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(Credit: Carl Lender / Heinrich Klaffs)

How the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia became Carlos Santana's favourite guitarist

Carlos Santana, the American-Mexican guitarist and the founding member of the band Santana, rose to fame following their performance at the 1969 Woodstock festival and with the release of their debut self-titled album, Santana, which gained the band an international audience. Santana was the lead guitarist and, essentially, the heart and soul of the band. He is well known for pioneering a fusion of rock and roll and Latin American jazz in his music. Growing up, Santana was significantly influenced by both rock music as well as blues, jazz and folk, all of which shaped his vision. His introduction of timbales and congas to the band’s music gave it a distinctive sound that was unique to Santana’s style. As a child, Santana learned violin under the tutelage of his father but could never quite relate to the instrument and, instead, he picked up the guitar, and that is where he found his calling.

Over the years, his love for rock met his deep adoration of the blues and jazz, and Santana polished his style as a guitarist incorporating melodic guitar lines that weren’t normally heard in rock music. Santana was greatly influenced by artists like Ritchie Valens, B. B. King, Gábor Szabó, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix and so on. But over the course of his career as a guitarist, he found musicians he absolutely loved listening to. One among the many of his favourites was the lead guitarist and vocalist for the band the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia.

Garcia and Santana were contemporaries and met up on more than one occasions. Garcia’s music, much like Santana’s, was heavily influenced by a wide variety of styles of music ranging from Indian classical right to experimental jazz and disco. His grandmother also introduced him to country and bluegrass, which found its way into his music in his later years. A fan of rhythm and blues artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Garcia was captivated by the sounds of the electric guitar and was taught to tune his guitar to an open tuning by his father.

Garcia was also a performer at the Woodstock Festival, much like Santana. It was here that the two struck a friendship over music and marijuana, revelling in the free-spirited environment. Santana’s performance took place when he was still reeling from the effects of the psychedelics, and all he could think of was, “God please help me. Just keep me in time and in tune … and I promise I’ll never do this again.” Even then, the two collaborated again for a performance at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Roosevelt in 1989 for a Latin-fueled performance. Garcia’s influences, although quite varied, did not cover Latin tunes. So, to see him work on his guitar alongside Santana was indeed a treat. Over the course of a shared love for music and the guitar, Garcia became as much of a favoured guitarist of Santana’s as Santana became his.

It is always nice to know musicians who know where they are going with their style, who have a clear picture of how they want their music to sound like and who know their instruments better than the back of their hand. That is who Jerry Garcia was as an artist. Even though he played the blues, he didn’t keep himself confined to any one genre. His music ranged over a vast set of sounds, a product of the influences he gathered from all around the world, from styles like bluegrass to rock and from personalities like Chet Atkins, Ravi Shankar and so on.

Santana, too, had only good things to say about him – “It was a lot of fun to play with him because he was very accommodating. He’d go up and down; I’d go left and right. And I could tell he enjoyed it because the Dead always invited me back.” And as for Garcia’s skills, Santana said something that aptly resonated with who Jerry Garcia was as a musician – “You could always hear a theme in his playing. It’s like putting beads on a string, instead of throwing them around the room. Jerry had a tremendous sense of purpose.”

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