Or, \"How Jerry Garcia revolutionized the custom guitar industry, in his pursuit of excellence.\"
The Tiger’s Tale: Constantly seeking the ultimate stage guitar, Jerry Garcia revolutionized the custom guitar industry in his pursuit of excellence.
By Chris Gill | Photo by Jim Marshall
\"Ask any guitarist for a short list of players who dramatically changed the way the guitar is made and played, and inevitably names like Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen will be mentioned. But one player who only occasionally gets similar credit, even though he certainly belongs among the list’s top five, is Jerry Garcia.
From his pivotal role in helping to establish the custom guitar industry to his very early adoption of rack systems for amplification and effects, Garcia pushed modern electric guitar technology and innovation forward in ways that few other players have since, thanks to his passion for creative freedom onstage and in the studio.
During the late Sixties and Seventies, a cottage industry grew in the San Francisco Bay Area to support the Grateful Dead’s discriminating demands for sophisticated instruments and state-of-the-art sound systems. Many of the people that the band worked with early on formed companies that are still going strong today, including Alembic, Furman Sound, and Meyer Sound. In the Dead’s early days, Garcia played mass-produced guitar models by Fender, Gibson, Guild, and Martin, but from the early Seventies onward, he generally preferred instruments made by individual luthiers, like Doug Irwin and Stephen Cripe, or fledgling, visionary local companies, like Travis Bean.
Raised in a musical family—his father was a professional musician who played reed instruments in swing bands, and his mother played piano and listened to opera—Garcia started taking piano lessons early in his youth. In 1947, when he was only five years old, his father died in a fishing accident, and shortly afterward Garcia moved in with his grandparents, who introduced him to country music. Sometime in the late Forties, he heard Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ Mercury recordings and decided to learn to play bluegrass banjo.
Even though he had lost the tip of his right hand middle finger in an accident when he was only four, Garcia managed to master the intricate right-hand fingerpicking technique required for playing bluegrass banjo, using his thumb, forefinger, and ring finger.
“For me, the banjo is kind of the gateway to music,” Garcia told Greg Jones and Andrew Pickard in an interview for Relix magazine. “That’s how I found my way into music. I liked the sound of the music that was made with a five-string banjo—the incredible clarity and the sparkling brilliance of it. I was attracted by the intensity of the Mercury [Flatt & Scruggs] album with ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and ‘Pike County Breakdown.’ I couldn’t believe the sound of it. It was startling.”
In 1953, when Garcia was 11, he moved back in with his mother and new stepfather. During this time, his older brother Clifford introduced him to rock and roll and blues music, and the two sang doo-wop harmonies together. Garcia soon found the sound of the electric guitar irresistible, but he didn’t start playing the instrument until a few months after his 15th birthday, in 1957. Having received an accordion from his mother as a gift, he eventually convinced her to trade it for a Danelectro guitar and a small amp.
“I learned by ear, mostly from records,” Garcia told Jon Sievert in a 1978 Guitar Player magazine interview. “I listened to Freddie King and B.B. King extensively. That was my first exposure, mostly because the Bay Area didn’t have that many guitar players back when I started playing.”
During the early Sixties, Garcia played in a variety of musical settings that foreshadowed the stylistic diversity of the music he later played with the Grateful Dead. He performed as a solo artist, accompanied by a 12-string acoustic guitar, and in 1962 he started playing banjo and guitar with a variety of old-time string and bluegrass bands. One of those bands, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions, also included Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Bob Weir as members. After discovering the Beatles, Garcia, McKernan, and Weir decided to change musical direction, abandoning bluegrass and performing rock and roll in a new band they formed in 1965 called the Warlocks. Eventually, they changed their name to the Grateful Dead.
With the Warlocks, Garcia played a stock circa-1964/’65 cherry-red Guild Starfire III with a thinline single-cutaway body, a pair of Guild humbucking pickups, and a Bigsby B-6 vibrato. This remained his main guitar for the next two years, and he used it to record the Grateful Dead’s eponymous debut album. He played the Guild through a Fender Twin Reverb combo while with the Warlocks, but by 1967 he had expanded his rig with the addition of a Fender Showman head and a Fender 2×15 speaker cabinet.\"
The full article can be found in the latest issue of \"Guitar Aficionado\" magazine.
I can't come down, I've been set free.
Who you are, and what you do,
don't make no difference to me.