm bound to work with brass on some occasion.

From the September 1978 issue of Guitar–the magazine for all guitarists
Thanks to Brenda O'Brien for finding and preparing this great article !
Reformatted by roryfan
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added 6/22/08