Rory Gallagher’s 1961 Fender Stratocaster
Rory bought this guitar (Serial Number 64351) for £100 in 1963 on credit from the owner of Crowley’s Music Store in Cork, Michael Crowley. Over the years, the Strat would become Rory’s main guitar and the one he would most often be associated with.
The story of how Rory came to own his 1961 Fender Stratocaster is somewhat interesting in itself. The guitar’s previous owner was Jim Conlon, who is known for being the founder and the guitarist of an Irish band called ‘Royal Showband’. Jim allegedly ordered a red Stratocaster from the US but this sunburst came instead, so he had to use the guitar for around half a year until the red one would arrive. After the red Strat finally got to Ireland, the sunburst was put on sale at Michael Crowley’s store, who eventually met Rory and agreed to sell the guitar to him in installments.
It’s a 1961 Fender Stratocaster which I bought secondhand in 1963. The previous owner was a guy in a showband. He originally ordered a red one so he could look just like Hank Marvin in The Shadows. But in those days Fenders only came into the country in ones and twos so he had to make do with a sunburst instead. I was still at school when I saw it in a shop window for £100 with an old brown case thrown in. So I saved up enough to pay the deposit and I bought it on HP. [The Story of Rory, Chas De Whalley talks to blues stalwart Rory Gallagher]
Jim wanted to change the colour to match the band’s uniforms, he wanted a salmon-coloured one like Hank Marvin but he traded it in because it used to take between three and six months for a guitar to be imported from America. So the Strat wound up being sold as a second hand instrument for £100. [Donal Gallagher, The Day Rory Gallagher Bought His Fender Strat]
There’s also the story that Rory’s Stratocaster was the first Strat to ever be brought into Ireland. Although interesting to consider, we haven’t really been able to find any conclusive proof of this. As always, if you happen to know more, be sure to leave a comment below.
Rory’s Stratocaster was modified extensively over the years. In an attempt to make a comprehensive and intelligible list of all the changes, we’ll deal with each mod separately, and try to follow a chronological line of approach where possible.
Pickups in Rory’s Strat
Rory’s Strat, of course, was shipped from the factory with three single-coil pickups. On average, a pickup that came from Fender factory in 1961 measured 6.19 kOhms. Fender used a .0029″ diameter wire, and hand-wound the magnets for a total of 8119 turns (again, on average). This is all based on Seymour Duncan’s extensive research (available at Vintage Fender Guitar Pickup Spec Info) and should serve as something to aim at if you’re in the market for a vintage sounding pickup.
These original pickups remained in Rory’s Stratocaster until early to mid-1970s. Around that time, two of the pickups were damaged due to moisture, while the third one, the one in the middle position, remained functional.
I sweat a lot when I play and over the years the body’s absorbed a lot of moisture. I’ve often thought that it’s come to the end of its life. Recently two pick ups packed up together, they just cut out when I was playing. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get new pick-ups to sound the same, but fortunately they matched perfectly. [International Musician and Recording World, April 1975]
Changes over the years would include the pick-ups — the treble and bass pick-ups blew within a week of each other, so the middle pick-up is the only original one. [The Guitar Collectors No.1, Rory Gallagher by Eamonn Percival, April 1977]
In the interviews Rory, unfortunately, does not mention which particular model of pickups he ended up replacing the originals with. He did, however, most likely use stock Fender pickups from around that time period.
Interesting to note here is that from around 1975, the plastic cover on the bridge pickup seemed to have been brand new – while the other two were already yellow-ish and aged, the bridge pickup cover was clear white. So for one reason or another, the neck pickup didn’t get a new cover while the bridge pickup did – even though they both died at the same time.
The pickups remained in this configuration (at least based on photographic evidence; they could’ve been changed/rewound, but we wouldn’t know about it) until around July 1982. At that time, the bridge pickup was again changed, but this time it styled a black plastic cover. The photo below, showing the new bridge pickup, was taken at the Hot Press Music Festival at Punchestown Racecourse, Kildare, on July 18, 1982. The same configuration can also be seen on the footage from the Rockpalast gig, filmed at Loreley, Germany, on August 28, 1982.
This new pickup could’ve been the same one that was fitted on the Fender Lead Series guitars from 1979 to 1981. This is mostly based on a quote from Rory – where he stated that he installed a Fender Hot X100 in the bridge at some point, but since there’s no such thing as a “Hot X100”, it is likely that he was referring to the Fender Lead II X1 pickup – and from the fact that these pickups were most often shipped with black plastic covers.
With the Strat, I changed the lead pick-up for one of Fender’s hot x100 jobs, and I’ve tried the Fat Strat (refering to DiMarzio FS-1) pick-up as well, but I always come back to the original. [February 1985 issue of Guitarist Magazine]
However, it is also possible that this black pickup was taken directly from Rory’s 1979 Anniversary Stratocaster, which did indeed have black pickup covers. It is of course also possible that the black pickup was something completely different.
From this point on, the saga about the pickups becomes even more based on pure guesswork. The black bridge pickup was gone by 1984 (see footage at Ulster Hall Belfast, on January 4, 1984), and this means that either only the cover was changed, or that the old pickup altogether was gone and replaced with a different one. Furthermore, over the years, Rory would continually state that he has done numerous changes to the pickups, but not until years late would we get a glimpse of the actual pickups inside Rory’s Stratocaster.
The pickups have all been rewound or replaced you can’t expect them to go on forever, but they try! [Rory Gallagher’s Stratocaster – Vintage Classic]
Sometime in the early to mid-2000s, Kent Armstrong was contacted by Rory’s brother Donal and nephew Daniel about recreating the pickups in Rory’s 1961 Fender Stratocaster. Kent opened the guitar, inspected the pickups, and concluded that two of them were stock Fenders, and the third was a Fat Strat pickup from DiMarzio.
His most famous 1961 Strat had two mid-70s Fender pickups in it and an early DiMarzio FS1 in the bridge. [ToneQuest Report July-August 2013 p.24]
However, one thing that is important to mention, the pickup in the bridge could possibly be a Fender X-1 (thanks Ingemar). Rory did state in the past that he preferred it over the FS-1 (see the quote a few paragraphs above), and if you look at that pickup, you’ll notice a yellow wire soldiered to it. To our knowledge, DiMarzio FS-1 pickups had no yellow wires, even the early models, while Fender’s X-1 did indeed have one.
The other explanation could be that the person who installed the pickup simply snapped the original wires, and soldered new ones onto it, one of which was incidentally yellow. This does seem more likely because originally, the wires would be soldered on top of the bobbin and then pushed through the hole to the bottom, while on Rory’s Strat, they were soldered directly on the bottom. Also, both the neck and the middle pickup have wires that are not original to them.
Another clue pointing towards this being DiMarzio FS-1 as opposed to Fender X-1 is that the pickup on Rory’s Strat had staggered poles, while at least to our knowledge, X-1s that were fitted on Lead II models had flat poles.
The reason for pointing all this out is that if this is indeed correct, it would mean that even though Rory stated that he tried the FS-1, but ended up going back to a Fender pickup – sometime between 1985 and 1996, he changed his mind about the DiMarzio FS-1, and about using Fender factory pickups exclusively.
Moving on from that, and regarding the neck and the middle pickups – the dates that Kent gave upon inspection do match the time period when the original pickups went bad, so it is possible that the middle and neck pickups are the same ones he had ever since the original went bad, circa 1975. It is of course also possible that the pickups were changed several times, and it has been said by Rory that they’ve all been re-wound, so even if they are the original Fender, their sound has been somewhat altered.
The neck pickup specifically, seems to have a plastic bobbin, with protruding screw holes. To our knowledge, these were fitted on the 70s Reissue Strats – on both the American Vintage and the Classic Series models made in Mexico. If you happen to know anything more about these, please be sure to leave a comment below.
About the middle pickup – it is interesting that even though the original 1961 middle pickup was fully functional in the 70s when Rory replaced the two that failed, he did eventually get rid of that one too. The reason could be the same as with the others (pickup going bad at some point), or Rory simply wanted to experiment with the sound. The pickup that is seen on the photograph of Rory’s Strat linked a few paragraphs above appears to be a standard grey-bottom 70s Fender single-coil.
The Neck on Rory’s Strat
Next thing on the list of changes to Rory’s Strat is the neck. Sometime in the mid to late 70s, due to the amount of moisture and sweat it absorbed during gigs, the original neck was taken off and hanged to be dried out. During this period Rory used a replacement neck but felt glad to go back to the original after it spent a number of months hanging in a warm and dry room.
After a while, the original neck went bad on me. That was about ten years ago, but I took it off and hung it up. After a few months, it dried out and was fine again. [Rory Gallagher’s Stratocaster, Vintage Classic, July 1984]
Based on photos, this likely happened sometime in late 1979 and lasted for much longer than Rory told in the interview. The original neck with narrow dot spacing on the 12th fret and slab rosewood fretboard was seen on the guitar all the way until circa December 1979, when a brand new looking neck with a veneer fretboard was installed on the guitar (see photo Rory Gallagher performing at the Park West in Chicago, Illinois, December 12, 1979)
If you’re curious as to what differentiates a slab fretboard from a veneer one – if you look at the top of the neck where the rosewood fretboard meets the headstock, on slab fretboards this ending is convex (or flat – depending from which angle you look), while on the veneer fretboards it’s concave. The reason for this is that the veneer fretboard is much thinner in profile, and while the slab fretboards were glued onto a flat piece of maple that is the neck itself, veneer ones were glued onto a piece of maple that was already shaped to a curve.
The neck with the veneer fretboard was seen on the guitar as late as August 1982, which was only two years prior to the interview in which Rory stated that the original neck was then back on the guitar, after being dried out. This brings some confusion into the subject, as Rory would likely remember that this happened recently, and not a decade before as he stated at the time of the interview.
This could mean a few things – either Rory is correct, and the original neck came off for a few months sometime in the 70s. However, if this is the case then one can’t help but wonder why Rory mentioned a neck replacement that happened a decade ago but didn’t mention one that happened just two years prior to the interview (to remind you, he talked about replacing neck in an interview with Guitarist magazine dated to July 1984).
The second theory is that Rory missed the dates and that the actual neck replacement took place in 1979, and lasted until 1982 when the original neck was put back on. Problem with this theory is that it requires quite a lot of leeway. After all, Rory said the neck was taken off a decade ago, and that it laster for just a few months.
The third theory is that the original neck came off on more than just one occasion between the early to mid-70s and until around 1982. This theory also goes along with what Rory himself stated in later interviews, as well as what other people have gathered from him indirectly.
I’ve had to take the neck off occasionally and dry it out – it was getting damp with doing so many gigs and I started to have tuning problems. [February 1985 issue of Guitarist]
Between gigs, Rory would frequently change the neck on his Strat because the bare wood became impregnated with perspiration, often remaining damp for days. [Rory Gallagher, Guitarist magazine, August 1995 by Bob Hewitt]
Although this third theory is perhaps the most likely, we have no way of confirming it with photographic evidence, and according to Rory’s nephew Daniel, the family is only aware of one spare neck, which Rory got from Fender in the late 70s, and which Rory’s brother Donal gave to a fan in the States. Based on this knowledge, the second version of the story is the most likely to be the correct one.
As a note – if you happen to come across any photos of Rory using a replacement neck before 1979, and after 1982, please be sure to leave a comment below.
Changes Done to the Original Neck
Rory stated that he had done some work on the original 1961 neck, including changing the nut, frets, tuners, and from the photos we can see that he added another string tree to the headstock (a stock 1961 Stratocaster would only have the lower string tree – see photo below)
Regarding the frets, Rory has stated that he always went for standard Fender fret wire, and had never bothered with “the wide frets” – likely referring to the medium jumbo frets (source posted below, see The Guitar Collectors No.1 Interview), and that he had done numerous fret jobs over the years.
As far as machine heads/tuners, Rory first mentioned changing them in an interview with International Musician published in 1976, while he was on a visit to LA. Given that Rory played LA on September 1, 1975 (Open Air Festival), and several more gigs around California in October in November, it is likely that this change happened around this time.
I changed the machine heads — from the old Klusons to the small Schallers, but I’d like to change back now. I don’t think they’re that much better. The problem is that the holes for the string, on the Schaller, is kinda high and it means you’ve got to wind on quite a distance to get a good angle to the nut, for sustain. I cant change back very easily ‘though, because I’ve had bigger holes drilled at the top of the guitar. I’m hoping that Schaller or Grover or somebody will come up with small machine heads with a lower hole. With the Klusons, you could just stick the string in and wind it about twice, and it had a nice sharp angle. I suppose you get a little bit more a grip on the string with the Schallers. [The Guitar Collectors No.1, Rory Gallagher by Eamonn Percival, April 1977].
Some years after, the Schallers were changed to Sperzels, five of which remained on the guitar until Rory’s passing. At some point, the low E string tuner gave away, and Rory’ installed a Gotoh tuner as a quick replacement. This exact same configuration can be found on Fender’s Rory Gallagher Signature model, except that Fender used modern Sperzels, without split shaft like on Rory’s guitar.
The machine heads have been changed. I have got five Sperzels and one Gotah on it. I know the sixth one broke at one date, and I just stuck another one on and I left that on, just as a gypsy thing. The pickups have been rewound. [The Wearing of The Blues by Vivian Campbell, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, August 1991]
The neck is the vital part of the sound. People think that the body is the most important thing, but it’s not really. If you put a bad neck on a good body the guitar will sound bad, whereas if you put a good neck on an average or even a poor body it will work. [Rory Gallagher – Strat Masters Interview]
Other mods include the pickguard, which was replaced sometime in the mid to late 60s with an identical one after the original became deformed over time, allegedly caused by heat during gigs with Taste. Also, the original tuners were swapped for a combination of five Sperzel and one Gotoh tuner, and the tremolo piece was blocked off from the back with a small wooden piece so the guitar would stay in tune better since Rory rarely used the tremolo anyways. The original bridge was allegedly replaced with a Stars Guitars brass replacement bridge, although we haven’t been able to find the exact time frame of when this happened.
Electronics-wise, aside from the already mentioned replacement of the pickups, Rory also rewired the tone controls to have the bottom pot as the one master tone, disconnecting the middle pot, and leaving the master volume control as it was. He also installed a 5-way selector switch in place of the vintage 3-way one, which allowed for more variety and control over the sound.
The last thing that we ought to mention is the significant wear on the guitar, which is quite extensive even when compared to the wear on similar models played by other professional guitarists, like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 1962/63 Fender Stratocaster or John Frusciante’s 1962 Fender Stratocaster. Most of the wear seems to have originated from the mid to late 60s, and by the Isle of Wight gig in 1970 the guitar already looked like it have gone through a sanding machine. This for some reason happens often on early 60s Stratocasters, compared to late 50s which are much harder to find in such condition.
Although disregarded by most, a factor that might have also played a role in this was that the guitar was left in a rainy ditch for days at some point in 1966. A few days prior to this, Rory’s Strat was stolen from him during alongside a Telecaster that he borrowed from a friend to use as a slide guitar for the upcoming gig in Dublin. Rory decided to contact the producers of the television show called “Garda Patrol”, who then featured the guitar in one their segments that supposedly revolved around helping people locate their lost stuff (if you happen to know anything about this particular show, please contact us as we are curious to find if the original recording of this program is still available somewhere). A few days passed and the guitar was found abandoned in a ditch, and following that was successfully returned to Rory who swore never to lose sight of it again.
I had it stolen one time, following a brief appearance at the Five Club to visit Pat Egan about the Dublin scene, and it got very beaten up then. I had borrowed a Telecaster, and it and the Tele were nicked. I was terrified for a few days in case I would have to buy both a Strat and a Telecaster. Both guitars were found (with the assistance of some exposure on Garda Patrol on RTÉ) behind a front garden wall on the South Circular Road, with some of the strings missing and the bodies knocked about but, thankfully, they were OK. [Rory Gallagher: His Life and Times]