Credit: Carl Lender

How The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia got his first electric guitar

The many threads of stories and nuances that combine into the tapestry of your favourite artist or band are what makes us love rock and roll, wrapping us up in a big warm hug of legendary music. Discovering the stories of how those rock stars reached the stage and the glow of the spotlight are always entertaining. The same can be said for The Grateful Dead’s enigmatic leader, the late, great Jerry Garcia, and his very first electric guitar — a seminal moment for any youngster.

A tale as old as time, perhaps, picking up one’s first musical instrument is always an exciting moment. However, there was something about how Garcia then played the guitar for the first six to eight months of owning it that makes this story special. It may not have turned him into Chuck Berry, but it did lead him down a path which would see him lead one of the most beloved bands of all time.

If you were a hip kid in 1957, then chances are you had your head spun by the advent of rock and roll and the fury of scalded parents that went with it. The pioneering new sound appealed directly to the new sub-section of society known as ‘teenagers’. It made sure they were spending their newfound wealth, following the economic boom of post-war America on records and other musical paraphernalia. That said, for many, there was a more desirable piece of kit.

Surely to be a true rock and roller like Chuck Berry, the granddaddy of rock music, the duck-walking guitarist and one of Garcia’s idols, you needed an electric guitar. With Garcia’s 15th birthday on the horizon, he knew exactly what he wanted as a gift.

“During this time…I want a guitar so bad it hurts,” remembered Garcia as part of the book Signpost to New Space. “I go down to the pawn shops on Market Street and Third Street and wander around the record stores, the music stores, and look at the electric guitars and my mouth’s watering. God, I want that so bad!”

The story has been collated by Grateful Dead Sources and should be your next visit for all things Deadhead. Garcia reveals within the interview that while he had his eyes on the fretboard prize, his mother had different ideas. After so many weeks of desiring an electric guitar Garcia shares: “And on my 15th birthday, my mother gave me an accordion.” It’s a feeling that many of us can connect with, “I looked at this accordion and I said, ‘God, I don’t want this accordion, I want an electric guitar,” he added.

The mood had been set, and Garcia’s mother went about rectifying her grievous mistake: “So we took it down to a pawn shop and I got this little Danelectro, an electric guitar with a tiny little amplifier, and man, I was just in heaven – I stopped everything I was doing at the time. I tuned it to an open tuning that sort of sounded right to me and I started picking at it and playing at it.”

Garcia continues: “I spent about six or eight months on it, just working things out. It was unknown at the time, there were no guitar players around. And I was getting pretty good and finally, I ran into somebody at school that played guitar…Somebody showed me some chords on the guitar.” They also showed that Garcia had been playing the guitar wrong this whole time.

In a twist of fate, the setback had likely planted the seed of Garcia’s uncanny musical evolution. As part of the Grateful Dead Reader Garcia continued about his guitar: “I invented a tuning for it and invented a way to play it in this tuning, so it worked out pretty well until I got to certain points. I’d listen to a record and I’d try to figure out what the guy was doing, and it was virtually impossible to do because of the way I had my guitar tuned.”

Later in a 1983 interview with MTV, Garcia suggested that he would’ve preferred to learn the guitar the old fashioned way: “I was in this odd musical vacuum where I somehow wasn’t able to meet people who knew anything about the guitar, and I wanted to play it so badly. So for me, it was this process of little discoveries… I’d learn these little things and it was definitely the hard way to do it. I wish that I could have taken lessons. I could have saved myself years of trouble. But it just didn’t work out that way.”

The way it did work out saw Garcia become one of the most influential guitar players of his generation. Exerting expert tonal control throughout his career, Garcia has always wowed crowds with his unique playing and it seems as though it started very early for him.

Get a taste of that below with Garcia performing ‘Bertha’ with the rest of the band.

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