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more... GearBuilder ProfileDecember 2008Gallagher

Bluegrass Authenticity: Gallagher Guitars


“My dad was a mechanical wizard,” he said.

I learned that long before J.W. started building guitars, he was a cabinetmaker, model builder for the aerospace industry, carpenter and auto restorer among other things. The first official Gallagher production model was made when J.W. turned 50—hence the model name G50.

Bluegrass Authenticity
Stephen and Don keep it in the family
J.W. started making guitars in the late-fifties under contract with the Slingerland drum company. The manager of Slingerland’s stick and head plant located in nearby Shelbyville, knew of J.W.’s woodworking expertise. A connection was made, a deal was done and the Shelby student guitar line was born.

While the line was successful, these inexpensive, beginner guitars ran counter to J.W.’s instincts as a craftsman. So in 1965, J.W. and his son Don opened up Gallagher Guitars in Wartrace.

“Our approach was from a woodworking perspective. We weren’t musicians, so we really listened to the players’ feedback,” said Don. “Back then, we were working in a vacuum. There weren’t a bunch of small shops back then like there are today. Musicians and luthiers all shared information. We had a wonderful relationship with Mike Longworth [longtime Martin Guitars craftsman and historian].”

But when push came to shove, it was the musicians who provided the Gallaghers with the information they needed to make a truly useful instrument.

Bluegrass Authenticity
Craftsman Tom Fuss carefully works on a guitar’s frets. He says that working for Gallagher is, “Like a family.”
“Traditionally, acoustic guitars were used as a rhythm instrument. But in the sixties, guitarists were transposing fiddle tunes and playing more melodically, which necessitated a guitar that was more playable,” said Don. “They also wanted a balanced sound so that the musician could put the emphasis where they wanted it; they wanted good character, projection and note distinction. Sam McGhee, Doc Watson and some of the local people were the early [players] who gave us focus and direction in trying to achieve a sound, and a basic playability.”

The Gallaghers constantly use musician feedback to make refinements to every part of the process.

“Rather than buying a guitar, hacking it up, and copying it, we always build on what we have done in the past,” said Don. “We are constantly trying to perfect what we do.”

I noticed some things set Gallagher apart from other guitar building companies, one being the amazing way they document the history of each guitar.

“(My dad) started a ledger of every guitar we’ve sold since 1965—the year we went into business full-time,” said Don. “The model number, the serial number, who bought the guitar, where they lived when they bought it, when it was purchased, when and why it comes back in for repair or modification… it all gets recorded. If we are made aware of an ownership change, we put that down too. Some guitars have an amazing history. It also helps us track our progress and see trends.”

Bluegrass Authenticity
Like the rest of the Gallagher shop, the storeroom is neither flashy nor pretentious.
Throughout the tour and during my chat with Don, another difference became apparent. The phrase “heirloom guitar” was used often. It seems their focus is to build guitars that last from generation to generation. This runs against the grain of some of today’s boutique builders.

In today’s high-end acoustic business, there is a trend of building a guitar that sounds great off the line. Keep the break-in period as short as possible, or eliminate it completely. Ultra thin everything, and a resonance-at-all-costs focus, makes for a guitar that dominates on the sales floor. But the downside is that a guitar built this way needs consistent atmospheric stasis in order to survive decades, much less generations. It’s also quite a contrast to the legendary early and mid-century Martins, Guilds and Gibsons that often took as much as a year of frequent playing to break in. These vintage guitars’ blossom is legendary. This bit of history is not lost in the Gallagher process.

“We use what I call an eggshell effect,” said Don. “A flat surface is not nearly as strong as a radius. Our radius makes (our guitars) structurally stronger. We don’t thin our tops and backs down as much as some because we hope you will pass the guitar down from generation to generation. We are building guitars for folks who I helped build guitars for their grandfathers in the sixties!”

For example, in 1968, Gallagher delivered the last guitar built that year to Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw star Grandpa Jones on Christmas Eve as a present from his wife. His great nephew Philip Steinmetz still plays and performs with that same little GC70!

Bluegrass Authenticity The Future
Sitting in the middle of a serious porch pickin’ culture, you’d better make a bluegrass guitar that has an eye to tradition. It is no secret in the acoustic community that Gallagher makes dreadnoughts that evolve into cannons, but they are much more than that these days. Gayla Drake Paul plays a GA70 grand auditorium that has caught on among fingerstylists. The GC short scale is a grand concert size instrument with a short scale (24.75) and a body that attaches at the 12th fret. I also noticed quite a few guitars floating around the shop that aren’t in the Gallagher catalog.

When asked about the future, Stephen elaborated.

“I see us with the same production numbers, maybe a little more, but with a definite emphasis on the personal relationship with everybody who buys the guitars,” said Stephen. “We’re building more one-of-a-kind guitars for customers that fit their specific needs. In ten years, that will be a bigger part of what we do along with the standard models. We achieve success not by producing more guitars necessarily, but by continually striving to build a better guitar.”

It has been said that excellence is the gradual result of constantly striving to get better. Most builders have dreams of giant factories with their name on the front that represents a powerful brand. But not the Gallaghers. From J.W. to Don and now to Stephen, it seems that their primary focus is to improve their craft, one guitar after another, with a foot in tradition and an eye for the future

Gallager Guitar Company
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