Grateful Dead

Another Guitarist Poll Disses Jerry!

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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.

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Jerry and his “Wolf” guitar, 1974.

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JackstrawfromColorado's picture
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Joined: Jan 2 2009
"Frickin' Randy Rhodes?"

Seriously dude?? I agree Jerry needs much much bigger props but to cast Rhodes aside like that? Please! Ozzy has picked some of the best guitar players ever. Zakk Wylde should also be on that list. Go ahead yuk it up ...

docks of the city's picture
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Joined: Jun 19 2007
Jerry Garcia

Prettiest guitar playing I've ever heard.

jwalsman's picture
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Joined: Oct 25 2011
Paul Simon's guitarist

Man I agree with you on the guy who plays for Simon..He's been with him I know since the Rhythm of the Saints Tour in '92 and he is phenomenal...not Jerry but does a lot of the picking and the intricate playing JG did.

jwalsman's picture
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Joined: Oct 25 2011
Thank you Blair (as usual)

Interesting because about 2 years ago Rolling Stone released a similar list on their website and Jerry was in the top 20 (13th I believe). Anyway, as a musician myself, I can listen to Jerry's guitar all day and night (and many days do just that). He had a way of making his guitar cry, laugh, scream, groan, and do so many emotions that we can't do with words. I'll take Jerry's guitar ANY DAY over Keith Richards or Townsend for that matter.

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Joined: Mar 8 2009
Great point...

... regarding African guitarists. I love the guy who plays guitar for Paul Simon (forget his name) and Bhakiti Kuhmalu (sp?) his bass player. I would recommend Bela Fleck's "Throw Down Your Heart" record and DVD for anyone interested in African music. Some amazing guitarists on there (D'Gary, for one).

brian.michaelson's picture
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Joined: Jun 15 2007
Discrimination, maybe?

Much as I hate to admit it, for me The Grateful Dead were an acquired taste. I didn't start really listening untill I was 20, and saw my first show three years later. Perhaps the biggest reason for such a low ranking is that the vast majority of people voting didn't experience Jerry playing live. Ask anyone in a jam band who's the best and I bet the response will be a little different from this poll.

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Joined: Sep 19 2007
what is greatest?

yes, i wondered this too. it's as if since they listed john fahey, leo kottke is out. robert johnson? then no john hurt. and by this logic, since they have hendrix, there should be no stevie ray...

Hal R's picture
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Joined: Jun 13 2007
this poll

From Rolling Stone is so vague. I mean really, what is greatest? Looking at the list
and I only skimmed it I noticed that evidently according to Rolling Stone you can't be one of the greatest guitar players ever if you play classical or jazz guitar. Why pretend to define the whole world of guitar playing with just rock and electric blues? Because you can order how people look at guitar playing because you are the great omnipotent Rolling Stone!

They should say greatest famous Rock and Roll and electric blues guitar players that fit into the hierarchy established by us and other rock journalists. But they don't.

Greats - what do they mean - talented or famous or who can sell the most magazines? No Mississippi John Hurt, Segovia, Leo Kottke, Ralph Towner, Wes Montgomery, John Scofield, Mike Stern. How about Blind Blake? Most of the folks on the list couldn't even touch him. So many more that could be listed. Are there any guitar players from Africa or South America on the list? I doubt it. How Eurocentric. Just British and American guitar players. What a circle jerk.

Nonsense like these polls reminds me of why punk needed to come around and shake up all the music establishment sell outs. Somebody on a punk site was commenting on this new 100 list and stated “Music is not a competition".

And as for Jerry? don't know if Jerry was the greatest because what is the definition of greatest anyway? He is one of my favorites and was incredibly talented and versatile and sang to me and my heart sings when I hear the notes fly off his guitar. That's what counts.

stone jack baller's picture
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Joined: Jun 8 2007
Same Pompous RS Bullshit

Forget about Jerry at #46

Here's what's worse. This is just another of the the same predominantly white, male, suburban, adolescent crap lists that Rolling Stone began peddling and re-peddling years ago. Their omissions show a lack of class and a lack of sensitivity. Truly unconscionable.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Again...

The 2006 list was created by one guy, I gather (David Fricke) and the new one is from a poll of 58 people, only three or four of whom are Rolling Stone writers; the rest are musicians...

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