Jerry Garcia, well-known as one of the founders and leaders of the Grateful Dead, has accomplished a guitarist’s dream. The dream of being instantly recognizable with just a few notes. Jerry created his own style and genre of guitar, which was an accumulation of thousands of hours played and meticulous practice.
How did Jerry Garcia learn guitar? Jerry Garcia learned guitar by ear and through experimentation. He created his own tuning method, invented chords, and learned how to play in this unique tuning method. He eventually learned traditional chords and tuning from a guitarist he met in high school.
Continue reading to find out when Jerry started playing, how he learned, and how often he played.
When Did Jerry Garcia Start Playing Guitar?
Jerry Garcia started playing guitar in 1957 at the age of fifteen years old. His mother got him a pawn shop electric guitar and amplifier. From there his guitar journey started, with a brief hiatus when he discovered bluegrass and started playing banjo exclusively. When he started the Warlocks, his guitar playing resumed.
How Did Jerry Garcia Learn Guitar?
In the beginning, Jerry Garcia learned guitar by ear with his pawn shop electric guitar. He knew a couple of chords and never took lessons. It was not until Jerry founded The Warlocks that his guitar skills excelled. He approached guitar from a theoretical perspective and learned how to play what is in his head and not just from a technical perspective.
When Garcia got his first guitar, he taught himself for 7-8 months before meeting someone in school that also played. This player taught Jerry a few chords and corrected some of Jerry’s already formed bad habits.
Before he met the guitarist in high school, Jerry created his own tuning method and invented his own chords. As you would expect, Jerry also created his own way to play in this tuning. He did this because he had no one to play with at the time. This creative approach to playing guitar would hint at the early signs of the mind involved with crafting the Grateful Dead sound.
“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.”Jerry Garcia, 1983 MTV Interview
From then on, Jerry picked up licks now and again, but for the most part, he taught himself everything. He’d grab various ideas from his influences and craft his creative sound.
The Early Years
Jerry Garcia was 15 years old when his brother Tiff Garcia introduced him to blues and early rock & roll music. Immediately, Jerry was hooked. Specifically to the rough texture of the music and the lead guitar players. At this time in his life, Jerry Garcia was heavily influenced by guitarists like Chuck Berry and T-Bone Walker.
Jerry then pleaded with his mom to get him an electric guitar for his birthday. She conceded and got him an electric guitar from the local pawn shop.
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Jerry would dabble with this pawn shop electric guitar before discovering folk music. He was eighteen years old when he joined up with Robert Hunter and started playing various folk-music clubs. Honing in on his acoustic skills and rhythm feel.
Eventually, he was given an acoustic guitar from Barbara Weier, the first acoustic guitar that he owned himself. But then he turned to the banjo. Eventually returning to the electric guitar after the bluegrass music started to feel stale and motionless. With the banjo, there was more of a focus on precision and technique that did not allow for very much improvisation.
Enough of the history lesson, let’s dive into the meat of his guitar journey.
The Electric Guitar Mastery Years
Once he started playing the electric guitar seriously with the Warlocks, he truly started to learn guitar.
Coming from bluegrass roots, he understood how the technique can be just as inhibitive as it is beneficial. He had formed a solid guitar foundation at this point and he was now ready to take the ideas in his head to the fretboard, without following “proper” technique. Simplified to the word “feel”.
Feel is something that often takes years to develop as a guitarist. Sometimes it never does and sometimes guitarists are just born with it. Jerry was born with it, likely passed along from his musician father. Jerry intently practiced translating what was in his head to the guitar, focusing on instinctual feel.
This is where Jerry started becoming the Jerry we would all know and love. His main focus was just having fun and he applied that way of thinking to his playing. Jerry learned guitar by simply playing guitar and seeing what happens. The Grateful Dead fed off of each other’s contributions, and Jerry was able to create different musical ideas that he then translated to the guitar.
Furthermore, he learned guitar heavily through experimentation. Through the Acid Tests, Jerry and the Grateful Dead were allowed to experiment with different ideas on the guitar without the pressure of an intently listening audience. He could formulate what worked and what did not. From there he refined his playing. This continued for months and they played multi-hour sets almost 6 days a week. It was a perfect environment for Jerry Garcia to learn guitar through experimentation.
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How Often Did Jerry Garcia Play?
When the Grateful Dead formed, Jerry Garcia and the band lived together. The product of this was being able to play every day. When the Grateful Dead was not playing together, Jerry would practice alone. During that time, Jerry Garcia would play guitar 7-8 hours a day.
“Jerry fell down the rabbit hole. He would practice ALL the time.”Barbara Meier, Long Strange Trip Documentary
Jerry was constantly playing the guitar. He was either playing with the band or he was practicing alone. This practice was more than just the typical scales. It was creating his own chords, chord patterns, and scales. Anything to help him translate his ideas to the guitar and the listener.
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