How To Sound Like Rory Gallagher
I have wanted to sound like Rory Gallagher since I was 13 years old. I had only just started to play the guitar, when my parents bought me a CD called ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. It featured a collection of some of the most iconic guitar solos of all time and on it was ‘What’s Going On‘ by Taste.
When I first heard that song, I was blown away. It remains one of my favourite Rory Gallagher songs. It has a killer riff, a blistering and frenetic guitar solo, and an abundance of the pinch harmonics that are a signature part of Gallagher’s sound. I still think it is a song that showcases Gallagher’s playing at its best.
Gallagher combined his fiery technique with an equally fiery tone. It was a tone that famously inspired guitarists like Brian May and Slash. In fact, May took such inspiration from Gallagher that he used the same amp and the same pedal as the Irish bluesman.
Unlike some of the other guitarists that I have featured in this series, Gallagher played a range of different styles. First and foremost he was an electric blues and rock guitarist. But he was also a multi-instrumentalist. He played slide guitar, various acoustic guitars, a National Resonator and at times, also a mandolin, as well as a range of other instruments!
Whilst these different styles and instruments feature in Gallagher’s work, here I am going to focus on Rory Gallagher’s electric guitar tones. I will be looking at the gear he used to produce his fiery blues tones with Taste and then as a solo act. I will also look at his slide guitar set-up and how he crafted his beautiful slide tones.
Without further ado then, outlined here is everything you need to sound like Rory Gallagher:
The Fender Stratocaster
Rory Gallagher’s beaten up Fender Stratocaster is one of the most iconic guitars of all time. Almost completely stripped of its original sunburst finish, and with innumerable dents and knocks, the guitar is evidence of Gallagher’s intense gigging schedule over the years. The 1961 Strat was Gallagher’s main guitar throughout his career, and supposedly was the first Strat ever to be sold in Ireland.
Gallagher bought the guitar second hand in 1963. It was previously owned by an older Irish guitarist who was playing in a showband. The guitarist wanted a red Strat so that he could look like Hank Marvin. He ordered one from the US, but as guitars were then imported in such low numbers, a sunburst Strat arrived. He played it for a few months before trading it in for the red Strat.
Just a teenager, Gallagher bought the second hand guitar from a local music store for the then hefty price of £100. He paid it off in instalments with money from local gigs.
Most likely because of this early history, Gallagher’s Fender Strat always had immense sentimental value. As he so simply put it:
It was in good condition…but it’s got so battered now it’s got a kind of tattoo quality about it… I just like the sound of it. It’s also a good luck thing. It was stolen one time and it came back. It’s kind of a lucky charm.
Over the years, the guitar was subjected to immeasurable wear and tear, and is one of the most battered guitars from the period. Donal Gallagher – Rory’s brother and tour manager stated this was a result of Gallagher’s unusually acidic sweat, which acted ‘like paint stripper’. And indeed, towards the late 1970s, Gallagher had to temporarily swap the neck out on his guitar. It had become so heavy with moisture that it was causing tuning issues.
Innumerable further changes were made to the guitar, most often in response to something breaking. The pickups were changed and swapped in and out at various points, the neck was also changed and then changed back, and Gallagher altered the tuners.
None of these changes had a profound impact on his tone (more on this below), and so the good news is that you don’t need to make similar changes in your quest to sound like Rory Gallagher. Having said that, if you are interested in the unique history of this iconic instrument, I would highly recommend reading this article, which covers the topic in great depth.
Long story short, if you want to sound like Rory Gallagher, you need to get yourself a Fender Stratocaster. Like all early (pre-CBS) Fender Stratocasters – original 1961 Strats are now highly collectible instruments. As such, they tend to sell on sites like Reverb for prices starting around $31,000/£24,000.
Luckily, you don’t need an original to sound like Rory Gallagher, and there are great alternatives to suit every budget. In the lower price range, I would recommend starting with the Fender Squier range:
Beyond the Squier range, some of the cheaper Fender guitars are brilliant. Some of my top recommendations here are as follows:
After these guitars, there is a bit of a jump in price, as you get to the American made Fender guitars. But the good news is that in this price range, there are some brilliant options. Some of my top choices are as follows:
- Fender American Ultra Stratocaster
- American Original ’60s Stratocaster
- Fender American Pro Stratocaster
Finally, if you are looking to invest a little more, then you have the option to go for a Fender Custom Shop guitar. Here my top choices are as follows:
- Rory Gallagher Custom Shop Stratocaster
- Fender Custom Shop ’60s Limited Edition Stratocaster
- Custom Shop 1962 Heavy Relic Stratocaster
If you are a massive Rory Gallagher fan and you are looking to spend a bit more, then his Custom Shop Stratocaster would be an amazing choice. But combined with the right amp and pedals (more on this below), any of the guitars listed above will help you to recreate Gallagher’s fiery tones.
The Fender Telecaster
When it came to electric guitars, in addition to his Strat, Gallagher played a White 1966 Telecaster, as well as a 1958/59 Fender Esquire. The latter guitar he fitted with a neck pickup – essentially converting it to a Telecaster – and then always referred to the guitar as a Telecaster.
In fact, in this interview from 1987, Gallagher admitted that even though he was mainly Strat player, Telecasters were probably his favourite guitars!
So if you are a slide guitarist and want to sound like Rory Gallagher, then going for a Fender Telecaster is the obvious choice. It will help you to recreate the sharp and biting tone of Gallagher’s slide playing, especially in the earlier years of his career.
Luckily there are some amazing Telecasters out there that will help you to sound like Rory Gallagher. And in even better news, there are options here to suit every budget. In the lower price bracket, I would recommend opting for a Squier Telecaster:
In the middle price bracket, the Mexican made Fender Vintera or Player Telecasters are a brilliant option:
If you are looking to spend a bit more, then there are some amazing options in the American made Telecaster range:
Finally, if you are looking for a very special guitar and want to make an investment, then I would recommend going for a Fender Custom Shop:
- Fender Custom Shop ’60s Telecaster
- Custom Shop ’63 Heavy Relic Telecaster
- Fender Custom Shop ’61 Heavy Relic Telecaster
Regardless of which option you go for though, it is worth making some adjustments to the set-up of the guitar if you want to play slide. I’ve covered this in more detail below.
During his career, Rory Gallagher altered and adjusted his pickups in most of his guitars, a number of times. This was partly in response to his pickups breaking (in Gallagher’s Strat the bridge and neck pickups stopped working at one point because of the moisture from his sweat), and partly because Gallagher was looking for improved tones. This was certainly the case with his Telecasters and Esquires, as he pointed out in an interview in the late 1980s:
I turned against the rhythm pickup on Teles, years ago, and I put two Strat pickups in the middle and rhythm position
Yet although Gallagher made these alterations, I wouldn’t worry about replicating them. There are 2 reasons for this:
Firstly, the extent of the alterations that Gallagher made to his pickups still remains a little unclear. It is also unclear when the changes were made, and for how long. Secondly, with both his Strat and Tele, Gallagher always returned to use the original Fender stock pickups. So although he kept experimenting with other pickups, it seems that ultimately, he favoured Fender’s stock pickups.
As such, if you want to sound like Rory Gallagher, I would look at fitting your guitar with a set of vintage style pickups. And luckily there are some brilliant options here:
British pickup company Bare Knuckle Pickups have created the Irish Tour Pickups – a set of Strat pickups that emulate Gallagher’s tone on the Irish Tour ’74 album. In my opinion, Gallagher’s tone is at its very best on that album, and as such these pickups would be my first recommendation.
If you want to look for alternatives though, then Fender also offer some brilliant vintage pickups. Either their Custom Shop Fat ’60s Single Coils or Pure Vintage ’65 Strat Pickups would help you get closer to Gallagher’s fiery blues tones.
Finally, it could be worth considering some of the pickups from DiMarzio. Gallagher used a DiMarzio Fat Strat Pickup (FS-1) for a number of years, and although he stated that he went back to using Fender stock pickups, when his Strat was inspected in the early 2000s, it was concluded that the bridge pickup was in fact a DiMarzio Fat Strat.
This is a louder and more aggressive sounding pickup, so would be a great choice if you feel you are lacking some of the bite to help you sound like Rory Gallagher.
As with the Strat pickups, some pickup manufacturers have designed Telecaster pickups based on those in his 1966 Tele. The most notable manufacturer of these is Kent Armstrong. Armstrong has been manufacturing pickups since the 1970s and was actually the person that was asked to verify the pickups in Gallagher’s Start in the early 2000s.
As such, if you want to recreate Gallagher’s sharp and biting slide guitar tone, I would recommend going for a set of the Kent Armstrong Handwound 1966 Telecaster Pickups.
Over the course of his career – Rory Gallagher used a whole range of amps. These included amps from Vox, Fender and Marshall.
The amps with which he is best associated however, are the Vox AC30 and the Fender Bassman. Gallagher used the former in Taste and during his early solo career. It was the amp that he used on albums like On The Boards, Rory Gallagher and Deuce.
Around 1974, he then switched to using the Bassman, which he often paired up with a Fender Tweed Twin. This was the amp that he used during the concerts that were recorded for the Irish Tour ’74 album.
Although Gallagher did use Marshall amps during some points in the 1980s, he often combined these with the Vox AC30. And as he once stated in an interview:
For me it’s a battle between the Vox AC30 and the 4×10 Fender Bassman. The warmth of the Fenders and the character of the Voxes are pretty hard to beat
As such, if you want to sound like Rory Gallagher, I would recommend that you go for a Vox or Fender amp. And the choice here comes down to which of Gallagher’s various tones most appeals to you, as well as the type of blues tones that you are looking for more generally.
The Vox AC30 is the amp that immediately comes to mind when you think about Rory Gallagher’s tone.
It was the amp that he played from the early days of Taste, all the way through until the mid 1970s. It gave his tone the searing bite that he is famous for, and it features on all of his early recordings and live performances. You can hear it on tracks like ‘I Fall Apart‘, ‘Messin’ With The Kid‘ and ‘Crest Of A Wave‘.
In many ways, Vox amps are similar to Fenders, but they have a much more treble intensive sound. Their clean tones are bright and ‘glassy’ and when they are pushed, they break up into a sharp and biting distortion. So if you want to sound like Rory Gallagher in his early years and replicate those fiery tones, you should buy a Vox amp.
A Vox amp could also be a great choice if you are looking to recreate Gallagher’s slide tones. Gallagher combined his Telecaster with his AC30 to produce a beautiful, stinging tone. Just listen to songs like ‘Gambling Blues‘ from Taste’s performance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.
Unless you are gigging in large venues (or you don’t have to worry about disturbing your neighbours) I wouldn’t recommend buying an AC30. The AC30 is a large and powerful amp, and you have to crank it to get the most out of it.
Luckily, Vox have a number of smaller amps that will help you sound like Rory Gallagher at lower volumes. My top 2 choices here are as follows:
Beyond that, if you want to go for a more powerful amp, then the Vox AC15C1 would be a brilliant choice. This comes with built in tremolo and spring reverb, both of which are great effects to utilise in blues playing.
Later in his career – from around the mid 1970s onwards – Rory Gallagher started predominantly using Fender amps. Keyboardist Lou Martin joined his band, and Gallagher found that Fender amps better complimented the fuller sound of the new line up. Reportedly, Gallagher first used a Fender Tweed Twin which he played on both the Blueprint and Tattoo albums. This was the Fender amp that he used for a lot of his studio recording.
He then started using the Bassman, especially for his live performances. As mentioned earlier, he used the Bassman during the concerts that later appeared on the Irish Tour ’74 album.
Gallagher liked the Fender amps for their warmth. And at least to my ear, I do think that Gallagher’s tone has a fuller sound with the Fender amps. It still has that aggressive bite (more on how to achieve this below), but it just sounds a bit thicker.
As such, personally I would go for a Fender amp. Partly for this reason, but also because Fender amps are arguably more versatile. They have been used to great effect by both British and American blues guitarists. Conversely, Vox amps are very much associated with British blues tones. So if you are interested in playing other styles of blues as well as British blues, buying a Fender amp might be a better investment.
The amps that Gallagher used are 2 of the most iconic amps Fender ever made. Unfortunately they are also very large and very powerful. So I wouldn’t recommend them if you are predominantly playing at home or in small venues. Instead, I would recommend you go for one of these smaller Fender combos:
These are some of the best Fender amps that you can use at home. They will help you get those beautiful vintage blues tones, without disturbing the neighbours.
Over the course of his career, Rory Gallagher used and experimented with a whole range of different effects pedals. These included a chorus, flanger, octave, Boss EQ graphic pedal and various delay pedals.
As he himself stated in an interview with Kerrang magazine in 1982: ‘As far as other effects units are concerned, I go through phases of being for or against, you know?’
Having said that, it was in the 1980s and towards the end of his career that Gallagher started to experiment more with guitar pedals. In his earlier career and when – at least in my opinion – he was creating his best tones, he adopted a much more stripped back approach to effects. As such, there are only a small number of effects pedals you need to sound like Rory Gallagher. These are as follows:
Rory Gallagher is famous for using a treble booster pedal. Most notably, he used the Dallas Range Master Treble Booster, which he paired with his Vox AC30. He then later switched to use a Treble Hawk booster, which he paired with his Fender amps.
Both of these pedals added more treble and bite to Gallagher’s sound. They gave him the sharp and fiery tones for which he is famous.
The original Dallas Rangemaster that Gallagher used is no longer in production. You can pick them up second hand on sites like Reverb, but as they have now become collectible items, they will set you back around $2500/£1900.
Luckily, the British Pedal Company have built a detailed replica of the original. And at the very reasonable price of $250/£189, this would be a brilliant option.
Flynn Amps have also built a copy of the Treble Hawk Booster. The company worked with Gallagher’s amp tech, as well as his brother and manager Donal, to faithfully recreate the pedal that helped define Gallagher’s tone in his later years. At $225/£170, this would also be an amazing boost pedal to help you sound like Rory Gallagher.
Of all of the pedals listed here, the Treble Booster pedal is the most important. It is a vital addition to your rig if you want to recreate Gallagher’s fiery blues tones.
In addition to his trusty Treble Booster pedals, one of the only other effects that Gallagher described as ‘indispensable’, was delay. He used either an EHX Memory Man or a DOD 680 Analog Delay. The Memory Man is still available, so for authenticity, that would make a great choice. Although the original DOD 680 is no longer in production, DOD still produce the DOD Rubberneck Analog Delay. And that would also be a great choice.
Having said that, Gallagher only used the pedal to add a small amount of slapback delay to his sound. This is a technique that quite a lot of blues players use to just soften up their sound. It is very effective, but it does not require a pedal with a whole range of different tonal settings.
The final guitar pedal to consider if you want to sound like Rory Gallagher is tape echo. This was an effect that Gallagher described as essential for that ‘authentic Rock ‘n’ Roll sound’. He used the Watkins Copicat delay, which had previously been used by bands like the Shadows. The Copicat is no longer in production, but you can pick one up for prices starting around $400/£300 on Reverb. So if you are really interested in authenticity, that would be a great choice.
Alternatively, you could go for one of the various modern tape echo pedals on offer. There are a huge number of these pedals available, but some of the best out there include:
These pedals are quite pricey and I wouldn’t say they are essential to helping you sound like Rory Gallagher. But they are quite versatile pedals, as even when the echo is not engaged, they act as a boost pedal and will add thickness and warmth to your sound. This was actually how a lot of guitarists used the Maestro Echoplex Tape Delay in the 1960s and 70s. This includes Duane Allman, Jimmy Page and Gary Moore, amongst others.
Earlier in his career, Gallagher always played with a brass slide. This just added to the bite and aggression in his tone and produced a very sharp sounding slide tone.
Later in his career though, Gallagher followed in the footsteps of Duane Allman and switched to using a glass Coricidin medicine bottle for his slide when playing electric guitar. This produced a softer and less harsh sound. Gallagher stuck with his brass slide when playing his National Resonator or an acoustic guitar.
If you are looking to play slide, then the choice is up to you. Brass slides have more bite and aggression, whereas glass slides sound a bit smoother and softer.
If you want to go for a glass slide, then I would recommend the Derek Trucks Signature Slide. The original Coricidin bottles are no longer produced, but Trucks’ signature slide is made by Dunlop and is built to replicate Allman’s Coricidin bottle. It is the same weight and is closed at the top. It also has the same indent at the bottom of the slide where the lid for the medicine bottle would have originally been. So if you are interested in authenticity, that would be my top choice.
How To Choose The Right Slide
Regardless of whether you opt for a glass or brass slide, the key factor when looking for a slide is comfort. You need to ensure the slide fits properly and that it gives your chosen finger a bit of breathing room. If it’s too snug then you will have difficulty getting it off after playing (because your finger will expand when it warms up).
You should also pay attention to the weight. If you want to play fast licks and solos then you don’t want anything too heavy, as the slide will just slow you down. Conversely, you want something with enough weight to press down on the strings.
Try a few different slides out and experiment until you find the one that works for you.
When it came to his guitar strings, Rory Gallagher adopted a simple approach. Like many of his contemporary bluesmen – including Duane Allman, Eric Clapton and Roy Buchanan – Gallagher played a set of ‘Fender Rock N’ Roll 150 Strings’. For Gallagher his string gauge ran as follows – .010, .013, .015, .026, .032, .038.
This is essentially a mixed gauge set of strings, with medium gauge treble strings and light gauge bass strings.
There aren’t that many ready made string sets in this gauge, but Fender do offer a set of Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child strings in gauge .010-.038s. So if you are looking to replicate the gauge Gallagher used, those could be a great option.
Having said that, I don’t think you don’t need to use light bass strings to sound like Gallagher. As I wrote about in more detail here, light gauge strings help with playability, rather than tone. Light guitar strings are not a key element of Gallagher’s sound. So if you are already happy with your strings, I don’t think you should feel obliged to use the same gauge.
In fact, in this case I would argue that the material from which the strings are made is more important. The Fender 150 Strings that Gallagher used were pure nickel. And strings made from pure nickel typically have a warmer, more vintage tone. The Hendrix Voodoo Child strings are not pure nickel. But Fender do offer a new version of the 150s (in .010-.046 gauge) that are made of pure nickel. So a set like that – or a set of Ernie Ball Classic Pure Nickel Strings (.010-.046) would also work well.
Slide Guitar Set-Up
Like most guitarists, Gallagher adjusted the set-up on his Telecaster to be more suited for slide playing.
The main change he made was to set his Telecaster up with heavier strings. He used a custom gauge of his own creation, which ran as follows: .013, .015, .018, .026, .032, .038. So he was using heavy gauge strings on his treble strings, but sticking with the lighter gauge on his lower strings. And for slide guitar playing, the gauges that Gallagher was using on his lower strings was really quite light.
How you set your guitar up for slide really depends on whether you have a guitar that you are just going to use for slide. If that is the case, then I would recommend taking a similar approach to Gallagher. You should raise your action and use thick guitar strings. The only difference is that I would also recommend using heavy gauge strings on your bass strings.
This will make it easier to play slide, especially when you are starting out. You can apply more pressure to your strings, which will allow you to play with a heavier and less precise touch, and still sound amazing.
Conversely, if you have a guitar that you want to use for both slide and regular playing, then I would advocate a more conservative approach. Raise your action to the lowest position you can, whilst still being able to play slide guitar. Then try playing without the slide and see how you get on. Do the same thing with your strings. Use the lightest gauge of string that you can whilst still being able to play slide.
Keep experimenting with both your action and the gauge of your strings. Adjust your set-up until you find the sweet spot where you can play slide, without making it too challenging to play your guitar when you take the slide off.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it – everything you need to sound like Rory Gallagher. I appreciate that there is a lot of information included here. But if you actually look at it, you will see that Rory Gallagher took a simple approach to tone.
He focused on a few key components and manipulated them to create a sharp and fiery tone. And he combined that with an intense passion and dedication for the blues.
Do the same, and follow the advice outlined here, and you will be well on your way to sounding like one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time.
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Feature Image – Heinrich Klaffs (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License)
Image of Rory Gallagher with Telecaster – Heinrich Klaffs (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License)
Images of Guitar Gear – Star’s Music