Tonight, Phil Lesh will assemble an unusually eclectic group of musicians for the first of two shows at Coney Island's Ford Amphitheatre. Joining the bassist will be bandmates Eric Krasno, Alan Evans and Neal Evans, who are known together as Soulive, along with Jackie Greene, Karl Denson, Jason Crosby and The Shady Horns.
In what is sure to be an exciting run as these skilled musicians put their unique spin on Grateful Dead classics and beyond, the run will also find Krasno debuting a brand new guitar sent to him by another new guitarist in the Dead world--John Mayer.
As Krasno explains, the new Paul Reed Smith he'll be playing on stage tonight is the second of two guitars Mayer had designed for him prior to Dead & Company's tour. Mayer delved into the musical mind of Jerry Garcia with the people at PRS and created a truly Garcia guitar that enables him to reach some of those signature sounds. "He said to me, 'You need to play this guitar, you need to try this,'" Krasno explains of his initial conversations with Mayer about the guitar, which stemmed from a compliment passed onto the guitarist (and fellow Berklee alum) from Oteil Burbridge.
Krasno also dishes on his early days as a Deadhead, Mayer's performance thus far in Dead & Company, how playing in projects like Phil Lesh & Friends and Billy & The Kids has opened his eyes to a whole new aspect of a band he's loved for many years.
There’s an interesting story behind the guitar you’ll be using this week at Coney Island. Can you give some background on how this all came together?
Since playing with Phil and Billy, beyond just like digging into the music, digging into the tones and the sounds of the Dead has been its own journey. Just to give the full picture of it, I started diving into it after playing and just seeing the different guitars and the different sounds that Jerry had used over the years.
Part of the thing about the Grateful Dead is that they were not only at the forefront of creating this whole community and also creating a new sound musically, they were also technically pushing boundaries. They were building the Wall of Sound and helping design guitars and new effects equipment and creating this new style of production by bringing these shows all over the country and bringing bigger productions.
Anyway, Jerry was always trying to find these sounds with the guitar whether it was with pedals or MIDIs or pick-ups and different sounds that he could get out of the guitar so Doug Irwin built various guitars for him utilizing three pick ups and all these different switches which you could get many different timbres and tones with it.
I got to play Tiger at Central Park and I was blown away by how it felt and when I saw Dead & Company, I mentioned to Oteil [Burbridge] that John Mayer was really getting a lot of these signature sounds out of his equipment and his guitar and he passed along that message to John and then John texted me like, ‘Hey man we should talk about this.’ I called him and he’s really into it it turns out.
He spent a good amount of time digging into it even further. Spent a lot of time digging into the music, the different airs and the different songs and getting the sounds so he developed a guitar with Paul Reed Smith that has a bunch of the switches that Jerry used and also a longer neck which was a bigger thing than I knew because it’s not just about having more notes it’s also about the sound that it creates with a longer neck. I hope I’m not getting too technical for the Relix readers (Laughs).
I bet many will appreciate the technical side for sure.
So, he explained to me the different configurations. He said to me, ‘You need to play this guitar, you need to try this.’ There’s two of them, one he used on the previous tour and one he used on the current tour, and the one he calls ‘Number Two’ he sent to me and that’s the guitar I’m going to use this week.
I’ve been playing it a little bit trying to prep for it, it’s pretty amazing and mind-blowing what they’ve created and Paul Reed Smith, they’re beautiful guitars and a very high level consumer guitar and this one, along with a team of people, was him hands on building it for John for Dead & Company. I’m looking to now build one in the same vein. I don’t know if it’s going to be a Paul Reed Smith or who’s going to build it yet but I definitely want to build a custom guitar with a lot of these configurations.
I’m using this one for now until I have one for me. But that’s very generous of him to send out to use. It’s a truly beautiful guitar and it has some amazing tones. It’s all about not just emulating what Jerry did but adding our own thing to it and giving our sound with respect to what he did. And that was one of the things John mentioned too, he said ‘This is an open source thing.’ We’re all adding something that he started and we’re all giving our own take on it and there’s such a huge library of music form the Dead and its all been interpreted in so many different ways now and I think that’s the beauty of it is that now it’s becoming something beyond just a band--it’s music that people are going to listen to forever. It’s becoming traditional and these songs have a life of many generations to come.
Both you and John came into the Dead world around the same time, albeit with different projects. How was it to talk to him and compare notes as the guitar players?
Well it’s interesting, I’ve known him for a while. He brought Soulive on tour when he made the Continuum album, which is my favorite album of his. We got to know each other a little bit then and we discovered we’re from like the same area and the same age and he went to Berklee so there’s a lot of common thread there but I’ve always respected him as a player and a songwriter too, that record specifically.
I was intrigued when he was about to be in Dead & Company because I wasn’t aware of him being a Dead fan at that point but I think in recent years he got into it and I think it’s the same allure as me, but I was a Deadhead early on. My brother got me into shows and in a way they were the portal to a lot of other music for me.
I came full circle when I didn’t listen to the Dead for a while, I was just doing other things--I was in Soulive and Lettuce and coming back around, learning the songs again, I’m even more of a fan than I was in the beginning. Now, also being in a band seeing what they did and how they paved the way for everything that this scene is.
Beyond music there’s the way they produced their shows and created an experience for their fans and I think that’s something a lot of musicians discover over time like the way that they changed their set lists so their touring fan base could always new shows and new experience and the way that they would change the way they played the songs and arranged the songs.
It’s a constant challenge and it still continues. Phil is one of the busiest people I know and every time he plays a show he has different members of the band and he has to rehearse the songs and revamp the songs that he’s played so many times. But he likes to give it a fresh take every time. He likes to stretch out and take chances. I think that sense of challenging ourselves and being a part of this amazing community, I know he was touched by that, I know that I have been.
It’s been pretty amazing. Just being at the shows when the first note of the song hits and everyone gets so excited, you feel that excitement and you feel them sing those first words, it’s cool to be a part of that whether it’s on stage or being in the audience. I feel like it’s been a blessing to experience that.
And for this Coney Island run, you’re definitely around some familiar faces.
[Phil] was like, ‘Yeah bring your guys in’ and now it’s pretty much Soulive, and Shady Horns and Jackie and Jason [and Karl Denson]. We’re all really good friends and we all hang out anyway so it’s cool to get to do it with such good friends and great musicians.
Going back to the guitar briefly—what about it stylistically is different that makes it closer to the line of guitars Jerry used over the years?
One thing is that he played with such dynamics and that’s been something really cool for me to open up that side where it’s not just like putting everything into each note like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Hendrix where it’s just like everything into each note.
He really has that nuance and I think he wanted to create a guitar that really showcased that. I don’t want to say what he was thinking but I know with the way he developed those guitars with Doug Irwin that there’s so much dynamic to them and so much sensitivity and that’s what Jerry really envisioned is that sensitive style, all those little twists and turns that he played. You want to hear all that stuff so that’s one thing we’re trying to achieve.
And again, the scale length and having access to higher notes easier and then also in turn the long neck created a certain twang when he’s playing those chords like on “Deal.” When I played “Deal” on this guitar it never sounded like that before because of that certain twang. I call it the spank, it has a certain spank to it. The rest of it is very technical.
This guitar does not have this but on Tiger they have an effects loop, which allows you to kick in what we call the quacker or the low filter which is that sound on “Shakedown.” The “Shakedown sound.” He had a switch on his guitar that enabled him to flip that on just from his guitar, which was pretty cool.
Since most of this is because of John Mayer, what do you think about how the community has embraced him and accepted him over the course of Dead & Company?
When I saw him do the Grateful Dead gig, I thought he did a great job. John put a lot of work into it and did a great job on the playing side of it. He sounded really good. I think over time he fell into the role more and more and I’m sure in the beginning there was a lot of hesitation for people to embrace him as a member of the Dead Co. but I think he proved himself.
It’s definitely interesting to hear his playing in the Dead’s world. What do you notice about your playing when you step into this music?
A lot of the style of playing of the Grateful Dead is laying over the change of song and being able to stay with the song form. That was something that Jerry did so well. I don’t want to say on his behalf but he was a jazz player in terms of he was always playing and flowing over these chord changes.
A lot of the stuff that we do is one or two chord changes or we just play over a vamp but with the Dead dudes it’s all about playing over these flowing song forms and he was so good at that--playing lyrically. Knowing the song you could hear the lyrics in his playing. That to me is something I’ve learned so much from in terms of playing with Phil and Billy and being true to that song and stretching that song but always having that in you. Having those lyrics and that melody in what you’re playing and staying true to that.