Acoustic Music, Bluegrass Music, Family
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In praise of Gallagher Guitars

Gallagher Guitars have been in my consciousness – if not my life – since first putting the landmark Will the Circle Be Unbroken album on the turntable in 1972 and hearing the most famous words ever uttered about a Gallagher:

Merle Travis:  That guitar, by the way, rings like a bell.

Doc Watson:  It’s a pretty good little box — a Mr. Gallagher down in Wartrace, Tennessee made it.

So I was thrilled to open the most recent issue of The Fretboard Journal and see a story and photo essay on Gallagher Guitars.  Regular readers know that I eagerly await the sight of The Fretboard Journal in my mailbox.

The Circle album gave me the flat-picking/bluegrass bug, and I began thinking about a new guitar.  The first Gallagher I played for any length of time belonged to my long-time friend and clawhammer banjo player John Balch, who still plays his 1975 G-50 on a regular basis.  It was a beautiful sounding guitar which whetted my appetite for one of my own.  The first picture below is from about 1976 where I’m on John’s Gallagher while he plays banjo during a parking-lot picking session at the Athens Fiddler Contest in Alabama.

Two years later (Gallagher makes less than 100 guitars each year) I had my own G-50 – serial number 954 and the guitar pictured at the top of the post.  I’ve loved that guitar’s tone since I opened the case, and still do 35 years later.  The G-50 got its name because J.W. Gallagher made the first one when he was 50 years old.  Just for fun, I pulled the original invoice, dated November 21, 1977. G-50 #954 cost me $540!  The hard shell case was another $100.  Throw in the tax and I took home this beauty for $676.30.  Today’s retail for a G-50: $3,199.

A few years later my brother Joe bought a Doc Watson model Gallagher, to keep the tradition in the family.  You’ll see a couple of photos below of the Gallaghers going through their paces during family music sessions.

I thought I knew a great deal about Gallagher Guitars, having written an article on J.W. and Don Gallagher for The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin in 1978 that was included in the 2009  UT Press edition of A Tennessee Folklore Sampler. But as usual, The Fretboard Journal included new tidbits for guitar lovers, with more information about J.W.’s early work designing and building Shelby guitars for Slingerland, a great picture of the template for the bracing pattern, and the fact that the old-English “G” in the distinctive headstock came from the G in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette newspaper logo.

Through the years I’ve added to my instrument collection, with special additions of a 1921 Gibson A-4 mandolin and a beautiful 2001 Running Dog parlor guitar picked up during the college visitation tour with my twins.  But there’s a special place in my heart for my first real guitar:  that work-horse G-50.

So enjoy the photos of the Gallagher Guitars below, and then you can hear my brother Joe’s Doc Watson model on the video we recorded during the National Preservation Conference in Nashville back in 2009.

More to come…


UPDATE: Since this post was written, Gallagher Guitars changed ownership. The company relocated to my hometown of Murfreesboro. The story of the transfer is told on the new website and in the excerpt below:

J.W. retired in 1976 and Don assumed the responsibility of operating the shop. Don was instrumental in developing the longevity of the business and in bringing traditional guitar making into the 21st century. In 2015, Don’s son, Stephen, became the owner of the storied brand.

David Mathis lived in nearby Murfreesboro:  “I learned my first guitar chords on a Gallagher from a man who had a 1967 Gallagher G-50.  When I heard the company had closed its doors, I started thinking about what could be done to keep it going.”   David Mathis approached Stephen and this eventually led to acquiring Gallagher Guitar Co. with the support of Don and Stephen by the end of September 2019.  The transfer of assets includes all the original Gallagher patterns, molds, and machines. In short, these are the same tools responsible for the finest acoustic guitars made over the last 55 years. On top of that, they are still in use today. In fact, some of the jigs and equipment pieces still used today were originally made by J.W. Gallagher.


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