Jerry Garcia

By Perlmutter, Adam | Acoustic Guitar, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Jerry Garcia


Perlmutter, Adam, Acoustic Guitar


A look at the GRATEFUL DEAD guitarist's influential acoustic style, which reflected his love of roots music, bluegrass, and modal jazz.

The lengthy, imaginative improvised excursions that Jerry Garcia called forth on his electric guitar inspired legions of devoted fans to hit the road with die Grateful Dead during the band's heyday. While dissertations could be written on this work, Garcia's acoustic side warrants equal consideration. A highly personal take on all sounds Americana, Garcia's acoustic guitar can be heard on Grateful Dead songs like "Uncle John's Band" and "Ripple" as well as in Garcia's music outside the Dead with musicians like the mandolin virtuoso David Grisman.

Named after the composer Jerome Kern, Jerome John Garcia was born in San Francisco in 1942 to a musical family. Garcia studied the piano as a child but was forced to quit the instrument when he lost most of his right middle finger in a wood-chopping accident. It wasn't until he was 15, upon hearing Chuck Berry, that he took up the electric guitar. In 1960, after a brief stint in the Army, Garcia discovered folk music, picked up a banjo, and began playing bluegrass, while also studying at the San Francisco Art Institute. By 1964 Garcia had joined Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, a bluegrass and folk outfit whose other members included guitarist Bob Weir and harmonica player Ron (Pigpen) McKernan. Within a year, the ensemble, rounded out by Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums, morphed into the Warlocks, an electric bar band whose name was soon dropped in favor of the Grateful Dead. Featuring Garcia on guitar and vocals, the Dead started playing free concerts in San Francisco and soon graduated to high-profile gigs at the Fillmore West and Woodstock and a recording contract with Wamer Brothers.

With its freewheeling approach to music making and life in general, the Dead became the most emblematic band of the hippie era, continuing to record and tour until Garcia's untimely death of a heart attack in 1995 at age 53. As one of the primary architects of the Dead's music, Garcia was responsible for the band's uncanny synthesis of psychedelic folk, blues, and jazz, and his electric and acoustic guitar playing has been an influence on legions of jam band lead guitar players, from Phish's Trey Anastasio to the String Cheese Incident's Bill Nershi.

In this lesson, we'll examine die trademarks of Garcia's acoustic approach, which incorporates strumming and flatpicking in both accompaniment and lead roles, all imbued with a fair amount of improvisation. In the process, we hope you will gain an appreciation for Garcia's contributions to American music as well as some new ideas for your own playing.

Single- Note Lead Lines

In an extraordinarily productive single year, 1970, the Grateful Dead released two staggeringly good albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. These albums showcase a wide range of Garcia's acoustic lead concepts, and well start by looking at several of his techniques featured on these classic recordings.

One of Garcia's most identifiable lead techniques features a breezily descending series of triadic arpeggios on the top two strings, as heard in the beginning of "Uncle John's Band," from Workingman's Dead. In Example 1, a typical Garcia arpeggio lick follows four bars of a syncopated A barre chord. To play the arpeggios, which outline the chord progression A-C*m-D-E, start with your index, middle, and little fingers on the ninth, tenth, and 12th frets, respectively, shifting down to seventh, fifth, and fourth positions for the dm, D, and E chords. As Garcia would when playing a phrase like tfiis, let each note ring as long as possible.

Garcia also often took a more scalar approach embellished with chromatic passing tones, as in his bright single-note solo on "Uncle John's Band." Example 2 sticks mosdy to the ?-major scale, with a couple of ascending chromatic passing tones in measures 2 and 5. …

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