FEATURE: Luke Gallagher – On The Wrong Side Of Nashville
Words: Matt Innes
Legends aren’t born, they’re made, and Luke Gallagher has all the makings of a truly great guitarist.
The Perth-based musician has been cultivating a keen online following, posting videos of his impressive guitar skills playing note-for-note renditions of solos by legendary country guitarists like Brent Mason, Brad Paisley and Travis Joy.
Luke has even caught the attention of some of country music’s upper echelon, such as Brad Paisley, and has his sights set on establishing a career for himself in Nashville as a session player.
Despite his prowess, country was never Luke’s first school of music. Luke started his guitar journey in 2006 and, like so many budding guitarists before him, the first songs he learnt came from the world of rock and metal.
“I got into all the same stuff everyone else usually gets into when they start guitar, like Metallica, Green Day, Coldplay, AC/DC, all that stuff,” Luke explains.
“And I was never any good at anything in school – I wasn’t very good academically, and I wasn’t good at sports, which didn’t really leave me anything to aspire to be, which was a bit concerning.”
Harnessing the learning capabilities afforded by the Internet and sites such as Ultimate-Guitar.com, which offer a virtual treasure trove of tablature and lessons, Luke began learning note by note.
“I remember it was school holidays and I was playing around with my dad’s bass and thought it was kind of cool,” he recalls.
“Ultimate guitar [.com] was around so I started learning some basic root note stuff on the bass and realised I was playing along. Then I started picking up the acoustic and trying to play AC/DC stuff on that and dad said, ‘we should probably get you an electric guitar’.
“I started getting decent at that, doing all the heavy metal stuff – growing my hair out – and I started winning those school talent shows. I’d really found something I was into – I’d do it every day after school, I was becoming obsessed with reading about it, getting into music and really analysing it and wanting to know everything about what creates it.”
A fun pastime soon blossomed into a life-calling for Luke as he progressed through the levels of guitar training and became an amateur master of rock and metal. Talented as he was, Luke says he lacked any knowledge of music theory and decided to gain a formal education.
“When I finished school, I studied a contemporary music and performance course at WAAPA [Western Australian Academy Of Performing Arts] and learnt about music theory,” he says.
“Going to WAAPA was really informative because we learnt about song structures, key signatures, the tech side of things, analysing how a song works and how it’s made. It was quite a formulaic approach to things and it really opened my eyes to music.
“I was coming to it purely from ‘that’s cool, I’ll put my fingers here on the guitar and music comes out’ but then I started to see how complex it is. A greater understanding of music happened once I went to uni.”
It was while attending WAAPA that Luke was first introduced to the world of country music.
“I met a girl called Emily Joy, she’s a country singer who was studying at the time as well and she wanted me to play guitar for her,” Luke explains.
“I started playing some acoustic music with her; she gave me a folder with songs to learn from people like Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, John Denver, and I wasn’t really into it to be honest. I wasn’t big on country music; I never liked the country life I was more of a city person. But I guess it was learning something new, and I was listening to a lot of Shania Twain and realised the music was actually quite familiar.”
Upon further inspection, Luke discovered the extensive work of producer (and Shania Twain’s ex-husband) Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, whose credits include Twain’s 1997 hit record ‘Come On Over’ as well as some of history’s biggest rock and metal albums, which are among Luke’s favourites.
“‘Mutt’ Lange is the guy that made ‘Back In Black’ and ‘Highway To Hell’ for AC/DC, albums for Def Leppard, Bryan Adams. It was rock music, but it had country instruments and it came from a rock approach, and I thought ‘now this is really cool’.
“It had guitar playing, all the Nashville guys on it, and all the solos are really musical. The solos were from people like Brent Mason – he’s one of the most-recorded guitarists of all time – as well as Dann Huff who worked with Michael Jackson and Celine Dion.”
Luke realised the distinction between band guitarists and session players – where guitarists in bands are often committed to their own style, session musicians must possess and utilise a vast musical knowledge spanning multiple genres and styles in order to create a song.
“And I thought ‘who are these people?’ because I’d come from the AC/DC guitarists or Metallica or Green Day – they were very much band people who just did their own thing, whereas these guys were qualified in music rather than just talented dudes. I tried to learn that stuff and my lecturer told me to check out a guy called Brad Paisley. It was, not life-changing, but genre-changing when I started to get more professional.”
Finding new direction with guitar, Luke swapped dive bombs and screeching solos for learning chicken-picking licks and honing his craft within the realm of country music.
“This was difficult, and I had to spend a lot of time on it,” Luke continues.
“That was like my second birth on guitar, because it was jazz on some of that Brad Paisley stuff, and it was country and it was blues and it was a lot cleaner. It was a lot more advanced and faster; it wasn’t just a bunch of crazy notes, it was all well thought-out, syncopated lines that I didn’t know how to do so I had to learn all these new techniques.”
Luke and Emily soon hit the country music festival circuit, making regular visits to Tamworth Country Music Festival where Luke received a baptism-by-fire into the community.
“I got called and asked to play a three-hour set for a country band, so I was panicking because country music is so precise and clean and almost naked,” Luke says.
“I had to play onstage with a band, and I asked what the setlist was because I had practised the songs they gave me daily for six, seven months. When you don’t grow up in country music you don’t know the songs. I grew up with ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ and ‘Brown Eyed Girl’.
“I was onstage and realised they were just calling out songs, whatever they felt like; they weren’t even following the setlist I’d spent the past seven months learning. They would look at me and say ‘Luke, you’re going to do a pickup on the five to one chord, and a one and a two…’ and I’m like ‘I don’t know what song this is’. So, there was this pressure.”
An outsider to the unwritten rules of performing country music, Luke was yet to learn about the Nashville Number System, a musical shorthand used by studios to simplify the process of writing and recording albums. Luke once more turned to his first teacher – the Internet – for a crash course in understanding the system.
Luke returned to Tamworth several times before finally embarking on his first trip to Nashville, where his newly-found Insta-fame came politely tapping on his shoulder.
“I finally went to Nashville with Emily and I was at a bar, and someone came up and said: ‘are you Luke Gallagher?’” Luke recalls.
“I said ‘I’m sorry?’ I had started playing all the Brad Paisley songs and doing the Instagram stuff, that was around 2014-15, so I started getting some followers. I learn the solos one note at a time at the speed of a snail. It’s very boring but I find learning it precisely, every minuscule millisecond, can make it sound very clean and very different.
“I wanted people to think I was lip-syncing, or something, and it taught me so much about a session player in Nashville – those guys play very clean like that so I had to really dedicate my time to constantly trying to do this.”
Luke’s dedication to mastering every technical intricacy of the songs he learns is something of a fresh wind blowing through the stale phenomenon of ‘YouTube’ and ‘Instagram’ guitarists, many of whom favour flash and fancy over ultimate technical proficiency to gain followers.
Perhaps what distinguishes Luke in this regard is this somewhat surprising revelation:
“The one thing about me that not many people know is that I don’t love the guitar like it is a vintage car and it’s beautiful,” he confesses.
“Don’t get me wrong, but I don’t spend that much time on tone, and my guitars aren’t setup properly. It’s like a tool, a tool to get the job done and I want to understand everything about so I can use it to make music. So, I don’t love guitar, I love music. I spend a lot of time on programming, mixing, learning about technique so I can create a certain sound. I really just love music in general.”
Luke’s guitar journey thus far has been nothing short of remarkable and for the starry-eyed must seem a dream come true. But the reality is that Luke is reaping the fruitful harvest of his years-long labours.
Though the current pandemic has put a cold stop to any prospects of returning to Nashville for the foreseeable future, Luke still envisions a career for himself in the spiritual home of country music.
Beyond being a session guitarist, Luke has designs for expanding his talents into production and securing work within the industry. Needless to say, he’s in it for the long haul.
“In Nashville they care about things like how you are as a person, how you work together, how you handle yourself in situations, and that’s what they care about,” he says.
“I want to have that type of respectable job that I get to use the skills I’ve learnt for a long time now. I want to move to Nashville, get a decent-paying job touring for somebody, teaching guitar or doing sessions.
“I don’t want to be rich and famous, but I want to be able to be comfortable in America, which is difficult. They say Nashville is a ten-year town where you don’t really make it huge until ten years’ time, so it’s all very much that I need to get there.”
Meanwhile confined to Perth, Luke continues to pursue musical greatness posting videos of collaborations with artists around the world and has also started offering online lessons.
The next big step for Luke in carving out his musical identity is to record and release a collection of original music, something that showcases the broad skillset he has acquired.
“I wouldn’t want it to be just filled with country-shred type songs because I feel everyone can do that,” Luke says.
“I would be really happy to co-write with someone and create a song and maybe even sing. Like a compilation, a five track EP that has everything I love about music on it, something that everyone wants to hear but also something I can be proud of for the songwriting.”