Jerry Garcia

By Sievert, Jon; Cripe, Stephen | Guitar Player, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Jerry Garcia


Sievert, Jon, Cripe, Stephen, Guitar Player


Jerry Garcia's death at age 53 came as no surprise to devoted Grateful Dead fans. Since his near-fatal diabetic coma in 1986, there was always a sense that he was living on borrowed time. Still, intellectual understanding of his vulnerability scarcely lessened the shock when he passed away on August 9. Not since John Lennon's assassination in 1980 has a musician been so deeply mourned by so many.

Like Lennon, Garcia was revered for reasons beyond his musical talent. Many saw him as a spiritual leader, a role that Jerry good-naturedly tried to reject. When a writer once asked him how he felt about being deified, he laughed and said he would live with it until they came for him with a cross and nails. There's little doubt, however, that it was a burden that contributed to his demise, though cigarettes, cheeseburgers, and other excesses dealt the final blow. He always said that all he ever wanted to do was play his guitar, sing, and be a band member, and his actions backed him up. His musicianship, preserved on several dozen albums and thousands of hours of concert tape, will be his ultimate legacy.

Born to musical parents, Garcia showed a lifelong interest in a variety of instruments. He studied piano and dabbled in guitar early on. Jerry once said that he probably would have been a piano player if his brother hadn't accidentally chopped off Jerry's right-hand middle finger when he was four. He learned musical discipline as a bluegrass banjo player, then dropped the instrument for electric guitar with the creation of the Warlocks, which eventually became the Grateful Dead.

A couple of years later, Garcia acquired a pedal steel and within a few weeks was playing it with the New Riders Of The Purple Sage. Though his flirtation with the instrument lasted only a few years, he developed a quirky, unique style and recorded one of the best-known steel solos in popular music on Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Teach Your Children." He also took an early interest in MIDI guitar and became one of its most tasteful and subtle practitioners within a band context. And off and on throughout his career, Jerry wrestled with the acoustic guitar, most notably in the early '70s around the release of American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, and again in 1980 for the 15th Anniversary shows that resulted in the album Reckoning. Ins '91 and '93 acoustic collaborations with mandolinist David Grisman, Garcia/Grisman and Not For Kids Only, are among his finest recordings.

Garcia's true gift was an instantly identifiable sound and style that encompassed the spectrum of American music and touched the hearts of millions. His guitar voice centered around a prodigious talent for melody, rhythmic variation, and expression, all wrapped in a clear, defined, horn-inspired tone. A master improviser and listener, he seldom disguised how he was feeling on any given night. Joy, sorrow, anger, love, boredom, and humor were as much a part of his style as his phrasing and sound.

"Jerry had the straightest line from the heart to the fingers of any musician I have ever heard," says David Gans, host of the nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Hour and author of two books about the band. "Technique was not the principal issue for Jerry Garcia; his playing was all about expression." Notwithstanding, Garcia possessed considerable technique and chops, honed from thousands of hours of playing and study. But as David Grisman observed, Jerry's real chops were his understanding of music and where it came from.

A Guitar Player Advisory Board member since 1972, Garcia granted six interviews to this magazine and its sister publications: Fred Stuckey's April '71 cover story, Jas Obrecht's July '85 Frets cover story, and four to this writer (the Oct. '78, July '88, and Sept. '91 Guitar Player features and the Aug. '93 interview with Bob Weir that appeared in Grateful Dead, a special issue published as part of the Best Of Guitar Player series). …

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