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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Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
oh well

I think we all have our own idea anyway. Polls oftentimes are popularity contests and it always (or sometimes) seems that the wrong people get the credit for the wrong reasons. A lot of folks don't get the respect they deserve. I don't want to attack specific bands or players but we all have seen way too much media attention going to "the usual suspects". I think the Deads music in general and Garcia's playing is above the common denominator. The classical music of the rock world in some ways. The best of a lot of art goes unappreciated oftentimes. I don't need no "stinkin polls" -I know what I like and I think I know what you SHOULD like.

Joined: Mar 18 2010
Typical, but still disappointing

A list of the greatest guitarists that places Garcia at 46, and doesn't include Satriani in the top 100, has about as much credibility as the Penn State athletic program. Maybe that's too harsh, but whatever.

deadmike's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007

The Garcia drawing is not cold ... it's called ... of course ... :-O

deadmike's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
I agree Blair ...

To me Jerry Garcia is number one on almost any given list of the best and most influential guitarists ever. But every now and then I can understand Warren Haynes point of view, that Jerry wasn't the most technical guitar slinger ever but he had a lot of soul in his playing.

Noticed a couple of hours ago that Jerry is certainly a more valued painter than guitarist. One of his drawings is on sale for almost $82.000. It's cold Quasar and is sold by some online company that specializes in Garcia stuff.

One can also notice that the largest Facebook group dedicated to Jerry Garcia has 493.369 likes. The largest Joey Ramone group has 85.524 likes.

The largest Grateful Dead Facebook group has 1.145.814 likes. That is a lot more likes than many other popular bands.

I used to do my own lists but find it hard to choose between different musicians today. Some guitar players are certainly better than others but some have more heart and soul. Sometimes I prefer some and sometimes others.

My favourite most technical guitar player is Frank Marino. I was very pleased when I found out about ten years ago that he is also an old fan of the Grateful Dead, even though Quicksilver/John Cipollina have/has had a bigger impact on his guitar playing. I have been a fan of Frank Marino since Fall 1979 and of Jerry Garcia since Spring 1976.

Micke Östlund
Växjö, Sweden

Joined: Dec 31 2008

I agree cactuswax, I breeze through most of RS today and mostly get my political fix from it. Matt Taibbi is one of the few journalists calling out politicians as they all should be doing.

Two other notes, I agree with Blair on Bo Diddley and echo those who call for Richard Thompson to also be higher. Though not personally a big fan, he is quite good.

Joined: Dec 31 2008
thanks Blair

I was looking for a place to vent my frustration and my FB page didn't do it justice. Thanks for writing this, I was hoping to find somewhere on this site. I just received that issue yesterday and when I saw Jerry at 46 I was POed. Obviously biased here, but he is clearly a better guitarist than most of the chumps in the 15-45 range on the list. You pointed out several names that stood out to me, here are a couple more-- Billy Gibbons, Mark Ronson, the dude from Queen. The list could go on and on and on.

Jerry melded his own style out of so many genres. I cannot think of another guitarist influenced by blues, bluegrass, jazz, rock and roll, Spanish guitar, Motown, and etc... who created his own picking style. For him to be behind the guitarist for Black Sabbath is preposterous.

Off Jerry, I find Jimmy Page's ranking a bit high at #3. He was incredibly sloppy live, as evidenced on the LZ DVD set that came out a couple of years ago. I find the first DVD unwatchable because of how sloppy his technique was.

Like Blair, I also qualify my critique here as someone who thinks Jerry is the best, but understands that he is not everyone's cup of tea. Should he be #1 on such a list, no, but he is far better than 46. Also, I am a big fan of guitar blues and blues-based rock and roll, so not just a one-band guy. I have seen some of the best in the business and Jerry deserves more credit than he was given. This is why I have been complaining for a couple of years about this trend of "List" issues from Rolling Stone.

cactuswax's picture
Joined: Jun 7 2007
see what I mean?

Oh shit - and Dennis Coffey! He's gotta be in there somewhere too.

Also, maybe it's a sign that I'm getting older, but I find these days that I find RS's political coverage much more compelling than their music coverage. For music I generally turn to Mojo or some such.

cactuswax's picture
Joined: Jun 7 2007
top ten

So just for fun, here's my personal Top Ten:

1. Jerry Garcia (yeah, I'm with you Blair... nobody else comes close)
2. Steve Cropper
3. John Fahey
4. Robert Quine
5. Django Reinhhardt
6. Sonny Sharrock
7. Robbie Robertson
8. John Lee Hooker
9. Ali Farka Toure
10. Les Paul

These are more like favorites than who I really believe is "The Best."
The other thing about these lists is, aside from a few stalwarts, for me anyway this could change drastically in the next week or so... it's a continually evolving and fluctuating thing.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
I agree with you, Stoltzfus...

I probably shouldn't have taken the bait. It's all just opinions...

However, in general, I think Rolling Stone is really pretty good. They have good and bad periods, but I think they're in a good one right now. I've been a subscriber on and off since the summer of '69 and it's fair to say I probably would not have become a rock writer without Rolling Stone's shining example. I like that there's a place where I can read about My Morning Jacket and Jack White and Dangermouse and this week's pop flavor AND all the old farts I still love. And their political coverage has always been incisive and in-depth.

I've never met a "best of" list that didn't piss me off... including the ones I've made up myself!

Joined: Aug 18 2007
guitar player list

Blair, don't sweat it all us deadheads know how Jerry spoke to us through his immense range and talent. You forgot to mention his reggae work as well. A few years back they had Jerry at #18, which I thought was somewhat fair. Jerry was and always will hold a special place in our hearts. I also noticed there was no mention of Roy Buchanan either, so let's not get too bent out of shape over this list, they just don't know The Grateful Dead.


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