Guitar Player Magazine (Dec 2005)
- From: sbinney@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: 10 Jan 2006 17:06:37 -0800
Playing in the Band
Remembering the Music, Vibe, and Guitars of Jerry Garcia
By Jimmy Leslie, Andy Ellis, Jude Gold, Jon Sievert | December 2005
We'll never know how historians 100 years hence will describe
1967's Summer of Love, or the psychedelic music and hippie
consciousness that erupted almost overnight from the intersection of
San Francisco's Haight and Ashbury streets. But it's a safe bet
that one name-Jerry Garcia-will figure prominently in any
discussion of this kaleidoscopic era. Though he simply wanted to be a
guitarist in a cool band-and never sought to be a spokesman for a
movement-Garcia came to symbolize the acid-rock scene and everything
it represented, good and bad.
The details of Garcia's life-his birth in 1942, his childhood in
San Francisco, his emergence as a folkie in the early '60s, his
forming of the Warlocks (which soon became the Grateful Dead), his
struggle with drugs and their role in his death on August 9, 1995-are
well chronicled in numerous biographies. Rather than rehash these
tales, we'll pay homage to the man by way of his music, which even
today-a decade after his passing-remains a beacon for legions of
fans of all ages and walks of life. Such neo-tribal gatherings as the
Bonnaroo Festival, and the popularity of groups structured around
improvisation, including Gov't Mule, moe., and the now-defunct Phish,
all point to Garcia's enduring legacy.
Our special tribute features both new and historical material. You'll
read excerpts from GP's classic Garcia interviews, as well as recent
testimonials from Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and rock-improv guru
Jimmy Herring, who plays guitar with the surviving original members of
the Grateful Dead-Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill
Kreutzmann-in The Other Ones and the Dead.
Garcia's quotes are culled from two cover stories and a feature
authored by former GP staffer Jon Sievert that appeared in Oct. '78,
July '88, and Sept. '91. Jimmy Leslie interviewed Phil Lesh for
this story. To complete the package, Jude Gold adds a mini-memoir of
his time playing in JGB (formerly the Jerry Garcia Band), as well as a
transcription and analysis of the tricky "Slipknot!" riff. A list
of ten essential tracks gives those unfamiliar with Garcia's playing
an opportunity to explore his recorded legacy. We'll begin the
journey with his thoughts on style, soloing, tone, technique, and
developing as a player.
Jerry Garcia Speaks
How would you describe your style?
My theory is that style is defined largely by what you can't do, but
there are a couple of elements I think are typical of my playing. I
really like a clear note, I like syncopations where I can get them in,
and I like longer ideas. I think of myself as musically conservative,
even though I don't play that way very much. What I like about music
is simplicity. It's hard to let something be simple. There's kind
of a fear of silence.
I'm always leaning on the edges of "Does this work?" If it
doesn't, I change it. I like the sound of some things that are
dissonant and strange, and some I don't-I don't really know why.
The hardest thing in the world for me is to judge my own playing.
How do you approach building solos?
I start by learning a tune's literal melody-if there is one-in
any position. Then I construct solos as if the melody was happening,
and I'm either playing with it or against it. I'm very attracted to
melody. A song with a beautiful melody can knock me off my feet, but
the greatest chord changes on earth don't mean anything to me if they
don't have a great melody tying them together in some sense. I rarely
plan, because I'm much better at changing direction than I am at
leading the way. I can turn on a dime-that's my forte. The illusion
is I'm leading the band, but really, I'm just loud.
As I develop ideas, they provide little pieces of furniture for me to
say, "Okay, I know I can use this broken mode where the first part is
Lydian and the second part starts a half-step higher and continues as a
double-diminished scale." These mechanical things sound good up to a
point, but I'm always interested in having little surprises-like
accenting all the offbeats for a bar. The constant playing in odd
meters with the Dead contributes to that. For instance, if the band is
playing in 7/4 time, I might play in 4/4. Doing that, you begin to
notice certain ways the two rhythms synchronize over a long period of
time. Thinking in these long lengths, you automatically start to
develop rhythmic ideas that have a way of interconnecting. It then
becomes a thing of syncopations based on other syncopations.
For example, I like to start an idea on a sixteenth-note triplet on
beat four. If I start my phrase there, it's like constructing one
sentence off another before the first sentence is completed. Or I might
play a figure that's seven beats long, starting, say, on the end of
beat four. This creates incredible tension, and the next thing you play
is either going to increase the tension, or you'll find yourself back
on a new one. It's like a hypothetical jigsaw puzzle where all the
pieces are white and shaped the same.
What tips do you have for soloing?
You need to have enough access to the fretboard so that you're not
hung up about where you are. So much of the guitar is patterns, but if
you look at it right, patterns start to melt into each other, and
pretty soon you can hit anything from anywhere. If you're playing two
octaves above the harmony, you can fret almost any note, and it will
work as an extended part of the chord. If you're in the same octave
as the harmony instrument, then your notes brighten or darken the
chord-like an interior voice. Spread the sound out more and it sounds
prettier, although the darkness is sometimes real interesting.
The quality of consciousness you put into a note also has a lot to do
with it. You can play any note in any context, and if you play that
sucker like you mean it, it's going to sound good-almost. How
smoothly you play it and with how much expression-the individuality
you give a note-and the note that comes after it, and when it comes,
also have a lot to do with it. I'm finding out more and more that the
personality of each note has as much to do with its appropriateness as
the setting. Like, choosing to give a note a really rich vibrato, or a
really dry attack, or having a slow opening and long sustain. The way
you release notes, their value, and the holes you leave have a lot to
do with the strength or power of your playing.
What's your take on tone?
First, it's important to have a concept of good tone-no matter what
it is. And then the rest is just finding it. My concept of good tone is
a clear, unambiguous sound on each note. For me, that means relatively
high frets, relatively heavy strings, and a thick pick, so your touch
is coming from the hand and not the pick. The rest has to do with
pickups and speakers. I go for a slightly higher action because I like
a clear note. But if you set the action too high, you're out of tune.
What gauge strings do you use?
I use a custom Vinci set, gauged .010, .013, .017, .027, .037, and
Describe your technique.
Most guitarists use kind of a flat fingering, but I've somehow
trained myself to come straight down on top of the string. I play
mostly on the tips of my fingers, so a high action doesn't get in the
way at all. I'm not pulling other strings down along with the note.
Generally, I like to pick every note, but I do tend to use
pull-offs-almost without thinking about it. I almost never pull off
one note, but I will use pull-offs on, say, real fast triplets. I
seldom play hammer-ons, because they seem to have a certain
inexactitude. My preference is for the well-spoken tone, and I think
coming straight down on the string with high knuckles makes that
happen. My little groups of pull-offs are really well articulated.
That's something I worked on a lot.
I have four or five different families of vibrato. Some are
unsupported-nothing is touching the guitar but my finger on the
string. Other methods are supported, and I just move the finger for the
sound. Sometimes I also use wrist motion, and, other times, I'll move
my whole arm. I also use horizontal and lateral motion for different
speeds. Each has its own sound, and it depends on where I'm going,
and which finger I'm leading with. If you start with a bit of vibrato
before you actually pick the note, you get a softer onset, and that can
be lovely. I tend to be style conscious in terms of wanting a song to
sound like the world it comes from. For example, playing the blues,
it's generally appropriate to use a slow vibrato.
Does the shape and thickness of the flatpick play a role in your sound?
It makes a big difference. A lot of it has to do with how hard you
squeeze that sucker. If you pinch the pick harder, you'll get a
duller sound out of the strings. If you hold it more loosely, you'll
get a more open, boingier tone. I use a pick that has zero flexibility.
I don't want the pick to bend, spring back, or do anything I'm not
controlling. I favor real heavy picks, but if a pick is too heavy, it
mutes the string. Some materials work better than others.
I use a Fender Extra Heavy flatpick that I sometimes palm when plucking
with my fingers. I don't hold the pick in the standard way, but more
like you hold a pencil. Howard Roberts describes this as the scalpel
technique. The motion is generated from the thumb and index finger
rather than the wrist or elbow. But I use all kinds of motion,
depending on whether I'm playing single-string lines or chords.
Your playing is very dynamic. How do you develop this control?
I'll turn my guitar all the way up through a practice amp, and I
start doing arpeggios, playing very quietly at the beginning, and then
getting gradually louder as a function of touch. This makes it so you
have a smoothness from your loudest, hardest picking to your softest
picking while keeping the same position. Many guitarists change the way
they hold their hands when changing dynamics. As a result, they end up
with a light-touch group of licks-the very fast stuff-but they
can't develop any power. For me, the thing is continually making
those conversions back and forth from quiet to loud picking. I think a
lot about the dynamics of a solo.
How do you approach playing chords?
Early on in the Grateful Dead, when we were doing Wilson Pickett tunes,
I'd listen to the horn parts-the way a horn stabs, stings, and
slides, and the articulation of the way a horn section works together.
When Weir would be chompin' the rhythm and doing little guitaristic
things-fills and R&B stuff, laying down 9th chords-I'd play
little triads that worked the way horns do. I'd play the top part of
Now when playing rhythm, I almost never play anything denser than a
triad. It's easier to harmonize a line if you're only managing
three notes. If you're trying to work with five notes, it gets a
little extended. Because of the nature of the electric guitar, three
notes on it are like ten notes on other instruments. It's real thick.
Do you practice guitar regularly?
I don't feel comfortable without at least poking around on the sucker
every couple of days. More than that, it starts to slip away. I
regularly do a half-dozen things, mostly involved with standard scale
intervals working out of different positions, as well as a lot of
two-octave arpeggios. These exercises are all fundamentally designed to
develop the ability to move from any position to any other position,
from any note to any other note on the fretboard. Most of them stress
alternate picking. One good thing is to take a scale or exercise or
phrase you know and play through it using alternate picking, starting
with a downstroke. Then repeat it, but start with an upstroke to get an
understanding of where the rhythmic bias falls. Practicing this way
will give you a consistent flow to your playing.
How do you stay fresh?
Every couple of years, I go through a bunch of new stuff-even old
issues of Guitar Player. I think, "Now there's an interesting thing
somebody bothered to transcribe. Why don't I just try it?" And
maybe there will be something in there I've never dreamed of doing,
and it will turn up later. If you assume you haven't learned
everything yet, there's no reason why your playing can't stay
dynamic all your life.
What advice do you have for aspiring guitarists?
You can't avoid finding your own voice if you keep playing. You have
a voice, whether you recognize it or not. There are certain things you
can't escape, like your own nervous system. It provides things like
the rate of vibrato you're capable of performing, which is almost a
nervous reaction. The only danger is falling too much in love with
guitar playing. The music is the most important thing, and the guitar
is only the instrument.
Phil Lesh On Jerry Garcia
What struck you as unique about Garcia's playing in the early days?
I noticed Jerry's distinctive sound the first time we played
together. He was playing a Guild Starfire hollowbody, and it had this
amazing "spangly" sound-not like a Stratocaster, more bell-like
than that. It was almost like he was playing an electric banjo. I was
also amazed at his fluency. He was using a banjo fingerpicking
technique on some songs, and, on other songs, he'd play with a
flatpick. He had all this texture going on, and he sometimes used that
in his leads, rather than relying on screaming melodies and big solo
flourishes with lots of fast notes.
How did Garcia's style and sound inform your approach to playing
Everybody in the band was further ahead on their instruments than me
when I started playing with them, so I was scrambling to catch up. But
my whole approach was based on playing in the holes Jerry was leaving.
He left them in different places at different times. I really wanted to
complement and provide counterpoint to what he was doing. I saw that as
the core musical element.
How did you interact with Garcia compositionally?
Most of the time, the songs were brought in pretty much complete by
whoever introduced them, but there were occasional exceptions. For
instance, I collaborated with Jerry on "St. Stephen." I was pretty
much responsible for the bridge and the introduction, and Jerry was
responsible for the verses. Sometimes the band would be learning a
song, and somebody would try something that worked, and that idea would
be incorporated into the song. "Foolish Heart" is one of those. The
band expanded the bridge during the learning process.
How did Garcia's playing evolve over time?
Bob Dylan said, "Jerry's sensibility had muddy river country at its
core, and then it screamed up into the spheres." So basically, Jerry
started out playing roots and folk music-easily defined genres-and
then he expanded beyond all of that. He drew from everywhere, and most
of all from that cosmic music that's playing out there in the
Some fine guitar players handle the 6-string chores in your various
post-Grateful Dead bands. What aspect of Garcia's playing do you miss
There are very few players who can cover everything from "the muddy
river to screaming up into the spheres." That's an awful lot of
range, and Jerry covered every micro-space in between. He would move
effortlessly in all these realms, and that's the hardest thing of all
to do without. And the variety of little hooks he'd play behind his
vocals-or behind someone else's-often gets overlooked. Listen
closely behind the singers.
It has been a decade since Garcia's death. How has time shaped your
perspective about his guitar playing and his musical legacy?
I always knew how rare he was. This is a guy who comes along once in a
generation-or maybe once in a century-so there's always going to
be that big hole. At the same time, I've found there are all kinds of
different musical viewpoints out in the world that can be brought to
bear on the music he left behind, to revitalize it, and make it live
again in a new way. So that's what I've been doing.
Jimmy Herring On Following in Garcia's Footsteps
To play in the Dead and the Other Ones, you've had to delve deeply
into Garcia's music. How has that affected you?
It brought more sensitivity to the picture. Garcia could be very
delicate, and that made me aware of the lighter side. He has a dark
side, too, but his music is always positive. I don't hear negativity
in the music, and that's inspiring. He was all over the place in
terms of influences: ragtime, free jazz, bluegrass, and blues-you can
tell he loved Hubert Sumlin and Freddie King-and he explored this
stylistic diversity without alienating people along the way. How hard
is that? Through Garcia, I learned it's possible to connect with
people from all walks of life and ages. He and the Grateful Dead
reached grandmothers and children, and everybody in between.
What was it like when Lesh and crew asked you to be their guitarist?
When they first approached me, I said, "Guys, I love this music, and
I'm very flattered you might consider me, but, honestly, there are
people who could do it a lot better." Then they said, "How many
times have you seen the Grateful Dead? How many times did you see Jerry
play live?" I was really embarrassed to tell them, "Well, actually,
never." They went, "Good. You got the gig." While it's okay to
tip your hat to Garcia, they don't want anyone playing his stuff.
Sonically, do you have a favorite Garcia period?
I love his sound on Europe '72, where he's playing that maple-neck
What turns you on most about this gig?
I can't even express how much I've learned about song structure
working through this giant repertoire. I've learned some 200 songs,
though Phil and those guys know even more. In terms of improvisation,
it pushes me to recreate myself. I can't rely on the vocabulary I'd
normally use with Aquarium Rescue Unit or Jazz is Dead, because it
wouldn't be appropriate. Phil doesn't say, "Okay, you take a solo
there." Instead, the Dead's philosophy is, "All right, let's
have a group conversation." They don't even use the term
"solo"-it's an "instrumental section." Garcia exuded the
kind of charisma that drew people to follow him, so when he played, it
might seem like he was soloing, but, in truth, they were doing group
improvisations. Onstage with the Dead, you're taking a journey
Garcia began playing "Wolf"-his first custom guitar built by Doug
Irwin-in 1972. To maintain a constant signal level to his effects
pedals, Garcia developed an innovative onboard effects loop. The
pickups' buffered, pre-volume-control signal first went to his
pedals, and the effected signal then returned to the guitar. Garcia
used the guitar's volume knob to control his post-effects signal,
which finally went to his amp. An onboard switch let him bypass the
A sister to Garcia's famous "Tiger" (shown on cover), the
Irwin-built "Rosebud" became Garcia's primary Dead guitar around
1990. At 11.5 lbs, Rosebud weighs two lbs less than Tiger. Garcia
played both Rosebud and Tiger in his final Grateful Dead performance on
July 9, 1995, in Chicago.
Graham Nash gave Garcia this '57 Strat-ultimately known as
"Alligator"-which played a starring role in the Dead's Europe
'72. In addition to its custom tailpiece and bridge, the guitar
likely housed an early Alembic buffer/preamp.
Garcia's Raddest Riff
Diminished arpeggios? Variable meter? Multiple key changes? If you
associate these tactics with such fusion fiends and prog pioneers as
Chick Corea and King Crimson-and not with the psychedelic riffage of
Jerry Garcia-then you haven't heard the Grateful Dead's "Help
on the Way/Slipknot!" (from 1975's Blues for Allah). The song's
intricate instrumental section, transcribed below, is not only a lesson
in the compositional technique of modulation via diminished passing
harmony, it's also a melodic thrill ride-a set of roller-coaster
riffs that will get your adrenaline pumping, whether you're a
Deadhead or a shred head.
Like most great adventures, what's enthralling about this passage is
not where it goes, but how it gets there. Just as a trip from Florida
to California is more exciting on the Space Shuttle than on a Greyhound
bus, Garcia leads his band from F minor to A minor not by simply
dragging everything up four frets, but by launching a harmonic detour
to outer space and back. The funky Fm strums that open the interlude
(at 3:28) set up the general groove, and are answered by an
identifiable single-note theme (bar 2, beats one through three) you may
recognize from the intro and other sections of the song.
Here, Garcia's guitar suddenly initiates liftoff into new tonalities.
On the thrust of fifth-position F# diminished arpeggios (bar 3), Garcia
makes a smooth modulation to G minor, where a new incarnation of bar
2's single-note hook helps our ears adjust to the fresh key (bar 4).
Next, in bar 5-this time gaining lift from seventh-position G#
diminished maneuvers-Garcia throttles further into the heavens, and
it's on the gentle wings of cascading minor-7th arpeggios (bars 6 and
7) that he finally glides back to Earth, landing gracefully on the
terra firma of A minor. Once again, the song's main hook helps
establish the new key (bar 9).
Played at tempo, this wild journey across three tonalities and most of
the fretboard takes a mere 30 seconds. Wow-what a short, strange trip
10 Radiant Garcia Moments
If you're new to Garcia's playing, these songs will reveal his
distinctive touch and tones. The tunes are presented in chronological
order of release date, and, as a whole, they illustrate Garcia's
1. "Viola Lee Blues," The Grateful Dead, 1967. Laced with feedback,
quivering Bigsby vibrato, and querulous bends, Garcia's recursive
waves of stair-step pentatonic patterns epitomize San Francisco
2. "St. Stephen/The Eleven," Live/Dead, 1969. Ricocheting off the
walls of the Fillmore West, Garcia's squawky, horn-like phrases cut
through the spacey mix of odd-meter jamming, tricky ensemble themes, a
cappella vocal harmony, Celtic drones, and cosmic weirdness.
3. "Uncle John's Band," Workingman's Dead, 1970. The beautiful
acoustic leads feature Garcia's trademark ornamented arpeggios and a
passel of ghosted passing tones.
4. "Candyman," American Beauty, 1970. Garcia's snappy Strat,
ringing acoustic fills, and ethereal pedal steel entwine throughout
this haunting ballad.
5. "Playing in the Band," Skull & Roses, 1971. Garcia and crew
never shied away from challenging meters and elliptical grooves, and
this live opus captures the Dead's mojo in its unbridled glory.
6. "I Know You Rider," Europe '72, 1972. Recorded live, and mixed
with Garcia and Bob Weir panned wide apart, this spirited remake of a
traditional blues contains stunning two-guitar interplay. Relaxed and
loose, yet so incredibly tight.
7. "The Wheel," Garcia, 1972. Built around Garcia's keening pedal
steel (which he stopped playing soon after), this flowing ballad made
its debut on his first solo album, and subsequently became a staple of
the Grateful Dead repertoire.
8. "It Must Have Been the Roses," Reflections, 1976. On Garcia's
third solo album, the Dead served as the rhythm section on a handful of
tunes, including this pensive number. Especially cool are his bubbling
arpeggios and chromatic pull-offs-echoes of the melodic
embellishments Grady Martin popularized in Mary Robbins' 1959 country
smash, "El Paso."
9. "Bag's Groove" (Take 1), So What, 1998. Garcia's grip on
beatnik blues is beautifully evident in this swinging Milt Jackson
classic recorded in 1992 with mandolinist David Grisman and members of
his acoustic quintet.
10. "Guitar Space/Summertime" The Pizza Tapes, 2000. Casually
tracked in 1993, The Pizza Tapes features Grisman, Garcia, and
flatpicker extraordinaire Tony Rice jamming acoustically on a mix of
bluegrass, folk, and jazz tunes. "Guitar Space/Summertime" is an
intense eight-minute conversation between Garcia, Rice, and their
Where's the Sheet Music?!
Much of the sheet music and tab that Guitar Player publishes is
copyrighted material, licensed from the artists to run only in the
printed version of the magazine. Guitar Player continues to offer the
explanatory text of these lessons online, but in order to get the
complete song transcriptions and other bits of licensed sheet music,
you need to have a copy of the magazine.
Sure, you could run down to the local music shop and pick up the latest
issue of GP, but why not subscribe today? It's easy, cheap and you'll
never miss another lesson!
A GP Editor's Dream Gig
In 1997, when Melvin Seals (beloved organist of the Jerry Garcia Band)
invited me to hit the road with him, singers Jackie LaBranch and Gloria
Jones, and other JGB vets on a mission to keep Garcia's music alive,
I didn't realize how great the next three years would be. Sure, I
knew fellow guitarist Peter Harris and I would have the privilege and
thrill of following in the legend's footsteps, rocking crowds with
sets of the timeless spirituals, Dylan epics, vintage soul gems, and
lively bluegrass tunes Garcia had popularized at his solo shows. But
when I stepped onstage with the band for the first time, it hit me:
This gig was special. I'd found a charmed place where guitar solos
are not only still legal, they're devoured by insatiable live music
fans. This was a magical kingdom where, after stepping off stage,
tapers hand you mastered CDs of the previous night's performance (or
sometimes even the set you just played), and where relaxed set breaks
of an hour or more are not merely tolerated, but encouraged.
Best of all, the house that Garcia built is a vibrant place free of the
cutthroat commercialism of Clear Channel-era corporate rock. It's a
musical utopia where no one in the band or audience expects you to
sound, look, or act like anyone but yourself-provided that you bring
something special to your instrument, and perform with soul and spine.
The lifeblood of today's thriving "jam band" scene, these amazing
crowds are receptive to any style of music. And they're the gifts
left for us by one generous man, Jerry Garcia. -Jude Gold
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