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How to Play Like Blues Giant Rory Gallagher

Ted Drozdowski

Rory Gallagher never held back. His live performances and best-known songs —“Big Guns,” “A Million Miles Away,” “Tattoo’d Lady” — were all about untamed energy and raw expression.

The new DVD Rory Gallagher Live In Cork captures the Irish blues-rock giant tearing through an impassioned 13-song set in peak form. His slide playing is almost insanely aggressive, even on the opener “Continental Op.,” and his single note leads are singing and dynamic. When he tackles “Don’t Start Me Talking” and other traditional blues numbers, it becomes obvious why Eric Clapton considered him a peer — and a competitor.

Alcohol abuse complicated a variety of other illnesses, and Gallagher died on June 14, 1995, at age 47. Until recently his legacy seemed to be dimming for all but the most ardent blues-rock die-hards. But a series of releases starting with the 2005 two-disc Big Guns: The Very Best of Rory Gallagher, and culminating recently with Live in Cork, have triggered a revival of interest in his hot-blooded art.

If you’ve never heard of Gallagher before, consider that Jimmy Page branded him “a great player” and that Brian May said “I owe Rory Gallagher my sound.” Clapton called his fellow six-string poet “the man who got me back into the blues.”

Watching Gallagher live provides the best fix on his jet-fueled approach, which perfectly complimented his bare-knuckled singing. If you’re interested in sounding like him, here are some factors to consider.

Gallagher’s style rested on a huge foundation. As a youngster he was curious about all kinds of rock, folk and blues, from the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan to the Delta style of Son House to the Chicago soul of Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy to Little Richard’s wildman howl. He also delved into open tunings as well as standard-tuned acoustic and electric guitar. So all of that factored into his omnivorous technique.

Many guitarists spend their lives on the trail of a sonic Holy Grail, but Gallagher discovered his signature instrument and amplifier early on. His battered, finish-skinned ’61 Fender Stratocaster is instantly recognizable to gear heads, and he usually ran it through a single Vox AC-30. Gallagher experimented with other amps, including vintage Fenders, Marshalls and Ampegs, and even used a treble booster for a time, perhaps inspiring Brian May. But Gallagher’s signature sound was simply Stratocater-plus-Vox-plus-Rory.

Regarding his talent for splashing daring sounds into his solos with the flair of Jackson Pollock, Gallagher loved free jazz saxophone players, especially Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, although John Coltrane is another obvious inspiration. Gallagher’s gift for hammer-ons and his manner of repeating static phrases is likely the result of listening to modal sax players. He also used arpeggiated chords as anchor points in his free flying solos, and loved sounding the open E string over higher-voiced chords to create pulsing bass tones. Try playing a series of bar chords off the D string in standard tuning, throwing in E-string hits as you go, to get a handle on this manner of thickening and darkening chords.

And don’t be afraid to make noise. Gallagher loved reaching over the top of his Strat’s nut to push down on the strings for radical vibrato effects. He was also big on squealing artificial harmonics, which you can achieve by striking a non-vibrating string with a pick and index fingernail at the same time, and adding a bit of vibrato.

Finally, to catch Gallagher deploying a number of these techniques, watch this video of his solo acoustic version of Lead Belly’s “Out on the Western Plain” — and be humbled.

“Out On The Western Plain” – Rory Gallagher

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