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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Captain Stormfield's picture
Joined: Nov 4 2007

There seems to be a complete lack of uniform criteria. Judging by some of the names on the list, it appears that writing 6 - 8 rock tunes with cool guitar riffs makes one a great guitarist. It's a completely flawed list. Creating a few catchy guitar riffs does not a great guitar player make. Sorry.

Did Derek Trucks or Warren Haynes even make the list at all?

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

I had to go look, out of morbid curiosity, and at least Dick Dale made the list.

Dick Dale is, shall we say, no Jerry, but "Let's Go Trippin'" on the jukebox, through the wall, got me through many an algebra class in my youth.

Joined: Jun 11 2007
Steve Howe

YES is not in the R&R Hall of Fame. Steve Howe not included in this poll. Jerry is lucky to have made it at all (though I think Jerry is the greatest ever).

Howe (sic) many years in a row was Howe Guitar Player magazine's Guitarist of the Year? Didn't they end up disqualifying him because he was too automatic a winner?


Joined: Jun 14 2007
Who cares.......

......about polls? Makes not one bit of difference. We all have our own take on reality and that's the problem with lists of this nature......its one persons opinion. I'm sure Jerry didn't care. Regardless of that I completely agree with you Blair and beautifully spoken as well.

What always impressed me about the Dead was how each member was singularly talented and how they fit together as a whole. In my mind there was no better guitarist than Jerry, no better bass player than Phil, no better rhythm devils than Billy & Mickey, Bobby on rhythm, Brent was phenomenal, Pigpen of course! They were the best at what they did. All in one band with the ability to transport and bend one's reality in a most beautiful way. It was akin to the stars aligning for a magical moment in time or the spectacularness of a supernova. Count ourselves lucky that the Dead were not popular in the mainstream. Wouldn't have been the same and that's not what they were about anyway.

I always enjoyed picking out each instrument in the matrix of sound the band was laying down and being carried by that sound wherever it went and how it would weave in and around the other instruments at once both individual and collective.
And I have tried on numerous occasions to relay the experience of the Dead to someone who wasn't lucky enough to be there. Life is experiential and one had to be there. That's what I tell folks now.......smoke some cannabis, close your eyes and listen to the tapes. It was magic and you had to be there and I leave it at that.

Not to pick on Rolling a culture of garbage its one of the better things out there. But the only thing its really good for is a bit of truth in their political articles and the occasional good profile of an interesting life. The rest is mostly pop culture fluff and trash.

Peace on......

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
I don't know if...

anyone mentioned: Jorma Kaokonen, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, John McLaughlin, Robert Fripp, Jimmy Herring, Wes Montgomery just to name a few great players who may be off "the popular" wavelength. Or, Jerry Miller(Moby Grape-remember)or David Crosby, Stephen Stills. There are a lot of amzing people out there or who were out there at one time who don't get exposure because of the politics of music distribution. Another one just came to mind: remember Robin Trower? Leslie West. I know I'm dating myself but what the hey.

PalmerEldritch's picture
Joined: Jul 25 2011
Excellent post mp51. My

Excellent post mp51. My sentiments exactly as I read deadmikes post.
Technical virtuosity is a lame criteria of an artists greatness. The world of classical music is full of fantastic virtuosos that are considered unimportant. Many seem to have no real understanding of what they are playing or why. Many others, with less skill, that can interpret and communicate great music memorably despite limited technique. (Ehh- for the record I rank Garcia's guitar virtuosity second to none- )
For me, Garcia just seemed to "feel" his playing more deeply than any other instrumentalist I've heard. So I rate him "#1, no one else even close" as an electric, acoustic, and pedal steel player. deadmike, I'm curious who you would rate higher as a pedal steel guitarist? I mean, on purely artistic terms, not in terms of a "technique competition"- who do you feel is a superior pedal steel artist? Not a fan of NRPS? How about the "Teach your Children" recording, made in only a few takes, so I've read. As for the banjo, I'll back off a little bit. Jerry's my favorite banjo player and I consider him the equal of any of the greats, including Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, Don Reno. But again, I'm talking about feeling and artistry, not as a technician. I have a feeling Jerry would really be pissed off if anyone compared his banjo playing to Earl Scruggs, hehe.

Mr. Pid's picture
Joined: Dec 22 2007
From the Horse's Mouth Dept:

An interviewer once asked Hendrix what it felt like to be the worlds greatest guitar player. Jimi's reply was, "I don't know. You should go ask Rory Gallagher."

This was supposed to be a reply to Dr. Lunchbox. Why does threading only work sometimes?

*edit II
I listen to more Jerry than I do Jimi. Not that it's the reason why, but there is a lot more Jerry available. Just my preference. "Greatness" is in the eye (or should I say ear) of the beholder. Silly sheeple and their need for lists and polls and such to find validation for their own subjectivity. NEWS FLASH: You are the only you. Pretty silly to try to be somebody else.

Joined: Nov 7 2010
Rolling Stone a joke

First of all, a "best" guitarist list that counts Angus Young, Johnny Ramone, and the Deep Purple guy as top 100 material and omits so many great blues and country guitarists is a joke. Here's just a few guitarists who have more talent in their little pinkies than those guys: Elizabeth Cotten, Skip James, Tony Rice, Michael Hedges, Stanley Jordan, Larry Campbell.

RS likes to think of themselves as arbiters of taste in the popular music world, but sadly the magazine has become another superficial by-product of a shallow and degraded popular culture. The fact that they throw in a few "serious" musicians and cite their panel of "top guitarists and other experts" doesn't compensate for the overall bias in favor of guys from the "wanking" school of music (as in, who can play his wanker, er, guitar, the fastest?).

Joined: Mar 8 2009
Of course, subjectivity...

While any and all lists of this sort are subjective, I, for one, was pleased to see that Rory Gallagher made it. Someone earlier noted that SRV's playing came from his soul - and if that's not the case with Rory, I don't know what is. So much energy and emotion in his playing....a real musician's musician. When trying to describe him to people the best I can come up with is a cross between Clapton and SRV, but that still doesn't tell the whole story. He'd definitely be in my top 10. (Jerry and Derek Trucks are 1 and 2, respectively, for me.)

Joined: Jun 6 2007

You got that right, jaydoublu!


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