No gadgets, but a whole lot of natural sound


From Showband Kid to Electric Blues Ace

…RORY GALLAGHER talks to NICK ROBERTSHAW about his acoustic beginnings and present day electric technique that relies not on wah wah pedals and mechanical effects, but on the old manual tricks of the trade…


THE DAY this interview was recorded; Rory Gallagher had flown from Ireland to London, alighting only momentarily at his conservatively furnished hideout in Earl's Court before continuing a slightly roundabout migration to Canada,  there to open a three week tour.

Despite the circumstances, he was entirely unhurried, ambling around for ashtrays, breaking open a hospitable spot of Guinness and answering all questions with attentive courtesy and a soft Dave Allen brogue, plus the slightly uncomfortable look of an introvert forced to talk about himself.

This dazzling psychological insight seems unlikely to explain how the shy Irishman became a big star and one of the raunchiest electric blues guitarists around, so perhaps Mr. G. himself might drop a few hints.

“I got an acoustic guitar at the age of nine, and started doing Lonnie Donegan material. ‘It Takes A Worried Man’ was the first thing that I did. Just strumming chords … B7 was my big deal."

“Luckily I got the three chord trick fast, because I was like a fan of music from the age of seven. I knew who Bill Haley was, who Buddy Holly was. I don't say I picked up the guitar instantly, but after a week or so I had some skiffle stuff and a couple of Bill Haley songs off."

"By the age of ten, I had a sort of skiffle group for a couple of talent shows."

“I played along on the acoustic guitar for a couple of years, and about the age of 12 I got an electric guitar - a Rosetti Solid Seven with a Little Giant Selmer."

“By that stage,  I was more interested in Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, and so on. I just played along at talent shows and concerts and things like that. There weren't really any beat or rock shows at the time; just school things, Pioneer rallies, believe it or not, Scout concerts, anything."

“We used to do jam sessions after school, just rhythm guitar, drums, that sort of thing, doing rock ‘n’ roll material, and I worked away on that till about the age of 15. Then a job turned up in a semi professional showband.”

By this time, then, the guitar playing was already pretty accomplished?

acous2.jpg“Well, I can't remember exactly. I was doing odd bits of solos. I can't remember how accurate it was. Between the ages of 12 and 14, say, I was really struggling with it - in the sense that I`d come from the acoustic guitar, which was very much rhythm stuff."

“Then I started picking out the obvious Ventures and Shadows type things, and Buddy Holly solos. I wasn't that concerned with solos at the time, because there was no solid group, but by the time I did join the showband, I knew the ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ solo, and ‘Wishing’ and a couple of Chuck Berry solos.”

Gallagher played in the showband,  Fontana,  for two and a half years, and went with them on tours of Ireland and even abroad while he was still at school a trick managed, apparently, by changing schools fairly often.

Eventually, though, the showband repertoire of old time waltzes, Top 20 hits and Clan­cy Brothers numbers began to pall slightly.

“I learnt from all these styles, but after a while I got well and truly cheesed off with playing all this kind of stuff. I enjoyed the rock ‘n’ roll numbers and some of the hit tunes we did, but I realized then that the showband was OK for fairly constant gigs, and that was about it.”

One of the best things to come out of this period was the Stratocaster that Gallagher still uses as his main stage guitar.

“When I joined the showband, after a few months I got a Strat. It took me four years to pay it off on HP. I`d borrowed a Hofner Colorama for a while, which wasn't bad. Anyhow, I sold the Solid Seven when I got the Fender, and borrowed a Vox AC30 from the bass player in the band.”

What follows is a completely unsolicited testimonial for the manufacturers of the amp mentioned, prompted only by an aside to the effect that secondhand AC30's are still very expensive in the pages of Exchange And Mart.

“They are the most reliable amp … really, very loud, and solid - although they do need a little bit of something … like a treble booster, I reckon."

“Somebody worked it out once that they give closest to the true wattage; they give 28 watts of real power, whereas some other makes only give 55 that are supposed to be one hundred watts."

“And they have a certain arrogant kind of tone, particularly if you get a nice treble booster like a Rangemaster. You can get amazing sounds out of them. Anyway, of course, The Shadows were using them, and that was an instant encouragement, an endorsement.”

The amp in question is now more or less of a first reserve, used occasionally for recordings, but it gave good service through the showband days and on into Taste, the three piece rock band Gallagher formed afterwards.

Taste started out playing in Hamburg, masquerading somehow as a four piece, and settled finally in London in 1969, going on to make a series of albums as a heavy blues band.

When they split he formed his own band, and the rest, says Gallagher, coming swiftly and thankfully to the end of his dutifully compiled curriculum vitae, I think is fairly well known.

By his own account,  Rory Gallagher can't read music. “I know what a certain chord or chord change is, in music, just by putting two and two together, so I'm not completely ignorant in that sense, and I could probably play a couple of notes from a piece, but I would like to be able to read music properly because it'd be very handy for advancing one's knowledge.

“I have made serious attempts at it, and I do intend to learn but I just don't seem to have had the time – it's a sad fact. I wish I could learn.”

Well he shouldn't get depressed - he hasn't done so badly …

“It's a thing that happens to guitar players in particular. They move faster than they can keep up with the technique. If it's rough and ready music, of course … blues, rock or rhythm and blues … if those are your main interests, or even if it's folk music and unusual types of guitar styles, reading music doesn't seem to come into it so much."

“I mean you wouldn't equate Chuck Berry with reading music, or Leadbelly or some of those greats.”

Point taken, but on the subject of direct influence from other musicians Gallagher is slightly vague.

“In the early days it was Holly and Cochran, as I've said, and their solos were tightly knit with chords and things, which I used to enjoy playing. For the most part in the showband I was playing sort of rhythm-cum-lead backings anyway."

“Now of course, I've split them up much more. I'm not really aware that anyone's influence has changed my style, because I dare to say that I had a kind of a rough picture in mind all the time of what my style was."

“Obviously it's been tempered by different people through the years. You have influences you don't even recognize as influences. Pete Townshend, for instance, it never occurred to me he was an influence, but it's true actually … those massive chords."

“So far as listening to other guitarists goes, I think, in all modesty, that my style is strong enough to stand up to it, but, it's safer to listen to lots of guitarists rather than to just one,  it keeps your ears wide open."

smile2.jpg“Besides, I think it's wrong when you hear players saying Johnny X is the king of guitar players, and the rest of us are just servants, mere mortals under his feet  because there are so many good guitar players, and so many different styles."

“In general listening, I listen to The Beatles, The Byrds, The Band, Dylan … you could go on and on. I'm not very narrow minded in listening, though I might be narrow minded in what I play."

“Doc Watson is one of my favourites. For electric guitar I think John Hammond – he's a guy from New York, a very primitive player, but very good - Buddy Guy, J. B. Hutto, and Lowell George – he's a very inventive slide player."

“Elmore James is fantastic, let it be said, though everyone's giving that the thumbs down at the moment, but Lowell George is hitting some very interesting notes more so than Ry Cooder or Duane Allman even."

“But then Ry Cooder’s more important in terms of resurrecting good songs. There are so many good people around, you know. Martin Carthy is a fine player. There are some guitarists who are primitive, but who really lift me off the ground.”

It's something of a connoisseur's list, and Gallagher can bring the same well informed discernment to bear on the subject of guitar preferences.

“Well, I like the Stratocaster, and I still use the same one I had in the showband. I think they penetrate best; you always hear them at the back of the hall. I reckon that with the right amp a Strat is the best guitar, because it has certain acoustic guitar like qualities. It has the most natural sustain, for instance."

“It wouldn't have the electronic sustain of a Gibson or the big bottom of some Gibson's, but it has a very direct hit – it's like a dart."

“Telecasters are nice, but they have one good pick up and the other isn't quite so good and they have a slightly harder tone; the Strat has a little more sophisticated sound. Great soul guitar or country guitar, the Telecaster, if you want to get a good rocking sound."

“Then there's the Jazzmaster and the Jaguar, which didn't really do very well, except in the surfing days. For Fender guitars you have to have a good amp that gives a lot of sustain; Gibson's are more versatile, you can plug them in anywhere, but for all their weighty sound they don't have the same penetration."

“There are really so many interesting guitars, and you can sometimes get a really earthy, vicious sound from a rough old guitar that would be impossible on a better one. I have an old Silvertone that cost me £15, made out of plywood, but well­ disguised. I was given a Guyat­one in Japan, some sort of copy, and that has a honky sound. I don't collect the glass­ case type of guitar, but I am a guitar fan, I suppose, and I still like to go round the old music stores and pawn shops just to see what there is.”

On stage Gallagher uses three guitars: the Strat for standard work, a Telecaster for slide, and either a National or a Martin for acoustic playing. Amplification is courtesy of a Fender Bassman and a Fender Twin, both mid 50s vintage, and used turn and turn about as the mood strikes. The AC30 waits in the wings. 

“I don't like big amps. I like built in amps, 30 to 50 watts, then you know where the sound is coming from and the whole thing is right. These old amps had standard speakers, you see - good old valves in them - and the important thing was they were made by cabinetmakers, and the wood was good.'

“Nowadays, you see speakers falling out of cabinets, the wood's so poor.”

Readers who detect nostalgia for the good old days in Rory Gallagher's remarks won't be surprised to learn that he doesn't hold with them new fangled effects pedals.

“I don't have anything against them, and I can admire players who use them, but I've got this thing that, given I use a treble booster on stage to give the amp more poke, otherwise I'm plugged more or less straight in and I'm into what you can do with your hands within that small range.”

And what can you do, Rory?

“You can do miracles. I like the phase shifter sound – I've used that on records, but the fuzz and the wah wah … I don't know … I don't like to have to walk across the stage and press a button to get a sound. I think you should have to create it with the combination of the amp and the guitar, with your hands.”

Because of his insistence on natural sound, Gallagher has built up a vocabulary of tonal effects achieved on the instrument, consisting largely of tricks which were once widely used, but have now gone out of fashion.

For a wah wah effect he twirls the volume or tone controls.

“It's a pretty old trick, but when I see a player doing it, it sounds twice as effective as a wah wah pedal to me.”

For a staccato sound he damps the strings with palm of the right hand, just in front of the bridge. Again it is an old rock ‘n’ roll technique, in the tradition of Buddy Holly, “Wheels” and “Foot Tapper”   useful, incidentally, as a way of keeping the volume up while playing softly.

A third, and more elusive, technique consists in coaxing harmonic runs from the instrument by hitting strings with both the pick and the thumb holding it, almost but not quite simultaneously. Once mastered, the results are impressive.

While his little finger is busy twiddling knobs and shifting the pick up switch (even, on the Strat) to an out of phase position between two pick ups that apparently gives a distinctive tone), tome), the rest of Gallagher's right hand is also fully occupied, since in addition to holding a flat pick between thumb and forefinger, he uses the remaining two fingers for acoustic style fill in picking.

Slide guitar is a major interest for Gallagher. On stage the ingredients are a heavily­ strung Telecaster, an extensive knowledge of open tunings, and a small American aspirin bottle, once used by Duane Allman, placed over the third finger.

He also uses a conventional steel bottleneck, but the bottle was a particularly good acquisition since it gives a smooth sound, is well made with heavy glass … and once contained aspirin as well.
The subject of tunings for bottleneck style is a large one, but among those Gallagher uses are, first, the standard guitar tuning in which Earl Hooker played. This is not the easiest for slide guitar, and works best in the keys of D and E.

Open tunings include A, E and D with an option on certain minor keys, and even a curious system employed occasionally by Martin Carthy that involves tuning three strings to one chord, three to another.

Slide guitar has its own techniques, like the rapid vibrato effect produced by waggling the finger swiftly back and forth on the string, but the main requirement in this kind of playing, where there is absolutely no feel so far as position on the finger board is concerned, is a very good ear … or better still, two.

These Gallagher possesses, and his playing, rooted in simple blues styles, owes more to instinctive feel than to technique. teeth2.jpg

Asked to have a guitar handy for demonstration purposes, he was alarmed that he might be expected to play set pieces, as he claims not to know any.

In fact, the best playing on the interview tape (shortly to be issued as a bootleg!) comes while the interviewer is out of the room and the microphone is unattended. After talking to himself briefly in an impenetrable accent, Rory Gallagher settles down and produces a short blues piece that is casually, but perfectly executed, melancholy but startlingly clear, and evidently played straight off the top of his head.
From New Musical Express November 9, 1974
Thanks to Brenda O'Brien for sharing and typing this article!!
Article reformatted  & photos from the article mutated by roryfan

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