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 2 2010
jerry's the rodney dangefield of "best guitarists" polls...

He just can’t get no respect…

i hate the rolling stone polls - from best bands, to songwriters, to songs, to individual musicians, as they're all a typical rundown of the usual suspects that everyone brings into the argument, especially about "classic rock." The top ones are guaranteed to be a mix of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, maybe even Keith Richards, and Duane Allman is always in there, and highly praised for his improvisational skills. For example, I believe Duane was number two in the 2003 poll and while Jerry was # 13, if i recall correctly, they had Kurt Cobain as #12. i am of the nirvana generation and i am a huge fan of their music, but to list Kurt Cobain as a better guitarist then Jerry is a joke. That being said, the magazine still treats Jerry, and the band, with more respect then any "classic rock" radio station here in New York does.

I had “who’s the best guitarist to you” conversation with friends over drinks at a bar just a few weeks ago, and what drives me nuts is how some people seem shocked that you would want to include Jerry Garcia in this conversation at all. I make all the same arguments as you Blair, and apparently as many other readers of this blog make – that he’s a master, or at least quite adept at multiple styles of music - from rock to folk to blues and jazz and bluegrass and traditionals - and he’s a master of improvisation in all of those styles, and also while not a master, then at the very least quite adept at the banjo and steel pedal guitar. I also argue that the fact that Jerry’s magic was not contained to a studio with chances for multiple takes and overdubs, but that his magic and true talents were exhibited while performing live onstage in front of an audience especially when improvising, is the final selling point for me as Jerry being the best. It also can’t be ignored that Jerry’s improvisation wasn’t the “type 1 jamming,” where the guitarist “rocks out” on an extended solo, which he could do (see “sugar magnolia,” maybe a “deal”), but more that he thrived in the “type 2 jamming,” or the total group improvisation of say “bird song,” or “dark star,” which requires listening and reacting to what the others are doing, you know active participation in taking the song and extending it to be the music of the moment. He’s not just playing a song that was perfected in a studio which was meant to create a mood, he’s playing these “same old songs” in a way that reflects the mood. To some people that just means nothing though, responding with dismissive statements as “it’s just too different, it doesn’t compare.”

To those who argue that he’s not as good as Jimi or Eric Clapton, I’d say I believe there are countless Dead shows from ’67-’70 that show he is just as good, if not better then Hendrix, and anything Clapton was doing with Cream at the time.

I also think Jerry’s as note perfect as a guitarist can get, especially through the first twelve years. I’ve heard few guitarists that walk up and down the fret board with as much ease as Jerry does, and I love that in the videos he rarely looks down at his guitar while playing but seems to prefer to watch the band as they’re playing. Tell the people at RS and classic rock stations to check out “the eleven,” or any of the ’73-’74 “eyes of the worlds,” and “WRS,” maybe a “Cumberland Blues” from ’72, possibly a spring ’77 “morning dew.”

Anyway, I could go on, but I think I’ve kissed Jerry’s butt enough for one day – I swear, I’m just doing it to makes sure he gets representation in the argument. I don’t want jerry to be everyone favorite, or expect everyone to appreciate his music like I do, I just want people to not look at me like I have three heads when I throw his name in the hat of best ever.

Also, I think the “proof is in the pudding” for us deadheads in this argument, in that if you can put on the right shows for the right people you’ll be able to get many to at least understand where you’re coming from. However none of those people work at RS, or Clear-Channel owned classic rock radio stations.

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Joined: Nov 7 2010
Sorry I dissed Ritchie Blackmore

I just think "Smoke on the Water" is over-rated and overplayed. I don't know much of his other stuff.

However, I've heard enough AC/DC and Guns n' Roses to know that neither Slash nor Angus belongs on this list. I mean, has anyone ever seen Slash actually play the guitar? My theory is they have a cassette player up there with a pre-recorded solo and it's some roadie's job to know when to hit 'play.' That's how authentic his solos sound.

I get that they think they're emphasizing players (in general) who did something original with the guitar (again, how does Slash fit this criteria?), but there is a difference between entertainment and deliberate, nuanced creative expression.

I guess that's why Jerry gets the snub. Somewhere Jerry said (I paraphrase loosely) that he had to remind himself sometimes that the guitar isn't the end, it's just the means for the music, that the music is the important thing. He was by all accounts a witty, analytical, and thoughtful person, and obviously a creative genius, and (sadly for us) that doesn't have the cache that a schoolboy outfit/phalllic guitar thrashing combo does in popular culture.

mp51's picture
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Joined: Sep 19 2007
who's best???

that's why i love these discussions (thanks blair). it's so personal. as for page and lifeson, they don't really do it for me. i was never into zep, but lord knows i've heard plenty. (zep to me is jon bonham and thats all) as for rush, i like them more, but my interest ended after farewell to kings. some earlier post said the 'deep purple guy' sucked. see, there you go, i LOVE ritchie blackmore! he'd be on my personal top 10 (if we stayed with rock) i still put that classic mach IV deep purple on (but live over studio, where have we heard that before???). i would venture to say that very few deadheads would agree with me here, but thats cool. but what about the other genre's? pat metheny, sure, what about joe pass? herb ellis and the other great guitars...barney kessell and charlie byrd? (one of the coolest guitar shows i ever saw was the great guitars. 3 guys on stage, no one else, all instrumentals, trading licks. so cool!!! i'll never forget their version of the flintstones!!!) i know fahey made it, but like others have said, where's kottke? i love norman blake over tony rice. huge bromberg fan. just saw him with jorma. personally, i like david's guitar playing more. john hurt, doc watson... gosh, it just doesn't end, does it???

but i still know who MY #1 is... JER !!!

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Joined: Sep 3 2007
Pop guitarists

What can one expect from the Rolling Stone? The list is the 100 POP guitarists of all time. So they got it wrong. Jerry should ranked at 100.

mp51's picture
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Joined: Sep 19 2007
nafoster1...

good one about slash!

i remember hearing a story about how slash played at a bb king tribute (at the pyramid in memphis). he refused to go on stage unless he could 'jam' with bb. some of the guys backstage asked him if he's sure he wanted to do that. those backstage were the likes of steve cropper and other memphis type guys. slash insisted. well, by the time he walked off stage, they said he looked like a puppy with his tail between his legs!!! and yes, the entire guitar crowd backstage was rolling with laughter...!

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Joined: Jun 21 2007
Wrong on Page

Led Heads don't give a shit about stairway much less LZ IV, listen to Achilles Last Stand and tell me the guy is full of shit. I could go on and on.

JacktoldAlthea's picture
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Joined: Jun 21 2007
Rock and Roll

I wish the Grateful Dead was not in that sham of a so called R&R HOF. We are better off without stupid people telling us where we rank. Alex Lifeson in the high 90's!?!?, Most guys on that list couldn't hold his jock. Lifeson is top ten just like Jer, nuff said.

"Nothing to tell now let the words be yours I am done with mine"

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Joined: Sep 11 2007
taste and style

I regard Garcia as a musical stylist. We saw each night that his intentions were about mood and a song's proprietary qualities rather than technical guitar agility (ya think?).

Who gives a shit about how his playing stacked up by spandex, fringe-leather, afro, jew-fro, or sirrichardthompson standards? Tragic brilliance and passion, and maybe their own ENORMOUS GRATITUDE, those are the only things that Rolling Stone should talk about in reference to Jerry.

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Joined: Jun 7 2007
Really, really well said,

Really, really well said, Blair. Garcia's incendiary and all encompassing style is infectious. He simply has no equal. And those pandering idiots at Rolling Stone (most of whom have less musical knowledge than you or I) can piss off. There was only one Babe Ruth of guitar, and his name was Jerry.

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Joined: Nov 7 2010
The list

Rolling Stone's list is the most hideous assault ever made on the tenets of rational discourse.

Okay, maybe not. But putting Johnny Ramone and Angus Young ahead of Jerome Garcia qualifies.

Another affront: putting Slash ahead of anybody, much less ahead of Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson.

Christ, Phil plays a better lead guitar than Slash.

Now, if they listed the top 100 slide guitarists, I bet Weir would be near the top.

: /

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