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.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
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.

: /

Joined: Oct 22 2010
AMEN Blair Jackson !!

Hey there Sir !

I couldn't agree more with all of your points, but I suppose we must consider that RS's aim is as left-of-center as some of us Deadheads. We really enjoy, examine and flourish in our passion for thinking people's musical choices. Admittedly, you're very correct, but more pop-oriented press may not ever grasp what 'we' love so dearly. As I read your blog, I thought to myself of Jerry's ability to;1-begin a song with that chunky, signature rhythm pattern, and then leave it to Weir; 2-his ability to slide effortlessly in/out of 'lead' position,3-how to say more, with less. What a man. It's always a pleasure to read and digest your writings; Cheers to you Blair !

Jon Dexter

bilee's picture
Joined: Jun 24 2007
public opinion

Good article, of course if I really listened to public opinion I probably wouldn't have worn tie dye the last 33 years...just say'n...opinions and assholes, everyone's got one and everyone else's stinks.

unkle sam's picture
Joined: Oct 3 2008
this rolling stone gathers a lot of moss

I haven't bought a rolling stone since Jerry's death, with his death, it seems that the stone simply forgot where their roots are, Jerry and the band used to be on the cover of the stone all the time, now, nothing. To put 45 other guitarists before Jerry is an insult and a sure sign that all the old heads that wrote and helped shape the stone are gone. I met Mick Ronson in the eighties when he was playing with Ian Hunter and he had a unique sound, but a great guitar player, ok, but better than Jerry, come on.
Also, the total lack of greats that didn't make the list is astonishing. What about Randy California, Spirit gunslinger and the master of the three min. and 50 sec song.
Perhaps if Randy had jumped on the record company bandwagon, he would be on the poll, but he just wanted to make music. I saw Randy in 95, right before his death, and they were playing for their dinner at a place called the Junkyard, a very small bar in Orlando. I had meet Randy several times in the past and I asked him then what was up with him and the band, he said "we will play for food, but mostly we play because we love it."
Jerry played because he loved it, and didn't give two shits about lists. There will never be another guitar player like Jerry in our lifetime or most likely not in the next, he will always be the best in my book with no one even close to second.
Jimi Hendrix, Original, but all flash and show
Jimi Page, the biggest ripoff ever, ripped off the opening riff for stairway to heaven from above mentioned Randy California.
Eric Clapton, saw him 10 times, each time too drunk to finish a song, well alone do improv.
I could go on, but you get my drift, no one did what Jerry did, he made it up as he went along and it was almost always excellent.

Joined: Dec 1 2011
Rory Gallagher

Yes, this time around Rory made it into the Rolling Stones top 100. Hopefully next time they'll move him up the ladder. He is my favorite guitarist. I did an interview with Robin Sylvester (Ratdog) about his time as Rory's studio sound man. You can read it on my blog.


gratefaldean's picture
Joined: Jun 22 2007
I think you also get points against

If you've gotten stuck with the "muli-instumentalist" tag. No David Lindley, no Larry Campbell, no Steve Winwood, and so on.

On the plus side, I'm just as happy that the likes of Peter Frampton, Alvin Lee, Rick Derringer, Ted Nugent, and Mark Farner didn't somehow sneak in the door.

I'm not unhappy to see Springsteen on the list, but if he's there, where's the best guitarist in HIS band, Nils Lofgren? Just looking for some consistency in the picks, but I guess that it's unrealistic to expect any kind of logic to apply to the results of a poll of any kind.

Maybe I'm not a "guitar guy" after my quick count I've seen just 22 of the chosen ones in person. Of course, ain't none of us seen Robert Johnson, so it's amazing how highly regarded one can be as an instrumentalist based on a handful of scratchy lo-fi recordings....

scott1129's picture
Joined: Jun 6 2007
True The diss was pissed and missed the point

This List is about POPULARITY and not chops
Some obvious missing
#1 Frank Marino
#2 Bob Weir (As mentioned above)
#3 Steve Vai
#4 David Bromberg
#5 Michael Hedges
#6 Warren Haynes
#7 Steve Hunter
#8 Steve Hackett
#9 Steve Howe
#10 Jimmy Vaughan

Joined: Jun 6 2007

Joni's on there (75), as are Ronson (41) and Scotty Moore (29). But I like the Adrian Belew pick!

Not sure about Becker--a lot of Steely Dan's best guitar work was by Jeff Baxter (also excellent). Gatton will always be a fringe pick. I don't think Terry Kath is in the elite league (tragic death, again, notwithstanding). Seems like none of the jazz/fusion types made it--Carlton, Ritenour, Metheny (who should be on there in my opinion), etc.

JackstrawfromColorado's picture
Joined: Jan 2 2009
You can't make a list like this

With blinders on. You can separate into different lists - best guitarist for rock, blues, country, metal, bluegrass, reggae, whatever, but to make one comprehensive list you can't have blinders on. And it is difficult and a lot of work to be an expert in every music genre ... so it seems impossible to do this comparison...

Joined: Nov 16 2010
Steely Dan guitarists

How about Walter Becker, check out Don't Take Me Alive and Black Friday, Denny Dias who played an amazing sitar solo on Do It Again which was not only a great song but a hit single as well. and the amazing Larry Carlton. Also Terry Kath, Tommy Bolin, Danny Gatton,Scotty Moore.Adrian Belew Mick Ronson Joni Mitchell Malcom Young, Leo Nocentelli and the Great Bobby Ace Weir


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.