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: Jun 5 2007
The RS List is utter nonsense

It has Bruce Springsteen as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. Enough said.

mp51's picture
Joined: Sep 19 2007
"don't like country music."

that's always my favorite line i hear people utter. i usually then say, 'you don't like johnny cash?' and they back peddle so fast...oh, i love him, but... you like johnny cash, you like country music. (listen to robbie folks!) i mean i get it, they don't like today's crap pop country, who does!!!, but don't throw out the baby with the bath water!

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
and yeah...

Richard Thompson, #60?

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
this is all taking me back

to the days of our youth when Dave Marsh was dissing the band and Jer early and often. No respect then either.

shwack's picture
Joined: Apr 12 2008
Pollsters= Cotton Batting in cranial cavity

Hey Man,
Not much you can do or say about the uninitiated.
Particularly uninitiated pollsters.
Garcia was a consummate player,we all know this. He had something that other guitarists( and pollsters)
are lacking. His attitude and approach to playing music always had that
egalitarian quality that comes through in the performance.
Right on,blairj with all of the above adjectives and descriptions,etc.
Well said...

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Well, Jerry said...

...part of the appeal of the name "Grateful Dead" was that it would be creepy for a lot of people. It had that good shock value you wanted in the '60s! I guess we all take it for granted here...

Joined: Dec 31 2008
I have the opposite response,

I have the opposite response, Blair, and it has nothing to do with their music. Many people to whom I have mentioned the Grateful Dead think they are a heavy metal band based upon their name and think I am some kind of metalhead or something. Quite the opposite, thank you.

I also choose carefully those I try to turn onto the Dead. I understand it is just not for everyone, though to paraphrase an earlier post, it should be.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Interesting points, as always, Hal...

I, too, am loathe to try to turn people on to the Dead unless I really think they're going to be open to it. Can't take the rejection!

I've been surprised through the years by the number of people who tell me they don't like the Dead because they "don't like country music." Jerry does have a lot of country in him, and it's true that I got into country through the Dead, but is that really their predominant sound? Maybe it is if you're looking at their body of work from '69-'74, their most prolific songwriting period...

Joined: Jul 5 2007
So easy to dismiss

I've lived with this most of my life. People who don't connect with the Dead obviously aren't connecting with Garcia. For a lot of folks --easily most folks-- what the Grateful Dead did was and remains a complete mystery. Why would people follow them? How could anyone listen to so much of one band? Who cares what they played? And I learned ages ago to stop trying to "turn people on" to the music. Unless they request it. It just ends up being a rather depressing endeavor.

I will say that I find it incredibly disheartening to read Garcia's name so far down on a list made by other musicians. You'd think at least THEY would be able to recognize what Garcia was doing. But that's not always the case. I remember going to see Stephane Wrembel play the Mint here in Los Angeles. The musicians from the bands that had played before Stephane were simply confused by what he was doing. I overheard them talking about how they could never play like that. They wouldn't even know where to begin, how to approach it. It was part awe, part dismissal.

It's amazing to me that there are all of us here who have somehow managed to tap into Garcia's playing in a way that has been life-changing. To rise on the waves of his self-expression, to allow his playing to get deep inside of us and lift us to heights unimagined... And yet someone sitting right beside you can be just as oblivious as you are elated. What is it that allows us to get inside this musician and allows him to get inside of us? And what is it that keeps others from being able to experience that? Some come to it eventually, others never do. I have found that a good portion of those that simply cannot connect with Garcia's playing find a need to put it down, to minimize it. Otherwise they must face that they are missing out on something grand, something joyous and extremely powerful.

Living here in Los Angeles, when people ask me what music I like and I respond with the Grateful Dead, the most common reply I receive is "Oh, I'm sorry." Why Los Angeles? I don't know. Hasn't happened to me anywhere else I've lived. But here, it seems VERY unhip to like the Dead.

And so I wear my unhippness with pride. And yes, regardless of my respect, admiration and deep love for many other guitarists, Jerry would easily be #1 on any list I made.

GUDLUVN's picture
Joined: Oct 12 2008
I also think 46 seemed like

I also think 46 seemed like it was way too low, I agree, but I do like the picture of Jerry, and it's always nice to see a Dead member in RS.

Speaking of Rolling Stone, I must have gotten a free subscription from ordering Furthur tickets with my credit card, I've been getting it for about a year and am always happy to see anything related to our favorite band. I quickly unwrapped the issue which had a renewal card attached to the cover, and started looking for Jerry in the top 100, after finding his ranking I promptly tossed the renewal card in the trash. I'll just wait for my subscription to run out now, hopefully it will before they do publish that list for the top 100 bass players, drummers, or how about the the 100 best Grateful Dead shows!


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