Rory Gallagher: Off the Handle

rory1To quote the song I took the title of this post from, “I fly off the handle, a little too quick, some say, I’m an angry man.” Those words couldn’t have been farther from Rory Gallagher, an incredible blues guitarist and singer from Ireland. Fellow guitarists Brian May, Gary Moore, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, the Edge, Joe Bonamassa, Slash and countless others sing his praises. The resounding and persistent theme? He was the consummate gentleman. I don’t know how I discovered Rory, probably it was because of fellow Irishman Gary Moore, but damn, he is one of my favorite artists. Songs like A Million Miles Away (live version), Crest of a Wave and pretty much everything off the BBC sessions are personal picks. His guitar of choice for all that music, all the touring? A 1961 Fender Stratocaster, its’ body so battered, chipped and dinged that it’s impossible to recognize the original finish color (for the curious, it was three-tone sunburst).

immortalized in bronze in his home town of Ballyshannon

William Rory Gallagher was born March 2, 1948 in blue collar town of Ballyshannon, County Donagal, Ireland. Talented with music from his early years in Cork, it was Belfast that made Rory what he was, first with the band Taste and then as a solo artist. Belfast was an angry place in the 70s and that unrest shaped a sound like no other. The best way of describing his music is skiffle with a heavy blues influence. Skiffle is defined as a blend of jazz, blues and folk, a melting pot of music from and for the common man. Gallagher referenced Lonnie Donegan and Woody Guthrie as huge influences on his playing. A keen appreciation for the traditional Mississippi Delta and Chicago blues entertainers like Son House, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy rounded out his style. Genres aside, it was his live shows that blew everyone away, upwards of 300 concerts a year honed him into a very consistent performer. He didn’t have “off” nights, he knew what he could and what he couldn’t do. Off stage, he was subdued, shy and introverted but once under the lights he transformed into a charismatic performer who held his audiences in sway.

Rory’s worn strat

Running that ’61 strat through a Dallas Rangemaster treble booster pedal into a Vox AC30. A combination Rory passed to a young Brian May of Queen one night after a gig at the Marquee in London when May asked how Rory got his tone. I’ve told the tale of the Fender Stratocaster before, it’s an alder body, a bolt-on hard rock maple neck with rosewood fingerboard made in droves in Fullerton, California. Rory bought the now tattered Fender in August 1963 for just shy of 100 pounds at Crowley’s Music Store on McCurtain Street in Cork. That was a lot of money for the young Rory (he was 15) so he had to pay for the guitar in payments. The fret markers are clay (coveted for their color) though at the 12th fret there is one plastic marker where the original clay was lost. Over the years he swapped out every tuning machine so that today, there are 5 Sperzel tuners and one Gotoh. Rory sweated a LOT and there is conjecture that his sweat was what stripped the strat of its’ colors OR he could have stripped the finish in thoughts he would refinish it later OR it could from when the guitar was stolen for a 2 week period circa 1968. When it was found, Rory was certain it had been outside without a case for several days, rainy days. He swore to never refinish or sell the instrument, a promise he kept.

5wayselectorRory rarely used the tremolo arm and with the addition an extra spring pulling the bridge tight to the body, the guitar held tune better and had improved sustain. Only the center pickup is original to the guitar though the others are Fender single coils. The second tone control was removed, leaving just a master volume and tone control. The 3-way blade pickup selector was replaced with a 5 way that allowed the strat “in-between” sounds. Players learned early that if they balanced their 3-way switch just right, it would run 2 pickups at once and gave 2 more options, the bridge and middle together and the neck and middle together. See chart for the modern 5-way options. This discovery also helped tame the single coil hum though did not eliminate it. Fender listened and the 5-way pickup selector entered production in the late 1970s, Rory’s is likely a switch-craft version. Finishing out the guitar the pickguard was replaced twice and the nut, several times before landing on the right bone variant.

rory2A good deal of Rory’s music was haunting, a voice that made me feel his pain or my own, it is always hard to tell. He had his demons, take a listen to Wave Myself Goodbye or Bad Penny and you get a glimpse of love lost. I often find myself wondering if I love his voice or his guitar playing more. He was the whole package, singer, songwriter and incredible musician. They say that the brightest stars burn the fastest and that fire consumed Rory. He drank heavily and mixed prescription medications for years without abatement and his health suffered. He is quoted as saying “The blues is bad for your health, it’s as simple as that, it goes with the territory.” Gallagher released 11 albums from 1971 to 1980 but only 3 from 1982-1990. Around 1990 everyone was aware that Rory was hurting. His condition worsened but he kept playing the blues, eventually it was apparent he couldn’t continue. His liver was destroyed and he was given a liver transplant in April 1995. He never recovered and died 8 weeks later at the age of 47. Nearly 2 years younger than I am right now (February 2017). If that isn’t a sobering thing, I don’t know what is.

He never married nor had children, his brother Donal keeps Rory alive with his annual festival celebrating the life and music of his now legendary sibling. Rory became even bigger after his passing, as many artists do, something he would likely have been amazed by. His commercial success, an impressive 30 million albums, was limited by Rory’s unwavering control over what he played. He wouldn’t compromise the blues to get a hit on the radio. If you are interested in Rory, check out the BBC Sessions, a 2 disc set that includes many wonderful songs. Match that with it being live and you will realize what I already know, Rory was the real deal. We’re headed down under for the next guitar, the 1968 Gibson SG wielded by the Aussie school boy, Angus Young. Thanks for stopping by.

KSK February 2017


One thought on “Rory Gallagher: Off the Handle

  1. I hate to admit I have never really listened to anything by Rory, but now this is the 2nd or 3rd post from someone that has been raving about his work. I think I am now convinced to finally check out is body of work and see what the fuss is about. Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s