Cool Aid: Spike Your Solos with Jerry Garcia's Trippy Approach Tones

Article excerpt

Like Stilton cheese, kimchi, or a double espresso, Jerry Garcia's playing can be an acquired taste. Some guitarists scratch their heads over the late Grateful Dead frontman's tone, intonation, and timing, while others hail him as the most inventive improviser to emerge from San Francisco's psychedelic scene. While Garcia will likely always remain an enigma to non-Deadheads, one thing is clear: He could weave colorful passing tones into his lines like no other rocker.

In this lesson, we'll explore techniques Garcia used to enrich his lines. Drawing on phrases found in his solo albums--which have been collected for the first time in a boxed set, All Good Things: Jerry Garcia Studio Sessions (see "Long, Strange Trip")--we'll discover how to extract arpeggios and intervals from a song's chord progression and spin them into dense, prismatic melodies. As part of the dissection process, we'll split each example into two parts: First, we'll examine a lick's essential harmonic framework--its genesis--and then see how Garcia filled in the blanks. Regardless of your stylistic predilections, you'll find it easy to adapt Garcia's twists and turns to your own solos--a surefire way to make them more compelling.


In "Alabama Getaway," a previously unissued song on the newly expanded Run for the Roses, Garcia bases several single-note excursions on sixth intervals. He often relied on sixths to sketch the changes for good reason: Sixths move smoothly on the fretboard--almost as gracefully as single notes--yet they contain essential information about the chord of the moment. Let's investigate.

Ex. 1a shows two sixths: C[sharp]-A and A-F[sharp]. The former contains the root and 3 of an A chord, while the latter contains the 3 and 5 of D. Play these intervals several times, and then strum A and D chords to hear how effectively the sixths imply the larger harmony. Because each sixth is composed of tones from its respective parent chord, you're able to hear the I-IV progression without actually playing the full monty. Cool.


Ex. 1b illustrates how Garcia creates a melodic line by weaving chromatic passing tones and notes from an A blues scale around the shapes we just laid out on the fretboard. See how the sixths--now played melodically--occur on beat one of each measure? The remaining notes act as stepping stones that introduce and connect these two events.

In particular, notice how Garcia approaches each sixth from a half-step below: C leads to C[sharp], and G[sharp] leads to A. By timing these chromatic approaches to occur on the and of beat four--the upbeats--Garcia heightens the tension and release. It's as if he's ambushing the chord tones both rhythmically and melodically.

You'll often find arpeggios lurking within Garcia's lines. The triads in Ex. 2a set up a I-[flat]VII-IV progression in the key of A. (Both Garcia and the Dead were particularly fond of this harmonic shift.) As you work through the jazzy Ex. 2b, try to spot the chord tones. Notice how in three instances the chord tones are preceded by half-step approach notes: C leads to C[sharp], G[sharp] to A, and F to F[sharp]. As before, Garcia places these tangy approaches on upbeats.


To master the fretboard--a crucial step in becoming a monster jammer--it's important to rework licks on different string sets. Examples 3a and 3b illustrate this process by revisiting the previous lick, first with new triad grips and then with a refingered melody. For maximum points, apply this concept to all the phrases in this lesson.



Like Django Reinhardt, Garcia would often create lines by embellishing arpeggios. Tweezed from "Valerie" (Run for the Roses), Examples 4a and 4b are classic applications of this technique. First, establish the sound of the IV-I cadence by playing through Ex. …