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: Jun 6 2007

You got that right, jaydoublu!

Joined: Dec 8 2008
Yeah but..................

Jerry has sold alot more ties, then all of them put there.

gratefaldean's picture
Joined: Jun 22 2007
Richard Thompson response

I saw the below on RT's website...seemed a pretty cryptic message to me until I saw the RS poll:

Rolling Stone, the popular music and related arts and culture magazine, dropped 50 places in Richard Thompson's annual assessment of periodical publications. When asked to comment on the sudden decrease in popularity, Thompson said, "It was a close-run thing for number 68, but I thought Cheese Gourmet Monthly just edged it for their terrific piece on Blue Wensleydale in the August issue. I placed RS above Woman’s Realm, which has had some fairly insipid knitting patterns lately." Rolling Stone were unavailable for comment.

RT took an even more precipitous fall in the poll than Jerry did (#19 to #63, I believe), and who knows why? The guy is flat-out amazing. Funny response, though.

I know that part of the appeal of this kind of poll is to make everyone crazy who has some bone to pick with the choices...which is to say, everyone. Some of the nuttiest results in my mind:

George Harrison at #11. I'm as big a Beatles fan as a Deadhead, and even I don't quite get this 100, yes, but #11? Even stranger, John Lennon makes the list, residing down in Jerry's neighborhood...but Paul McCartney, who may actually have been the best Beatles guitarist, doesn't. Why John is there, I don't have a clue. And my favorite Beatles list is John, George, Paul, Ringo in that order.

Keith Richards at #4. I think that Mick Taylor was the best guitarist ever in the Stones, but he's mired somewhere in the 30s. I love Keef, and his contributions to rock guitar are certainly important, but #4?

And so on.

mp51's picture
Joined: Sep 19 2007
great technique does not make great art...


interesting you say tommy emmanuel would out-play jerry on acoustic, but you'd rather listen to jerry. so who's the better artist/guitar player? the same argument can be made on pizza tapes? tony rice clearly has better chops than jerry, but it's tony, to me, who sounds almost...out of place? jerry kills. the thing about jerry, to me, is how emotive he is. i feel i know his thoughts, emotions, when jerry plays. THAT to me is the mark of a great artist/guitar player. i'm not gonna make a list of great technical guitar players, heck we probably wouldn't know any of them! great licks? i don't care! i saw jeff beck warm up for santana one time. beck, higher on list, santana, better on mine. SOUL!!! it's all how you choose to look at it.

so, i'm sure many phish fans might be outraged trey didn't make the list. i guess he's great, but he bores me to death. i, like blair wrote ages ago, tried many times to get into phish. the bottom line for me was there was no great guitar player who floored me. as for today, one guy i can listen to ALL DAY is luther dickinson from the north miss all-stars...

Joined: Jun 13 2007

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh, Love it!
This has been such a turn-on!
I love a good rant from the soul>>>>
Your point has been well received by me.
And lest I forget how delightful the posts from
the Other Ones have been TOO!
Thanks and don't waste that fiesty energy;
why....cause that would be a waste of it.
And those that just don't understand would
win again and I don't like see that.
Win, you winner---come out on top!
I have a coffe table and....bathroom shelf,
with Rolling Stones issues and have been
a subscriber on and off for years and years.
When you write for a magazine or other publication
it becomes an "art"-icle or article or a form of art!
This task of 100 greatest should be art but it's a
And I could write a teriffic article about it, xo.
It would not be a top 100 list because that
hurts musicans not helps them and
I certainly would never do that.
Mine would be a list of 100 #1 guitar players in the world
Volume #1, others would follow.
Now, that's right-hearted, I love You, ALL.
Have a FAN-tastic day Blair!
In lovingkindness always,

Joined: Jan 3 2011

Jerry would not make it on American Idol either. Who really takes Rolling Stone seriously. What really is the criteria for this list. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his life and what do people think of him now. Jerry's playing speaks for itself. There is a story that Tom Verlaine taught him self to play guitar by listening to Jerry on records. Tom Verlaine is without question the most influentual guitarist of the punk era. His band Television was refered to as the punk Grateful Dead for their double guitar attack similiar to the dead.

leedesj's picture
Joined: Feb 2 2011

whew, when i saw the title of the blog i was afraid he was left out all together

#46 aint bad... although being below j. ramone is tough

heck it was the idea of getting something that the mainstream didnt get that was one of the many things that first attracted me to the GD

i may not have bothered to chime it but...

i first read this post yesterday, then i had the good fortune to go to paul simon at the landmark theater in richmond (formerly the mosque) last night

he put on a masterful show that surpassed my wildest expectations having never been in his live presence before

he covered many eras and many moods but most surprising to me and so coincidental since i had just read this blog earlier was when he covered "mystery train" into a pseudo bo diddley beat rocknroll medley culminating with "pretty thing" by bo diddley, (but no "not fade away")

during this jam he played a rectangular electric guitar similiar to the one associated with BD and projected a larger than life almost deifying image of BD for several minutes

i had to laugh recalling this blog

anyway PS was awesome, i just wish he played more tunes from "one trick pony" besides just "late in the evening" (which was awesomely re-arranged)

btw PS is a mean guitarist!

Fredcritter's picture
Joined: Jun 23 2007
And they had Thompson at #60?

And they had Thompson at #60? And I'll bet Greg Brown wasn't even listed. Just goes to show, indeed. I guess these sorts of popularity polls will alway default to "most widely known" rather than truly representing the "best." As you and Blair and others say. We will survive…

Joined: Nov 16 2010
It's all subjective

There are so many great guitarists it depends on how widely varied your tates are. It's nice to see there are Jerry fans like myself who also dig Randy Rhoads. Look I love Jerry . My first show was Englishtown 77 and have seen a few hundred Dead, Jerry, Other Ones Phil and friends and Furthur shows. But it's a great big music world out there. I love Django Reinhart, Dickey Betts, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Sreve Gaines Leslie West Robert Fripp, Steve Howe, Lou Reed Mick Taylor, Robin Trower Frank Marino, Ritchie Blackmore Jorma Kaukonen. Earl Hooker Magic Sam. There are so many cool styles that lists will alaways vary.

littlesmoke's picture
Joined: Nov 20 2009
"greatest guitarist"

I've thought about this for years - the 4 BEST guitarists of all time (IMHO)

Buddy Guy plays music that comes from his balls
SRV plays music that comes from his soul
Jimi Hendrix plays music that comes from his heart
Jerry plays music that comes from his intoxication! ;)


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