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Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia's greatest guitar moments

Today marks what would have been the 79th birthday of one of rock’s most enduring icons, Jerry Garcia. In the annals of rock, he is a figure of unmatched pedigree. Founding member of the psychedelic motley crew, Grateful Dead, his thirty-year stint in the band from its inception in 1965 to its disbandment in 1995 (coinciding with his death), helped Garcia make a lasting impact on music and pop culture. 

His role as bandleader of the Grateful Dead was just one of many musical endeavours he undertook in his prolific lifetime. Alongside longtime friend Merl Saunders, he founded the Saunders-Garcia Band in 1971. He also fronted the Jerry Garcia Band, Old & In the Way, the Garcia/Grisman and Garcia/Kahn acoustic duos, Legion of Mary and New Riders of the Purple Sage.

This was not the end of his musical output either. He also released numerous solo albums and worked as an esteemed session musician, adding his skill to the works of other artists. His technically gifted and unique guitar style endeared him to fans and critics worldwide. Consequently, Garcia is widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. 

A defining feature of Garcia’s musicianship was long, sustained improvisations on stage with the Grateful Dead. Informed by the infamous ‘Acid Tests’, and typical of his stature as the godfather of the hippies, he believed that improvisation took the stress away from his playing. It allowed him to enact brilliant spur of the moment riffs that he would never have dreamt of attempting in a rigid, structured setting. “My own preferences are for improvisation, for making it up as I go along,” he once commented. “The idea of picking, of eliminating possibilities by deciding, that’s difficult for me”. 

His skill was not limited to the guitar, though. He had also mastered a variety of instruments as well as the guitar, including the banjo and pedal steel. According to the respected Bay Area guitarist Henry Kaiser, Garcia is “the most recorded guitarist in history”. Detailing his reasoning further, he explained: “With more than 2,200 Grateful Dead concerts, and 1,000 Jerry Garcia Band concerts captured on tape – as well as numerous studio sessions – there are about 15,000 hours of his guitar work preserved for the ages”.

Throughout his career, particularly later in life, Garcia struggled with health issues. In 1986 he went into a diabetic coma that nearly took his life. Following this life-changing health scare, his health improved slightly, but his struggles with obesity, nicotine, cocaine and heroin continued to plague him. In fact, he was staying at a Belvedere, California drug rehabilitation clinic when he died of a heart attack on August 9th, 1995, aged only 53.

The man’s spirit did not die with his earthly form, though. He influenced so many, with just one example of this being Soundgarden’s 1996 B-side to ‘Pretty Noose’ entitled ‘Jerry Garcia’s Finger’. However, this is just a footnote compared to two Jerry Garcia moments that are seared into the mainstream consciousness. 

As a member of the Grateful Dead, Garcia was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Although he infamously declined to attend the event, the rest of the Dead jokingly reacted to this by bringing out a cardboard cutout of him on stage in absentia. 

Join us then, on his birthday, as we list Jerry Garcia’s five greatest guitar moments.

Jerry Garcia’s five best guitar moments:

‘The Other One’ – (Winterland 10/17/74)

The opener of the Dead’s second album, 1968’s Anthem of the Sun, the piece fully entitled ‘That’s It for the Other One’ is on record, is a seven-minute psychedelic wonder. It includes the Dead’s trademark dovetailing guitars, backed by a jazzy rhythm provided by the band’s second drummer, Mickey Hart. 

The album was formulated through an acid-drenched haze wherein band members Garcia and Phil Lesh, alongside sound tech Dan Healy, would create something resembling a collage of music by splicing together a separate studio and live performance takes to create an altogether new recording. 

The song, ‘That’s It for the Other One’, is a perfect embodiment of this trailblazing technique. What’s more, the song was released as a “suite” of four distinct sections: ‘Cryptical Envelopment’, ‘Quadlibet For Tender Feet’, ‘The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get’, and ‘We Leave The Castle’.

It became one of their most played songs. However, after 1971, the Dead played only the ‘The Faster We Go, The Rounder We Get’ section. The interesting thing about this brilliant Garcia moment is that the live jam that this song informed, the 1974 piece entitled ‘The Other One’, is one of Garcia’s finest. 

Regarding the provenance of the piece, a description from the band reads: “‘The Other One’ broke off from its complete ‘That’s It For The Other One’ suite in 1971 aside from a 1972 one-off, and a few performances of Jerry’s Cryptical Envelopment in 1985.”

It is sixteen glorious minutes of Garcia showing off every technique under the sun and executing this extended jam perfectly.

‘China Cat Sunflower / I Know You Rider’ – (Winterland 10/17/74)

From the group’s 1969 album Aoxomoxoa, ‘China Cat Sunflower’ is one of Garcia and the Dead’s most iconic moments. First performed in 1968, the band went on to play it more than 500 times live. Typical of the Dead, though, they did not leave the recorded version be. Starting in 1969, but not captured until 1972’s live album Europe ’72, the Dead paired ‘China Cat Sunflower’ with the traditional blues standard ‘I Know You Rider’.

It is from the same hallowed 1974 Winterland performance as ‘The Other One’ where Garcia provides us with yet another moment of guitar brilliance. He clearly displays the nimble ability of his fingers as he glides up and down the fret with ease, taking us through a mixture of blues and jazz scales. 

‘Dark Star’ – Live at the Fillmore West (1969)

One of the Dead’s most well-known and best-loved songs amongst their legions of Deadheads, ‘Dark Star’ is a bonafide ’68 classic. Written by Bob Weir and Garcia, the track is an iconic early work of the band’s, showing them at their rawest. It is also hailed as being an early indicator of the extensive jam stance the band would go on to take.

Typically of the band, there exists numerous live recordings of them ripping through this meandering, hypnotic standard. However, the standout, primarily down to Garcia’s face-melting solos, is the 1969 Fillmore West performance – a 23-minute rendition of a song that is on record, under three minutes. That is a mean feat in itself.

Garcia tears through the song, sending the listener into a trance-like state. This is one of the earliest indicators of his genius on the six-string. He covers every inch of his strings whilst managing to perfectly compliment the various changes in dynamics and tempo.

This respect for the dynamics is also what makes this stand out as one of the shaggy-haired pioneer’s most enduring performances. He knows exactly when to come in and fade out, never once overpowering the overall work – a simple concept that many guitarists struggle with today. Underneath its psychedelic guise, Garcia’s love for the blues is also made readily apparent. At points, his guitar sounds more like that of B.B. King than a psychedelic warrior.

Eleanor Rigby into After Midnight (Reprise) – Jerry Garcia Band 2/28/80 (2004)

A high-point from the iconic 2004 live album, After Midnight: Kean College, 2/28/80, the Jerry Garcia band’s segue from the Beatles classic into J.J. Cale’s ‘After Midnight’ is a stellar example of a musical jam. 

Calculated, but with elements of Garcia’s improvisational ability peppered amongst it – this is a clear example of his proficiency as a musician and not just a guitarist.

He manages to translate the famous vocal melody of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ into a wailing guitar solo, and the transition into the Cale song that Clapton popularised in 1970 is genuinely mind-blowing. If the earlier story of Garcia creating music through a collage wasn’t enough to convince you of the man’s genius, his unpicking of these two classics is fantastic. 

By the end of this nine-minute wonder, Garcia ramps up the heat by turning up his distortion and treating us to ample string bends and fast picking. His guitar screams in a way that is not dissimilar from how the Grunge icons of the ’90s would make theirs do.

‘Brown-Eyed Women’ – (Live at Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 5/8/77)

Originally a Garcia-Hunter song, it shows that all of Garcia’s tracks were fair game for any of his musical outlets. First performed in Chicago in 1971, ahead of the famed double live album Skull and Roses, this is one of the more bluesy numbers in Garcia’s back catalogue. It has appeared on numerous live albums, including Europe ’72, and is a cult classic amongst global “Deadheads”.

Lyrically, the song is set in the Great Depression. It spins a tale of the fictitious Jones family living in a shack in ‘Bigfoot County’ as Garcia tells the story of a family trying to get by in the historically testing times. Depending on the performance, the number of family members mentioned by Garcia varies. The performance from August 24th 1971, only the song’s second performance by the Dead, mentions that the family have 13 children.

Regardless, the greatest rendition of ‘Brown-Eyed Women’ comes from the 1977 Cornell University show. Each part of the song is masterfully delivered, and here Garcia’s guitar is at one of its most emotional points. Through his skill, he perfectly matches the plight of the Jones family, and his soloing embodies the sadness of the Great Depression period in which the song was set.