Garcia often retold the story of how he got his first guitar. In compiling my post on Garcia's records & early musical history, I gathered a number of these quotes - but basically I couldn't decide which to include. So here are several retellings of how he got started on guitar...
“During this time…I want a guitar so bad it hurts. 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! And on my 15th birthday my mother gave me an accordion. I looked at this accordion and I said, ‘God, I don’t want this accordion, I want an electric guitar!’ 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. 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.” (Signpost to New Space, p.3-4; from 1971)
“When I first heard the electric guitar, that’s what I wanted to play. I petitioned my mom to get me one, so she finally did for my birthday. Actually, she got me an accordion, and I went nuts – ‘Aggghhh, no, no, no!’ I railed and raved, and she finally turned it in, and I got a pawnshop electric guitar and an amplifier. I was just beside myself with joy. I started banging away on it without having the slightest idea of anything. I didn’t know how to tune it up, I had no idea. My stepfather tuned it in some kind of weird way, like an open chord… I played it that way for about a year before I finally ran into some kid at school who actually could play a little. He showed me a few basic chords, and that was it. I never took any lessons; I don’t even think there was anybody teaching around the Bay Area.” (Rolling Stone, Garcia p.193; from 1993)
“I got a good old Danelectro guitar. I was so happy with it. It had a kind of coffin-shaped case. And I got a little teeny-weeny Fender amplifier… My stepfather tuned it to this weird bogus tuning, or maybe he tuned it right and I evolved the tuning wrong in some way, but I ended up tuning it to this open tuning and working out chords and stuff, and playing along with just what sounded good, with absolutely no directionality, for about a year. Then I met a guy in school who showed me the right way to tune it, and four chords, maybe five chords – the basic first-position chords and stuff. I had to unlearn somewhere between six months’ and a year’s worth of self-teaching, but I really was a slow learner, and basically I didn’t get into really learning the guitar with any kind of depth at all until the Grateful Dead started. Even then, it took a long time. I’m a slow learner. I didn’t work hard at it, and I didn’t have any lessons or…guidance. The banjo was the first instrument I got into seriously.” (Conversations with the Dead p.87; from 1981)
“When I was about fifteen, I developed this deep craving to play the electric guitar. I fell in love with rock & roll, I wanted to make that sound so badly. So I got a pawnshop electric guitar and a little amplifier and I started without the benefit of anybody else around me who played the guitar or any books. My stepfather put it in an open tuning of some kind, and I taught myself how to play by ear. I did that for about a year until I ran into a kid at school who knew three chords on the guitar and also the correct way to tune it. That’s when I started to play around at it, then I picked things up. I never took lessons or anything… No particular musician inspired me, apart from maybe Chuck Berry. But all of the music from the fifties inspired me.”
“My first guitar was an electric guitar, and my first love on the guitar was Chuck Berry. He was my guy. When I was a kid I got all his records, and I’d just try like crazy to learn how to play them. I got this electric guitar and I didn’t know anything about the guitar. I had the guitar for maybe six or eight months without ever knowing how to tune it, and 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! Finally I ran into a guy who showed me how to tune it; he showed me a few of the basic chords and it was just a revelation! Here it was, the real way to do it!” (Grateful Dead Reader p.22-23; from 1967)
“I got my first guitar on my 15th birthday. I played around with it for a year before I learned how to tune it properly. I had invented my own tuning, and invented my own chords because there wasn’t anybody in San Francisco that played the guitar at that time the way I wanted to play. I had to grope. Finally, I met a guy in the high school that I was going to that knew a few chords and knew the right way to tune a guitar, and I picked it up. 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.” (MTV 1983 interview)