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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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Nice, Toriano!

One thing I didn't mention (actually there are many things...) is Garcia's adoption of MIDI sounds in his playing late in his career. I know many Dead Heads didn't care much for that development, preferring the purer, unadulterated tones we all loved so much. But you have to admit it was a very bold move that let him expand his sonic palette so much. I can't think of another rock guitarist who investigated that world as enthusiastically and adventurously as the J-man. Pat Metheny has certainly done his share of timbral synth-y explorations, but it's a way different kind of music.) I love that a lot of what Jerry did in that realm was genre-specific--adding honking sax to an R&B-ish tune, flute-ish sounds to "Birdsong," the "pocket trumpet" on "Built to Last" and "I Will Take You Home," and all those interesting, undefinable combos of sounds and shimmers and shadows of notes he'd suddenly let fly... I think it helped keep him interested in the later days...

RipplesInStillWater's picture
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Joined: Apr 30 2011
Do you know what I find

Do you know what I find odd?

Jerry used to be #7. Then he was #13

Now he's number 46.

I'm starting to feel like less and less people at Rolling Stone evrey year get our scene....

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Joined: Jun 4 2007
Rolling Stone 2006

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time /Rolling Stone 2006
The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time

1 Jimi Hendrix.
2 Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.
3 B.B. King
4 Eric Clapton.
5 Robert Johnson---
6 Chuck Berry
7 Stevie Ray Vaughan
8 Ry Cooder
9 Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.
10 Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
11 Kirk Hammett of Metallica
12 Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
13 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead

toriano's picture
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Joined: Apr 7 2009
I Second Blair's Emotion

First of all, I personally always fear reading or even hearing about these lists. The institutions that write them are never accurate or even forthcoming as to what they are looking for or judging on. Not to mention, music is a language not a competition (sorry X-Craptor and No Ones Idol)

I love music, or should I say WE love music. We love music more than some people that are professional musicians and producers. There are many styles of music and the only guitarist to have ever captured it all and mastered it all is Garcia. He then flipped it to his own unique style!!! And only Jerry has ever gone so far as to scrap his ENTIRE style to reinvent it again and again (66-68, 69-74, 75-81/82, 89-93) just to name a few periods of time.

Like someone else mentioned, I grew up in Los Angeles and always got the weirdest looks for proclaiming my status as a Deadhead. It was particularly frustrating for me because I am African-American and grew up near South Central. It was expected that I was into rap/hip hop and though I enjoyed some of it and still do, the Dead was always my number one. I grew up in a musically diverse house, my parents were hippies too! “Once in awhile you can get shown the light….”

Other guitarist I like, not that I can remember them all right now, but here is a shot “In the Dark”, John Cippollina, Jorma Kaukonen , JimmyPage, Jeff Beck, Stanley Jordan, David Gilmour, Trey Anastasio (sometimes), Joe Satriani….you get it. My point is that not one of them can bring me to my knees, tear up my eyes, make me laugh uncontrollable – with that “did you get it?” shit eating grin, send chills up my spin, send patterns and waves through my third eye….and that was just as I was driving to work yesterday, let alone seeing him live!!! Thank God I got to see 50+ GD shows and crazy amounts of Family Functions!

Simply, Garcia is not only number one, but number two has never even existed!

p.s. Garcia never gave two shits about a list, he didn’t believe in such trivial things. He believed what I believe, music is life and life is a grooving ass rhythm!!!

Peace

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Joined: Nov 6 2011
lists, lists, lists

The magic of Jerry was that he cared most about creating a special dynamic with the other musicians, and not at all about being in the spotlight. It was more about making it magic for everyone in the room at that moment, and less about ego. This was true in the Dead or in any other group he jammed with. It seems like it's becoming less hip to be into Jerry and the Dead these days, but it's really good to see young folk still finding out about them and digging it. So what if everyone else doesn't get it? We know, and to me that's all that matters.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Bruce...

...would make my Top 50, easy... He squeezes notes out of that Tele that can throttle you and make you beg for mercy. Not many players can do that.

I'll never understand the Bruce haters or the U2 haters...

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Joined: Jun 5 2007
The RS List is utter nonsense

It has Bruce Springsteen as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. Enough said.

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Joined: Sep 19 2007
"don't like country music."

that's always my favorite line i hear people utter. i usually then say, 'you don't like johnny cash?' and they back peddle so fast...oh, i love him, but... you like johnny cash, you like country music. (listen to robbie folks!) i mean i get it, they don't like today's crap pop country, who does!!!, but don't throw out the baby with the bath water!

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
and yeah...

Richard Thompson, #60?

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
this is all taking me back

to the days of our youth when Dave Marsh was dissing the band and Jer early and often. No respect then either.

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