Elkin's Instruments

by Ben Elder

Unlike many players who happen to be avid instrument buffs and rabid collectors, Elkin Thomas is one of those musicians to whom a guitar and banjo are tools of the trade, albeit with seeming souls and personalities of their own. Elkin's a picker who's found his ideal instruments, and plans to keep using them.

Elkin is the proud owner of three unique Gallagher guitars and a noteworthy long-neck Ode banjo. The distinction that separates Elkin's Gallaghers (a steel-string six, a classical nylon-string six, and a steel-string 12, all variations on the G-70 style) from all others is the fact that these three are the only ones ever made without the trademark inlaid pearl Old English "G" on the headstock.

Back in 1967, J. W. Gallagher, a former furniture-maker, was a relatively unknown luthier in Wartrace, Tennessee at a time when Elkin and a friend were looking for Martin guitars. This was when the Martin factory was months back ordered and used Martins were equally scarce. Elkin asked if there was something comparable but more available. He was directed to J. W. Gallagher.

With the popularity of Elkin's group, "The Avant-Garde," was enjoying at the time, Elkin arranged a deal for three guitars that, through touring and television appearances, would give exposure to Gallagher instruments. Ironically, Elkin requested that the headstock be left plain -- that is, without the Old English-style inlaid "G" that's a familiar trademark of the now legendary guitars. J. W. readily assented to the custom request, and delivered three guitars between 1968 and 1973, beginning with the nylon-string classical first, followed by the 12-string, then the steel-string six.

A few years later, the bridge on the steel-string six began pulling up and Elkin sent it back to the factory for repairs. "When Don Gallagher (J. W.'s son and successor as company president) opened the case and saw that guitar without the "G," he just about freaked out," Elkin recalls. "We talked about it. I said I didn't think there were any other guitars without the "G." Don said, "Well, I can GUARANTEE you there aren't. I can ALSO guarantee you there never will be again!"

In 1965, when Elkin's trio, "The Bordermen," won $1,000 and a "Jimmy Dean Show" TV appearance in a talent contest, he earmarked his share of the prize money for a new long-neck banjo to use on television. "All I had was a regular-scale Sears banjo," he recalls. "I called Gibson, Vega, and Ode. Gibson and Vega couldn't help, so I ordered an Ode. They had one long-neck in stock. And that was probably the last long-neck banjo Ode made before they company was sold to Baldwin and changed the name to Ome."

"I showed the banjo to the folks at the Ome booth at Winfield a few years back. They looked it over and said, 'Yeah, that's probably one of a kind.'"

Elkin is less impressed by the historical uniqueness of his instruments than by their superb functionality and qualities that are the product of human artistry and spirit. On the Thomases' first album (1981) is this dedication:

"Special thanks to Mr. J. W. Gallagher (1915-1979), a great craftsman and friend, whose beautiful guitars continue to sing to us these melodies they helped inspire."