From Robert Johnson to Santana: The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia’s 10 favourite guitarists of all time
If there’s a quick and easy one-word description of Jerry Garcia, the legendary founding member of The Grateful Dead, then ‘mercurial’ does a fairly robust job of covering the truly inspirational attitude he applied to music. Garcia was never happy to stand still and considered himself a student of his craft throughout his life, but who were Garcia’s favourite guitarists?
Below, we’ve pulled together a list of some of Garcia’s most beloved axemen. While we would never go as far as to say this is a definitive list, we can be safe in the knowledge that Garcia was a fan of all of the guitarists mentioned below, often citing them not only as people he loved but that they were players everyone should love too.
Garcia’s record collection is that of legend. Having boasted a shelf-swelling collection of thousands of discs, the guitarist made it a habit to broaden his horizons whenever he could. Consistently pushing himself to listen to old and new records, Garcia, by the time of his death, took on the role of the old sage—a role he was born to play.
His penchant for experimenting with music (among other things), has always led Garcia to have a truly captivating list of favourites. Whether it was his favourite Grateful Dead song or indeed 10 records which you could note down as his favourite albums, his broad taste in music always lands as a refreshing moment. Below, we’ve tried to honour that freshness by not only bringing you the list of his favourite guitarists but a perfect playlist too.
It’s a list that would not have been possible without the incredible Grateful Dead fanbase, the Deadheads, and more importantly, ‘Light into Ashes’ who compiled this truly wondrous and widespread essay on all of Garcia’s favourite things in music. Within that essay, a compilation of interviews from across the ages, and a few others, Garcia has picked out some of his favourite guitarists.
One artist that Garcia consistently aligned himself with was the jazz guitarist, the incredible, Django Reinhardt, about whom Garcia said in 1977, “Well, Django Reinhardt is like the model guitarist for me. There is so much passion in his playing, both in terms of invention and expressiveness, and you can feel his attitude, his emotion, in his playing.”
Some other classic guitarists Garcia was known to have truly liked was Carlos Santana, whom Garcia played the role of mentor to. Santana wrote in a piece for Rolling Stone about the late, great Garcia when he said, “Jerry was the sun of the Grateful Dead – the music they played was like planets orbiting around him. He wasn’t a superficial guy at all. It was a lot of fun to play with him, because he was very accommodating. He’d go up and down; I’d go left and right. And I could tell he enjoyed it, because the Dead always invited me back.”
Another entry on the list which may play more heavily into his songmanship than his virtuoso guitar playing is The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who had also shared the stage with Garcia on occasion. Speaking in 1971, Garcia said of Robertson’s playing, “The kinda stuff he plays and the music is like punctuation, and structural. He’s an extremely subtle and refined guitar player, that’s the way I think of him. I really admire him.”
Reinhardt, Robertson and Santana may well be one of the more well-known names on this list which is otherwise filled with comparative obscurities. One such obscurity is Roy Buchanan. Garcia was clearly a fan after appearing on the documentary The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitar Player from 1971, saying: “He’s probably just the most original country-style rock and roll guitar player, a Fender guitar player. He has the nicest tone, the most amazing chops technically, super fast. And much neglected.” Another “unknown” guitarist Garcia loved is widely known to be Steve Kimock, a blues musician and a friend of Garcia’s and the band.
During an interview with the great Elvis Costello, Garcia also shared his love for both Don Rich and Merle Haggard’s guitarist Roy Nichols. Speaking with Costello, Garcia said, “Both of them are important influences for me. I heard them both live lots of times. And Don Rich’s attitude was always so cool. His fiddle playing was great too.”
Another obscure lesson in guitar comes from Richard Thompson, a known favourite of Garcia’s, who worked within the Fairport Convention. The British band had seen the explosion of R&B influencing their peers and decided that instead of heading across the pond for their inspiration they would find it in the British Isles. It led to them, and Thompson, exploring the indigenous techniques of instrumentation. It’s the kind of far-out thematics we know Garcia would have devoured.
The final two picks from Garcia’s extensive list of favourites are two from the depths of the instrument’s early moments. Picking out Charlie Christian, the man credited with being the first guitarists to actually hang in with the horn section, Garcia is full of praise. To Garcia, Christian had, “an incredible mind…a relentless flow of ideas that are just bam, pouring out. It has this intensity that’s really incredible. And he has also a tone that I think is very hip. It sounds very modern to me; his whole playing, to my ear, sounds very modern.”
Of course, for most modern rockers, even back when Garcia was starting out, there was only one foundational guitarist you needed to hear—Robert Johnson. After being confronted with the question of how good Johnson really was, Garcia sums it up perfectly without the need for the fuss of hyperbole, simply stating: “He was a primitive genius.”
There you have it, a list of Jerry Garcia’s 10 favourite guitarists of all time. If you have some spare moments, make sure you check out our playlist and get an education in guitar.