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Wednesday, August 24

Jerry Garcia's thoughts on playing the acoustic guitar. Lots of interesting nuggets in there from the spring of 85'

This interview was given to and I didn't rewrite anything or change it because the part that sets up the conversation is historically interesting and shows the depths to which Jerry had plunged due to drug abuse. He just pulled out a chunk of cocaine and snorted it up in front of the interviewer and his hands were black from smoking heroin. He was arrested several days later in Golden Gate Park. 

"Jerry" from the "Touch of Grey" Video
The things he says about acoustic guitar are fascinating. How he prefers heavy strings and how he holds and uses picks. He talks about how Bobby didn't like to play acoustic even though in the nineties Bobby picked up an acoustic for a Dylan tune almost every night. He also goes into the power of minimalism and the power that the old blues players derived from a couple of notes. Like, John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson and he also discusses Django Reinhardt.  There was more to the interview but this part is more about his playing the acoustic guitar. This is an edited version. The pieces cut out are just a bit about microphones and does he prefer electric to acoustic. Jon Sievert, said that;

"Jerry was probably at his absolute nadir at the time
   of the interview, as witnessed by his bust in Golden Gate Park six days
   later on January 18. In between the interview and the bust, the band
   and Mountain Girl staged an intervention, in which Jerry was told he
   had to choose between drugs and the band. In the few times I was around
   Garcia in a private setting, that was the only time I saw him openly
   snort coke. What I remember most, however, was how articulate he
   remained when talking about music. As you can tell by listening to the
tapes, his enthusiasm never waned."

Written by Greg Heffelfinger
Interview by Jas Obrecht on 1/12/85 for Frets Magazine and reproduced on

ia'This interview with Jerry Garcia's love for acoustic guitars was conducted during the spring of 1985. From the moment he walked into his living room, it was apparent that Garcia was in physically bad shape. His prodigious body odor preceded him by the room’s length, and his beard and dirty black t-shirt were dusted with white powder. Fingers on both hands were blackened from their tips to the second knuckle. (Just four days later, Garcia was arrested in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for smoking heroin in his parked car, a habit which likely accounted for the tar-stained fingers.) A few minutes into our conversation, Jerry toked on a joint of sensemilla and then fished a large rock of cocaine from his pocket. He chopped it into several rough rails, bent over, and snorted the whole thing without missing a beat of our conversation. Despite the drugs, Garcia proved to be both intense and articulate. He locked eyes throughout the interview, spoke quickly and seldom looked away.

Just a decade later, Jerry Garcia was dead at age 53. His passing put an end to the Grateful Dead, but he’s left us a tremendous legacy of bootleg concert tapes and commercial recordings. Some of his finest moments on acoustic guitar can be found on the Dead’s early-’70s releases American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, 1980’s Reckoning, and his early 1990s acoustic collaborations with mandolinist David Grisman, especially Garcia/Grisman and Not For Kids Only.

Guitar: Does your visualization of the fretboard change when you switch from the electric guitar to acoustic?

Jerry Garcia: Very much so. With the electric guitar, I have a holistic approach. On acoustic, I have a preference for the first position and open sounds. I would use a capo on acoustic guitar, but I would never do that on an electric guitar, where I deal with the whole neck as a harmonic medium. I don’t see it in patterns or groupings — all those have become continuous for me.

Guitar: In a 1978 interview, you mentioned that you were on the verge of making a breakthrough in your understanding of the fretboard.

Garcia: Yeah, I’m through that. I’ve found that there are endless numbers of overlapping patterns — that’s all. Depending on what half-step or whole-step you start on, there are series of fingerings that you can either play across or up the fretboard, or any combination thereof. It’s just a matter of fluidity and breaking out of position playing. Now, I play for a preference in the tone that I get — like playing high notes on low strings. It’s what sounds nice, not where I play it. I can play the same lick in the same octave in any of, say, three or four positions on the neck, and the tone is very different depending on the thickness of the strings.

Guitar: Do you know what you’re doing in theoretical terms?

Garcia: Yeah. There was a time when I could get by without knowing, but not anymore, not with the caliber of musicians I play with. And besides, for me it’s not satisfying to bluff. I like to know because it makes it a lot easier to communicate what you’re doing —just that alone is a good reason to know. What are your musical limitations?

Garcia: I’ve got nothing but limitations, I’m limited by everything — my technique, background, education, the things I’ve heard. I’m limited by being a human being. In a way, a musician with a distinctive style is in fact a product of his limitations. This is assuming that almost everybody plays at the outside edge of their ability — as good as they can do. Describe your approach to soloing?

Garcia: It keeps on changing. I still basically revolve around the melody and the way it’s broken up into phrases as I perceive them. With most solos, I tend to play something that phrases the way the melody does; my phrases may be more dense or have different value, but they’ll occur in the same places in the song. So most of the time there’s some abstraction of the melody in there — at least that’s what I’m thinking.
                                                      What advice you give somebody wanting to find more freedom on the instrument?

Garcia: The best possible thing is to have one other person to play with. Then you just trade off choruses — like one guy backs up for five choruses, and then the other guy backs up. That’s really the best way to get a handle on it. It’s not the sort of thing where advice helps; it’s really just a matter of time spent. Does listening to other musicians inspire you?

Garcia: All the time, but there’s nobody playing right now who knocks me out completely. Nothing makes me want to dash to my guitar. Everything sounds pretty derivative in music right now. It’s a little hard for me to listen to young guitarists. They are much more accomplished than they used to be, but that just means that the instrument’s book has expanded enormously in the last 10, 15 years. There’s something to be said for a guy like John Lee Hooker, who can scare the pants off of you with one or two notes played with such immense authority and soulfulness. I’d much rather hear something like that than a lot of facility. If you could go back in time, are there any musicians you’d like to jam with?

 Garcia: Oh, yeah. I’d follow around Django Reinhardt, the Gypsy guitarist. I have every single one of his records. Most of what he plays is hard to understand, no matter how much I’ve listened to it. Either he’s got fingers a half a mile long or — I just don’t know how he’s doing it. And he played all this with a messed-up left hand. His technique is awesome. Even as good as players are today, nobody has come up to the state that he was playing at—that whole fullness of expression, the combination of having incredible speed and giving every note a specific personality. The other guy I’d like to hear live is Charlie Christian, who had an incredible mind, just a relentless flow of ideas. He was the first guy who played through he changes the way horn players would. He had that sense of where everything goes harmonically. He had an incredible intensity and a hip tone. To my ears, his playing still sounds very modern. Are you fond of any of the country bluesmen?

Garcia: Robert Johnson was a primitive genius. There are others I feel are in a similar category: Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, especially when he was young, but he was always great. I have a personal preference for Mississippi John Hurt. His early records sound so smooth, they’re just like magic. You’ve had an intense passion for bluegrass for many years.

Garcia: Oh, yeah, I loved it. It was one of those special moments too, right when all the classic bands were all still happening. I got interested in bluegrass in 1960, and by the time I was into rock and roll in 1965, it was over. The classic bands weren’t together anymore — Don Reno and Red Smiley split up, everything was different. Old and In the Way was a great bluegrass band; it was really fun. That was my chance to tie up my bluegrass karma. That was the band I would have wanted to play in back when I was playing bluegrass.
                                                      Why did you switch from bluegrass to rock and roll?

Garcia: The music wasn’t flexible enough. Bluegrass was just too stiff for me, although I loved the music — I just went crazy on the banjo. But you couldn’t stay high and play bluegrass. Rock and roll opened out for me — same for everybody, I think. How would you describe your banjo style?

Garcia: I really couldn’t describe it any more than I could describe my guitar playing. I still play once in a very great while. I’ve got several great old-time banjos. But I’m a burned-out banjo player — I really went to the end of the rope, you know? It’s the bands that count. If I could play in a really great bluegrass band once or twice a week, I would definitely get my chops back together on banjo. Did much of your banjo technique transfer to guitar?

Garcia: It doesn’t transfer. To me, it’s apples and oranges. They both have strings, a bridge, and frets — and that’s it. Other than that, they really are very different. I thought there might be come crossover when I took up pedal steel, but they’re not the same either. The technique is very, very different. And the concept is also very different. So when you’re dealing with those instruments, it doesn’t help to try to take on to the other.
                                                 What about transferring techniques from electric guitar to acoustic?

Garcia: It’s a whole different ball of wax. The position and thickness of the guitar means that my arm, wrist, and hand have a whole different attitude. Electric guitar is real thin; my elbow’s close to my body and my wrist is close to the guitar. With an acoustic guitar, it’s all farther out. Do you hold the pick the same way for both instruments?

Garcia: Pretty much, yeah, but I move it around all the time while I’m playing. I don’t have a way to hold the pick — you know, an iron grasp. I constantly adjust it. I always strike the string with the pointy end. A lot of guys use the rounded shoulder of the pick because it makes it seem like you can play faster. But what you pick up in speed, you sacrifice in point. I like to have a lot of control over the attack of the note. By relaxing or tightening up your grip on the pick, you can get a lot of change in touch, coloration, and harmonic content. With acoustic guitar, that’s one of the ways you can really color your playing. I use a real thick pick, one with absolute zero flexibility. It’s like a stick. How do you add vibrato?

Garcia: I do a slightly different kind of vibrato because of the heavier strings. I tend to draw my vibrato from my whole hand and wrist, like a violin player. I don’t do independent vibratos with my fingers very often. Do you bend strings on acoustic?

Garcia: Yeah, but I don’t make an effort to. On an acoustic guitar, I’m more likely to bend a half-step. I have fairly strong hands, though. I always use relatively heavy strings and a high action. Do you play in open tunings?

Garcia: There are a few specialty things I do, but I never perform in an open tuning. I’d do more if I had another guitar that I could tune up in an open tuning and leave it there — I hate to retune the guitar onstage. Guitars settle into a tuning, and when you retune them, you lose that sense of settling in. How large is the repertoire of songs you only play on acoustic guitar?

Garcia: I don’t know. I haven’t played through it yet. I know an awful lot of songs because I was into the traditional music scene. But for me, repertoire isn’t a static thing. There are a whole lot of songs that I plan on learning. When I go out on the road with [acoustic bassist] John Kahn, I always think of a few songs that would be fun to do. If I don’t remember them, I go find a book that has them. Why has the Grateful dead limited its acoustic sets?

Garcia: I don’t know. I think [Bob] Weir doesn’t feel comfortable playing acoustic music. I personally would like to do it more often. Bob doesn’t seem to like to do it very much, so we don’t press it. If anybody feels even a little negative about something, we don’t do it.
                                                    How did the Grateful Dead’s 1980 acoustic sets come about?

Garcia: I just thought it would be a good idea. We tried it, and it was fun. The technology came into place too. That was one of the reasons we didn’t do it for so long —we used to try it with microphones, and it really didn’t work. It’s much easier now that they have made vast improvements in amplified acoustic instruments. The audience liked it a lot. The combination of drums, electric bass, and acoustic guitars is a really nice sound. In the ‘60s, there was a great-sounding band called Pentangle with those two good English fingerpickers, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. They had a tasty jazz drummer who played brushes, an excellent acoustic bass player, and a lady who sang in a sort of madrigal, English voice. It was a lovely band that sounded great onstage. We played a lot of shows with them, and I thought that combination of two acoustic guitars and a standard rhythm section had a lot of possibilities. How much preparation do you do for acoustic shows?

 Garcia: Before I go on tour, I like to spend two or three days with John, just warming up my chops on the acoustic guitar. We’ve done it enough now where it only takes a few days to warm up, chops-wise. And then before a show, I’ll do some short-term warming up. What’s your setup for acoustic gigs?

Garcia: I use an off-the-shelf Takamine. I don’t know what the model is, but it’s a dreadnought cutaway with three slider controls — a high and low boost, and volume. I have it set up like an acoustic guitar, with significantly heavier strings and higher action. I just run it into the board. Usually I bring it up through a monitor system we take with us, and it’s plenty loud. Sometimes I use a little Fender Twin Reverb onstage as a fail-safe —just in case something goes wrong, I can still hear the guitar. Are you satisfied with your sound?

Garcia: Yeah. I get the nice qualities of tone — the pretty features of an acoustic guitar. I don’t think I would do these shows if it weren’t for the technological advances made with the amplified acoustic guitar. I’ve never had any luck at all with acoustic guitar and microphone, because of the Frankenstein nature of the microphone as an electric ear. If you hold a microphone up to the soundhole of a big guitar like a D-28, it woofs and booms and does all these things that are non-musical in nature. Also, the difference in touch is too radical — the way you have to dig in with an acoustic guitar and a microphone, as opposed to the way you play an electric guitar. If I were to try to do both all the time, my electric guitar chops would go way downhill. How much of a Grateful Dead show is improvisation?

Garcia: About 80 percent. Almost all of it, really — all the stuff that isn’t the words and the melody. I don’t think I could last very long in a band that played things the same as on the record. That would be so dull for me. In fact, I don’t think that I could do it. Do you play any music that’s never heard by fans?

Garcia: Yeah. I have a weird kind of music that I play mostly for myself. When I’m sitting around with the guitar and there’s nobody else around, I get carried away into these fascinating zones. I’ve never tried to record it, so I have no idea what it sounds like. It’s so formless that I couldn’t play it with somebody. Sometimes it’s just chord progressions or a whole bunch of real dense chords things that have leading tones but aren’t songs — it’s just music. Sometimes I start with a little idea that has a counter-melody, and I start stretching it out. I do this on either electric or acoustic guitar. Do you come up with lines when you don’t have an instrument in hand?

Garcia: Oh, absolutely. There’s where “Terrapin” came from. The end part, the big theme, just dropped into my head — boom. Not only that, but it came fully orchestrated. I’ve had melodies drop into my head a lot, but they’re usually not that long. Usually, though, I lose it. I get a great idea, and by the time I get somewhere where I can either solidify it with an instrument or write it down, it’s gone. Song ideas always come to me at really strange times, There’s always some musical continuum going on that I can sort of turn on and off like a radio, but usually it’s just mind rot. Every once in a while a good idea comes through, but I never know when it’s going to be. Can you psyche yourself into creative moods?

Garcia: I almost always have to; they don’t come to me. If I don’t sit down and work at stuff, I don’t get song ideas. I’m not that creative or prolific: I write maybe three, four songs a year, if that, and I have to work at them. Sometimes I’ll work a couple of hours, and nothing will happen. Next day, I’ll do the same thing, and the next day. Maybe four or five days into it, I’ll get a little idea that sounds kind of nice. Then every once in a while, I get a stroke — something far out. Usually once I’ve got the first idea, then maybe three or four songs will come out in the next two days.
                                                 Why have you attracted such a loyal following over the years?

Garcia: It must be really hungry out there (laughs). I blame the general low quality of life. To tell you the truth, I don’t know why the first person stayed for the first song, you know what I mean? I played for a long time and nobody cared about it at all. Having people hanging out and liking it is just tremendous good luck. I’m glad people like it, but I don’t know how or why or what they like, particularly. It’s hard to appreciate from this side of it. How would you like to be remembered?

Garcia: As a pretty okay musician. I don’t really expect to be remembered—that’s way ahead of me. I’m still trying just to get good. If I get good, then I might say I hope people remember how good I am. The idea of being remembered would be embarrassing to me at this point. It’s like, remembering is dangerous.

courtesy of and hosted at the dead archive at uc berkeley

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