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Jerry Garcia


The decade of the 1960s saw more rock stars rise to fame than any other single decade in history. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin are just a few of the dozens of legendary musicians who started their illustrious careers during the decade of free love. However none of these great musicians are associated with the sixties like Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Jerry Garcia was a pioneer of psychedelic rock and the counter-culture movement. He is also one of the greatest guitarists ever.
Jerry Garcia was born in San Francisco on August 1, 1942. In his youth Jerry experienced a number of traumatic events. First he lost 2/3 of the middle finger on his right hand while chopping wood on a family camping trip. Not long after that Jerry’s father drowned when he slipped on a rock while fly-fishing. As a result Jerry’s mother was forced to work full-time and could no longer care for Jerry. He was sent to live with his maternal grandparents who lived not far away. While living with his grandparents Jerry enjoyed a lot of freedom and was encouraged in his artistic pursuits.
For his fifteenth birthday Jerry received an accordion from his grandmother. He pleaded with her to exchange it for an electric guitar and eventually she relented. The next summer Jerry enrolled in the San Francisco Institute of the Arts to nurture his gift as a painter. There, Wally Hedrick, a counter-culture icon in the 50s, was his instructor. Hedrick introduced Jerry to poetry readings, acoustic blues and the novel On the Road which Jerry said changed his life forever. In 1958 Garcia tried marijuana for the first time.
Garcia drifted for the next two years. His family moved to a small town in California where Jerry joined a garage band called the Chords. He didn’t do well in high school and eventually got caught stealing a car and had to choose between jail and the army. He enlisted in the army but was discharged less than a year later. His life seemed to be have no direction of any kind until one fateful night in 1960. Jerry and his friend Paul Speegle, a gifted guitar player, were involved in a car accident. Garcia suffered only a broken collarbone but his friend died. That is the exact moment Jerry Garcia decided to get serious about playing the guitar. As he said later, “That's where my life began. Before then I was always living at less than capacity. I was idling. That was the slingshot for the rest of my life. It was like a second chance. Then I got serious.”
During the next four years Jerry spent most of his time around the campus of Stanford University. He was the leader of a number of bands; playing mostly bluegrass and folk music. During this time he met Phil Lesh, Robert Hunter, Bob Weir and David Nelson who in later years would become integral to the Grateful Dead. In 1964 he began experimenting with the psychotropic drug LSD.
In 1965 Garcia, Lesh, Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann formed a band named the Warlocks. Once they discovered that there was another band in the area using this name they convened a meeting to determine a new name. At this meeting Garcia flipped open a dictionary and found “Grateful Dead”. The definition given was: “a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial.” Garcia thought it was a powerful name but the other band mates hated it. However Garcia continued to lobby for the name and it eventually stuck.
The Grateful Dead soon gained notoriety for their live shows. In particular, Garcia received accolades for his innovative extended guitar solos. The band as a whole is famous for their ability to never play the same song the same way twice. The Grateful Dead played from 1965-1995 and toured almost the entire time. This stint is sometimes referred to as the “endless tour”. The only time the band didn’t tour was due to Garcia’s failing heath or difficulty with drugs. The band continued touring until Garcia passed away in 1995. The Dead played a total of 2,314 shows during their thirty years of existence.
In addition to the Grateful Dead, Garcia participated in a slew of side projects. He had his own solo career, a separate band (featuring Phil Lesh on bass) simply named the Jerry Garcia Band, and an assortment of other bluegrass and folk projects. Jerry also spent a lot of time in the studio assisting an eclectic assortment of other artists. He added vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, pedal steel, harmonica, piano and banjo to tracks by artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Fogerty, Jefferson Airplane, Warren Zevon and many more. One of his best-known collaborations is his pedal steel playing on the Crosby, Stills & Nash track “Teach Your Children”.
The Grateful Dead incorporated extensive soloing and improvisation into their shows; so much so that no two shows were ever the same. The fans of the Dead soon realized this and instead of coming to one show they would attend a string of shows. A sense of community soon developed between these fans that were traveling from stadium to arena with the band. In most cases the fans of the Dead were also united by their love for narcotics and hippy ideals. The fans of the band came to be known as Deadheads and the cultural phenomenon they created was referred to as Deadheading. Noted Deadheads include basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton.
Jerry Garcia drew musical inspiration from a bevy of sources. There are elements of bluegrass, Celtic jigs, early rock and roll, rhythm and blues, contemporary blues, country western and jazz in his music. Growing up Garcia was influenced by the Grand Ole Opry, which he listened to with his grandmother. Later on he became a big fan of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly; who inspired him to begin playing the electric guitar. He also listened to blues musicians like Freddy King and bluegrass pickers like Arthur Smith and Doc Watson. Garcia listed John Coltrane, the legendary jazz musician, as one of his greatest personal and musical influences. Jazz is where the Dead drew the inspiration for their jam-based concerts.
Garcia used a lot of different guitars during his three decades as a popular musician. They ranged from the popular Fender Stratocaster and Gibson SG models to totally unique custom-made instruments. In 1965, during the early days of the Dead, Garcia played a Guild Starfire. He then played a number of Gibson Les Pauls followed by Gibson SG’s until he switched again to the Fender Strat. In 1972 Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash) gave Jerry a Fender Stratocaster, which he named Alligator for the sticker on the pick-guard. Garcia used Alligator until receiving his first custom-made guitar from Alembic. Garcia named the new guitar Wolf.
Wolf was constructed with an ebony fingerboard and featured numerous embellishments like alternating grain design in the headstock, ivory inlays, and fret marker dots made of sterling silver. Garcia had the electronics in the guitar redesigned by Alembic employee Doug Irwin. Irwin made the guitar’s electronics similar to that of the Stratocaster. Garcia continued playing Wolf, except for when the instrument was dropped and damaged, until 1979 when Irwin completed another custom guitar built for Jerry.
This instrument was named Tiger. The body of Tiger was top quality: the top layer was cocobolo with the underneath layers consisting of maple stripe, vermilion, and flame maple in that order. The neck was made of western maple and Tiger came with an ebony fingerboard. The pickups consisted of a single coil DiMarzio SDS-1 and two humbucker DiMarzio Super IIs that were easily removable due to Garcia's preference for replacing his pickups every year or two. The electronics were composed of an effects bypass loop, which allowed Garcia to control the sound of his effects through the tone controls, and an amplifier, which rested behind a plate in the back of the guitar. The guitar ended up weighing in at a hefty 13 pounds. However, this didn't deter Garcia from using it as his principal guitar for the next eleven years. In May 2002 Wolf and Tiger were auctioned off at Studio 54 in New York City. Tiger sold for the astronomical sum of $957,500 while Wolf fetched $789,500. The combined sale price of the two instruments was $1.74 million, a new world record  
The first thing people think of when they hear the name Jerry Garcia is the hippy lifestyle and in particular illicit drugs. Such is the drawback to being the poster-child for a place, (San Francisco) and a time, (late 60s) that invoke such strong images in the mind of the average person. People should also remember Garcia’s musicianship, which was extraordinary, and his innovation, which is virtually unparalleled. His mature guitar stylings fused genres of music than no one else considered. Unfortunately Jerry has left this world and can no longer entertain us with his inspired harmonic soloing. Luckily, though, the combination of his extensive tour schedule and devoted fans make Jerry Garcia the most recorded guitar player in history, so there is no shortage of his music for Jerry’s fans to bend an ear to. If we continue to listen to these recordings and revel in his mastery, then I think its safe to say Jerry Garcia will truly be a member of the grateful dead.  



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