Grateful Dead

Another Guitarist Poll Disses Jerry!

I should be used to this by now and have a tougher skin. But I can't help myself. I was outraged when the latest issue of Rolling Stone arrived a few days ago with its cover story on the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” The list was compiled from picks by a truly diverse group of guitarists young and old— including Trey Anastasio, Ritchie Blackmore, Tom Morello, Robbie Krieger, the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, Scotty Moore, Andy Summers and Carlos Santana, to name just a few of the more than 50—plus a handful of rock journalists and music industry folks. The article reveals nothing about the poll's methodology—how many guitarists the respondents could list, what criteria should be considered, etc. Are these “favorites”? “The best”? “Most influential”? Probably all those things, to varying degrees.

The #1 choice was no surprise—Jimi Hendrix, of course. And most of the other members of the Top Ten are names that have always placed high on these sorts of lists—and there have been a million of 'em—through the years: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Eddie Van Halen, Duane Allman and Pete Townshend. All fine guitarists. OK, Chuck Berry is on there for essentially inventing one riff (and several variations thereof)… but what a great and important riff it was!

Yet the glaring injustice in this top 100 is ranking Jerry Garcia as #46. Really? Below Johnny Ramone (#28)? Curtis Mayfield (#34)? Frickin' Randy Rhoads (#36; tragic death—always a good career move)? Bo Diddley (#27)? Cat had one riff he stole from Johnny Otis, and was not a good guitarist. But, yeah, influential for sure. Still, I'm not here to criticize other guitarists (though it sure is fun). I'm just sayin'…

Alas, Jerry is never going to get his props in these sorts of polls, just as Phil never fares well in Greatest Bassists surveys (how absurd!), nor Mickey and Bill in Greatest Drummers lists. (I would also argue that Weir is a better and more inventive player than most in Rolling Stone's 100, too, but I guess it's too much to expect people to appreciate the subtleties and intricacies of his playing. After all, he's “just” a rhythm guitarist, right? Wrong!) The sad fact is that all the members of the Grateful Dead—and the group itself—will always be underrated by people unable to look beyond the surface cliché: an acid-rock band that noodled endlessly and aimlessly during their five-hour concerts for an audience of stoned hippies. This common misconception can be the only reason why the Dead didn't make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during their first year of eligibility back in 1993. Can you imagine?

To enumerate Jerry's gifts as a guitarist here is preaching to the choir, I suppose. But let me just tick off a few salient points. No major rock guitarist ever traversed as many different styles and idioms as Garcia (no, not even Frank Zappa). He was comfortable playing blues, folk, jazz, country, free-form avant-garde, standards, bluegrass, Motown, Latin; you name it. Not only could he navigate through all those genres, he always sounded like himself when he did—the Garcia style is instantly recognizable and unique. He was a master improviser who, rather than automatically accepting conventional ideas about form and structure, constantly looked for opportunities to extend or escape those limitations. He took chances: His intoxicating spirit of adventure and musical fearlessness led him places that were often unexpected, weird, wonderful, beautiful, scary and just about any other adjective you can conjure. The landscape (and spacescape) he covered was unimaginably immense. He was the consummate ensemble player, sensitive to the musicians around him, but also not afraid to take charge and lead. At his best, his solos were masterful melodic constructions with brilliantly conceived tonal shadings and an indefinable—but clear—rhythmic logic that rivaled some of the greatest jazz musicians, from Django to Coltrane (both of whom he admired and studied). And the breadth and depth of his own songwriting and choices of songs to cover brought out so many emotions in his playing, that we, as fans, were privileged to accompany him on his remarkable musical journey that was at once intensely personal (for him and for us) yet somehow also drew us all together.

Do I have to disqualify myself from this argument because I'm a Dead Head? To the contrary, I'm a Dead Head in large part because of Garcia's guitar playing. I've always been a guitar guy. I worshipped at the altar of Hendrix and Clapton in the '60s, but also dug Cipollina, Jorma and Barry Melton. John McLaughlin and Duane Allman blew my mind in the early '70s, and my life was enriched by Neil Young, Ry Cooder, James Burton and so many others later in that decade. I've seen Lindsey Buckingham be God-for-a-night with Fleetwood Mac, and Bruce Springsteen tear it up like no one else can. I've been transported by The Edge, dug the primal growl of John Lee Hooker's axe and enjoyed the fluid perfection of Mike Campbell. No one riffs better than Keith Richards, and in his prime Stevie Ray was just about untouchable. Bonnie Raitt is still killing it on slide and Bill Frisell exudes an elegant simplicity I find very appealing. Is there anything Los Lobos' David Hidalgo can't do? Flashy or tasteful, electric or acoustic—I just love guitar.

But something about Garcia's playing spoke to me on a level that no other player ever has. Call it a soul connection, maybe. It's hard to communicate what that's like to others, but chances are you know what I'm talking about. Think about the opening of “Birdsong,” the quietest parts of “Stella Blue,” the roar of the climax of “Morning Dew,” the breezy lilt of a great “Eyes” solo, the dramatic ascension towards the end of “Slipknot!” or any number of other passages that sweep us up and carry us away. Perhaps he wasn't as influential as some other guitarists, but that's in part because he was a singular talent in what always was (and will be) a cult band.

That's why Jerry's not #46 on my list. I can honestly say he's #1, and no else is even close.

Jerry and his “Wolf” guitar, 1974.


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Joined: May 28 2018
uh, yeah

There's no in between, you're either aware that the sounds from Jerry's guitar could never be equaled by any musician or artist on any level including raw talent, or you're not. Trying to convince a non deadhead that Jerry is the greatest would be a laughable notion just like trying to convince a deadhead that he's not. Jimi Hendrix is a genius and shreds as we all can agree, but he could never compare to Jerry or even be on the same list as Jerry. Jerry has a separate list and holds all 100 positions. Everyone who's a deadhead knows that like the sun rises and falls.

Joined: Nov 1 2015
I'm a great a Jerry Garcia

I'm a great a Jerry Garcia devotee as any you'll ever meet. I never saw anyone play with as much soul as Jerry, and that aspect of his musicianship is too often ignored. He had deep things to say and, often, in highly inventive ways. Once in a while, his licks are even startling, and I don't get startled by much. Jerry knew how to shape a solo brilliantly, and there may be no greater example than the Help>Slip solos from Great American 8/13/75. But awesome Garcia solos weren't just a thing of the seventies (e.g., May, 1977, one of Deadheads' favorite months to talk about.) Check out the Scarlet>Fire at Copps Coliseum 1990 sometime. Jerry had a beautiful, lyrical voice on guitar throughout his career... except, perhaps, at the very end when diabetes and drugs really did him in.

However... while I'm not a lover of "greatest" lists, I can't help but put my two cents in. Jerry belongs somewhere in that top 100. I don't know where. But having seen guys like Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp, Jim Hall, Pat Martino, Bill Frisell and plenty of other greats play, Jerry isn't numero uno. I never saw Hendrix, but clearly he was some force of God. Adrian Belew didn't even make this list and, let me tell you, he's a MOTHERFUCKER on guitar, in his own weird way. This is an unpopular opinion, I'd bet, but I'd put the little known Henry Kaiser on here. Most people don't get his trip, but, if you do, it's amazing. At his peak, Trey Anastasio was beyond imagination. I was in the front for many of those shows in the early 90s, so I know from whence I speak.

Jerry was wonderful, but he was also sloppy as hell, and he had nights where he was abysmal. He also had nights where you knew that, on that night, he was the greatest guitarist on Earth. All things considered, his technique was OK for a guy who basically taught himself to play the instrument, but it wasn't great. However, there's too much emphasis placed on technique. If technique were the ultimate benchmark, Jerry wouldn't be in the top 1000, let alone top 100. But he belongs in the top 100 because of the profound statements he made on guitar.

Part of me wishes that we'd gotten to hear Jerry Garcia with perfect technique, to hear what he was saying crystal clear. However, a bigger part of me is glad that his shows were peppered with clunkers. It made him more human, and that's what made his playing so great. Honestly, I don't think he would've wanted to be first on that kind of list, though he probably would've felt honored to be up there among so many great names... in that kind of rarefied air. I bet that he would've felt that he didn't belong there. He was slightly uncomfortable with his greatness, and that humility was also another defining mark of the man that came through in his music. I always felt I was getting straight talk in his solos... not pyrotechnics designed to impress. Jerry just shared what was going on in his mind, and it was a very beautiful, ample and curious mind.

UncleJake's picture
Joined: Nov 4 2013

Ok...I swear I thought that was an original idea, but I must have seen this quote sometime in the past. Maybe it sat in my subconscious until the truth of it hit me years later, and by then I'd forgotten reading it:

"What advice do you have for aspiring guitarists?

[JG]'.....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.'"

I think that's from a Guitar Player magazine where they interviewed Jerry.

UncleJake's picture
Joined: Nov 4 2013
Late to the Party

...and I hope it's not breaking rules, but there are too many current posts for me to read them all and see if this thought is a repeat.

I'd love to see Jerry get his due from the rock/critic scene, but it's never going to happen. What I believe, and tell myself, is this: Jerry often ranks low on guitarist lists because Jerry wasn't truly a guitarist...he was a musician. He didn't "play the guitar" for a living, he made beautiful music for a living. He was like the amplifier that gathered the floating notes and made them audible for the rest of us. The guitar (and voice) just happened to be his "instrument" of choice to accomplish this calling.

Peachy's picture
Joined: Sep 5 2007
Well said - speaking with his guitar

Amen- read your comment after posted mine- almost felt dumb as you cut to chase.. thanks!

Peachy's picture
Joined: Sep 5 2007
Numero Uno is Jerry Garcia

So- since can say I have actually Seen many guitarists on top 20 who are not as good as Garcia--yes I am no spring chicken - SRV live, Neil, Page, Santana a good 20 ( he deserves at least top 5 as well) Derrek Trucks, Jorma ( hes down as well), listened to Jimi forever, seen Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, David Gilmore ( only one probably where he should be in ranking at 14 or so- amazing man), Stills ( 47? okay), I mean I totally love many of these, but as rxample a top 5 lister- Clapton - I have seen 4 times and not ONCE did he ever pierce my heart and soul like Garcia or Santana or (even Young or Gilmore could)!

Let me be elitist ( or call them faux elitists?) if it means elevating a bunch of stoners who seem unlikely intellects sobeit:
Jerry may require more intelligent listeners and so a top 100 list can never do him or the Dead justice but at about 50 or more total ptimes seen between Dead and JGB nobody (msybe Hendrix but they are clearly different beasts) could ever take my soul on a journey that was as amazing as Jerry. Cult? Sure maybe count me as member -- but why dont the " groupies" of many of these band leaders have as devoted a following? Well while I Came back to see Clapton a few times (- especially if thinking perhaps my mood had not let me open my chakras -.not even crown chakra?) Nope - no mea culps here!

I can claim to be near crazy about Neil Young, Carlos (call me a cult member if it means I consider Santana truly angelic presence) Floyd, - but none of these players- not even Carlos or SRV (sure he might be technically as good or even better than Garcia for pure rock/blues) equal Jerry - Garcia stands alone as my clear winner hands down as the master of his instrument (and maybe it means he was a more Dvanced sould as well as guitarists) - note choices are alchemical mixes not rateable by lists- but surely emotional content plays into guitar ranking! People get Jimi played his heart and soul out but few realize Jerry did too.
So while I agree we are all Rodney Dangerfields with the Dead and Jerry -least to journals taking masses pulse- but mainstream Rock and Roll and even less, mainstream journalism will EVER TRULY GET Garcia (or the Grateful Dead) any more than the darn magazine that we let aggravate us does ( that has had Brittany Spears on its cover as it explored __survival__ over soul)! Garcia would eat ketchup soup b4 ever compromising artistic principles ( Ketchup water sakt pepper recipe ala Hunter Garcia Caddy near homeless living)
So just let it go? Nope- not until Garcia gets back to his rightful place in at least the top 20 where he many times ranked as high as 14 if I recall correctly.. and sure Weir is better than many placed ahead of Jerry.. certainly this collection of guitarists (and Trey is a Jerryette no? I mran great guitarist on own but no Dead no Phish hey?).. not clear why Trey has no letter of protest or Carlos? He and Jerry were friends as far as one can see but Carlos and Jerry's styles are as far apaet abd incomparable -I would expect Jerry to appreciate most all the guitarists in top 40 while most in top 40 likely could not Appreciate his work fully- it requires an open mind/heart and musical accumen few possess as its not yet understood at all IMHO. Clapton is not fit it to shine his shoes.. okay he can shine Jerry's shoes - but no tip- lol-- a great technician but clueless as to your audiences vibe or unable to feed off its energy- leave many on this list good technicians -as good in studio as live.. ( but not fathoming the total picture)..
When one counts the bigger picture of sound Jerry grabbed the brass ring almost nightly that most others can count equivalent shows on one hand over lifetime..X factor . should be renamed G factor (for both Garcia znd the Grateful Dead).. Okay guess rant is over - never Rest in Oeace- Keep on Truckibg!

Joined: Jul 31 2013
Talking to and Speaking With

In a world in which "great guitarists" (obviously talented musicians) typically strut and orate, Jerry played guitar as a consummate conversationalist.

He listened to the other musicians with whom he played, and he listened to himself as he played. His guitar didn't just talk to the world, it seemed to speak WITH it. Through its syncopation, emphases, melodic improvisations, changes in cadence, shadings, shouts, etc. at various times his playing expressed playfulness, humor, love, wonder, doubt, anger, determination, grief- and other emotions and states of mind too numerous to list here.

Jerry's influences seem to include, as well as the ones commonly mentioned (Coltrane, Reinhardt, Berry, etc.), Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman (and if you haven't heard their work, you really owe it to yourself to do so)- brilliant melodic and harmonic improvisers. His playing was simply much more emotionally sensitive AND cerebrally sophisticated than the vast bulk of guitarists out there- to my mind any others I've heard (though others have certainly rivaled him in terms of one or the other).

He was just incredibly inventive, and most of all, did it moment-to-moment before multitudes of listeners- and not just at home or in the studio. Yes, toward the end of his career and life, with poor health and doubtless a certain degree of emotional pain, a lot of his playing essentially got phoned in, and/or could be sloppy, erratic, or just weak. Obviously, he was just human. And like all musicians, even early on he had weaker nights. But in his long prime, there was so much that was so good, even transcendent. And toward the end, there were still moments of beauty.

I think he suffers so much in broad public opinion both because of his "stereotypical image," and much less often noted, because he is not simply a guitarist with a "Hey, me, right now" sound. So many lead guitarists are basically narcissists and it comes through in their art. Jerry, though he certainly had an ego like the rest of us, strikes me as having a great deal of humility, and especially an essentially humble (and therefore keenly curious and truly playful) foundation to the way he created music. And so while at times his guitar is bold, it is so often nuanced and suggestive.

I wouldn't expect Rolling Stone, of all sources, to be especially clued into that presentation. Those outlets are mostly about generic PRODUCT. Jerry Garcia's music will never be ready for that world.

sharlinsara's picture
Joined: Jun 10 2012
That video #7 is just

That video @jonapi is just amazing.

Thanks for sharing.

Joined: Dec 22 2011
Steve Kimock

Of course he'll never make any major Best Of list, but I am surprised that no one has mentioned him yet.

Joined: Dec 16 2011

Be cool Blair. There's no need to justify why Jerry's playing means so much to us. We all understand what a wonderful musician he is. These polls or rankings mean little. The most effective and persistent music and art do just that, persist. The majesty of Jerry's contribution is to riff on that and to suggest that fragility and a knowing vulnerability continue to be persistent and vital for all of us. The passages in his work that you refer to, we all recognise as achieving just that. Big love and thanks to Jimi and the others of course, but Jerry's part is knowing: mature and playful - the old bluegrass triumph over tragedy and loss.


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