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John Garcia — Unsung Blues Guitar Hero

By Ernie Fracchia

Everyone knows the cliché, “You’ve got to pay your dues, if you want to play the blues.” John Garcia has paid his dues and more with 35+ years of experience. A Blues guitarist, extraordinaire, with a Who’s Who of people he’s played or worked with. Unbelievably, he still remains a lesser known blues guitarist. His playing style as a guitarist is inspiring. John has been compared to a sports car running from low to high gear. His intervallic excursions are driving and intense. His understanding of the fretboard is unmatched. He’s the guitarist that other guitarist seek out to improve their technique. He is known in the San Francisco Bay area for his playing expertise and teaching abilities (School Of The Blues). John is best known for playing with John Lee Hooker Sr. and now with blues rapper John Lee Hooker Jr. He plays for the love of the instrument and his joy for playing to the audience. Bo Diddley has stated, “One hell of an entertainer.”

John, who are some of the people you have opened for or played with?

Well, John Lee Hooker Sr. and Junior, Albert King, B.B. King, Canned Heat, Big Moose Walker, Paul Simon, Bud Dimock, Robben Ford, AI Kooper, Eddie Taylor, Don Cherry, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Mark Naftalin, Nick Gravenites, James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin, Mel Brown, Sunnyland Slim, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Elvin Bishop, John Mayall, Katie Webster, J. Geils Band, Charlie Musselwhite, Gary Smith, Johnny Winter, Mike Bloomfield, Otis Rush and others.

John Lee Hooker Jr*s last CD, “All Odds Against Me” was a 2008 Grammy Nominee. How was it contributing to a new form of Blues?

Yes, that was a Grammy nominated CD in 2008.1 worked on all three of his CD’s. “Blues With A Vengeance” was his first Grammy nomination. His newest CD, “All Odds Against Me”, I co-wrote a lot of the tunes and also played on it. “Cold As Ice” was another CD, I recorded with him. John Lee Jr. is a blues rapper and has shifted rapping to a blues context. He’s a very articulate guy and his use of words is creative. The music encompasses his lines with Blues and melds with other styles such as funk, jazz and soul. The blues emotional center is still there. I think of it as more of a modern blues. John Lee Jr. is open to thinking outside of the box. I like the idea of blending other forms into the blues. It’s not a stretch to extend the blues if you like all forms of music.

How was your recent Tour to London and Germany with John Lee Jr.?

The people in Europe were great as usual. They have such a love for American blues artists. They gave us so much love and respect!

How did you meet his dad, John Lee Hooker Senior?

I met him through my friend, Billy Vega. Billy lived close to me in Morgan Hill with his wife. In Billy’s younger days, he traveled a lot as a singer/harp player. He’d always told us, “I use to live with John Lee in his basement as his roadie.” We’d say, “Sure, Billy.”

One day, Billy came over to my house. He looked excited and said, “l want you to meet someone.” We drove a few blocks to Orchard Drive. Billy and I stopped at a house and knocked on the door. When the door opened there was John Lee. My jaw dropped, Billy really did know him!

How was it hanging out with John Lee as a neighbor?

I helped him get acquainted with Gilroy, places to eat, bank and get a haircut. John and I were friends and neighbors. He would always invite my wife and me to his performances, as guests. When I’d visit him, we’d watch sports together on TV. One day, I went over and he was on the phone. So, I just sat on the couch and watched the game. He said to the person on the phone, “Wait a minute; I want you to talk to a friend of mine”. “Here, John talk to Muddy”, I said “Muddy?!” So, there I’m having a conversation with Muddy Waters at John Lee’s house.

Sometimes, I’d take him to see his family in Oakland. John was just a regular guy when he wasn’t touring. No frills just kicking back and relaxing. He hardly played guitar in the house. He was more into cooking ham hocks and black eyed peas. His daughters and grandchildren would visit him a lot. Performers would stop by all the time, too. Van Morrison, Elvin Bishop, Albert King you’d be surprised how many cats would come by. Most of these guys would come by to see him as a getaway and hangout. It wasn’t about party all night and jamming. I got the feeling it was like a safe haven for them. I think most of the people that came by really respected John Lee.

How did you come to join his band?

Well, we were friends for a long time. I was in several bands and John had his band. Well, it turned out John Lee’s guitarist left the band to stay in France. John just came to me and asked me if I wanted to play. I joined the John Lee Hooker and the Coast to Coast Band in 74. It was Ron Thompson, 2nd guitar with Ken Swank on drums and Jim Guyett on bass. Ron Thompson left shortly after that and the new members were Larry Martin (drums), Steve Gomes (bass) and I played guitar (rhythm/solo). Sometimes, it was just me and John and a pickup band. I was with John Lee for about 8 years.

How was it touring and mentoring with John Lee Senior?

I remember the first gig real well. It was a benefit for Sonny Barger of the Hells Angels. It was at the Keystone in Berkeley. Elvin Bishop played with the Tower of Power Horns and John Mayall was a guest. We toured the US several times after that and played the LA area a lot with Bonnie Raitt I think I learned a lot from John about anticipating the feeling of the music and playing intuitively. You know, John didn’t play a normal 12 bar blues. He had a special way he did changes. You had to feel when he was going to change or hear it in his singing. John could play a one chord song and bring tears to your eyes. There were nights that it would do that to me. It was the soul and feeling he had deep inside of himself. John Lee taught me a tot about the music business, too. He pretty much helped me grow into the band director/stage manager role. It was a cool and valuable experience.

How was it playing Carnegie Hall?

The “Cream” album (recorded live at Keystone (1979)) had just come out and this was one of the gigs on the promotional tour. Just knowing you’re going to play Carnegie was exciting. It was great playing on the same bill with Clifton Chenier, Sunnyland Slim and Honey Boy Edwards with Walter Horton on harp (a legend among Chicago Harmonica players). I was a big fan of Walter Horton. It was a sold-out show. The acoustics of the room were unbelievable.

Did you get to play with Walter Horton?

Yes, but not on stage.

Honey Boy was playing on stage and somehow upset Walter. So, Walter in the middle of the set just goes offstage. I was behind stage. I followed Walter up the stairs to the loft dressing rooms. He didn’t talk. So, we just sat there for a while. Then he said, “Let’s play something?”- several times.” I didn’t have my guitar but John Lee’s was out on a stand. I played rhythm and Walter just came out with these great solo licks one after another. I was part of my own private concert with Walter. I think it was the best part of playing at Carnegie. I think our jamming together really helped Walter get through it.

Were there any parties after the Carnegie show?

Yes, after Carnegie we went to a dinner party at the top of the Sears Tower; I met Anita O’Day, John Cage and Paul Simon.

Was there networking at something like Carnegie?

The scoring for Paul Simon’s “One Trick Pony” came about due to the Carnegie Hall performance.

How did that occur?

Paul came up to me and said he liked my playing and wanted me to work on a session project with him. He gave me his business card. I told him we were leaving for Europe and he said he’d like to use me on his next recording. I didn’t give it much thought at the time since you get approached a lot by performers. During that time John Belushi had also approached me about putting a blues band together. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the business – you just can’t take everything at face value.

What happened after the European tour?

I called Paul Simon and in this case – it happened. It was all set up: round trip/hotel/limo/amp. I went to A&R studios. The producer was Phil Ramone. I felt like a country boy in the big city. Literally, I could order anything I wanted in the studio and get it. It was a different world. Look, I was coming from playing in a blues band playing in the Chitlin’ Circuit. I had been to Paul Simon’s apartment earlier at Central Park West. In the middle of his apartment was this pyramid of guitars in glass cases. He had a lot of blues books on the genre. We sat there over cognac discussing the blues form. He had tape libraries of drum beats and rhythms from the people that worked with him. It seemed that if he has a concept for recording; he takes their best to help compose his composition. Getting back to the studio, he’d play something on guitar and say I’d like something like this. Then we’d go back and forth until he got something. He needed a hook for “One Trick Pony”. I had a retooled blues lick in mind to fit what he wanted. He liked the hook and chord progression that I suggested. It was used on the title track for the “One Trick Pony” album.

Who else was on the session?

The session members – Steve Gadd was the drummer, Richard Tee on keys, Eric Gale on 1st guitar, Neil Jason on bass. So we did the original master but when the movie came out they rerecorded with other musicians for the movie score and album. So I received royalties for about 3-4 years but no credit on the album or movie “One Trick Pony” (as song contributor). It was a learning experience and I did get paid. I went back on tour with John Lee in Europe for a second time in 1980.

We’re there any memorable tour moments in Europe?

There was a concert at a Medieval Castle in France. It was amazing; it had a drawbridge and it was partially ruined. Well, it rained a couple of days before and it was flooded all around the Castle. Yet around 3000 people had camped overnight. We drove up in a minivan and they were so excited to see us. They screamed and yelled, hitting the van. Then they just lifted the van and helped us through the flooded areas to the courtyard. It was scary and amazing!

John you’re a music educator, you’ve taught at various colleges, music conservatories, workshops and you’re currently teaching at the “School Of The Blues”. What are some of the elements you’re trying to drive home as an instructor?

I try to push chords, arpeggios, modes/scales, intervals and knowing the fingerboard, I really push chord relationships to the key (arpeggios). I feel that it is really important to know the strong chord tones. This would be root, 3rds, 5ths, b7ths Some people call them cool or hot notes but they’re the strongest tones.

When you incorporate them in your phrasing it gives richness to the phrase and establishes the chord. Jazz players really push the 3rd and 7th tones. The blues use of the third gives that major or minor feel, adding say the 7th adds quality to the phrase. My experience, as a teacher, is that most students don’t really put any effort into learning chords, arpeggios or the fretboard. Most, I’m sorry to say, it’s all about playing lead. The problem is you can get by with the pentatonic first position or the blues scale but to be expressive, knowledge of the fret board is vital.

What guitarists or other musicians influenced you and how did they affect your technique?

I always thought that Michael Bloomfield was a great soloist and he really knew how to comp chords. He used triads, intervals and fills. Horn-like riffs, you know like jabs and stabs. Michael understood and knew triads of the whole scale. He understood harmony and the relationship of chords to the scale. Playing rhythm and really knowing how to use and place chords is essential to being a great lead guitarist like Michael.

BB King has that hummingbird vibrato that influenced my technique. His stage performance was always consistent: night after night, never a bad performance. That taught me a lot about showmanship. Freddy King was also like that – energy, power and playing to the audience.

Joe Pass – I attended one of his workshops. I thought I knew the CAGED system but Joe just made it all so clear. He also made it clear about music theory, 7 notes, 7 scales (arpeggios) and 7 chords – WOW!

When it comes to chords Kenny Burrell really opened the door for me. He was a jazz player with a blues feel. He made it easy for me to get into jazz chords. His voicing of chords had a special sweetness to them.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk was an inspiration. I saw him many times. A blind sax player, his playing, rapport and dialogue with the audience made me really appreciate being a musician.

I still listen to the great organ jazz trios from the ’60’s. Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, George Benson, early Pat Martino, they all understood chords. I was influenced also by Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith, the organ players. It’s the voice leading of their chords.


An example: Chord Voicing (This can be in a side bar)

Let’s take the Key of G. The band is playing a G7th Chord. You play a Dmi 11th. The Dmi 11th against the G7th sounds great! That’s called a minor V against the I. You just added the extensions of the scale. Besides the Root, 3rd, 5th and b7th, we’ve added the 9th and 11th to the chord.


Dm11 G7 Dm11 G13

Vmi       of I

(Alternate votcing’s minus the 9 )



Can you explain your picking technique and equipment?


I’m a pick player but I do use my fingers. It’s a hybrid picking style. I’m a firm believer that the major part of your sound comes from your hands (90%). Bloomfield once told me, “It’s all in your tack, Man.” Of course what Michael meant was it’s how your pick attacks the string. That can really affect the tone of the note.



  • Les Paul ’57 Standard/Primary Guitar – P90’s and cavity shielded, pickups wired out of phase/ CB Perkins Customized.
    Phase setting /treble vol.(8) – rhythm vol.(4.5)/ then adjust for taste
    Nut /bone
    Bridge saddles/ nylon for a good Blues Tone
    Jumbo frets – I like to dig in
  • ASAT Tele GIL – only 100 made / no mods / CB Perkins/ Jumbo frets
  • Heritage 150 Les Paul / one mod – CB Perkins Customized / P90 (humbucker sized) in rhythm position / normal humbucker in treble position. The combo gives a great middle sound/ Jumbo frets
  • Golden Eagle Jazz Box / no mods / 2 Humbuckers/ Jumbo frets


  • Cyber-Twin
    settings; main (reverb(3) – Bass(10) – Mid(10) -Treble(7) – bright off) live/recording
  • 64 Vibroverb
    settings ((vol. 5.5) – sweet breakup) /recording – vol. (6.5) – 40watts / Weber 15″ speaker
  • Aracom Boutique Amp
    Morgan Hill / Similar to Marshall Combo(Clapton – Mayhall period) (model PLX45R112 Combo #008514)


  • Pick / Heavy – Pyramid / CB Perkins/ Bigger sound /
  • Strings / Ernie ball 10-46 (Nickel wound steel)
  • Cord – Standard 20-25 feetPedals:
    Digitech Hardwire Tube overdrive /set to modified/ slight breakup for clean amp
    Ross phaser / seldom used but nice accent sometimes
    Boss echo delay in studio /older model/ reverb effect

Preferred setup: The Les Paul ’57 standard, a cord and a tube amp/boss echo delay. All I need for Blues.

Why do you prefer a Les Paul for blues, John?

Well that goes back to Bloomfield and his ’59. As you know, he started it – the Les Paul trend in the US. It’s the sound. It took a while to get a 50’s Les Paul Standard. I got my ’57 from Moyer’s Music in San Jose around 1966. I always liked Bloomfield’s clean sound. You could hear each note even though he was milking great sustain. Playing clean like that and articulating each note that really had an impact on me!

John let’s talk about some of your solo work. There’s some interesting chord work on your CD “To All my Heroes” the “Close to Me” track. Can you explain the chording?

I like minor blues. The chord changes have that Bloomfield/Butterfield vibe but I was giving it a jazz twist. It was a Sonny Boy Williamson song done in a simple 12 bar form. It’s a i,IV,V but with the addition of a bill, VI and II of the Fmi scale. I played it as a solo bass piece by myself. The idea was to come up with a cool bass line. I set the chords to the bass line. There’s an opening head with an Am arpeggio walk down that is really jazzy (Mike Stern influence). The solo was based on a blues vibe and played just as recorded. I just went for it. I used a small Peavey Audition Plus and tweaked it to what I liked. Listening to my solo later; it does have a Bloomers and Joe Beck type of tone. It wasn’t preconceived. It just turned out that way.


Bbml7 C7+9

Bbmi7 C7+9

Fmi7 Ab13






II :



Abmi7 Db9

Gmi7b5 C7+9!





The “Highway ’59” track off the “We are the Blues” CD has a unique harmony and octave effect. What was your thought process behind that?

This is a basic 3-chord structure. There’s a freedom to playing in a minor key. I thought; I’d like to add something like a horn section might play. So, I created horn lines like a mini horn section. They, for me, crystallized the tune. It was Imi, llmi, and III major chord played against the Imi. I’m playing the first 3 chords of the A minor Dorian scale. I used octaves that have a middle voice. It’s a Benson influence. The Am Chord has the Root – A, 3rd -C, and the 5th -E. I plucked the 3 notes together. I put the 5th in the bass(E) the 3rd(C) in the middle and then the 5th again an octave higher on the B string * I did this idea on the I and IV chords. I also used quartal harmony. This is taking notes from the chord and then stacking them in fourths. It’s not the ordinary R,b3, and 5th It gives it a really open ended sound(Root, 11th, 7th and 3rd). On the V chord (typical V of Am would be E7). I played a B Diminished.(all the notes of an E7th but with a b9th minus the root).

Tercial Harmony: “Highway «59”

Tercial Harmony: “Highway ’59





C Major





O        Z -J


Quartal Harmony: “Highway ’59”

Bmi II


8 I

C Aug bS



B Dim



*: ) F ■ e

A melodic ml

Am i+7 Arpeggio


V chord
(E7b9- without the Root)




This scale and arpeggio work really well over the I chord. The Maj 7 adds tension to the chord. The Ami + 7 is a Wes Montgomery thing.


So with over 35+ years as a blues guitarist, composer, singer and recording artist – Do you have any advice for the upcoming, aspiring, blues artist?

Play guitar because you love it. Don’t do it because you’re going to score chicks. Don’t get into it to be a rock star and make millions. That doesn’t hurt though (John smiles). Studying, playing and getting out there – it takes work! It’s the love of the instrument and the genre that really drives it for me. Look at it as staying a student and you’ll keep learning and growing. My philosophy is, “I have to have fun.”

“Play great music, share that vibe with the audience, the musicians you’re playing with and it will be rewarding.”