Rory Gallagher


The Irish guitar player, Rory Gallagher, takes up an unusual place.  He doesn't care about all the trends and adventitious circumstances, and yet since his entrance in the music business, he fully goes his own way. His jeans, chequered shirt and completely paintless guitar have become almost legendary by now, as well as the pace with which he travels all over the place.

Almost ten years ago, I was part of a Dutch blues band, which people at a certain point thought it was high time for honouring, the, by that time, practically impregnable England with a visit for musical sake. On that occasion, the band was confronted with a sort of a musical tutor in the person of Alexis Korner, who is said to be the father of the British blues, and who afterwards  also  gave the band a good deal of fatherly advice. Under his inspiring guidance, my band at the time and I went to frequent the famous musical temples of the English capital. Very soon we came into contact with two bands who at that time seemed to be very promising and who later turned out to be so indeed.

The first band was “Free”, of which a number of members as part of “Bad Company” still reap laurels today. Alexis was a strong admirer of this band and he didn't make a secret of it. The other band which was called “Taste” didn't find that much favour in his eyes, he was of opinion that they didn't play “real” blues. This put me in a fairly awkward position; I didn't dare to admit that their approach of the blues, which was a lot looser, especially concerning the rhythm section, appealed to me more. But it was the guitar player in particular who awoke my attention. That guitar player was called Rory Gallagher and I would actually like to know what Alexis Korner thinks of him. Rory Gallagher is the kind of guitarist, that to me, is brought out better live than on vinyl although his accomplishments thereupon certainly aren't bad, of course.

After a number of successful years, the band “Taste” was being dissolved and Rory continued under his own name. He found an also Irish rhythm section prepared to act as his accompaniment and he added a pianist to the company of players later on. By this time, apart from the original drummer, the formation still plays with the same group of people.

A number of LP's have been released, but Rory and his companions owe most of their reputation to the many live performances they gave. When it comes to The Netherlands, the last few years Rory has been around a bit less than before, but that is going to change. According to plan, he will visit several Dutch cities. So lovers of Rory’s usual guitar work can indulge themselves one more time.   

Stratocaster and AC 30

It is a sympathetic quality of Rory that he regards being a musician purely as his profession. He doesn't stand on a pedestal, which clearly influences the communication in a positive sense. To promote his upcoming activities in our country he has already been already here for a day of so to explore the terrain. mmpic1.JPG

When Rory hears that this interview concerns a magazine for people who play musical instruments, his eyes clearly light up and he declares that although England is now supplied with them, he thinks it's a shame that such magazines didn't exist when he made his first modest moves in the field of music. “At that time I would have liked to be able to read what kind of material people used. The only thing you find out then was who used which toothpaste. But when it comes to guitars and sound equipment I'm a terrible fanatic. In England, it almost always comes down to the fact that in interviews I only talk about that.”

Characteristic of the fact that Rory never bothered following current trends is his use of the Vox AC 30 suitcase amplifier in a time when practically every guitarist passed to the famous Marshall tower.

Does he still use that amplifier?

“On stage, in fact, I hardly ever use it any more. I have indeed used that thing for years and years because the sound of it is so good. I still have one of those, but I use it primarily for recording. The result of it is that I always start doubting its use over and over again at live performances. Especially, the mid-range of those Vox amplifiers is magnificent. What I still use is my old Stratocaster. Lately I have been experimenting a bit with other guitars and pickups, though. You know, once in a while a feeling of restlessness comes over me and then I always go and try lots of things. Also other guitars take their turn, but to me the Stratocaster is still the best “primary” guitar. If it were up to me though, a few things could be changed regarding it.  For example, the application of a master tone adapter. On the standard Stratocaster the tone of the treble element can't be adapted. Therefore I have adjusted my Strat in such a way that one tone adapter regulates everything, which is much better. Furthermore I have replaced the usual three position regulator for a five position regulator. “

The addition of that five position regulator is a very good one. It so happens that with the Stratocaster a very beautiful sound can be achieved by turning on the rear and the mid part at the same time. On a standard Stratocaster, that can only be done by placing the switch exactly in the middle of the two positions. Many guitar players I know discovered this option very quickly, but unfortunately the switch never remained in the right position. Every time it would fall back to the rear or the mid position. At first, Rory solved this by deliberately dirtying up the switch, because all that dust made the switching considerably stiffer. That the Fender company never provided for this is somewhat remarkable. In fact, a lot of guitarists change that tone adapter, but according to Rory that is going to change and as of the beginning of this year the Stratocasters will be provided with a five position switch.

mmpic2.JPGSo when it comes to the point, Rory and his good old Strat are inseparable. This doesn't mean that he doesn't keep any other instruments. Like he said just now, he is loafing around quite a bit with other guitars. But that's all there is to it. What else does he have?

“I do have some more guitars including some peculiar types. The last one I bought is an old Les Paul junior; you know the one with one pickup. A very good guitar, with a rich sound. Except for the Strat, on stage I use a Telecaster which in fact is an old Esquire. I added two Stratocaster pickups to it in order to bring the sound close to the Strat again. Only the rear pickup is a Telecaster pickup. This gives that guitar a somewhat different sound all the same. That Telecaster pickup does have a very good sound I think. I use that guitar a lot for slide work.  Sometimes, when I play slide with a standard tuning, I use the Strat as well, but is has different strings. The strings on the Telecaster are a bit thicker.”

The use of the right strings is something that occupies the mind of every guitarist. Everyone has his own preferences for that matter, while the choice of strings is clearly relevant to the music that is played.

Rory Gallagher: “When I play “Cradle of Rock”, for instance, I don't know if you are familiar with that one, or “Jacknife Beat” I use the Stratocaster with the regular tuning and Fender Rock’n Roll light gauge strings. Playing something like “Bullfrog Blues” I use the Telecaster on which the strings will have the following thicknesses: 013, 015, 020 etc. In any case, thicker strings which produce a richer sound. If I could, I would like to use even thicker strings, but sometimes I tune the guitar in A or E and I use a capo for playing higher tunings. On the acoustical guitar, I take the tuning down to D or G.
In that case, I use medium bronze earthwood strings. I always use rough wound strings, and also for playing slide. I know that Lowell George of Little Feat combines ground bass strings with other high strings”.

Vox Phantom
The Gibson Les Paul hasn't crossed Rory’s path up until now. Looking slightly caught, he says that now he would kind of like to have one and that in this case he would prefer the older type with the white elements only. This type is being produced again, although he is of opinion that the electrical part should be at least as good as it used to be. Also he appears not to be insensitive to the current critical attitude towards the wood that is used.

“It is hard to check, maybe it's not so bad. But just now we were talking about peculiar guitar types; I have another very singular one. It is a Vox Phantom 7, Brian Jones used to use one a while ago. The body is shaped like an egg. The one I have has 12 strings and has supplies like mid range adapters, fuzz and repeat built in. The only difficult part is the placement of the push button switches. They are placed on the rhythm plate and therefore they are very much in the way during playing. I would like to change that because otherwise it is a very good instrument. Guitars with 12 strings are very suitable for rhythm guitar work.”

Amplifiers and effects
As opposed to the Stratocaster, the famous Gallagher Vox Ac 30 has somewhat faded into the background. The fact that he has used an amplifier like that for so long, indicates that his views on the use of amplifiers are very personal at least.

What does he use nowadays?

“Lately I have been using a Fender Concert Amp a lot. It is also a slightly older model and has four 10” speakers. Sometimes I connect that amplifier with an, again old, Fender Bassman that also has four 10” speakers. I use these amplifiers either together or separate from each other. It depends on the circumstances. Recently I bought an Ampeg VT 40 and also that one has, it's becoming a drag, four 10” speakers. It is possible that I'm going to use that one for a while. It has a good mid-range and the amplifier can be distorted really well when you crank up the volume. That's about it; I'm still experimenting a bit.

Inevitable we now get to the effect pedals of which Rory makes use so scarcely. “I have a MX|R phase 90 which I mess around with, on some of my records I have sometimes used the effect with accompaniment work. Furthermore, I have a wah-wah, but that I only monkey about a bit at home. It's not bad, but on stage I don't use it. The only other effect device I have is a Powerbooster. You can zip up the high and the low tones with it and use it for some filtering. It is not so extensive, but you can revive the mid-range (he talks quite a lot about that) a bit with it so that a Fender sounds a little Gibson-like. It works the other way around as well of course. I am not interested that much in all those effect devices. That's why I have that Ampeg, you can accomplish a very natural distortion of the mid-range with that.”

Does he feel that a glut of those effect pedals stands in the way of the actual playing?
“Not necessarily, but the more of them you connect with each other the more irritating background noises will appear, unless you wrap them all in tin foil. A noisegate,  to me, is also not a solution; they are a too unreliable for me. They start to distort the moment something isn't in place. I had my Strat protected by the way. In San Francisco, there is a firm that has developed a special kind of paint for it. They paint the part of the body under the effects and from there something goes to the earth. I don't get much of it, and up until now, I can by no means say it makes much of a difference. But regarding boosters, I believe it's better to use amplifiers with built-in preamplifiers. But to be honest, I never liked the effect off it as much as just turning up an amplifier with less power. The speakers of such an amplifier with high power doesn't co-operate, so to speak. Just try turning up an AC 30, the effect is much better. Of course you blow up a speaker once in a while, but oh well. The sound is much better than that of those transistorized amplifiers with the master volume provisions. A guitarist should in fact, if he can afford it, have two amplifiers; a big amplifier for big venues and a small one for smaller venues. Something that sounds very good in the studio is the use of a small amplifier with one 10” of 12” speaker and then turn it up completely. Just place it in the sound boot and leave the door open!”

The cowboys
As is it's the case with many, Rory initially went by the appearance of the guitar. Instead of by the sound of the instrument, he was charmed by it watching all sorts of cowboy movies. The cowboys of those days were tough guys always impeccably dressed, who all seemed to play the guitar somehow. So colourful heroes with names like Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey (Rory must have been watching this type of movies when he was still very young, although it can't be ruled out that they weren't broadcast in Ireland until then) provided the basis. Wonders will never cease.

“Later on, county and western music was added and after that, of course, rock ‘n roll. These factors linked to my fascination for the shape of the guitar made me really fanatic. In school I was always drawing guitar playing male figures. After all, appearance is very important especially when you're young.”

The next step when people like Elvis Presley, and the especially for English musicians important, Lonnie Donegan, began to happen in Ireland, consisted of constructing a guitar on his own.

“I tried to make a guitar out of a shoe box or something like that, it sounds like a cliché, but it is really true, and after that I got a plastic ukulele with a picture of Elvis on it. Then came an acoustic guitar. I was an awfully fanatic skiffle fan back then, and that's when it began to take shape a bit. Since there was nobody in Ireland who could teach me what I wanted to learn I started to study skiffle songbooks. There were chords in it which came in very handy when I started to listen to Chuck Berry and before that The Shadows. I became a real rhythm and blues fan which later on lead to the discovery of people like Muddy Waters. Rock and roll somehow didn't provide enough possibilities and listening to the Rolling Stones brought me back to Buddy Guy, Freddy King and some more obscure people like Bukka White and Robert Johnson. Muddy Waters has inspired me the most, I think. Now he's sixty-three and still goes strong. If I can go on in such a dedicated way for so long, I will die happy. My music is a little more progressive, but isn't it wonderful to still continue that way at that age. The playing of let's call it rock music isn't bounded by age that much any more, it depends on the public you focus on.”

Although his style is clearly shaped and fixed, Rory still listens to other guitarists very often. He is of the opinion that many don't dare to admit that they actually think a certain someone is very good. “That is all because of insecurity. There are several guitarists I have great appreciation of, like for example Clapton, Beck, John Hammond, Ry Cooder and Keith Richard, but also somebody like Bruce Springsteen plays the guitar well. As far as I'm concerned they don't have to be at all enormous virtuosi.”

Copy guitars
There are many different opinions on how somebody begins playing the guitar should go about it. Much depends of course on the musical preferences, but a big obstacle for many is created by the question to what extent a theoretical foundation can be important. This again depends completely on what the personal intentions are, but it is a fact that still many beginners have problems getting started on the theory. Rory isn't bothered in any way by a glut of technical knowledge.

 What is his opinion hereon?
“If somebody intends to start playing rock, blues or similar types of music, it is usually enough to learn how the chords are build up. The rest depends on your talent. You can go and listen and watch other guitarists a lot and study their records. I cannot read notes, which I regret, and of course a certain base can be very important but there are a lot you can do by yourself. Go and play with other people and start a band. Another possibility is learning how to read tablature. You can always tell a person who can read chords, but you'll be wrong when it comes to melody lines. It is all a matter of approach, but in any case you need to learn and find your way on the guitar one way or the other.”

After taking a call on the telephone for a while, Rory adds to this that not everyone has to go and buy pricey Les Pauls and related sound equipment right away. “There are enough good copies to start with. Another possibility is trying to get a hold of a second-hand guitar. Maybe that's even a better solution. Good choices are Ibanez, Univox and Columbus, but of the last one the name changes quite a lot I think.”

At the Frankfurter Messe, a guitar which was called the Aria Pro 11 caught my eye. Rory saw this guitar once as well and expects a lot of it, although you can't speak of a copy in that case.

“There are many good guitars, even Steve Miller plays on an Ibanez. The old Höfners were good, just like the Burns guitars. But even if you don't have such a good guitar, there are many ways to improve your guitar. The use of the right strings for example or the lowering of the bridge.

There is another trick that can be pulled with a guitar with a detached neck. Suppose the neck were straight, but the guitar doesn't play well. Then if you detach the neck, you should put a real thin piece of paper or wood in the space where the neck goes. This makes the neck lean over backwards so to say, which is a better solution than frenetically bringing down the bridge. Gibsons have always had a slightly tilting neck. On the new Fenders  on the plate where the screws are that fix the neck, a little screw to adjust the neck. After that of the Gibsons, now also the alleged difference in quality between old and new Fenders has been brought up. Rory can't say much on the matter, but he does say that he noticed that the finishing is sloppier which particularly shows in not well attached screws, sloppy solder etc.

“Of course this fixed in a minute, but I must say that I'm under the impression that the old Fenders sound better. They look better for some reason. But the producer claims that everything is the same and that the potentiometers are even better. By the way, this does go for the Les Pauls. They used to have 500 k volume and tone controllers and now they are equipped with a 300 k linear volume and a 100 k tone controller, which is a good thing because the old Les Pauls with the humbuckers sounded very good in the wide open position, but lower than position 8 the power was out of it. This was never the case with the Fender. I have a Fender Telecaster, the Luxe, that used to have that problem, I have changed the potentiometers because they weren't good. Rory does the changing and adjusting of his guitars by himself. In the beginning he had a hard time getting started on it; “the guitars look so beautiful that it almost seems to be desecration”. But by now he doesn't know any different. Sometimes it was a waste of time to him, but other times it was well worth it. For example, the placing of a humbucker in the middle and a single coil at the bridge turned out to be very illogical. The other way around seems much more logical to me, I can't imagine that someone of the heavy, thick sound wants to go to a much thinner sound. but that is probably personal. “

Towards the end of the conversation we get to the strings again. Rory is just like many other guitarists of the opinion that you should by no means take too thin strings. As he has said before, he mainly uses Fender Rock ‘n Roll light gauge which are slightly thicker than the slinky strings. Other good strings are according to him Bicato and for the acoustic work a rather unknown brand that is called Schubert (probably from Germany). He has to change strings quite a lot out of necessity. Because of the high amount of salt in his blood his hands perspire reasonably during performances. This explains therefore immediately the paintless condition of his guitar.

As I get ready to leave he also tells that he uses a with a transducer amplified Martin D35 and a National as well. The latter is of the Duolian type and dates back from the thirties. In America, traveling guitar merchants still seem to be active and some bargaining is still possible every now and then. “But you have to be very alert though, sometimes the elements are replaced with others.”

While leaving Rory asks if I have enough information and apologizes, entirely wrongly, by saying again that he is after all a fanatic when it comes to instruments and related equipment. Well, he has my blessing.
“Unmilitary Two-Step” Rory Gallagher
Printed here adjoining is a piece of “Unmilitary Two-Step” that Rory recorded with the use of his Martin D-35 on his album “Blueprint” in 1973. The song is based on Rev. Gary Davis’ style although Gallagher plays with plectrum and fingers. According to Rory 90% of his songs are improvised and 10% is worked out beforehand. 

This article comes from the June 1978 issue of the Dutch publication Music Maker
Many thanks to Iris Rasenberg for translating this article and to husband Mike for providing Iris the job
reformatted by roryfan
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added 1/22/06