The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia is well known for his noodling, improvisational, and melodic style of guitar playing. If you didn’t know he’s missing two-thirds of his right middle finger, there is nothing in his playing with either the Dead, The Jerry Garcia Band, or any other of his projects that would make you think he doesn’t have all his digits. The injury didn’t hamper his ability to become a successful musician, even if it did deprive him of the opportunity to flick a double-bird.
The fact that Garcia was able to master the guitar even with only nine full fingers is likely due to how young he was when his brother chopped off his finger. According to Garcia’s older brother, Tiff Garcia, the brothers were chopping wood and Tiff had the ax. At the time Jerry was just 4 years old. Tiff told Luke Wilson in an interview on YouTube that Jerry was putting little twigs on a sawhorse and Tiff was chopping them in half to make kindling. Jerry was sticking out his middle finger and moving it back and forth over the twigs as Tiff chopped in something like a game of chicken.
After a while of that game, Tiff said, “Finally I just — I nailed him. So they had to remove it.” As for Jerry, in a 1971 interview with Guitar Player re-published on Dead Sources, he said if it weren’t for the missing finger he would’ve played piano.
Jerry Garcia said losing his finger was “a good score”
Jerry Garcia told Guitar Player while the piano wasn’t an option with only nine fingers, the lack of a middle finger is “not a handicap for the guitar,” or even for the pedal steel. He said, “It never bothers me, never ever.”
Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1991 when the accident happened the family was about 30 miles out of town in the mountains, so during the drive to the hospital in Santa Cruz his hand was wrapped in a towel. It wasn’t until weeks later when the last bandage was finally removed that he realized he’d lost his finger.
He said, “And I remember it didn’t hurt or anything. It was just a sort of buzzing sensation. I don’t associate any pain with it. For me, the traumatic part of it was after the doctor amputated it, I had this big cast and bandages on it. And they gradually got smaller and smaller, until I was down to like one little bandage. And I thought for sure my finger was under there. I just knew it was. And that was the worst part, when the bandage came off. ‘Oh, my God, my finger’s gone.’ But after that, it was okay, because as a kid, if you have a few little things that make you different, it’s a good score. So I got a lot of mileage out of having a missing finger when I was a kid.”
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