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: Apr 23 2009
Minor Musical Injustice

Blair, thanks for putting down in words what I've felt for over 25 years. As a professional musician (bass and guitar), I've always wondered why the entire band wasn't recognized (in the mainstream) for their amazing talent. By the early 80's, Garcia was hitting his prime and playing some of the most beautiful, inventive and melodic guitar ever. And he still doesn't get proper credit for his incredible tone.

And I agree about Weir--his playing is as unique as Jerry's and he is definitely one of the top 5 rhythm guitarists of all time.

Back in the early 80's, I played a '79 show for my fusion-loving friend and he finally got how amazing Garcia was. It just takes an open mind and ears willing to listen past "Trucking" and "Sugar Magnolia" from the albums.

Joined: Jun 14 2007
Rolling Stone List

Not going to view all the comments, though back in 2003 Jerry was number 13/100. David Gilmour 82. 2011 Garcia is 46 and Gilmour 13. Maybe it's the guitarists participated in the voting?

deadmike's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
Lots of guitarists aren't there

Had a discussion over the list on Facebook, with a friend who's into soul, punk and pop music. He thought it was fair finding Joey Ramone high in rankings because the impact Ramones had on the punk world. Since I know he's a big fan of Creedence since his childhood, I asked him what he thought of not finding John Fogerty on the list and he then said Fogerty wasn't that a great guitar player.

If this friend of mine got to pick the top 100 guitarists of all time, Jerry Garcia wouldn't made the list at all. This friend of mine is a fan of Dave Marsh and I'm not.

But I'll give him some credit. I totally agree with him that Jerry isn't really the best guitar player of all time, not if one should try to put ones owns feelings away. Myself I could agree on Jimi Hendrix being the most influential guitar player ever in rock music but he's certainly isn't the most influential player in jazz, country or blues. He might be on the blues list and maybe, maybe he would even be at the bottom of the 100 best jazz guitarists ever but not even close on the top 100 country pickers of all time.

And then about Jerry. I agree he could play in different styles but he wasn't a great blues player. Jerry was good inside his main musical idioms, such as folk-, country- and laid back rock. He'd would fare quite well in lighter jazz fusion and atonal music but otherwise he was just a fair guitar player in most of the other styles he did. He was a great pedal steel guitarist but not among the greatest. He could do quite well on the acoustic guitar but there's tons of others that are much, much better. Tommy Emmanuel, from Australia, would out-play Jerry on the acoustic. But as much as I appreciate Tommy Emmanuel, I would rather be listening to Jerry at almost any given time.

Micke Östlund
Växjö, Sweden

Joined: Jun 4 2007
The Rolling Stone list lost me...

...when they ranked Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page higher than Jeff Beck, and thats not even the worst part, though as far as former Yardbird guitarists go, is sacrlige.

The ommisions in favor of about 70% of the jokers on that list is even more astonishing!

No Steve Vai? Steve Morse? Michael Hedges? Warren Haynes? Joe Bonamassa? Eddie Hazel? Segovia? Al DiMeola? Steve Howe? Roy Buchanon? Danny Gatton? ect? ect? ect? ect?

edit -

And probably the single worst ommision is Allan Holdsworth.

Keith Richards makes the list, but not Brian Jones?

No Frank Gambale? Stanley Jordan? John Scofield? Jan Akkerman?

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Aw, c'mon, man...

We wouldn't be havin' this conversation if RR hadn't met a tragic end. Even a great guitarist in Ozzy's band is still working in the service of what is, to my ears, mostly mediocre, if powerfully rendered, sludge-rock. Obviously, YMMV. I'd put Satriani or Vai ahead of both those guys just on the basis of the variety and creativity they displayed, as well as their enviable chops. But I'm not gonna pretend I'm an expert of either Rhodes or Wilde. Certainly both have impeccable reps in the metal world, which does take its guitarists very seriously. I have no doubt they were/are great axe-slingers. Just not my cup of tea. I don't even care for Eddie Van Halen particularly, though I can see why others do... AC/DC, too... Just not my scene at all.

JackstrawfromColorado's picture
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
Joined: Jun 19 2007
Jerry Garcia

Prettiest guitar playing I've ever heard.

jwalsman's picture
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
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.

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).


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