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From the pages of Flatpicking Guitar
Volume 1, Number 2 January/ February 1997

Okay, raise your hands. How many of you are flatpickers because of Doc Watson? Bunch of you, I bet. And how many of you know about Gallagher guitars because Doc plays one?

It's all right to 'fess up, because some of the greatest flatpickers at work today will answer the same ways.

Yet in many respects Don Gallagher, the "& Son" of J.W. Gallagher & Son, Wartrace, Tenn., is a mystery man and his guitars a well kept secret.

After 30-plus years of turning out some of the finest instruments in the world, the secrets are about to be told.

The first secret is that Don Gallagher is very much alive and well and still turning out great guitars. He is, characteristically, modest yet proud of his instruments.

"we're building potential," he says. "But the realization is whose hands it falls into. There's no substitute for playing."

Despite carrying a low profile for many years, Don Gallagher and his instruments are finally winning the recognition they have deserved virtually from the first guitar in 1965.

How did you and your dad get started making guitars?

My father started making furniture in 1939. In the '50s he worked at the Arnold Engineering and Development Center at Tullahoma, Tenn., making scale models for the wind tunnel down there. 

Early in the '60s we were building a building outback behind the shop here in Wartrace for a dry kiln - he was still making furniture on the side - and we were poring concrete for a slab roof. A scaffold broke and my father broke his ankle and had to quit his job at the AEDC.

He got into guitars because of the folk music boom of the early '60s and the demand for guitars it created.

The Slingerland Drum Company had a plant in Shelbyville (about 10 miles from Wartrace) where they manufactured drum sticks and drum heads. The company had some extra capacity in the plant so decided they wanted to use it to make guitars. The plant manager was an expert in machine operations, but didn't have any experience in woodworking. He knew my father from the car club and knew he was into woodworking, so he came over here and talked to my father about setting up a production line. That was in the spring of 1963.

So his first guitar's weren't Gallaghers?

No, they were Shelby's. After he got the line set up, my first job was to apply the lacquer finish and teach the guys on the line how to do it. We've got a Shelby I made while I was working over there in the summer before my junior year in high school on display here in the shop.

There's something vaguely familiar about that guitar.

You're talking about the headstock. The first Shelby headstocks had the French curve at the top that's become our trademark. My grandmother had a paisley dress and she came in here one day wearing it. There was a design in that dress that inspired the headstock. We were playing around with different ideas. We were looking for something distinctive, easily recognizable, yet conservative and tasteful. 

The Shelby's were a plywood guitar aiming at a student market. That ran against my father's grain. He was used to making fine furniture and those guitars offended his sensibilities.

So when and how did the first Gallagher guitar happen?

He came back over here in the spring of 1965 and built No. 1, the first G-50. The "G" is for "Gallagher" and "50" because my dad was 50 when we built it.

The interesting thing, though, is we were approaching it from a woodworking standpoint. We had no more idea about Martin's or Gibson's or anything. For example in the first year or so, we made about a half-dozen D-17s with the Shelby body and the G-50 neck. The "D" was for "Don" and the 17 because I was 17 when we made the first ones. We stopped making the D-17 when we found out Martin had a model D-18.

But a Martin catalog figured in a feature which is distinctive to Gallagher.

I wasn't really happy with the pick guard on the original G-50. In fact when I took it off to college, I took the pickguard off of it. I heard about that. But we were sitting at the table one morning and I had a Martin catalog. I sketched an alternative shape on a picture in the book and my dad liked it. We're still using the shape and we've still got that catalog in the archives.

How do those early Gallagher's compare with what you're producing now?

From 1965 to 1970 there were quite a few changes, particularly in bracing patterns. Those guitars are distinctively different. From then to now there has been a constant progression.

What was Doc Watson's first Gallagher, the one he called "Ole Hoss" and played on the "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" album?

That guitar is a G-50 we finished in the spring of 1968. It was the first guitar we started in 1968 and it has the serial number 68001. I was making the bodies then. We took it over to a fiddlers' convention at Union Grove, N.C. around Easter. Daddy said we weren't going to sell it. I'd cracked the side and Daddy fixed it.

Doc and Merle were playing under a tree. Dad introduced himself to Merle. We stopped at their home on the way out of town and Dad took out the guitar to show Doc. We had several guitars, including a rosewood G-70, but Doc said he liked the sound of the mahogany guitar. He made a comment that it had a real ivory nut. He could tell by how smooth it sounded.

Dad mentioned the crack to Doc. "Shucks, son," he said. "I can't see it anyhow." Dad told Doc he could use it with no strings attached except the ones on the guitar. He just asked Doc to return it if he ever decided not to play it anymore.

So how did the Gallagher Doc Watson model happen?

In 1974 Doc contacted us to build a new guitar. Merle brought a Les Paul Gibson , an electric, over for us to look at. Doc liked the neck 1 3/4 inches wide instead of the 1 11/16 inches on the G-50. You can feel the difference, much more than you can see it. We made him a new guitar. We stayed with Honduras mahogany and dressed it up a little. (In the mid-70s we started changing to African mahogany. It's a little harder wood with better projection and real character in the grain.)

When we finished the new guitar, he sent the old G-50 to the shop. Diane Johnson, who was with the Country Music Hall of Fame then saw the guitar and said it was something they needed for their collection. My father said it was fine with him if it was all right with Doc. Doc said he guessed it was okay, but it was a waste of a mighty fine guitar.

Let's go back to some of those differences. What about sound?

Back in '65 to '70 we were playing around a lot with bracing. We made a lot of changes in the tops, but we've mad changes to the tops in the last years. Another difference is in the back. It's slightly arched which means the sound projects better back toward the top. That's something we've become more sensitive to in recent years.

I love angles and I'm always looking at how angles affect the sound. Within the last year I have become more sensitive to the angle of the strings breaking over the saddle. After the body is together fitting the neck is crucial. That's the beginning of the action. The neck angle and the angle of the strings on the saddle can have a profound affect on sound.

Years ago I noticed a little bow back in the neck to pull the strings off the sound board sounded better. Now we set the neck angle and the height of the bridge so when we put the saddle in there will be a sharp angle. What we're trying to do utilize the pull of the strings for maximum effect.

What about wood? I have one of those early Gallaghers and it took 10 years to get the sound some of these guitars coming out of the shop today already have.

The wood in a 1968 Gallagher might have been six months old. One of the advantages of surviving 30 years is building an inventory of wood. That building I mentioned earlier - the one my father broke his ankle building? - that's where we store our wood and age it. Some of the wood in there is more than 10-years-old. We buy from several mills, one in Germany, one in Oregon and one down in Louisiana. I try to stay backlogged for several years. I also try to take advantage of good buying situations. For instance I bought rosewood in the '80s when Gibson closed the Kalamazoo plant. Good wood at reasonable prices help us keep our prices reasonable.

You talked about the woodworking aspect earlier.

Building a guitar is still basically a woodworking project. All the fancy inlays are nice, but in our progression woodworking comes first, then the sound. The last thing in the progression is embellishments.

Has the sound changed over 30-plus years?

In terms of sound, the guitars have evolved because of what people came to us wanting. The sound has been adjusted through the input of people like Doc and other musicians and our own ear.

Even with those changes, though, our guitars have a distinctive characteristic sound and that's not an accident. Historically the guitar was a rhythm instrument with a booming bass to back up a fiddle. In the mid-'60s the steel string acoustic was just beginning to come into its own which brought a different demand - balance across the ranges. From the beginning our guitar was built to accommodate what has become flatpicking.

One reason our mahogany guitar has always been so popular is because of its clear note definition. Rosewood has a bassier sound.

I wonder what some of these guitars are going to sound like in 20 years. I know the new ones are better now than the 1968 model was in 1968.

Would your dad recognize today's product?

I'd have to explain a lot. There's the guitar. Then there are the nuances. That's where the real changes have come. The shop itself is virtually the same as when he died in 1979. He set a goal in 1965 to do it for 10 years. In 1975 when we were within the 800s in serial numbers, he pretty much was no longer active on a day-to-day basis. He really retired when we did No. 1,000 sometime in 1976.

Something he would recognize is the way we build the guitars. The structure we've always had is a "small shop" concept, three or four people working on the instruments with one person overseeing the operation. Most of the guitars in the 1960s I made the bodies, Robert Reed made the necks and my dad did the finish work and supervised.

You built #1000 in 1976. Where does output stand 20 years later?

We're getting close to #2400. We've worked on a low profile with minimal advertising. Our focus has been to make guitars on a limited basis geared to the individual. We've relied on one guitar selling another. On one hand we're not as well known as some of the other manufacturers, but in certain circles, we're very well known. We get inquiries from all over the world and ship guitars all over the world. One day last week, we sent out four guitars, one to Japan, one to Germany, one to Ohio and another to Oklahoma.

What about plans for the future?

Wartrace is really a laid back place, but even so, we have some really neat things coming up.

Last summer we did the prototype for a new guitar body we're calling the Grand Auditorium. I'm really excited about it because I've incorporated some of those neck angle theories we talked about earlier. We showed it at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society and it really got people excited. The prototype was built using some walnut I found up in the attic that dad squirreled away probably 40 years ago.

Steve Kaufman and I have been working together for the last year to develop what we hope will be the "Steve Kaufman" signature model. We're still working out the details on this one, but I'm hoping to have a prototype to take to the winter NAMM show in January.

The reasons we're doing the NAMM show is part of a new marketing strategy we adopted last spring. We're adding a very select number of dealers. We'll still be working direct on custom orders, but we all know a lot of guitars find new homes because someone likes the sound when they play it in a music store. We're targeting areas where we haven't had a strong direct presence.

Does this mean the famous Gallagher attention to individuals is history?

Not at all. We just want to enlarge the family. I've had a lot of people who play our guitars tell me there's kind of a brotherhood of Gallagher players. I hope so. Last year for the 30th anniversary we had a birthday party in Wartrace which Doc headlined. We had an open house at the shop and then during the concert, we took a birthday picture with Doc and myself and all the Gallagher owners together. It was great.

We're doing the birthday party again in May of 1997 but it will be a two day affair this time. Doc will headline Saturday and Claire Lynch and the Front Porch String Band are headlining Friday. Claire plays a Gallagher. All the guitar players on the show, from Steve Kaufman and Chris Jones, to the people who'll get a chance to perform during our open mike segment will be playing Gallaghers.

The last thing I'll mention is our newsletter. We got the first one in the mail just before we went to Winnfield in September and we expect to have a second one ready by the end of the year. We're trying to get it out to everyone who plays a Gallagher, whether you bought it new or used, from us or from a shop. If you're a Gallagher owner or enthusiast and didn't get the first one, drop us a line in Wartrace with your address.

Gallagher Guitar • P.O. Box 128 Wartrace, TN 37183 • Phone/Fax: 931-389-6455 • Email: Gallagher Guitars
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