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: Aug 15 2008
Greatest Ever

Let alone Jerry, and the boys, played night after day after night without repeating there selfs. I do agree with mighty slim on the off nights and phoning it in but I feel the body of work moves him way up the list. My own favorite for passion of the work, saw her play to a less than sold out show, and was so impressed. Patti Smith.

Joined: Nov 15 2007
Right On Blair!

Right On Blair!

Joined: Mar 30 2008
Polls are meaningless

I couldn't agree more, Blair. I think the Dead's stature and influence will not really be recognized for many years to come. It will take the perspective of time to grasp the breadth of their impact and significance.

jonapi (not verified)
Marc Ribot

a great show from Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos.
absurd he wasn't on that pesky list.
"why i oughta......."

Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos @ Banlieues Bleues, Paris, France [2002/03/19] from Pulpo on Vimeo.

jonapi (not verified)
painter derailed by circumstance

i absolutely second the Joni Mitchell praise.
she is an astonishing guitarist, songwriter, vocalist and artist. totally unique.
maybe forever associated with Woodstock and it's happening, but all her albums are essential.
i'm really glad she is on the list. totally deserved.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

that should be a fine guitar evening...

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Joni... 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!

Joined: Nov 10 2010
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.

Joined: Dec 31 2008
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.

Joined: Dec 2 2009
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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