Rory Gallagher left this world in 1995 and the world gasped at the sudden absence of this truly gifted musician, a man whose career visited the many styles of not only his music, but also for his impact on legions of guitarists and fellow artists who admired the spectrum of genres he covered, from his high-energy electric blues/rock to his acoustic adventures with ragtime blues, celtic soul, country blues, jazz, and folk. His immense talent stretched beyond the guitar and into his considerable touch on harmonica, ukulele, saxophone, mandolin, bass, banjo, and coral sitar.
Here at Guitars Exchange we would like to take a closer look at his acoustic styles through some of his most memorable songs and compositions. Why the acoustic?, some may ask, when he was clearly a rocker who shredded many an electric guitar with his searing solos and unrelenting passion onstage. Well, let’s take a look...
First of all, Gallagher’s true love was the acoustic, often seen with a 1968 Martin D-35 which he used on his debut self-titled album Rory Gallagher (1971) Deuce (1971) as well as Live in Europe (1972), and numbers like Just the Smile plus the ragtime Pistol Slapper Blues, by Blind Boy Fuller, played on his 1932 National Triolian Resonator. He would often encourage beginning guitar players to learn the acoustic first because the strings were heavier which would harden your hands and keep you from ‘faking’ it.
He started adding acoustic pieces into his act with Taste back in 1969 and has included 2 or 3 unplugged songs on almost every album since, and slides them into his live shows to not only showcase his dexterity on acoustic, but also to quiet things down and give the band a break. Another Blind Boy Fuller cover he did was Rag Mama Rag, a lightning-fast 4 bar rag that sounds like the old style pianos from the 20s. On his 1973 album Blueprint he covers a Big Bill Broonzy classic called Banker’s Blues, a country blues ditty on which he also plays harmonica and slide.
His approach to the acoustic was to use the flatpick technique, together with his index and middle fingers, ideal for both acoustic and electric guitars. It allows faster and more intricate runs he learned by listening to Brit and Irish players like Paul Brady and Dick Gaughan, two masters at celtic jigs and reels. Another influence on flatpicking was American Doc Watson, an expert in this style, developed by bluegrass guitarists in the U.S. in the 50s. The celtic soul style was inspired by Richard Thompson who also flatpicked and indeed appeared with Gallagher, David Lindley and Juan Martin in a remarkable acoustic 1984 concert in London long before the concept of ‘unplugged’ became a thing.
As for some of his most popular acoustic songs, check out Walkin’ Blues, accompanied by banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck in a live, steamy setting at Montreux, Switzerland (1994). Fleck says he was pushed on stage to jam with Rory without knowing any of the material, and was blown away, saying after, “He was a dynamo...we had an amazing jam...I became an instant fan”. The mutual admiration between the two is evident. Also included in this jam/medley are the classics Blue Moon of Kentucky and Amazing Grace.
On his ‘71 album Deuce, we get another golden display of celtic blues licks, and his wonderful voice in I’m Not Awake Yet, blending folk/blues elements with a tinge of jazz. Track 9, Out of My Mind, a country blues beauty has him at, maybe, his fingerpicking best performance. Keeping in line with the same country blues acoustic recordings, enjoy Wave Myself Goodbye (Rory Gallagher), 20:20 Vision (Tattoo, 1973), and the onstage favourite from his 1976 album Calling Card, Barley and Grape Rag, a toe-tapping, finger-snapping, jazzy blues number written by Gallagher and which goes head to head with some of the best rags of all time.
Another absolute gem on acoustic is his cover of Leadbelly’s Out On the Western Plain, (Against the Grain, 1975) featuring elements of Indian phrasing woven into American delta folk with a ‘yippee-ki-yay’ cowboy chorus that illustrates how colourful he was in any setting.
His 1982 release of Jinx was mostly a muscular, fiery brand of blues rock, but as always, he slid in his acoustic guitar into the batch, and here, Nothin’ But The Devil by Lightnin’ Slim is an acoustic solo masterclass, showcasing his delta roots and slide prowess. Also contained here is the bluesy ballad Easy Come Easy Go, where he double tracks both acoustic and electric in a soulful rendering of style by the legend.
In 2003, almost a decade after his death, Wheels Within Wheels is a compilation of lost recordings and outtakes recorded at several places around the globe, and features artists such as, Martin Carthy, Bela Fleck, Ted Mckenna, Gerry McAvoy, and Bert Jansch, to name a few. It is an acoustic rock album delivered through jam sessions with his guests and bandmates that is a more laid-back, intimate feel compared to the hard-driving electric days.
Rory Gallagher was one of the greatest guitar forces of his time and is still considered among the top players, composers, and performers in history. Among his heartfelt fans were greats like Muddy Waters, Gary Moore, Bob Dylan, Slash, Van Morrison, the Edge, and someone called John Lennon; not a bad bunch of groupies! He stood alone in refusing to release singles and music videos, he was a purist to the bone; he even turned down a chance to be a Rolling Stone in the 70s. How cool is that!
We’re sure he’s up there jammin’ and drinkin’ with the best of them. We miss you Rory Gallagher.