Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia was notoriously a virtuoso with his instrument, spending a long career fascinating fans with his creativity and technical skill. In fact, Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing, along with the rest of the band, of course, has allowed the Grateful Dead legacy to continue many years after the band stopped playing following Jerry’s death in 1995. And Jerry did it all with a missing finger.
The story goes that the five year old Jerry Garcia was chopping wood with his older brother, Clifford “Tiff” Garcia while camping in the Redwoods with his family. Tiff explains in an interview with Robert Greenfield published in the biography Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia that the two were taking turns holding the wood while the other chopped it.
Jerry was playing a childish game where he would pull the wood away just before Tiff would swing the axe, and the two of them were laughing and messing around as young kids tend to do.
This ultimately led to Jerry’s finger being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tiff swung the axe and it crunched into the middle finger on Jerry’s right hand.
Contrary to some information out there, Tiff explains that Jerry’s finger was in fact not fully severed during the incident, but rather just injured. They went to the hospital and the doctors tried their best but were not able to reattach Jerry’s finger.
Jerry seemed relatively unphased by this incident, and reportedly used to play practical jokes on other kids in school and tease them with his missing finger. And his guitar playing was clearly unphased, because he grew up to become the brains behind the Grateful Dead, which if you’ve found this article I’m sure you’re quite familiar with.
Perhaps Jerry losing his finger was inspirational for him, because he was forced by circumstance to adapt and use an unconventional approach. Kind of like the professional climber Tommy Caldwell who famously chopped his finger off with a table saw, and then proceeded to become the first person to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite. Except Jerry lost his finger and then proceeded to become one of the most famous and beloved guitarists who ever lived.
The challenge inherent in learning guitar quite literally shorthanded probably had something to do with the skill and style that he developed. There was never a time where I’ve thought to myself, wow, if Jerry did all this with 9 fingers, what could he have done with all 10? I might argue that he wouldn’t have been as good if he hadn’t lost that finger. What do you think?
Today, Jerry Garcia’s handprint is a familiar symbol for Deadheads, just like the Steal Your Face logo and the dancing bears. You might see a sticker slapped on the back of a car, or a hat in the crowd at a show. It was also used on the cover art for the Jerry Garcia All Good Things box set, which was released by Rhino Records back in 2004.
Also check out this silly interview that Jerry did with Al Franken backstage during their Halloween run at the Radio City Music Hall in 1980, where Jerry jokes about keeping his finger on ice since he was a kid to preserve it.