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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marye's picture
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wow

that should be a fine guitar evening...

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Joni...

...is actually a really good guitarist who has also invented all sorts of interesting chords that are unique to her, apparently.

Speaking of Jorma (whom I also love), I'll be seeing him and Bromberg when Hot Tuna and DB play at the annual Bill Graham Birthday bash at the Fillmore in January. I literally can't remember the last time I saw Tuna play electric, so I'm very psyched!

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Jerry Got Dissed But Where's Jorma?

When I read that list yesterday I couldn't believe it was based on votes by professional guitarists. Dropping Jerry to #46 is absurd for all the reasons Blair states. But leaving Jorma and Warren Haynes off entirely? You've got to be kidding! And listing Joni Mitchell of all people and leaving off folk geniuses like David Bromberg and Leo Kottke? RS should be embarrassed for publishing that list.

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Hubert Sumlin

Thanks for posting about the passing of Hubert Sumlin guys. Those old Howlin' Wolf recordings are amazing and it was a lot of Hubert. I saw him in Milwaukee in the mid-1990s (he was living there at the time and did some shows) and had a heck of a time. He was a funny dude onstage and the guitar world lost another great, influential one this week.

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Dissing Randy Rhoads

Frickin Randy Rhoads? I can't believe you were dissing Randy Rhoads. An extremely influential player who never phoned it in who also played with intensity.
He also delved into classical an area which Jerry never did. That's why he should be on the list.
My favorite joke is What did the Deadhead say when the drugs wore off?
Answer: This band is boring.

Often it was true as much as I love the Dead. Start listening to the new release from the Boston Music Hall from '76 if you don't believe me. Some real sleepy stuff on that.
God bless Jerry who once said that Deadheads known when we have had a bad night but they keep coming back hoping for that magical night. At least he was honest enough to admit that unlike many who will lambast me for being a hater and criticizing the Dead and Jerry.

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Chuck Berry one riff?

First off to say Chuck Berry had one riff is ludicrous. Sure many of his opening riff's where similar but his solos were unique, still difficult to play and he invented a style. I have been playing guitar for many years and still coping and playing Chuck's solos is difficult. While I love Jerry as much as the next Deadhead, his tone was often suspect especially during the 80s with his heavy metal pedal he used. At his prime, he was fantastic. But he also was inconsistent and had many moments of playing with no energy. We have all heard the tapes and have been to those shows. His acoustic tone was also suspect especially in the 80s and beyond. He always sounded like Jerry and was unique and a great player. No question. Sometimes at the end of his solo, he would just throw it away and play drivel. We have all heard that as well.
The reason why Billy and Mickey never make the greatest drummers list is because if we were honest with ourselves, they often time did not amount to one great drummer. This always evident when someone like Willie Green would sit in and school them both. Billy in his prime in the early 70s was great. No question. I think he plays great these days as well. But he had many mediocre years.
Mickey was never a great drummer. He couldn't even hold his own by himself. What he did with Billy was nice but hardly great. His tone was always suspect. Drummers consider these things when voting. I remember thinking when I went to shows in the 80s, why can't these guys tune their snares to sound good? I went to the shows and had a great time and the Dead were always a unique experience. I was aware of the musical limitations. One could argue that he played more styles than Frank Zappa cause he did motown covers and bluegrass, but no one played more intensley and uniquely than Zappa. Frank never phoned it in and his tone was always great.

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Hubert Sumlin

Your favorite guitarist's favorite guitarist.

Well, maybe not the ones who voted in this poll.

jonapi (not verified)
Hubert Sumlin

Hubert Sumlin - November 16, 1931 – December 4, 2011.

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Rolling Stone List

sorry dude but your first mistake is having a subscription to rolling stone....

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the poll....

Funny, I saw it yesterday at the magazine store, and, of course, went to see where Jerry was ranked, and was initially upset, like you, but now am, in a sense glad. It is because of the inventiveness of Jerry that he does not rank highly on many such lists--he never played to rule, was too genre bending, and so on. (I mean, Charlie Christian also is not on the list, and most of the top ten took ALL they licks from him!) Such lists are silly, of course, and many inventive, influential folks are missing or wildly mis-ranked. As you mention, with nothing on methodology it is also very hard to draw any conclusions from the rankings, the statistical spread between 1 and 100 may be very small indeed, but who knows--it is most likely not even actually the results of any sort of analysis of real data in any case, made up I assume almost totally. (I for one have never understood Eric Clapton's reputation, he had a couple of good years stealing old blues licks, and then decades of mediocrity at best, but hey, he is God, right?!). Lets not rank Jerry, lets remember him--the most delicate out solos of Stella Blue, the most driving fury of The Other One, the most exploratory Dark Stars, the most finely etched Bird Songs, the most poignant To Lay Me Downs, they transcend rankings and comparisions, spinning their own complete universes where the whole idea of competition drops away, and language runs out of meaning.....

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