Soundtrack by the Grateful Dead (1974)
Peter Darling writes about Jerry Garcia's guitar playing and practice. Like many other geniuses, Garcia's work ethic recevied very little media attention. Patience, practice, and persistence are boring (and difficult).
Seth Godin had an interesting post today about patience. To take his thinking one step further, I think that when you're deciding whether or not to hang in there when you're not getting anywhere (or think you're not) it all comes down to one critical moment of truth. Actually, thousands of critical moments of truth. That's where the whole problem lives.
Which brings me, of course, to Jerry Garcia.
I have been a huge Grateful Dead fan for about the last thirty years. In a way, it's why I eventually moved to the Bay Area. And as anyone who knows the Dead knows, the really transcendent player in the band was Garcia. When I was sixteen, I first heard one of his solos, and I was stunned. Lightning-fast, beautiful, and overflowing with harmonic ideas and melodies that were completely improvised and that just kept coming and coming and coming. As far as I'm concerned, the only person who can come close to him is Duane Allman.
And all the hippie schtick aside, all the drugs aside, the constant wearing of the black t-shirt aside, the thing that made Garcia Garcia was actually two things. First, an incredible natural talent. And second, he practiced ALL THE TIME.
Garcia's a perfect maniac about practicing. That's his primary addiction. He's got to be playing all the time. On the road, in his hotel room, he's constantly going through his chord books, shopping for new ones when he's in New York, haunting the old music stores, scouring Brill Building music shops in an endless quest for finger exercises and chord charts … Garcia raids technical manuals that the Fender guitar company put out. Leo Fender understood better than anybody how to get the most out of your solid-body guitar. All the variations you can run on a theme, exercise books. Jerry practices all the time. Just chords upon chords upon chords, all the possible configurations for fingering and diagrams for picking.
The result is that he can play basically anything he wants beautifully, fast and creatively. Consequently, some of the Dead's best-known songs, the ones you really fall in love with if you're into the Dead, are really hard to play. One of my favorites is "Eyes of the World" — take a look at this version from 1991.
This isn't even his best, but it's still amazing. To get some sense of how amazing it is, here's a guy who's an online guitar teacher talking about how hard the song is to play. As he says, being able to play this song is why Jerry is Jerry. It's not the funny hair, or the weirdness, or the drugs. It's dedicating your life to being so good at what you do that you can just rip through a song that professional guitar players have a very hard time with. Not a lot of people know this about him, but it's true.
The kind of patience Godin writes about, and Garcia is an example of, is not some mystical quality. It's the day in and day out habit of making the right decisions thousands and thousands of times. It's little victories that, over a long time, keep adding up. Every time, if you're Garcia, you pick up your guitar and a chord book in your hotel room, and work on your fingering for an hour instead of going out and getting wrecked, is another right decision, another small step towards excellence, and success. Patience is really just making the decision not to quit over and over and over again.