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: Nov 22 2010

I thought the EXACT SAME THING! Thank you! Jerry is in my mind in the top 5 (for me #1, but lets just say top 5).

Wow. 46??? What is THAT about????

jonapi (not verified)

you lucky man, Blair! Basho had his demons for sure (Davy Graham also, sharing Jerry's predilection for heroin, sadly).
and John Fahey was awesome up until the very last.

jonapi (not verified)
goin' up that road again

i always feel that Canned Heat are kinda ignored sometimes. the two volumes they recorded with John Lee Hooker are great.
and although i mentioned him in passing, John Cippolina is another beautiful player. and 'absolutely' to the person who mentioned David Lindley. Kaleidoscope are one of my favourite bands of all time. such taste. i hope there is a box set with a ton of extras lurking in the vaults sometime soon.
and two other mentions i forgot; Sir Richard Bishop (from Sun City Girls; now records a lot of Django-inspired solo acoustic works) and the unsung guitarists who performed on all those classic Ennio Morricone soundtracks.
ahhh, the beauty of music, eh? if it moved you, it was the BEST! no polls necessary.
as Jerry Garcia said: all music is psychedelic.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
I forgot to mention, Jonapi....

Robbie Basho was also a favorite of mine. In the early '70s I went through a very serious phase of listening to a ton of Fahey ("The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party"!), Kottke (the armadillo album) and Basho, and, in fact, the first musician interview I ever did in what is now a pretty long career was with Basho for a big story in the long-gone Berkeley News in 1974 or '75. Went over to his house in Berkeley and spent a day with him. Smart, nice guy but was kind of depressed and very serious. Saw him play several times around town in during that era. Amazing guitarist and singer.

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008

Peter Cosey and Henry Vestine-great players with Miles Davis and Canned Heat respectively-prompted me to think of Alan Wilson (Blind Owl in Canned Heat) also, Jonapi

jonapi (not verified)
lotus petals flowering

thanks for link Blair; would love to catch that movie! maybe it's bootleg time when we move to Japan next year; it'll be there somewhere!!

here's a couple of tasters to whet the appetite, from Davy Graham & Robbie Basho respectively -

Davy Graham -

Robbie Basho -

have good weekends everyone.

Joined: Jun 6 2007
I was wondering...

...when you were going to weigh in, Jonapi. Lots of good names on your list and many I need to check out. Among the ones that I, too, admire are Steve Hillage ("L" is my favorite), Grant Green (love my Blue Note "Retrospective"), Marc Ribot (not always my cup of tea, but he's done some amazing stuff), and, of course, Django, whom I really listen to a lot, and have for years--so many moods and such technique... Wrecking Crew guys are a bit tasteful and restrained for me, but all super-talented, obviously. (I interviewed Tommy Tedesco 30-plus years ago and found him a wonderful guy... And If you ever get a chance to see the "Wrecking Crew" movie made by his son and which has been making the rounds at festivals for a couple of years but still has no distributor, you won't be disappointed! Here's a little piece I wrote about it a few year back for Mix: )

jonapi (not verified)
each one finger on a string

yes, some great comments; jerry will indeed be chuckling and pretty pleased i think. he wanted to convey emotion and to strive for lyricism and inspiration, not court popularity or acceptance.
however much i adore the Dead, i can't see Jerry in the number one position (that would've been frightening if that had hit the news stands!!!); would've required a major dosage of all the critics. actually, good idea......
but there is never any criteria given for these polls; is it for originality? changing the course of popular music in the widest possible sense? technical ability?
each rule would provide a different list.
if it was originality, then most of the people on the list would disappear; if technical ability, then we would have got a terribly bland list of incredible dexterity but in large parts, devoid of music that would touch you on a deeper level. and how about the ability to frame a song? while i'm not a fan of Springsteen, his guitar is what he hangs his lyrics on, his vehicle, so why not? he deserves his place. Dylan too and Nick Drake. (it's the same argument given as to why Ringo Starr is repeatedly left off any drumming polls; true, he was terrible at fills, couldn't even do them, nothing flashy, no complexity, but boy oh boy...can you imagine The Beatles without him? it was because you never gave a thought to the drums that made him so perfect. it was to fuel the tune. absolutely perfect).
safe to say, i think most of us could've guessed who would be there; (although looking back at the 2003 poll, they were some heartening inclusions, completely missing from this time around though - Greg Ginn, Kevin Shields, Bert Jansch, Leigh Stephens, D. Boon, Zoot Horn Rollo etc.).
personally i'm disappointed that Zoot Horn Rollo (Captain Beefheart) isn't there. also, Davy Graham is a shocking omission, Robbie Basho, Sonny Sharrock (good call whoever mentioned that earlier), John Martyn...

knowing that the Dead encompassed all the best that music can provide. an unbelievable listening experience that incorporated sweet country, greasy blues, jazz-like dexterity, swing, willful and glorious abstraction, rippling psychedelia and bluegrass harmony, i would offer these guitarists for people to check out.
Grant Green (he really should've been there; those Blue Note albums are beautiful), Davy Graham (astonishing folk, blues and Indian raga excursions), Snakefinger (art-pop player for The Residents), Marc Ribot (again, another no-show; one listen to the Tom Waits albums "Swordfishtrombone" and "Rain Dogs" will make a fan for life as well as his playing with John Zorn and many others), Tisziji Muñoz (incredible acid-free-jazz-fire music!), Fred Frith (avant garde experimenter, composer and collaborator with many artists), Larry Lalonde (from Primus. always overlooked; humble, self deprecating, with an amazing approach to texture - huge Jerry fan too), Haino Keiji (japanese acid folk/avant garde shaman), Derek Bailey (improvisor par excellence), Django Reinhardt, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Son House, Steve Hillage (psychedelic shimmer from bands Gong & System 7), Buzz Osbourne (Melvins. always inventive), artists using the guitar as a sound source such as Oren Ambarchi, Rafael Toral and Christian Fennesz, Pete Cosey (check him out with Miles Davis), Lee Ranaldo (from Sonic Youth - always overlooked in favour of Thurston Moore, but Lee's playing is by far more interesting - another big Jerry fan too; check out his Creedence like runs on the albums "Washing Machine" & "A Thousand Leaves"), Taku Sugimoto (free improvisor and major player on the Japanese Onkyo scene - incorporates long passages of silence, almost sonic calligraphy), Michael Rother (from bands like Neu!, Cluster, Harmonia, Kraftwerk etc. - incredible texture), Michiro Kurihara (from Acid folk collective Ghost; i really can't recommend this band enough; his idol is John Cippoloina and his playing reflects that LSD soaked metallic spike. they incorporate traditional Japanese folk instruments with psychedelia, acid rock, and temple-like atmospheric improvisation) and......
all of the players in the infamous Wrecking Crew; they who graced so many recordings that changed the world and made us smile - Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco, Al Casey, Billy Strange, Howard Roberts, Jerry Cole and many more.

i think a lot of people here would find some of these guys interesting, if nothing else.
all have sonic links to what incorporated influences and the music of the Grateful Dead; exploratory, gentle picking, gutbucket blues, improvisation, abstraction, lithe swing, sweet lyricism, you name it.

but, as a lot of people have already pointed out, you too Blair; this is just another example of the bias, misinformation and clueless-ness towards the Grateful Dead. but hey, they're missing out (unless of course the Dead got trendy and hip in the future and then you can bet they'll be championing them and claiming kudos, desperate to make a profit off people they once ignored).
as you say, Phil won't make bass polls; Billy and Mickey drum polls; Keith and Brent keyboard polls (and neither would the sublime playing of Garth Hudson either).

but, they were some good ones on that list - Stephen Stills (incredibly underrated), Derek Trucks, Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp, Hubert Sumlin, Robert Johnson, Henry Vestine to name but a few. oh, and some guy called Jerry.
personally, i've never heard of him.....

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
grate comments

This conversation is recalling many great players whom I haven't thought about in a long time-I've got to do some more listening as time permits. I agree with many others here that any evaluation of Jerry requires the consideration of many facets of playing. Regardless of who evaluates-there seems always to be emphasis on the popular reference point-who sold more records, who got the most radio play, who had the one catchiest riff, who was politically correct for the mainstream media, who is now "cool", etc. The Dead and Jerry were ignored, dissed , barely tolerated for years. They were dismissed as burned-out hippies playing to incoherent stoners for the longest time. Of course, this cultural ignorance and prejudice has its toll and most will think of only the usuals in any poll-unfortunately this feeds on itself-polls begat polls, if you know what I mean. I'm sure Jerry is laughing down on all of this. I will always proclaim my strong preference for Jerry and the Dead-those who will be receptive to having their eyes opened will open their eyes-those who won't-won't. Its as simple as that. Twas ever thus.

Joined: Mar 16 2011
Consensus Reality

Where would Jerry come if the question were about proven generosity to other musicians, and the guitarist's fan base/community? If the debate were not just about talent with the guitar, but with life itself? Fame nearly always accentuates mean-ness and creates spats and splits within groups, ego games. We never got anything of that with Jerry. Jerry use words like 'gestalt' with good intent, gestalt is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 'Consensus reality' was the name of production company for some of his music. Consensus reality is something that leaves a good taste behind it.......


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