I am not merely talking about technique. More so inspiration; inspired playing is most moving and it need not include great technique strictly speaking to be moving. I prefer an inspired Garcia over an uninspired one almost regardless of the guitar.
I totally concur with this statement. To me the quintessential Dark Star is Live Dead - and I've read Garcia thought the same. Garcia was young and on fire in that performance. It shines above the others from that run. And I think they never got that vibe back after Garcia moved from PAF's to single coils. But it's the technique in that passage of music that really shines. And the short little transition from the Manhattan Center in 71 between NFA and GDTRFB - same thing. Just really soulful and the later NFA's in 72 didn't quite capture that same spirit. Even the few that they pulled out in 77 and later.
I've got this theory about guitar players - once they put in their 10,000 hours they are always at their peak. They just evolve. Like Clapton's solo on Crossroads with the Yardbirds - it's just that much better than his solo from the Cream reunion shows - but he was playing things later in his career that were off the charts compared to earlier in his career - his playing just evolved - his taste and style changed. And his tone in the Yardbirds version is better to my ears. His noiseless single coils with the Clapton boost gets him in that PAF territory but its not the same sweet vintage tone associated with his Yardbird days (when Clapton was God).
The way Garcia approached improvisation in Dark Star in 78, then in 81 and in 84 and into 89 changed. But they were all so different than back when his rig was paired down, and to me at least lacked the raw energy he had when he was younger - and to my ears the tone as well. I guess that's why bands like the Dead retire certain songs.
The wonder of guitar tone. It's a magical topic. And to the non players I knew on tour in the 80's. They all lamented the loss of creativity from the old days of the early and mid 70's.To them it was about Garcia's inspiration I guess, along with the band's collective appetite for improvisation. Funny how the last Spring tour Box set didn't sell out but the older ones did and some very quickly. I passed on it as well.