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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Local luthier featured in Farm Bureau magazine

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Stephen Gallagher plays his G-55, a model he designed and built himself. Gallagher was recently featured in a cover story for Tennessee Home & Farm magazine.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves) [Order this photo]
Stephen Gallagher, like his father Don before him, grew up surrounded by guitars. Gallagher guitars, of course, beautiful works of art and music crafted by the family's company in Wartrace. There have been countless photos in the media of Stephen, Don, and Don's father and founder of the company, J.W., bent over work tables, making the instruments.

This month, however, was a little different. There was a photo out there of Stephen, not making a guitar, but playing one -- and it graces the cover of the Fall 2011 edition of Tennessee Home & Farm, the Farm Bureau quarterly magazine.

"I had a friend text me and say, 'You're on the cover!'" laughed Stephen. "The funny thing is, that picture's actually a couple of years old."

Don Gallagher has run the shop since the 1970s and works side by side with Stephen and two others building Gallagher guitars.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
Hands-on work

While he is the third generation of Gallaghers to learn the "luthier" trade of making guitars, Stephen is the first of the Gallaghers to actually play one.

"I've always been interested in playing," said the 30-year-old, who spent his childhood running in and out of the shop where instruments were being created for the likes of Doc Watson, Roy Clark, Peter, Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Zach Brown, just to name a few. "But I didn't start taking it seriously until about six years ago. I played football in high school and college and that takes a lot of time -- and broken fingers and hands."

Oddly enough, when Stephen was younger and traveling to music festivals with his dad to push the family product, it wasn't the music giants he met who inspired him to learn, but kids his own age, the preteen prodigies who'd pick and fiddle like they were Grand Ole Opry stars.

"And now I'm playing with some of them," he said.

His own mark

Throughout college, Stephen worked construction and after college he spent some time in post-Katrina Mississippi, helping rebuild homes after the devastation. When he came home, he decided to buckle down to the family business and really learn guitar -- not just making them, but playing them.

He studied with Jim Wood for years and has since played with some of those young prodigies he'd admired 20 years ago. In fact, he and two others, Joey Gipson (one of those young players he'd watched years ago) and Andrew Davis, make up the Gallagher Trio and will be playing Saturday at Bean's Creek Winery in Manchester.

Learning to play has helped his guitar-making skills, too.

"I play a guitar I built myself," he said. "This was my first model design."

The design, now designated G55, incorporated several techniques not used before, and it went over so well, it is now a standard model. Being able to play it also helps sell it.

Strong reputation

On one website, in the comments after an article about Gallagher Guitars, a reader wrote: "Just an update to my new Gallagher G-55. I took it to its first jam this past weekend and picked a few fiddle tunes. Everyone was amazed at the power this guitar has! Strong bass for backup, super powerful mids and great highs! I have been playing acoustic guitar for over 35 years and had many different makes but this Gallagher is a powerhouse!"

Stephen works on the body of a guitar, gluing in braces that will be shaved and shaped to alter the sound. He's learning each step of the creation process, from basic construction to inlay design.
(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves)
"It allows me to break into artists' circles I may not have been able to break into before," said Stephen. "I think it helps a lot."

Gallagher Guitars was started by Don's father, J.W., in the 1960s. J.W. had been a fine furniture maker before going to work for a company that made low-end, easily affordable guitars. With his experience in quality woods, J.W. realized he could make a much better product and he started his own company.

Don worked with him and took over in the mid-1970s. He and his wife Jean have three boys, Stephen, David and Wesley.

Small yet big

Unlike the big name brands, such as Gibson or Martin, Gallagher Guitars doesn't mass produce. In fact, Don and Stephen, with the help of Mike Howell and Tom Fuss, only turn out 70 to 75 guitars a year.

But you don't have to be a big brand to have a big following. The article in Tennessee Home & Farm was one of many articles that have been written about the guitars and their makers. Gallagher has been featured in national and international publications, as well as on television. A life-sized statue of bluegrass-folk legend Doc Watson was recently dedicated in Boone, N.C., holding a life-sized replica of his custom-made Gallagher guitar.

Custom-made is a key word here.

"That's really flipped a lot," said Stephen. "Used to be, about 10 percent of our guitars were custom-made, but now it's more like 80 percent. People want that individualized look and sound."

Getting that individualized look ad sound often calls for a wide range of materials from all around the world -- abalone and mother of pearl from the South Seas, mahogany, rosewood and ebony...

All legal

Legally obtained mahogany, rosewood and ebony, that is. Like many other instrument makers, the Gallaghers have been keeping a close eye on the Gibson Guitar investigation.

Recently raided by federal agents, the giant of guitar makers is suspected of using illegally obtained woods for its product, allegations the company denies. The imported wood has to meet the requirements of not only the USA's Lacey Act, which helps protect endangered species, but the regulations of the originating countries, and a nightmare of provenance, proof and paperwork can get tangled up as bits of rosewood are moved halfway around the world.

"We build 70 guitars a year," said Stephen. "They probably do 70 a day. We don't have to buy as much and we buy our wood from a trusted distributor.

They don't have to buy from foreign markets, anyway. Don and Stephen Gallagher get to sell to them all the time.