Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Jerry Garcia & The Missing Finger

My earliest recollections of playing with Jerry Garcia are the informal Bluegrass pickin’ sessions in John and Deirdre Lundburg’s guitar shop on Dwight Way, just off campus, in Berkeley. This would have been around 1962 or 1963. He and I’d been introduced by a mutual friend, Lonnie Feiner, a singer-guitarist from Los Angeles, who seemed to know everyone and was a walking clearing house for people from many different sub-groups in the folk music cosmos of the ‘Sixties.

I remember especially, at one of the informal jams we had, a moment when time stood still, at lease for me. It came during an early, but, significantly, not the very earliest, pickin’ session I had with Jerry, either a duo or with any of the score of pickers that hung out at Lundburg’s. I don’t remember much detail, but I do recall that the two of us, him playing 5-string banjo and me playing guitar, sat across from each other on low stools in front of Lundberg’s counter, where a tangled nest of strings and harmonicas were razor-wire to customers trying to get behind it. Everybody knew the bluegrass repertoire in those days, and Jerry and I were casually sifting through it, breaking from time to time to kibbitz and exchange gig information.

“You guys are playing in North Beach, right?” he’d asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “we go back and forth between Coffee & Confusion and the Coffee Gallery every other week.” The “we” was my band, the Ridgerunners, a trio I had with a mandolinist from Berkeley and a banjo player from New York. “Sometimes there’s even someone in the audient.”
He laughed. “I know what you mean, ‘Thank you for the applau,'” he said. We all knew the same jokes about not getting many people to turn out for our “engagements.”
At some point we talked a little about the possibility of playing together as a duo, not to preempt what I was doing with my band, just to have something other than classes to be involved in.

When we started playing again I suddenly realized I’d been staring at something I thought could only be an optical illusion. In a way, it’s good that I was so honestly, dumbly curious, with my eyes just riveted on Jerry’s right hand, because it meant I didn’t have to pretend I hadn’t seen what I thought I was seeing, then go thru an elaborate charade pretending I hadn’t seen it.
Anyway, in a moment I realized I did, in fact, see what I thought I’d seen, i.e., that Jerry’s right hand middle finger was missing, but that he was still playing his 5-string Gibson Mastertone banjo like a centipede on speed. I looked up and saw

him beaming at me like Alice’s Cheshire cat. I’m sure I was slackjawed, but just as sure he’d gone thru this scenario many times with many people, and was comfortable with it. We did a big suction ending on the song a few choruses later.

“What are you looking at?” he said, laughing, training mischievous eyes on my face, rather than his hand.
I started to say something, “Ahh, I…,” and then gave up because: 1) I knew I had nothing to say, and; 2) I think Jerry knew that if I just thought about it for a minute, I could answer any questions I had about someone with a missing middle finger making Bluegrass banjo his instrument of choice. And he was right.

Earl Scruggs’ bluegrass banjo technique, possibly the most viscerally exciting instrumental style in American genre music, isn’t called “three-finger pickin'” for nothing. The notes in almost all Scruggs patterns fall into a very finite number of plucking combinations using the thumb and two fingers, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s thumb-index-middle or thumb-index ring that make up the combine. It’s all the same to the 5-string banjo, and, obviously, all the same to the listener, witness my not seeing (or hearing) it for Jerry’s and my first several sessions playing together, usually sitting straight across from him and seldom more than ten feet away. Der.

And there really was nothing more to say about it. It was what it was. Maybe it even helped him play a little better, see a few combinations other people didn’t, because of his novel approach to an overused technique. That’s what some people say about Blind Doc Watson’s playing, tho’ Jerry Garcia was no Doc Watson.
“Whaddya wanna play?” I said.
“How ‘bout ‘Rawhide?'” he said, kicking off one of the fastest tunes in Bluegrass.

  1. joe nott Says:

    well al or alford or the guitarist formally known as “country”, where’s the knife or woodchipper? sure gives a new meaning to “claw technique”. if this means that possibly i can ever play that fast and sweet and downright tasty and soulfull than i have one question for you. my house or yours! (god help me ill bring the woodchipper)

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