This St Patrick’s Day, by all means avail enjoy a pint of plain – it’s only right. But for entertainment, why not revisit one of the great moments in blues guitar history when Joe Bonamassa took to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, playing the late Rory Gallagher’s ’61 Strat?
It wasn’t the first time that Bonamassa got to play the late Irish blues-rock icon’s number one guitar onstage. A couple of years prior to Bonamassa’s 2013 headlining show at the Royal Albert, he played Gallagher’s Fender Stratocaster onstage for a two-night stint at London’s Hammersmith Apollo.
Bonamassa’s then-girlfriend, the Scottish singer-songwriter Sandi Thom, knew the family, and arranged it with Gallagher’s brother Donal and son Dan to use the guitar for the night.
Bonamassa had a few hours with the Strat before the show, just to get the lay of the land, and speaking to MusicRadar after the event, he said it did not disappoint.
“My head was head was rushing,” he said. “Rory played a bunch of guitars in his time, but the '61 is the guitar. There is no other. When it came out of the gig bag, I was floored. There I was, looking at a piece of history.
“Immediately I was in ‘Rory mode’. The pinch harmonics, the feel of the neck...there was big ‘Wow!’ factor. The thing is, this was a great guitar. If it belonged to Jerry Abrams from Peoria, Illinois, it’d still be a fantastic Strat. But it was Rory’s guitar. The contours, the heel, the fretboard…you could really feel that he'd played it and made it his own.”
We talk about guitars having songs in them but they have stories in them, too. Gallagher’s Strat lived hard and wore its experiences on its finish. The Fender Custom Shop charges an arm and a leg for such finishes these days. Gallagher’s acquired its scrapes the old-fashioned way, onstage and through misadventure.
It was stolen in the mid-‘60s, with the Rory Gallagher site reporting that the Strat spend a couple of nights in a rain-soaked ditch before it was reunited with its owner. Moisture was a recurring theme. Gallagher would sweat so much he’d have neck problems, swapping them out and leaving them to dry.
The Stratocaster was already worthy of note before finding its way into Gallagher’s possession in 1963. It was rumoured to be the first Strat to be sold in Ireland, and was originally ordered by Jim Conlon of The Royal Showband, only Conlon ordered a Fiesta Red model because back then everyone wanted to look like Hank Marvin. Ultimately, Gallagher bought it for £100 from Crowley’s Music Store, Cork, and paid it off in instalments.
It would be modded extensively over the years, pickups, hardware, not to mention the swapping of the necks. Bonamassa might have been under the spell of that neck profile that had been manipulated under stress, night after night in Gallagher’s hands, but he did have the good sense to change the strings first – “probably the second time the strings have been changed since Rory died” – and played three tracks with it, including Cradle Rock.
On 30 March 2013, Donal Gallagher lent Bonamassa the Strat again, and he put it to good use during the encore with a rendition of the Tim Curry standard Sloe Gin. Check it out. And chase it down with some highlight's of Gallagher's performances over the years at Montreux in the video above, which go some way to explain why Bonamassa was blown away to get his hands on the great man's guitar.
Bonamassa is quite literally at sea right now, playing on the KTBA III Cruise Tour. When he gets back on terra firma, he'll be gearing up for the Byron Bay Bluesfest, in Australia, on 8 April, before embarking on an extensive European tour later in the month, opening at Helsinki Hall, Finland, on 19 April, hitting the UK on 5 May when he rocks up at the International Centre, Bournemouth. See Joe Bonamassa for all dates.