BRITISH ROCK GUITAR
by Dan Hedges
Guitar Player Books 1977
RORY GALLAGHERTo the purists, the mere thought of anyone but the originators playing the blues is justification for outrage. In England, this issue came to a head in the middle and late Sixties when people like John Mayall and Eric Clapton sparked off the “Can a white man play the blues?” debate. Even if it was only taken seriously by the people who were asking the question, it nevertheless triggered an interest in Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon records. People wanted to see how Clapton and company stacked up against the “real thing.”
In one instance, the question “Can a white man play the blues?” became localized with the unique query: “Can an Irishman play the blues?” And in the case of Rory Gallagher, the answer is a definite yes. Born in Cork, Ireland—an entire ocean away from the back porches of the American South—Rory got into the blues because, he explains, “First of all, there's the raunchy sound. It's not that clean tone that was the usual rock and roll style. Secondly, you didn't have to work in a structured format—limiting yourself to a half-verse solo. You could improvise, and the solo didn't have to be the same length every night. It was a much looser structure, and there were all sorts of new and interesting techniques that I could get into, like bottleneck, and all sorts of different tunings.”
It would be inaccurate to classify Rory Gallagher as a traditional blues guitarist. He doesn't eat, sleep, or drink the blues, nor does he consider it a major tragedy that he wasn't born in Fly swatter, Mississippi. While the blues occupy a major share of Rory’s musical attentions, his overall guitar style is a mixture: a pinch of jazz, a bit of clean country picking, a dash of Fifties rock, a hefty dose of hard rock, and a dab of old Irish, all blended together by a natural feeling for traditional blues and a respectful disregard for convention.
Discussing his approach to a blues number, Rory says, “If I want to chicken-pick the thing, which is connected more with the James Burton style, I’ll do it. I don't feel that you have to be that pure about it. If I want to use a bit of the old tone control for a wah-wah effect, fine. It’s apparently against the pure blues creed, but I won’t have second thoughts about doing it. I like to do new things with the blues, you see. There’s not much point in simply recreating what's already been done. I mean, Hubert Sumlin, who is one of my favorites, doesn't even play the way he did twenty years ago. The blues players themselves are often the first to admit that they want to do something new, so you have Muddy Waters recording with wah-wahs and all. The younger blues-rock players have actually affected the old black players.
“It’s just that whole white scholastic thing,” Rory suggests. “They think of the blues as a load of chronological numbers and recording dates. I don't believe in butchering old blues numbers. I like to echo the old thing. But I don't think you're helping the blues if you stick to the traditional way when you're playing to younger listeners. They wouldn't be interested in me playing the same old style, plus I’d be bored coming out and doing the same old thing every night.”
Gallagher’s interest in music began early when Irish radio introduced him to what could be loosely described as ‘pop music.’ “Even as a toddler,” Rory explains, “I was very aware of hearing people like Guy Mitchell and Tennessee Ernie Ford on the radio, along with things like the ‘High Noon’ theme, and all that. Apparently, I was always singing around the house, because most Irish families are interested in music in the first place—not necessarily pop music, but they were all singing around the house. When relatives came in, they'd be singing too, and since my grand-mother had a bar, there were lots of family get-togethers.”
Bill Haley (closely followed by Elvis) hit the scene when Rory was six or seven years old. He was a bit young to really appreciate the full significance of it all, but he was aware that something new was beginning to happen. “I could tell the difference,” Gallagher reports. “I could tell that this was a totally different thing, much better than Jo Stafford and all those people.”
Like just about everyone else growing up in the British Isles during those years, his major source of musical excitement came from skiffle music. Skiffle-King Lonnie Donegan was Rory’s hero and the driving acoustic skiffle guitar sound was a strong attraction. “I used to know all of Elvis’ songs, but around the ages of eight, nine, and ten, I actually found that I liked Lonnie better than rock and roll.” Rory recalls, “I thought he was the most, and I ended up getting my first cheap acoustic guitar when I was ten. I already had a couple of little ukuleles, and had gone through the stage of making them out of shoe boxes, so when I got that guitar, I was ready to go. I got a couple of books about Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Shooters, Charles McDevott, and Nancy Whiskey And The Teetotalers. These are all people that you don't hear of anymore, but they were really big back then, and all the books had chord diagrams in them.
Unlike many kids at that age, Gallagher was serious about playing the guitar and singing right from the very beginning. He quickly taught himself the preliminary three-chord trick and went about learning the standards he picked up from the skiffle people: “It Takes A Worried Man,” “Don’t You Rock Me, Daddy-o,” and “John Henry.” “I’d always wanted to sing as well as play the guitar,” he says, “and I really got myself keyed up over the whole thing. I got a skiffle band together with my brother on washboard and another guy on tea-chest bass. We gave our first public performance at a talent contest, which I don't think anybody actually won, but I remember that we just loaded ourselves onto the back of this guy’s uncovered lorry, with the tea-chest bass and the washboard. I’ll never forget it, because the washboard player got so nervous that his thimbles fell all over the place!”
Ten-year-old Rory spent the next year performing in the Sunday Night Boy Scout variety show circuit and building up a fairly respectable repertoire of songs that included an assortment of Lonnie Donegan numbers, along with selections like “Midnight Special” that didn’t really fit into a pop or skiffle category. At twelve, he got his first electric guitar—a Rosetti Solid VII. “It was an amazing machine,” he recalls, “but you couldn’t take the cord out of it because it was permanently attached! I had a Selmer Little Giant 4-watt amplifer, too, which I would really love to have now for a practice amp. It sounded something like one of those Pignose things.”
Rory went through an energetic period of forming his own bands but it was impossible to find enough gigs to match his enthusiasm. As he puts it, “The environment in Ireland was all dance music, showbands and things, which was complicated by the fact that I was only 12—though I thought I was 23. I never realized that I was so young ,just because I was taking it all so seriously.”
Gallagher’s lack of success gave him plenty of time to practice, and he began listening to all the American musicians who were just beginning to hit their stride: Buddy Holly (who replaced Lonnie Donegan in the Rory Gallagher Hall Of Fame), Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino. “I think rock and roll struck England with a heavier bang than it did in the States,” he says. “I know that when Elvis hit the scene over here, it was like a totally new era. In the States, listeners were already aware of Hank Williams, the semi-rhythm and blues things that sounded a bit like rock and roll, and electric blues, so it didn’t really shock them. Over here, it was a different story. It went from Jo Stafford to “Jailhouse Rock” practically overnight but between the jukeboxes, radio, and the rock and roll movies, I eventually heard all of the new stuff. I didn’t even have any records. I just listened to the radio.”
Starved for a chance to play, Rory finally joined an outfit called the Fontana Showband. “I just couldn’t get a group together, and I figured it would be better to join the Showband than to sit at home staring at the wallpaper,” he explains. “You could do at least 50% rock and roll in a showband; the rest would be a hodgepodge of country and western, comedy numbers, and everything else.”
The Showband gave him more experience in front of an audience, and for two and a half years, gave him an opportunity to see a bit of the world. By the time the band evolved into something called the Impact Showband, the rock influence had been firmly pushed into the foreground, though a handful of dance numbers were retained to keep everyone happy. The Beatles had made their auspicious appearance by this point, but Rory didn’t immediately latch onto them as the next new thing. He saw them as a further refinement of the brand of music he had been listening to since “Rock Around The Clock.” “I thought, ‘This is great!—a vintage rock and roll group, because they were playing Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard,” he recalls. “They looked different though, and I remember hearing them on radio programs that I’m sure everybody has forgotten about, doing “Twist And Shout’ and all those great numbers. They were a fantastically raw rock and roll group. All the other groups were rather low-key in those days—except for Johnny Kidd And The Pirates. So I was delighted, and the whole new image with the hair and everything got to everyone in some shape or form. Then the Stones came along, and they were even raunchier. I liked the Beatles and the Stones about equally, but I suppose I felt a little closer to the Stones, because they weren’t dressing up in neat suits and going for that teenybopper image.
“There was another great group from Liverpool called the Big Three,” Gallagher continues, “and I liked them as much as I liked anyone. They had a great bass player [John Gustafsson, later with Quatermass], and an incredible guitarist named Griff Griffiths. He was definitely one of the best, yet one of the most overlooked guitarists in the country. He played a really cheap Hofner guitar, and would always borrow an amp when he got to the gig.” As the months rolled on, lots of other emerging British guitarists began to catch Rory’s ear: Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck, and acoustic players like Bert Janseh and Davey Graham. “I never said, ‘Well, forget EddieCochran, because these people are much better.’ Everything had something for me, and I tried to listen to it all.”
It was at this time that the blues masters began to enter Rory’s life.
Through the influence of many of the blues-oriented British groups, Gallagher was prompted to start checking a little more thoroughly into the sources of their inspiration, In his words, “I began to take a very deep interest in the blues, in the fullest sense of the word, when I started hearing Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and all the other people that musicians over here were beginning to discover. At the same time, no one person in rock, blues or whatever, totally affected my outlook. I didn’t wake up one morning to find that the whole world had changed because I had heard so-and-so. I was listening to a bit of everything, and while I got more and more interested in the blues as time went on, I was literally absorbing music from all different places.”
Rory didn’t have much chance to experiment when he was with the Showband and near his seventeenth birthday he decided, “Well, I could get stuck in this dance band stuff for life and go nowhere.” So he left. A few weeks later, the Showband split up altogether, and Gallagher formed a no-name, three-piece group with the Showband’s drummer and bassist. Then an opportunity to substitute for a group called The Fendermen popped up in Hamburg, and Rory and his friends jumped at the opportunity. He reminisces, “The Fendermen were an English-Irish band, kind of like the Shadows. The lead player even wore glasses! So we masqueraded as The Fendermen, and the audience didn’t know the difference, because the promoter never told them.”
The three went their separate ways after Hamburg, but Rory returned to Ireland, impressed with the possibilities of the three-piece format. In the summer of 1966 he formed another trio with drummer John Wilson and bassist Charlie McCracken from a local group called the Axles. This was the beginning of Taste. Right from the start they were fairly successful on the Irish and German club circuits, but attempts to find work in London failed. It prompted them to move from Cork to the musically-alive environs of Belfast. Taste eventually landed a few free gigs in London through promoters who had spotted them back home. In 1968 the band decided to move to London where they found a healthy amount of work at the Marquee and various festivals throughout the summer. Although they made some demo tapes in Ireland (later released as In The Beginning), their first official recording session didn’t take place until the lineup had changed: Rory teamed with John Wilson and Ritch McCracken. Things were going exceedingly well for them after that (culminating with an American tour supporting Blind Faith), but Taste broke up in 1970, just when they were within striking distance of the top.
“We blew it, but we had a good lifespan,” Rory feels. “So I got myself out of a few hundred contracts, and was finally free to form my own group in 1971 with Gerry McAvoy, Rod De’Ath, and later, Lou Martin. We recorded our first album [Rory Gallagher] in January and February of that year, went out on the road in May, and have been on the road ever since!”
Spending half the time that Rory spends on the road would be enough to drive many musicians around the bend. However, Gallagher feels that all the hard touring has paid off. Watching him onstage, it’s easy to see that he’s totally in control, completely at home with his instrument, and comfortable with his style and approach.
Gallagher’s overall aim is to keep himself interested in whatever he’s playing at the time—drawing on a bit of this and a bit of that, sometimes mixing radically different elements as he sees fit. “I don't shrug off any of the things I used to like,” he claims, “so if a little bit of Eddie Cochran creeps in somewhere, I won’t think, ‘Oh no! That’s fifteen years old. I can’t play that!’ I play what I want, which means holding onto lots of things from the past.” For example, a subtle Celtic element, reminiscent of the ancient pipe and harp tunes of Scotland and Ireland, surfaces every now and then and provides an interesting contrast to Rory’s customary blues-rock approach.
He explains, “When you grow up in Ireland, you find that you hear that kind of music all over the place:in school bands, in the street on Easter Sunday—everywhere. So I suppose it did have an unconscious effect. The way Irish songs are written, the structure, the tunings, and the lyrics, all affect me, making me different from an English guitarist, who hasn’t been exposed to that kind of thing. My main drive comes from the American music, but the tunings and the way I phrase things will often have that old Celtic flavor.”
Rory admits to being, not bored, but disappointed in the current state of rock guitar. “I suppose that rock guitar has become a bit mainstream over the past few years. I really thought that another style or direction would have developed by this stage.” He explains, “I guess McLaughlin’s picked up on that one a bit—a cross between jazz, Eastern, and rock playing. I mean, every type of music requires a different set of principles. Jazz is total freedom, but other types of music are nice because they aren’t as free. I keep imagining the ultimate guitar player as someone who can play like Martin Carthy, with an unusual tuning style, the rhythm of Baden Powell, the blues feel of Hubert Sumlin, and the tone of James Burton. I keep trying to imagine the ultimate guitarist, but that’s nearly impossible. A folkie would never really feel comfortable playing jazz licks, for example.
“Then too, who one person would consider to be the ultimate guitarist, somebody else might view as no big deal,” he goes on. “So it all comes down to the individual taste of the listener. No matter how fantastic a guy is, he’ll never appeal to everybody, though some guys who are known for a certain thing have managed to pull in a few other elements. Larry Coryell can play jazz with a bit of rock and get away with it, and Roy Buchanan can play a country-rock thing. Then there are people like Chris Spedding who you can’t pin down to any one thing. He’s constantly changing.
“I really thought that somebody would have come along who could be the John Coltrane of the guitar, though. I think it’s going okay, but the whole trouble with the rock scene, and this has always been the case, is that you get a giant like Clapton coming along—he deserves the credit, no doubt about it, as does Hendrix—but the trouble is, everybody’s inclined to forget that there’s a whole series of lesser-known guitar players who are, to me anyway, just as important as any of these people.” Rory explains, “It surprised me that the whole world started to play like Clapton back in the late Sixties, when there were people around who were just as interesting. They don't even get a look because of bad luck or because they’re not commercial. But that’s always the case, I guess. It’s like politics. One big guy always gets to the top, and there are always a couple of other guys who could’ve done just as good, if not better, but they get lost along the way. Griff Griffiths of the Big Three means just as much to me as Clapton does—and I like Clapton, I’m not criticizing him.”
Gallagher continues, “Steve Winwood used to play great guitar, for example, so it wasn’t only Clapton who was worthy of people’s attention. Of course, it’s partially the musician’s fault in some cases, because they lay back too much. Still, I’ve always had the complaint that rock critics and audiences tend to overlook people. I’ve got minor favorites who have never hit the scene, and I think, ‘Just look at what these guys could give to people.’ John Hammond has been terribly overlooked. Okay, he’s not Jimi Hendrix, but as a raw and raunchy guitarist, I would put him right next to Keith Richard. Mind you, Keith was overlooked for a good, long while, too. Those big driving chords were always Keith’s though, and a lot of lead work, even in Mick Taylor’s day, was still Keith. When Hendrix hit the scene, I got the feeling that everyone said, ‘Well, thanks, Keith. You’ve given us the early Stones thing,’ and then they ignored him after that.”
Rory doesn’t believe that a talented person will always be recognized in due course, though he believes in “the right place at the right time.” While nobody can predict when, or if, the right time and place will present themselves, he feels that constantly being out in front of an audience is the best way to tip the odds in one’s favor. In Gallagher’s estimation, “Clapton was lucky. Everyone was dead keen on the blues sound, the blues songs, and the blues image-the Mayall thing. He had everything going for him, as did Hendrix, who came in during the psychedelic era though he was a little bit early for it over here. So everyone who makes it needs those little extras, and needs to be in the right atmosphere to come forward.
Dylan became a giant, but there was already a genuine interest in folk music anyway-though the things he was doing with Robbie Robertson and the Band at the time were overlooked. You can’t change the way things are. The audiences and papers will only pick up on things in their own good time—if at all. Acoustic players are still being overlooked, for example. There are a lot of great acoustic musicians in the States, but they don't look right. It’s all short hair with Bermuda shorts, but they’re playing great. The image isn’t there, so they get overlooked. Of course, you get the same thing among musicians themselves. You get these guitar players who pretend they don't listen to anybody else-that they don't like anybody else-like they were born yesterday. I’m a fan, and I get a kick out of listening to other people. It’s the only way to keep up on things-the only way to learn.” Rory’s own listening habits are always open to something new, but he complains that he hasn’t seen or heard any particularly earthshattering new guitarist for quite some time. He really enjoys Little Feat, Z.Z. Top, and Ry Cooder, the aforementioned John Hammond, Martin Carthy, Tony Joe White, Roy Nichols (Merle Haggard’s guitarist), and the late Clarence White, His overall musical taste at the moment seems to hover between the old blues masters like J.B. Hutto, Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, and the more, high-powered guitarists like Richie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton.
His avid interest in jazz reached its peak during his Taste days, and while it’s slacked off a bit since, he still listens to Pharaoh Sanders, Eric Dolphy, and Baden Powell--whose merging of mainstream jazz with Brazilian bossa nova Rory finds particularly interesting. Although he’s listened to all the guitar greats like Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, and (in particular) Django Reinhardt, he’s found that he can identify much more strongly with the sax players.
“Once I got into jazz,” he affirms, “I found I had this terrible hunger to hear something that I couldn’t hear in rock or blues. I suppose it must have happened to a lot of people when they heard John Coltrane. His lines and the chords are really incredible. That whole era of jazz sort of whetted my appetite and satisfied it. So I veered away from jazz, but not before I’d picked up all those ideas along the way. I mean, that free-wheeling phrasing that I try to get must come from the sax. As I’ve said. I’m a fan of the guitar, and of music. It’s nice to be able to fall back on a jazz chord if you need it, or a country lick, or a classical run. That’s my idea of what modern guitar should be.”
When listening to blues and rock, Rory doesn’t automatically home in on the guitar solo and then dismiss the rest of the a rrangernent Ihe total effect is what counts how the guitar relates to the singer, to the other instruments, and to the song itself. Rory’s the focal point as far as the audience is concerned, and the gig-scarred Stratocaster that hangs from his shoulders has become something of a trademark, a visual representation of the rough, jagged brand of music with which he’s become identified. As he describes it, “I think it’s a ‘59 or a ‘60. It’s second-hand, though it wasn’t that beat up when I bought it. The guy who had it before me wanted a red one, but when he ordered it, they sent him this sunburst by mistake. He played it for a few months, and then the red one came in, so he sold it to me for £100 [about $250], which took me ages to pay ott. That was as in 1963 when I joined the Showband. I think it the second Stratocaster in Ireland, and to a fifteen— year-old guitar player, it was like gold. I was afraid to even look at it! The reason why it looks the way it does now is because I sweat like mad. It’s my birthsign. I’m a born sweater, you see, and I’ve done a few million gigs with it,
In the Showband, for example, it was seven hours a night. I mean, I clean the guitar. I haven’t tried to wreck it, but I’ve got a lot of salt in my blood, and the sunburst finish never lasts anyway. I guess I don't feel like getting it repainted because I’ve grown so fond of it. But it’s eventually going to crack up. If I walked out onstage with another one... I mean, you get branded with a certain guitar. Have to keep up the image, you know!”
He originally played the Strat (and still does occasionally) through an old Vox AC-30 bass amp, later adding a Rangemaster treble booster to give it the top he was after. Later on he got a gigantic Burns solidbody, but this he traded in for the Telecaster he currently uses for slide work.
The moth-eaten Strat, without a shadow of a doubt, is his instrument. “If it breaks down, like it did on one American tour. I’m lost,” he claims, “I can get through a night on the Telecaster, but I’d rather avoid it. I carry an extra Strat with me now a ‘58 maple job, though I think I might start using that for slide instead.”
Rory says that the Telecaster is a fine instrument for country slide, but he finds the bass pickup a bit thin. “Changing the pickup to a humbucker would only make things worse,” he claims, “because the full, lively sound of the humbuckers just doesn’t mix well with the cranky tone of the standard Telecaster pickup. A guy could sit down and say, ‘Right. I’ll get myself a Telecaster body, a humbucker pickup, a Guild pickup, etc.’--a real hodge-podge of different parts. But the guitar won’t necessarily have any character. I use my Strat as it is, though you need a treble booster to get that raunchy thing, because the guitar is really made to be played like Gene Vincent or Buddy Holly. If you go to the other side of the wall and get a Les Paul, you can get that raunchy sound, but that’s about all you can get from it. If you want to get into a half verse of nice clean percussive country playing, you can’t do it. I’m not anti-Gibson, by the way. Some guy wrote me a really violent letter, because he thought I didn’t like Gibsons, and he had just laid out $700 or something for one. [here are things you can do with a Strat that you can’t do with a Les Paul, and vice-versa.
“I love that Strat, though, and if something happened to it, I’d probably buy another one.” Rory continues, “I even like the tuning heads on them--the old Klusons, rather than the Grovers. You get instant tuning, and the harmonics are dead true. You can hit a harmonte and pull a string at the top of the fretboard for a nice squeal. It’s the kind of guitar you can do unorthodox things with.”
In the same breath, Rory reveals himself as a champion of obscure, but well-made guitars—the sort of instruments that no style-conscious rock star would be seen with.
As he puts it, “Everyone seems to think that there are only three guitars in the world now -the Les Paul, the Strat, and the Telecaster. I remember a time when nobody would touch a Strat because the Shadows had gone out of vogue. Harrison was playing a Rickenbacker and a Gretsch, so everyone got into those semi-solids. If you played a Stratocaster, you were from the last century. Now you rarely see Rickenbackers anymore, and the Strat is the guitar again. I suppose it is the best, inasmuch as it gives you a very clean, sophisticated guitar sound—clean and brittle. But it’s not an automatically good, raunchy blues guitar, because you have to perk it up.”
Gallagher’s small but respectable collection of outcasts includes a mid-Fifties solid Rickenbacker, a Sears and Roebuck Silvertone (similar to the black and white Danelectro solids), and a “really loud” ‘59 or ‘60 Guyatone that was made in Japan, which Rory might soon be using onstage for a couple of numbers. For the most part, he’ll continue using the Stratocaster and Telecaster. The Strat is strung with Fender Rock N’ Roll strings (150s), while the Telecaster, used mostly for bottleneck, is equipped with a mixed set of light and medium gauge Fenders. These strings have been lightened over the years; for example, the wound .022 or .023 third is now a plain .018 or .020, which provides better balance to the A and E tunings that Rory uses onstage.
“If I were using a D or G tuning,” he adds. “I’d probably use a real medium or even a heavy set. Since I’m tuning the guitar up, 1 can’t have them too heavy or it causes problems. The action for both guitars is fairly high by average standards, but not over the moon. I think it’s better for sustain and volume. If I’m using fairly light strings, I hate it when they’re too close to the fretboard and when I’m aiming for a nice punchy chord, but it goes mmmmffff, buzz. I like to get a slightly acoustic feel to my strings, so I can get a really hammering chord out of them.”
For onstage amplification, Rory either relies on an old tweed 4x10 Fender Bassman. or an equally aged Fender Twin Reverb. He prefers using a guitar with a clean sound, like the Strat, and a really “dirty” amp. The Bassman is his first choice because he finds a bass amp well suited to his rough style of playing. He thinks that the idea of using four 10” speakers for bass guitar is ludicrous. Buddy Holly and Buddy Guy also used the Bassman, and Rory recommends it as a very loud amp for guitars. “As I’ve mentioned, I sometimes use a Rangemaster treble booster, though I’m using a Hawk II at the moment, which is much more expensive, but it gives more control.” He notes, “Basically, when I stopped using the AC-30, I stopped using the Rangemaster. Then I got the Fender Twin, and started plugging straight into it. I was happy with that slightly cleaner tone for a while, but I went back to using the booster again with the Bassman about a year ago. Ideally, I could still plug straight in if I played at a lower volume, but with the piano and everything else in the band, you need something to make the guitar more piercing.”
On the job, the volume on the Bassman is set at a little less than half of its full range, because of the extra boost from the treble booster. Even without the booster, Rory has never pushed his amp more than three-quarters of the way up. The bass and treble controls are usually about three-quarters of the way on, depending on whether or not the booster is being used. The amp has a presence control as well, which is set at 2.
Generally, Rory turns his Strat volume control straight up to 10 for solos, dropping it down to 7 or so for the in-between parts. The tone controls are usually up full, unless he takes to wiggling them for a wah-wah effect. Although all three pickups get their fair share of use, he particularly likes working out of the middle one, and for a solo he’ll often switch from the out-of-phase position to the in-phase position, depending on the effect he wants. “That’s what I like about the Strat,” he explains. “You can do so many different things with it. If it had a built-in treble booster to give it that humbucker fuzz, it would be unbea-able. But I’ve got a fuzzy amp, so I get that anyway. The main thing is that I never turn the amp up full. I have it miked through the PA, of course, but not very much, unless we’re playing in really big places. Most of the time, there’s just a hint of guitar going through the PA to send it out to the audience a bit more. The amp does all the work, but it’s a loud amp to begin with.”
Nowadays, Gallagher uses his Bassman amp for recording, although the old AC-30 is still rolled in from time to time along with an ancient Fender Deluxe (with one 12” speaker) that he uses occasionally for overdubs. Rory never plugs directly into the studio board. Apart from the treble booster and an MXR phase shifter (“just for fooling around with”), Rory finds effects pedals and devices unnecessary. Effects, as far as he’s concerned, “should come from the hands. I’m not against groups who use effects. I suppose you have to experiment with them, since you never know when something interesting might crop up, like the Mu-tron. McLaughlin has every string on his guitar going through a synthesizer, and that’s quite good, but nothing gets to me like an ordinary guitar going through an amp.
When it comes to acoustic instruments, Gallagher’s modest but well-used collection includes: the Martin D-35 and the circa-1932 National Aeoleon he uses onstage (strung with medium bronze Martins or Darcos), a Harmony Sovereign 12-string, and a cheap, Swedish Bjarton—a very high-pitched instrument that he rarely plays unless he’s doing a ragtime number. “I’d like to get another —maybe a Harmony Sovereign 6-string. I really like them,” he claims, “because they’re not as cultured as the Martins. I’d be quite happy to play a Yamaha because they’re instantly good. They don't improve with age. After ten years, they’ll be worse instead of better, while a Martin will improve with age.”
Rory’s playing technique has definitely improved with the passing of time. His technical development has been slow and easy, since he seldom shifts gears or changes direction on sudden impulse. He feels that he’s had a good idea of how he wanted to play since he was a kid, and that’s guided him right up to the present day. He went from playing chords, to playing like Buddy Holly, to doing Chuck Berry solos, to playing the blues, to developing an experimental style. But none of this came overnight. “I’ve never gone off on crazy tangents,” he says, and he doesn’t like his changes to be very noticeable. Since 1969, Rory has been playing more acoustic guitar and he attributes this to his increased fluidity on electric guitar “just because my fingers are more supple now, going from heavy strings to light.” He wanted a certain tone, played in a certain style, and he’s held on to that throughout, but according to Rory, “that doesn’t mean that I haven’t got new things that I want to do and learn.”
Onstage, Gallagher tries to have something musically interesting going on at all times. Unlike some players, he doesn’t fall into some uninspired riff while waiting for the big solo. Instead, he wants everything to count to the fullest. Without bulldozing his way through a flurry of notes that only clutter, he uses his instrument as a finely-crafted tool; embellishing, coloring, and carefully filling in the gaps between solos.
“Playing with a three-piece lineup for so long had a lot to do with my current approach,” he states, “though I probably didn’t learn the same things as the Cream people learned. We did piledriving chords but we were into more of a chunky rhythm thing, not some big thing built around the drums. I learned to carry it, and I could always fill in with chords and little bits of solos while I was singing. Even in the Showband, we didn’t always have an organist or a rhythm player, so two feet. We have keyboards in the band now and it’s a fantastic addition, but not having and it’s a fantastic addition, but not having another melody instrument never worried me. I suppose I got into a very fluid, melodic thing and, there again, I suppose that hearing a lot of accordions and fiddles as a kid had a lot to do with it. It’s very hard for me to be objective, but I like to think that I can surprise people with the next little guitar lick. I don't like to say, ‘All right, this is a verse. I’m going to play chords, and the next thing is going to be a solo.’ I’d like to think people notice that in between the lines, in between the vocal phrases, I’m slipping in a little something—playing in harmony to what I’m singing, or playing the chords backwards to the bass player. I mean he knows it, and I know it, but I like to think that the audience notices it as well. I’m out to keep the whole thing interesting, rather than piledrive it, turn the volume up, and then hammer home a solo. Everything should be interesting--the intros, the key changes, and the endings.”
Rory’s picking style falls midway between straight flatpicking and fingerpicking. He uses a heavy gray Herco flatpick and “the fat” of his index and middle fingers. He alternates between single notes and clusters, though in no fixed proportion. For fast solos he invariably sticks to flatpicking. He looks for rhythm parts, and he’s working on dropping the flatpick altogether for straight acoustic playing. Currently, Gallagher relies on a thumbpick and his bare index and middle fingers. He found that this is essential for slide work, though the years spent gripping a flatpick have trained his muscles into a habit that’s hard to break.
In fretting, Rory uses every finger on his left hand, including the little finger. “It’s nice to be able to play a couple of jigs and reels every now and then,” he points out, “and you have to be able to use your small finger for that. Using the bottleneck, my small finger is probably overtrained, because I had to learn to depend on it as a 3rd finger. It’s easy to get lazy with it though, and just depend on the other three. But God knows you need everything you’ve got!”
He’s learned to make full use of the entire fretboard, from end to end, avoiding the 12th-to-2lst-fret fetish of many roek and blues guitarists (“dweedle guitar”, as John Entwistle calls it). “I like to play in octaves and do damping tricks with my right hand,” Gallagher says. “Rather than go through the trouble of turning the volume down for a quieter verse, I can half the volume by just damping the strings. It has a very nice percussive effect, especially when the drums are added to it. I like to hold on to the old root note as well. Pete Townshend and Steve Marriott like to do that, too.”
Rory’s bottleneck style is his strongest link to traditional blues, but it’s interesting that his initial inspiration didn’t stem from the backwoods of Mississippi. He explains, “I used to do a bottleneck number in the Showband, of all places—sort of a blues thing—around 1965. It was unusual for the time, but Brian Jones was already doing it at that point. He was the first rock guitarist I heard using that style, though there were a couple of other people around who were interested in it for the Hawaiian and country effects. I heard one or two blues people playing that way, but to be honest, I really can’t remember who. So I would have to say that Brian Jones was my initial influence as far as bottleneck is concerned.”
It wasn’t until the Taste era [1966-1970] that Gallagher discovered open tuning. “I think I might have seen a letter in the Melody Maker advice column, where somebody wrote in and asked, ‘How do you do his?’, and Alexis Korner might have answered, saying that you had to do it like this.” Rory recalls, “Then there were a couple of letters dealing with various folk guitarists and the D tuning, which was the big discovery, so I just put two and two together, figuring that you could use the folk tuning with the slide, and that was it.”
Rory started working with F and G tunings in addition to the D, which he applied to songs like “Leavin’ Blues.”
Today, he’s a master of the bottleneck style, taking pride in doing a little more with it than is customary. He explains, “The thing about my bottleneck style is that it’s not like I sit back and have another guitar player backing me up so I can just do the slide work. It all goes back to that three-piece work, where I really had to learn how to carry it. But I enjoy playing like that. I can do a slide solo, and the rest of the time be playing chords and straight notes, but with the slide still on my finger. I like to forget that it’s there and, in a sense, I’m a three-fingered guitar player when I’m playing slide. I don't like straight slide playing where you play a bit, sit back, and play another little bit. The guitar has to keep going with chords and things, and I like playing bottleneck chords, even when I’m not using the bottleneck.”
Rory’s choice for a bottleneck or slide is an empty Coricidin bottle [Coricidin is an American cold remedy], which he’ll use for months on end, occasionally switching to a regular steel tube for a slightly sharper tone. Although he prefers placing it on his stronger 3rd finger, the construction of the National (where the neck joins the body at the 12th fret) requires that he use a smaller steel slide on his little finger. This gives him a better vibrato. Overall, glass is Rory’s first choice.
“If you want to get a really sharp tone like, say, Muddy Waters gets, I don't think glass would be suitable, but it’s good for a nice, clean, pure slide.” He recalls, “I used to use a highly shined copper one, which was a bit noisy, though really gritty. The thing is, they don't sell Coricidin in England so I have to pick up a few more bottles of it everytime I’m in the States. I think they make the best bottleneck you can get, though I wish they would make them in a slightly smaller size, so I could use one on my small finger. I only hope that the company doesn’t move over to plastic. We’ll all be ruined then! You can use lipstick holders. Tom Rush used to use one, and so did Dylan for his one and only bottleneck number. They’re quite effective, but they’re a bit too light. John Hammond uses a big heavy socket from a wrench, and Brian Jones used a part from a car. Alka-Seltzer makes a bottle that would be nice, but it’s too big. Hrnmm, you could write a thesis on this! Anything will work. I’ve broken a lot of wine bottles in my time, trying to get the ideal bottleneck!”
For electric slide, he normally tunes to A or E and uses a capo for B or G. He tunes his acoustic guitars in D or G, or uses the D tuning with the G string left at G. This is one of Rory’s favorite tunings because it gives him a major sonority when he hits the 3rd string at the 3rd fret. He’s experimented with really low C and B tunings, but finds them impractical because the strings get too loose. lie’s aware that there are all sorts of exotic tuning possibilities available to him, but he prefers sticking to the orthdox and more easily adaptable systems. He continues, “If the tuning is insanely complicated, it’s of no practical use to anybody. You have to be able to sing it. I think Joni Mitchell has a couple of really oddball ones, but the guitar has its limits. You can’t tune an E string up three or four frets, and you can’t take it down too much, so there’s only so much you can do. The main tunings you can get are D, G, A, E, or D, leaving the G at G for Celtic sorts of things. Davey Graham uses one where he takes the B to A and the G to F, which is pretty unusual. It depends. If you’re writing a particular number, it might be adequate to bring the two E’s down to D and leave everything else as per normal— which is a really nice thing, too.
“I have an electric mandola—which I got after I got my mandolin—and that uses a plain violin tuning, but a couple of tones down.” He maintains, “There are more than enough tunings to go around, of course, but it would be nice to discover a new one that would actually change the course of guitar playing. I think I’ve developed the bottleneck technique well past the Elmore James stage, though. I never get caught in a tight corner now, and I’m sure there’s a lot I can learn. But I feel that I finally have something worked out which is mine--something I can keep working on.”
Onstage, Rory always devotes at least one solo number to showcasing his lightning-fast technique on mandolin. This usually develops into a whistling, foot-stomping exercise in audience participation. Rory claims, “I didn’t really get into the mandolin until after I’d been into slide for quite a while. I used to do one or two dixieland numbers in the Showband with a banjo mandolin--the kind George Formby used to use. So I had a limited knowledge of it there, and then everyone seemed to get into it. I was interested in using banjo tuning, but didn’t want to play banjo onstage, even though I liked it. I couldn’t see myself doing it. I was just interested in playing a few jigs and reels. Then Ry Cooder and Johnny Winter started doing some things with mandolin, so I really got into it after that.”
Gallagher is entirely self-taught, having picked things up by ear and touch. While many guitarists are proud that they’ve never had a lesson in their lives, Rory regrets that he hasn’t been able to delve more deeply into the theoretical side of music. “It’s just that I never got to know anybody who was prepared to give me lessons. Nobody from up where I came from was able to anyway, so I just got a kick out of learning from records and books with chord diagrams in them.” He goes on, “Mind you, I wouldn’t mind a few classical guitar lessons, even now-—though the main problem is that I still can’t read music. I’ve tried, but I can only read a couple of notes. Being able to read properly would have made a big difference, because I would have had more courage to go to someone and ask them to teach me things. The way it is now, they’d tell me to learn how to read first. But I’ll get to that one day. It’s just the time factor, really, but it’s definitely in the cards. The thing is, if I sit down with books and try to learn something, I start thinking of songs and new things instead of concentrating on what I should be doing. It’s a pity, because some of the things I play now and then are slightly reminiscent of the classical feel....a plectrum or a fingerpicking thing that won’t really fit into any category, certainly not blues or rock. I just wish I knew a bit more about that kind of thing.”
Rory doesn’t hold himself to any rigid practice schedule, though he tries to play a little bit every day-—ten minutes here, an hour there, occasionally skipping a day or two altogether. “I try to learn something every time I pick up a guitar, you know—even though I’m not really consciously trying to work out something specific”
In the future, Gallagher hopes to write music for films —not necessarily guitar music, ‘but not your average Hollywood musical either. As a guitar player, I’d like to play with all those favorites that I’ve mentioned,” he muses, “but it depends on how willing you are to stay off the road. If I stayed off the road and went into the session circle, I’d do a lot of different sessions and get to play with a lot of different people. I’d probably get bored, because I prefer being on the road. I’m really happy with my own band, playing away, and doing what I’ve been doing all along. But then, if some guitar player in another band got sick and couldn’t go on tour, I’d like to go out anonymously, and do the tour with them. Rather than just sit in with them for a night, I’d like them to continue with what they usually do. I wouldn’t want to change them, but just fit what I do in with what they do.”
Rory would also like to play bottleneck guitar with an Irish pipe band; mergingtheold blues style with the ancient Celtic flavor, though he’s not about to go head-over-heels into Irish or any other kind of music, apart from the kind he’s already playing. He explains, “I have no grand ambition to play with a symphony orchestra or anything, but you never know. You never can tell. That’s the mistake we all make. You say, ‘No! Never,’ and then you start rethinking it a year later and decide that it might be a positive idea after all.”
For now, Rory is content to concentrate on the type of music he knows best—the sharp, rough-hewn, but melodic approach that no one else has been able to copy. His keen respect for the blues complements his love for rock and roll, and his guitar work reflects the music of his past and, in a way, the music of his future. Rory Gallagher clearly enjoys playing the guitar. His goal is to give his listeners the best of his talents, both onstage and in the studio.
“I know certain people will hear one thing in my playing, and others something else. The thing is, I always like to have a couple of tricks up my sleeve, and not sound the same to everybody,” says Gallagher. “I like to think that people who don't listen so closely still spot and appreciate me as a good, raunchy guitarist, while the people who are interested in melody and the little hidden things will spot that aspect as well. I like to be different things to different people—but not a hundred and one different things.
My playing is like a stone that you let the rain fall on. The changes all come naturally and in their own good time.”
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