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Objectively speaking, was Jerry Garcia a great guitar player?
January 20, 2010 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Objectively speaking, was Jerry Garcia a great guitar player?

I've enjoyed the musical stylings of the Grateful Dead for many years, and part of their appeal has been the guitar playing of Mr. Garcia. I've always thought of him as a superb guitar player and an excellent improviser. However, I've heard people say that he actually wasn't that great, and that "all he did was play the pentatonic scale."

I'm not a guitar player, so I have no real way of knowing how skilled he really was. And so I turn to you.

What I'm looking for here is an analysis of his playing skill by people with a good understanding of music and/or guitar playing. I'm interested in examining his playing both from a technical standpoint (was it particularly difficult to do what he did? was he good at it?) and from a compositional standpoint (was he very innovative? how would you rate his improvisational skill?) Bonus points if you can explain yourself in laymans' terms.

What I am not looking for is opinions about the culture surrounding the Grateful Dead.

For the sake of the question, let's assume that we're talking Jerry's work with the Dead during their early-70s heyday, say from 1969-1974.
posted by Afroblanco to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
People say the same thing about BB King - "He only plays five notes!", that kind of thing. They might be correct in a technical sense when it comes to number of different technical approaches, but they couldn't be more wrong when it comes to emotion. Same thing with Jerry. To your second attribute, his improvisational skill was among the best.

Also, "All he did was play the pentatonic scale" might be the stupidest put-down I've ever heard. Sounds like you're dealing with music-snob equivalents of stereo nerds.
posted by jbickers at 11:40 AM on January 20, 2010


Yeah, as much as I think the Dead suck, I can't deny that Jerry Garcia could play the fuck out of a guitar.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:45 AM on January 20, 2010


Not a deadhead, but respect the music and play some guitar...

was it particularly difficult to do what he did?
No.

was he good at it?
Very.

was he very innovative?
Not particularly. My impression is that this type of band was fairly common at the time in various parts of the country, but that the Dead helped bring it to the masses. They also had a somewhat unique blend of styles; the strong country/bluegrass in the context of a folk/rock band is what always caught my attention.

how would you rate his improvisational skill?
Superior. The Dead is WAY more than just pentatonics -- I remember a friend in college was really into them and we jammed on their stuff a couple of time. I was a music major, and was very impressed at the tonal variety in both their melodies and harmonies.

The Dead are very bluegrass-influenced. Bluegrass is fairly easy to pick up on, but very difficult to master.

Technically, Garcia wouldn't be much of a threat to Yngwie, but neither would B. B. King (who could also be described -- by an idiot -- as "just playing pentatonic scales"). His playing impresses me because of its effortlessness. A lot of his soloing isn't difficult, but it flows like water. Keep in mind also that he's not standing up and saying, "Hey, this is the guitar solo and see how good I am!" He's supporting the other instruments and voices in a very jazz-oriented way.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:49 AM on January 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm not a musician or a Dead fan, but isn't a lot of art just totally unquantifiable in terms of "greatness"?

Some of the music that touches me the most isn't innovative or virtuosic, it just speaks to me for some reason I can't name. That quality - the ability to "speak to" people - seems like the most important variable in what makes great art.
posted by serazin at 11:52 AM on January 20, 2010


coolguymichael nailed it better than i could put it. The one thing i'd like to add that set him apart from the masses: whenever you hear Jerry playing guitar, whether with the Dead, JGB, or other random cameo, you immediately know it's Jerry. His sound and style was unique.
posted by gnutron at 11:57 AM on January 20, 2010


Serious guitar player, not a deadhead, not even a big fan. But while JG wasn't a great technician, what he played was tasty, fit perfectly with the song, and had an instantly identifiable "voice."

Great in my book.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I say this as a huge guitar and music geek:

1. The Grateful Dead were a really horrible band that had about 3 good albums and who sounded just awful live most of the time. They did have moments of brilliance, though.

2. Jerry Garcia was a fantastic guitar player, including on a technical level. His acoustic and folk work is the best example of this, and it was his strong suit. He wasn't the best guitarist ever or anything, and he didn't match the level of the great rock guitarists of his generation by a long shot. But he really was fantastic.

To sum up:

The Grateful Dead: Horrible band, probably 3 good albums (Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, and Mars Hotel. Terrapin Station almost qualifies as "good," but is ruined by Dancing In The Streets, which is the worst cover of any song in the history of recorded music. Yes, worse than the Jagger/Bowie version.)

Jerry Garcia: Great guitarist, particularly in the folk milieu, but nowhere near Gilmour, Clapton, Beck, Kaukonen, or a whole list of others of his generation.
posted by The World Famous at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2010


To clarify in laymans terms: Jerry was a proficient but not a very good electric guitar player, and his solos are boring for the most part. But his acoustic playing was fantastic, and his sense of chord changes and modulation were great.
posted by The World Famous at 12:06 PM on January 20, 2010


As a caveat, I don't especially like the Grateful Dead and have never paid much attention to their music. I just listened to the 4 songs that show up at the top of a Google search for "grateful dead." (I realize that it's not fair to judge the ability of a guitarist who was mainly known for long, improvisatory live shows based on studio recordings.) Assuming that Garcia is playing all the lead guitar parts, I'd say he's a fine guitarist, and it's simply inaccurate to say he confined his solos to the pentatonic scale. A better description would be to say he tended to play in the mixolydian mode, but he also deviated from that (i.e. played chromatic notes) in the few songs I heard. I don't find the guitar playing (or any of the music) especially innovative or interesting, but I'm saying that based on a very limited sample. Everything I heard was tasteful and appropriate and pleasant; none of it was at the "virtuoso" level, but I can't hold that against him since good guitarists don't constantly play at their maximum level of technical proficiency. (And, more fundamentally, technical skill isn't the most important part of being a great guitarist.)

Finally, the fact that the band was lauded for their live improvisations suggests to me -- without even hearing those performances -- that they were probably pretty talented at it. Of course, the consensus could be wrong, but the odds are greater that your friend just enjoys going against conventional wisdom.

As a sidenote, guitarist are infamous for this kind of implicit bragging (he's not that great, it's easy, it's just five notes --> message: I could play at least that well, and by the way I have a good understanding of music because I'm willing to contradict the conventional wisdom and speak in [not necessarily correct] technical terms).
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:11 PM on January 20, 2010


"all he did was play the pentatonic scale."

The type of music he played only needed the pentatonic scale. He was good. His stuff with David Grisman is fantastic.
posted by rocket88 at 12:18 PM on January 20, 2010


A note about all the scale talk: what scale a person plays and how many pitches it contains is of very little relevance even to a discussion confined to technical ability, since note choice is just one aspect of performance. Rhythm and phrasing have a crucial role in the playing of a musician like BB King or Jerry Garcia, so to namedrop the pentatonic scale like its use somehow makes a guitarist lesser because it's missing 2 pitches is totally missing the point. And there are all kinds of interesting and unexpected ways to employ the pentatonic, just like any other scale. It's not about which notes you play but how you play them.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:24 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


His playing impresses me because of its effortlessness. A lot of his soloing isn't difficult

Just because something sounds effortless doesn't mean it is.

I'm not sure it makes any sense to separate the guitarist from the musician. Sammy Sosa could probably hit a baseball with a guitar better than any guitarist in history. It's not interesting what skills a person has with a guitar by itself. What's interesting is how that person translates those skills into music. That's the metric (if there even is one) of a good guitarist.

More specifically, how well does a particular guitarist play in the context of his or her band? In that regard, Jerry Garcia could probably be considered untouchable. (As a potentially useless thought experiment, I would propose that none of the guitarists The World Famous mentions could have played in The Dead like Jerry did).

Jerry was an extremely tasteful guitar player, and that's part of why the Grateful Dead worked. With all those instruments improvising at once, it can be very easy to overplay. Jerry's playing in that context is I think what leads some people to consider his work simplistic. What you hear him doing is listening and playing to the music, not showing off.

But sometimes he does get a chance to show off. In some of the more traditional song structures, he could rip a mean blues-grass lead line as well as anyone. And of course (outside of the context of your question) there's his acoustic work with David Grisman in which you hear Jerry explore a wider harmonic context than with the Dead.

And there are some technical points to make about his guitar playing. He had a readily identifiable tone (not all great guitarists do). He had some unique approaches to the fretboard as well (like those tiny slides down the high notes).

And his favorite scale was D Dorian.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 12:26 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


This guitar player believes that there is no such thing as "objectively" good in guitar playing.

I do like Garcia though. I like listening to him. Especially the early dead up to '73. I'm crazy electic though and it isn't everyone's cup of tea. I think I'm one of the few who can like Yo La Tengo, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Grateful Dead and Bon Iver all at the same time. Today, I've been listening to Death.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:35 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't hold that against him since good guitarists don't constantly play at their maximum level of technical proficiency.

Indeed, it is the sign of a highly skilled, but poor guitarist. Wankery abounds. This is why I dislike Eric Clapton.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:37 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a potentially useless thought experiment, I would propose that none of the guitarists The World Famous mentions could have played in The Dead like Jerry did

Meh. None of them could have played in The Sex Pistols like Steve Jones did, either. That doesn't mean Steve Jones was particularly good.

(Note: Steve Jones has improved since then.)

Jerry was an extremely tasteful guitar player, and that's part of why the Grateful Dead worked. With all those instruments improvising at once, it can be very easy to overplay. Jerry's playing in that context is I think what leads some people to consider his work simplistic. What you hear him doing is listening and playing to the music, not showing off.

This is exactly right. Jerry was a master of listening to the band as he was playing and playing with the band. Very few guitarists - even the ones considered great - are good at this. In the "play just the right thing with the band at just the right moment" department, Jerry was right up there with guys like Duane Allman.
posted by The World Famous at 12:46 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's a simpler metric. Does the guitarist in question transcend the instrument and make you feel? Anecdote after anecdote indicates Jerry did. So I think objectively, he was a great guitarist.

Also.
posted by toastchee at 1:26 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jerry never really grabbed me, but I can respect that he did reach so many people emotionally with his music. To me that means he was great, and even though I'm not a fan I can say that without hesitation.

As an aside, everyone is entitled to opinions, but people who discuss artists like it's a competition really get in my craw. Next time you hear someone saw something like this, hand them a guitar and ask them to demonstrate what they mean. That should shut them up.
posted by quarterframer at 1:35 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


So which song/performance best illustrates his strengths as a guitar player?
posted by mecran01 at 1:46 PM on January 20, 2010


I ran this question past a friend of mine, a classical music scholar who recently immersed himself in Grateful Dead music on a lark. His take: I'd say he was more an exceptionally open-minded and witty musician than a new Segovia.
posted by Sublimity at 3:02 PM on January 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


I would say that he was a great improviser by the standards of jam-band music and the folk/bluegrass traditions. No dis intended--that's what he played.
posted by box at 3:02 PM on January 20, 2010


Sometimes you could hear Jerry thinking/imagining/dreaming while he played. Sometimes there was the slightest hesitation, and maybe a bit of a stumble as he changed modalities or attacks or rythyms or what have you. Not all that many guitarists have that kind of courage, to allow you to see them wondering which note to play next.
posted by telstar at 3:53 PM on January 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


I've thought about this all day, and listened to some Dead in the process, and have concluded that JG made what would otherwise have been noodling -- jumpy, arpeggiated filigree-work, spiky jabs, steel licks -- work as melody.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:17 PM on January 20, 2010


I'm like Afroblanco, a fan without the musical knowledge to know how good or bad Garcia was. Thanks for the answers especially from the non-fans, I think that I understand somewhat better why he is one of my favorite guitar players. And thanks Afro for framing the question so well that it didn't get hit by the same boring old anti-dead comments (or if it did, thanks to the mods for deleting them).
posted by octothorpe at 6:24 PM on January 20, 2010


> None of them could have played in The Sex Pistols like Steve Jones did, either. That doesn't mean Steve Jones was particularly good.

Since I think that the Sex Pistols were particularly good, I submit that those statements are contradictory.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:54 AM on January 21, 2010


Since I think that the Sex Pistols were particularly good, I submit that those statements are contradictory.

Ahem. The fact that a band is a "good band" does not mean that all of its members are good at their instrument. (See, e.g., Sid Vicious).
posted by The World Famous at 10:10 AM on January 21, 2010


> Ahem. The fact that a band is a "good band" does not mean that all of its members are good at their instrument. (See, e.g., Sid Vicious).

Since you have now stated that half the band wasn't good, I'm wondering if you think one or the other of the band made the difference, or if you just don't like them at all.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:18 AM on January 21, 2010


As much as I'd like to argue about whether the Sex Pistols were talented and whether Malcolm McLaren was the one that made the difference, it's a derail.
posted by box at 10:34 AM on January 21, 2010


> As much as I'd like to argue about whether the Sex Pistols were talented and whether Malcolm McLaren was the one that made the difference, it's a derail.

Well, it goes to 'what makes a good guitarist' (context vs. isolated ability) so I don't think it's a derail at all.

I.e., if TWF just doesn't like the Pistols, then his comments about Jones, and by extension Garcia (the object of the exercise,) are put in one context. If he does, then that's a different context.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:39 AM on January 21, 2010


Since you have now stated that half the band wasn't good, I'm wondering if you think one or the other of the band made the difference, or if you just don't like them at all.

I love the Sex Pistols. I love lots of bands that had few or no members who were good at playing their instruments. In fact, I think I probably like more bands with notably bad members than those that demonstrate virtuosity on a regular basis.

It all gets into a ridiculous meta discussion of what we mean by "good" when referring to a musician or, really, to anything. Is my 3-year-old a good painter? Well, I like his painting, and it is emotionally moving for me, and Monet couldn't have painted a fingerpainting of me that would touch me in the same way as one painted by my 3-year-old, and so, therefore, my 3-year-old is a better painter than Monet.

But if the definition of "good guitarist" is distilled down to "does someone like the music that the guitarist plays," then this AskMe question is pointless. If the question was "did Jerry Garcia ever make music that people liked while playing the guitar," then yeah, the answer is unequivocally yes and Afroblanco already knew that.

Were the Sex Pistols a great band? I say yes. Was anyone in the Sex Pistols a good musician? No. Were any of them good at their instrument? They held it together well enough on the studio recordings for me to like it - but who knows how many takes they did, how much punching in was done, or if someone else came in and overdubbed parts later. The live recordings I've heard seem to indicate that they couldn't hold it together live and that Paul Cool and Steve Jones barely held it together enough for the songs to keep rolling, that Sid Vicious mostly didn't even pluck the strings on the bass at all, or did so randomly and without rhythm, and that Johnny Rotten was the perfect frontman for the lot. Was their straight-ahead barre-chord hit-the-instrument-as-hard-as-possible-all-the-time style a conscious stylistic choice made by musicians who could control the way they played? No. It's the only way they knew how to play and the only way they could hold it together. It's a happy coincidence that the only way they knew how to play was a way that I like.

Most of the time, when playing an electric guitar solo with the Dead, Jerry Garcia sounded like a novice trying to mimic Mark Knopfler and failing miserably. Yes, it was perfect for the Grateful Dead. Jerry's talent had more to do with playing what was right for one specific band and conveying just what that band's songs needed than it did with not hitting wrong notes, not making mistakes, or being in control of the instrument. His work with Grisman indicates that he really did have a sort of mastery of the guitar on a certain level. He was more versatile than most rock guitarists and had a good sense of how to move with a band that modulated keys all the time, and that's a tough thing to do. And Jerry was good because he could actually adapt and play differently at will, even if he wasn't particularly fluid most of the time.

If compelled to do so, Jerry Garcia could very easily have strapped on Steve Jones' Les Paul through Steve's rig and hammered out the barre chords to Holiday In The Sun and sounded exactly like Steve Jones. Steve Jones, circa the heyday of the Pistols, could not to save his life have played quietly and appropriately along with Box of Rain or fingerpicked out a coherent improvised solo for Terrapin Station.

And I don't care how much someone likes The Sex Pistols - if they think Sid Vicious was anything but horrible at playing the musical instrument called "the bass guitar," they don't know what they're talking about.
posted by The World Famous at 11:46 AM on January 21, 2010


Oops. Paul Cook. Yes, he was cool, but that's not his name.
posted by The World Famous at 11:48 AM on January 21, 2010


Glen Matlock played on the Pistols' studio recordings, not Sid Vicious. And yes, Sid sucked.

/derail

posted by Rykey at 1:24 PM on January 21, 2010


Awesome! So glad I asked this question. I've been wondering about this for years. I've always loved listening to Jerry play and have to agree that his style was absolutely perfect for the Dead and Grisman. The remark about BB King is also very apt -- so much of music is in how you play it. Jerry's playing had such a distinctive voice -- I believe that I could tell his style just from hearing a few seconds of a recording.

After reading the (thoughtful, interesting) responses here, I believe that my question has been answered : Yes. Yes, Jerry Garcia was a great guitar player.

Marked as Resolved.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:01 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've always loved listening to Jerry play

Ah, so you knew the answer to your question before you posted it.

In other words, if you love listening to someone play guitar, then that person is a great guitarist. Making music that people love to listen to is the whole point of being a musician.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:08 AM on January 22, 2010


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