Guitar Lessons From Jerry

Jim Keller

Bay Area college administrator Jim Keller recalls the guitar instructor who understood that he just wanted to play.

The strangest of places? At San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall preceding the Tribute to Jerry Garcia with Warren Haynes and Company this past August, Rex board member Andy Gadiel introduced JamBase’s new CEO, Sabrina Schulz, and her husband, Jim Keller, to board member Freddy Hahne.

In the conversation that followed, Jim Keller divulged his experience with Jerry, just as the lights in the Symphony Hall flickered to signify that the performance was imminent.

The lights also flickered in Freddy’s head, thinking Jim’s story would be fascinating to Dead Heads and Jerry fans. And so it went as the band played on.

In 1965, young Jim Keller, newly arrived with his family in Palo Alto when his dad took a job at Stanford, was in Dana Morgan’s music store shopping for his first electric guitar. “I quickly fell in love with a Gibson SG,” he recalls. But he didn’t actually know how to play it, so one of the guitar instructors demonstrated the instrument. In short order, Keller had a new Gibson and was signed up for lessons with the helpful instructor, one Jerry Garcia.

To Keller, just transplanted from Montgomery, Alabama, the latest of many posts in his father’s Air Force career, Garcia–“this weird-looking guy with long dark hair and a Billy Budd t-shirt”–was a new experience. But unlike many other teachers, he was perfectly comfortable with the fact that his student wanted to PLAY, not learn a lot of theory. Also, says Keller flatly, “He was a genius.”

Every week, Keller would bring a portable tape deck to the tiny lesson room at Dana Morgan’s and play the tune he wanted to learn for Garcia. “He’d transcribe it right there on the music sheet and play it. Not just the notes, but the timing. I’ve never seen anyone who could do that,” Keller marvels. Then he’d teach Keller how to play it.

“I think I was his worst nightmare,” Keller laughs. “I just wanted to play stuff like (surf-guitar band) The Ventures.”

The lessons continued for several months, until the fall of 1965, when Garcia left the music store to keep up with the growing demands of his band. Unfortunately for Keller’s guitar career, the next teacher he got wanted to teach theory, not surf-guitar licks, and Keller suddenly decided he was more interested in sports.

Today, at 63, Keller, the deputy chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District, is getting back into guitar a bit, and looks back fondly on his first teacher. “He was a quiet, unassuming man, very nice, very talented. And he understood that I just wanted to play.”