Sounds – Guitar Heroes – March 1983

CHAS DE WHALLEY talk to blues stalwart Rory Gallagher

I shouldn't really need to tell anybody the story of Rory Gallagher’s career.  After all he's been around for so long he's almost become part of the establishment.  An institution on the British rock scene.  But it's just conceivable that there are new Heavy Metal fans around today who were barely out of nappies – if not barely in them – when this wild Irish guitarist burst upon the British public in 1968.  That was when he was a member of the Dublin bred band Taste - a highly respected three piece with a solid blues base who came up out of the Underground to help lay the cornerstone of what was soon to be known as Heavy Rock.  At the time, like every other six legged group with any class in this country, Taste were touted as the new Cream by journalists and publicists alike anxious to fill the vacuum left by the break up of the classic Baker, Bruce and Clapton combo.  But Taste were their own men from the beginning, as a quick spin of either of their two Polydor albums should soon prove (if you can still find copies outside your big brother's record collection, that is).  Major international success may have eluded them but they still managed to create enough of a buzz that Rory’s announcement he was to split the band and strike out on his own in the early 70s was front page news.

But if the band members changed, Rory’s music didn't.  He was still hooked on the blues and strung out on a stripped down backbeat and high energy and, in the early Seventies (an age when guitar heroes were almost two a penny) he became almost a legend for his rabble rousing solos.  And almost a dozen years later he's still at it.  A little older and a little wiser, perhaps, but still doing the business.

The trends and the fads have come and gone, one moment punk has thrown heavy rock out the window and the next the NWOBHM means its spandex trousers time, do or die.  But it's all washed off Rory Gallagher like water off a duck's back.  As long as he has a slide on his finger and a real stomping rhythm section to kick him along from behind, Rory Gallagher’s popularity has weathered all the storms and his integrity has remained intact.  He packs in crowds all over Europe and America and earthly exciting albums like last year's ‘Jinx’ still make the charts.  Which isn't bad for an Irishman whose only concession to fashion is a plaid work shirt and who still owns and plays the first real guitar he ever bought.

“You can see it on the cover of the ‘Jinx’ album,” he told me when I spoke to him in his brother (and manager's) office in Fulham.  “It's a 1961 Fender Stratocaster which I bought secondhand in 1963.  The previous owner was a guy in a showband.  He originally ordered a red one so he could look just like Hank Marvin in The Shadows.  But in those days Fenders only came into the country in ones and twos so he had to make do with a sunburst instead.  I was still at school when I saw it in a shop window for £100 with an old brown case thrown in.  So I saved up enough to pay the deposit and I bought it on HP.

chas1.jpg“Nothing's original on it now except the finish - and there's not much of that left either!  It's been re-fretted a few times and I've had lots of new bridges and machine heads.  The original electrics rusted out years ago from all the sweat of gigging.  I've tried putting all sorts of different custom pick ups on it but I've always ended up replacing them with standard factory Fenders because they just seem to suit the guitar the best.  What I have done which is quite an innovation is rewire the circuit so that I've got one master tone control and one master volume control, leaving the middle knob null and void.  It makes the Strat behave more like a Telecaster which means I can use the tone control to create a wah wah effect on the lead pick-up.  You can't do that on a standard Strat.

I have thought about re-spraying the body because almost all the varnish has worn off leaving the wood bare.  But somebody told me that it's better left alone because all the years of sweat soaking into the wood has had an effect upon its tone response.  A bit like a piece of wood that's been floating in the sea for a long time, it makes it softer and lighter and the tone is sweeter. Its secondhand knowledge, that, but I think it's probably true.”

I'm tempted to agree with him if only because, in the course of a conversation which lasted well over an hour and a half, Rory Gallagher showed himself an extremely knowledgeable chap, even an expert when talking about anything to do with guitars and amps, effects pedals and all the other tools of the guitar player's trade.  He spoke with relish and the obvious enjoyment of a man who has made the electric guitar his life.  And owns a good few of the things too.

“I don't have that glass-case attitude towards guitars that collectors like Steve Howe do.  Basically my collection breaks down into my working guitars and my pawnshop guitars.  On stage, I usually only play a Strat or a Telecaster.  And that's not just because I like the sound and the feel of them, but I find the 25 ½ inch scale easier to play.  It's when I'm in the studio that the others come into their own.  The weirder ones don't get used that often.  I've got a black Dan Electro which is very nice and a pear shaped Vox 12 string with built in fuzz and boost just like Brian Jones used to play in the Stones.  It's got more of a Merseybeat sound to it than the old Rickenbacker 12.

“One of my favourites is a Gretsch which is about the same size and shape as an ordinary Les Paul.  It's not that wonderful when you play it at normal volume, but if you rev it up you get that big chord sound Neil Young used to have.  He actually used to play the bigger version, which was called the Golden Falcon and it had provision for use as a stereo guitar.  You can see that on the back cover of his ‘Harvest’ album plugged into one of those old triangular Gibson accordion amps.  Mine's a lot smaller and it's orange just like the one Steve Marriott used to play, but I've tried everything I know to get it into playing shape but feedback has proved a terrible problem with that guitar.

Rory has no such worries with his favourite slide playing guitar which is another Gretsch, only this time a Chet Atkins, named after the legendary Nashville guitarist and producer.  They're rare machines, says Rory and you don't see them about much these days.  He found his in a pawnshop in Los Angeles for a bargain 90 dollars, whipped out the Gretsch pick up and replaced it with a poky Gibson P90.  Being a true bluesman at heart, of course, slide playing is a passion and the Gretsch fits the bill.

“You don't have to re-tune the guitar to play slide blues.  People like Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk and Muddy Waters didn't.  But you do have to adjust the action on the guitar so the strings too to do it properly.  It's perfectly in order to play normal chords all the way through a song and only pull the slide out of your pocket for the solo.  But the really traditional bluesmen, like Elmore James, would tune to the chord of G or D or maybe E.  There aren't any rules because once you start talking about re-tuning then there are so many different musical styles to refer to.  Folk like Martin Carthy or Bert Jansch play or strange inversions like Lowell George used in Little Feat or Keith Richards uses to keep his guitar ringing and droning when he's playing rhythm.

“The secret to slide playing is not to play between the frets like you would do normally.  Instead you have to play visually sharpchas3.jpg to ensure you get the slide exactly on top of the fret, otherwise you'll sound flat.  You have to get the pressure of the slide against the strings right too.  It's surprising how many great guitar players can't manage that properly.  They press too hard and the strings rattle and buzz too much.  You have to be a bit like an ice skater, but once you've got the knack then you never lose it.  But to be a really good slide player you have to use more than one finger on your right hand.  I know that sounds a little traditional and maybe too folky or country for rock.  But if you have the ability to pick out chord figures and slide in and out of inversions then you can really broaden your scope as a guitarist.

“It may seem a bit old fashioned to go back and learn some of the skills of early blues and country players, but I think it's invaluable.  The trouble with too many young players today is that they start off wanting to be Eddie Van Halen immediately.  So they begin with a solid guitar and featherweight strings and never listen to anything but heavy rock.  They get snobbish about anything else, which is silly really because the whole concept of a solid bodied guitar was stolen from the country and western steel guitar which the swing bands developed in the 1940s.  If it hadn't been for them there might not be the instruments around for Heavy Metal bands to play.  And without the acoustic and electric bluesmen of the same period there wouldn't be rock music at all as we know it.

“So it really doesn't do any harm to go back and learn from history.  And you can hear some amazing things which will only help you add depth to your own style.  It does a guitar player good to listen to what guys like Charlie Christian, T Bone Walker, Buddy Guy or Hubert Sumlin were doing 25 or 30 years ago because you'll suddenly discover that it's possible to play a solo without bending notes but still be just as raunchy and exciting.
“But I must admit I relate much more to the blues than to all this Space Invaders rock, leather jeans and smoke bomb stuff which is around today.  It all gets in the way of the music if you ask me.  I like to think I can play on the same bill as any of those kind of bands and give them a real run for their money without having to resort to Cecil B De Mille tactics.”

And as anybody who has ever seen Rory Gallagher live will tell you, he's as good as his word.

This article comes from the March 1983 issue of SOUNDS
Thanks to Brenda O'Brien for supplying & preparing this article
reformatted by roryfan

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