passionately expounding on how the various tonal properties were achieved by the
different woods and bracing techniques. He
wasn’t trying to boast, or sell Gallagher to
me—he was just a guy who loves building
guitars and likes to get them in a player’s
hands. He watched my reaction and waited
for the feedback. It actually appeared as
though my comments were important to his
work. In fact, each craftsman I met was in
a good mood and jovial, but quite serious
about what they were doing.
When I asked Tom how he liked working at
“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.
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
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
This form and bracing sample, gluing jig and side bender were all hand-built by J. W., who built cabinets and models before turning to guitars.
Gallagher he said, “It’s like family. I can’t Shelbyville, knew of J. W.’s woodworking
think of a better place to work. I love mak- expertise. A connection was made, a deal
ing Gallaghers.” was done and the Shelby student guitar line
“Aww, c’mon,” I said with a grin. “You’re
towing the company line.”
Tom said, “Look, I don’t play a Gallagher
because I can get one for cheap. It’s
because this stuff is the real deal. We’re
making great stuff.”
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
History With An Eye to the Future
When my tour was finished, I got a chance to
talk with Don. All serious bluegrassers know
about Don Gallagher and Gallagher Guitars.
Flatpicking legend Doc Watson has been
playing a Gallagher since the seventies. Doc’s
first Gallagher, nicknamed “Ol’ Hoss,” hung in
the Country Music Hall of Fame for decades.
When I told him how impressed I was that
many of the machines his dad designed and
built that were used to make “Ol’ Hoss” are
still in use today, Don beamed.
“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.”