[Pictured here is the late ’60’s Strat I bought after the incident retold here, tho not before I went thru several other guitars first. But that’s another post.]
The next time I saw Jerry after the truck op I told you about (see “Truckin’ with Jerry,” four posts back) was at this dump somewhere in LA. He and the rest of the Grateful Dead were renting a big old wood frame rooming house in a seedy part of city, but that’s all I remember about it’s location and architecture. This would have been sometime in 1965.
Someone else besides the band rented rooms in the house: Stanley Owsley. At that time Owsley was the biggest name in LSD R&D and distribution, at least in So. Cal. I did not know who he was at the time, and it wouldn’t have made a difference if I did; I was already committed to ingesting only the best product around: Window Pane, Orange Sunshine, Purple Haze, et al.
Again it was my friend Lonnie Feiner who greased the skids for this visit with Jerry, tho’ I didn’t realize yet there were skids to be greased; the Dead were still in pupa stage, tho’ emerging ever faster toward adulthood. But Jerry was a nice, unpretentious guy, and he seemed glad to hang with Lonnie and me. I don’t remember a whole lot from that nite, tho’ Lonnie tickled my memory a bit in our last phone conversation.
I remember bringing my guitar, I think a Fender Mustang but I’m not sure, to the party. I’ll come back to this later, and then, if you would help me, please, i.d. the model from my description, I would send you a PowerPickers flatpick as soon as their out of the mold: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d just gotten it, the guitar, fresh out of the window of Eagle Loan, a pawnshop in downtown LA, and I was really proud of it. I’d wanted a red Strat(ocaster), but the pawnbroker didn’t have one right then and convinced me that the beige instrument he did have exuded more quiet confidence than the garish, flamboyant one I’d thought I wanted. So, beige Mustang(?) it was.
Anyway, it’s the axe I took to the Dead’s dump that nite, and the one I was using with the Fender Super Reverb amp I’d also just bought and was now breaking my ass schlepping up a flight of stairs. Super Reverbs have four ten-inch speakers and sound great but they were very heavy and clumsy, which fact was brought home to me big time when I had my own band a couple years later, and I had to carry it across parking lots and up and down stage stairs and venue back entrances.
Anyway, we plugged in, Jerry, Lonnie and me, tuned, fired up a joint and started playing a 12-bar blues, the instrumental music meditation everybody who’s ever played pop/jazz/folk music knows ¬¬¬¬and loosens up with.
The tempo Jerry set was a little too soulful [translation: slow] for me, but we played on for at least a half hour, which I now see it was a harbinger of Dead jams to come. For me it was an average “pick”, meandering and repetitive. But finally we put our axes down and signaled each other with slow, soulful nods of approval that it was a successful jam and passed the joint around again.
I mentioned that Jerry’s tone seemed to be cleaner and clearer than mine, and he said yes, he’d noticed that. What I actually said was, “I sound like hammered shit.”
“Let me see your guitar, man,” Jerry said. He took it, gave it a quick once-over and handed it back to me. “Man,” he said, “you may be the first guy ever to try to play Rock n’ Roll with Bluegrass strings.”
“So? I said.
“Man, bronze doesn’t conduct,” he said. “You’ll never get enough output to drive an amp with bronze strings.” He took a long toke on the joint and handed it to me, index finger to index finger style. “And big, fat strings have nothing to do with Rock. You still think playing with heavy strings is macho? No way, man. You gotta get Super Slinkies” [really light-gauge strings] “with unwound thirds” [the third string on a guitar, used for bending notes] “to rock.”
I‘m sure I blushed, because I knew what he was talking about. In Bluegrass you use an acoustic guitar, big, with a high action, and you string it with jumbo bronze strings for maximum volume and tone. It gives a big (for acoustic guitar), warm sound. The downside is that the high action and big strings make it hard to play. (One of the reasons Doc Watson is as good as he is that he’s big and strong. He’s also monstrously talented).
Part of why I put the big strings on the Fender was that I already had them, even tho I knew better. In those days you couldn’t play any kind of guitar and not know that Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings were the real deal. But I didn’t say anything, just took a really deep, defensive drag on the shrinking joint.
“You can’t bend heavy-gauge strings,” he went on.
[Bending strings, i.e., changing the pitch of a note by stretching the string, is a signature sound of Rock ‘n Roll.] “Check it out on mine, man. Try to ‘wow’ (another word for bend) the third string as much as you can.”
We exchanged guitars, for me a gesture of defeat and supplication in memoriam to my resistance to learning Rock ‘n Roll, an idiom I loved but that scared the shit out of me to try to play. Now I was facing both the threat and the opportunity to do so right there.
On Jerry’s guitar I immediately starting playing licks I’d never played before. They came to me automatically. My hands went to the right notes on their own.
“Try that with those trans-Atlantic cables you got on yours,” Jerry said. “Also, there’s something else funny about that guitar.” He took a toke. “Lemme see it again.”
“You’re already holding it,” I said.
“Outtasight,” he said. He put it up against his own guitar, face to face, fingerboards kissing. “Dig, man,” he said, nodding at the necks. “Look at the difference between the two fingerboards. In fact, the whole guitars.”
He didn’t have to say any more. The neck on my guitar was at least two inches shorter than his, nut to saddle. My whole guitar was almost a hand’s width smaller than his.
“What does that mean?” I said.
“Man, it’s a three-quarter guitar, man. You’ll never get the sound you want—you do want to play Rock, don’t you?—with this.” I probably nodded, but I was smarting from all this. “This is a shortened scale,” he went on. “The pickups won’t resonate right with the strings unless the scale is…
I dunno, I don’t understand it, but I know I’m right. Ask anyone.” He paused. “Man, I think they sold you a girl’s guitar. He looked at Lonnie. “You gonna hold that J forever?”
“So, what you’re saying, man,” I said, trying to recover, “is that my guitar’s too small, my strings are too thick and I’m a fairy. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Let me see your flatpick.” He took it and handed it right back. “What the fuck is that, tortoise shell? You need a thin flatpick, like this,” he said, showing me a wafer no stiffer than a matchbook cover, “so you can, you know, flog the strings like a whip.” He showed me on his guitar.
I was impressed. You can’t play full chords really fast with a Bluegrass pick. They come out in a spray of notes, a little like flamenco. I mentioned that, upon which he seemed to meditate for a moment.
Then, “Hey, I wonder what that would sound like? Flamenco rock, I mean. I’m gonna write something in flamenco rock.” Then, to me: “Heavy, man. Mucho obbligato. Here, man, take this pick; keep it.” It had “Grateful Dead” on it. “Tell you what,” he said, getting up off the floor.
He went over to a bunch of cases on the floor, opened a couple and came back with a Martin D-28 (your top-of-the-line Bluegrass guitar) and a gleaming Gibson banjo. (BTW, if your wondering where Lonnie was in all of this he had fallen asleep right after the jam; grass did that to him). Jerry handed me the Martin. “Wanna pick?” he said, Bluegrass talk for “let’s play.”
We picked for at least another hour, him on five-string banjo, me on his Dreadnought guitar. He was a little sloppy, a little out of practice, I guess, but authentic and exciting, anyway. He was always pretty good at your basic hard-charging Earl Scruggs three-finger sequential torrent of notes. You could tell he’d once put in the time and work necessary to master that technique, and, in his case, with a missing finger on his right hand, to boot. [I did a blog on this, but I don’t want to look it up right now. You can find it in the index.]
And God knows, he had the right axe: a Gibson Mastertone [model you tell me], probably from the late ‘Forties, with a raised tone ring and whatever were the right strings. Ya think that instrument might have been the right length?
So for a few minutes I was back in my comfort zone. But I’d wandered into Rock n’ Roll land and broken my hymen. And they say the Titanic was a nite to remember.