Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Licks


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Jerry Garcia was one of the most distinctive guitar voices in rock & roll. As the leader and spiritual center of the Grateful Dead, he is remembered as an icon of the counterculture and the freewheeling spirit of the Summer of Love. But he should be remembered first and foremost as a daring and inventive musician, wrapping up the many threads of American music into a single, unique style.

Jerry Garcia Like many pickers of his generation, Garcia’s interest in music was sparked by early rock & roll and rhythm & blues, but also by the folk revival of the early 1960’s. He was known in the Bay Area folk scene as a virtuoso banjo player before switching to electric guitar in 1965 with the founding of the Warlocks, the electric blues band that became the Grateful Dead. Playing long shows with just a small repertoire of songs, the need to keep a crowd dancing all night long gave rise to the extended jams that defined the Dead’s sound for the most of their career. Covers of pop hits like the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin” or Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1961 R&B hit “Turn On Your Love Light” turned into 30-minute musical excursions, and developed a core element of the band’s sound. A spontaneous musical conversation rather than a set of completely predefined parts. Playing off each other like jazz musicians and reacting to what was being played in the moment rather than the structure of the song, they gave the jams room to “shape-shift at will” in the words of Dead co-drummer Bill Kreutzmann.

This musical freedom opened the door to the distinctive combination of folk, blues, rock, and jazz elements that became the core of Garcia’s guitar style. Though his tones and touch developed over time, his sound was already unmistakable by the time the band broke into the national consciousness as the standard-bearers of the hippie freak flag in 1967. Garcia’s improvisations were characterized by long, fluid phrases that owed as much to John Coltrane as to “Johnny B. Goode.” The free-jazz and early jazz fusion styles of the 1960’s made an important mark on the band and on Garcia’s playing. To extend a two-chord R&B rave-up for 30 minutes, they chose to move away from chordal structures into modal vamps as Coltrane and Miles Davis had. Rather than simply playing a single chord or pair of chords repeatedly, the musicians would work around the tonic chord as a key center, an agreed point of common ground to start from.

Without chord changes to react to, the musical focus shifts to modal melodies and the interaction between them. Bassist Phil Lesh has said that his parts came from playing counterpoint to Garcia’s lines, rather than defining root notes and downbeats like a traditional bass player. Modal patterns in general are less “directional” than patterns in a major key, because they don’t imply harmonic movement, the sense of chordal tension and resolution that defines a key. Play a C chord followed by a G7 and you’ll notice how this works: the G7 “wants” very strongly to return to the tonic C. But play a repeated C7 chord with a slow shuffle rhythm and you can put yourself in a John Lee Hooker trance. In fact, a lot of blues and traditional folk music is modal as well, built more around melody and rhythm than on chord progressions. We’ll see more of this later.

Grateful Dead Lick #1

Example 1 is a simple 8-bar phrase illustrating Garcia’s approach to modal improvisation. The overall tonality is E, and the chord never shifts. We’re using the E mixolydian mode, a E major scale with a lowered 7th tone.

Exercise 1

Mixolydian is sometimes called the “dominant scale”, because it contains the notes of a dominant 7th chord, in this case E, G#, B, and D. The lowered seventh creates a sense of tension that never resolves in the way dominant chords traditionally do, a 5 chord of the key pushing the ear back to the tonic (as in our C-G7-C progression in the previous paragraph).

Note the use of repeated rhythmic figures to organize the phrase. Eighth-eighth-quarter (da-da-dum da-da-dum) in measures 1 and 2, running eighth notes in measure 4, and a syncopated figure in measures 6 and 7. Also note the use of sequences, which are melodic patterns that repeat a basic rhythm and line but move up or down through the scale. We see this in the climbing lick in measures 1 and 2, and in the descending scales in measure 4. Listen to the middle break of “China Cat Sunflower” to get a sense of the rhythmic approach. Note the shuffle rhythm, and play the eighth notes with strict alternate picking and sharp, clean attack.

This was a lingering influence from Garcia’s early years as a banjo player.

Grateful Dead in Modal Tonality - Jerry Garcia Special

Example 2 illustrates the acoustic, traditional side of Garcia’s musical melting pot. It’s also modal, but in a different way. The overall A minor tonality is defined by a simple Am-G chord progression. This minor 1 to b7 cycle is very common in traditional, pre-bluegrass “mountain music,” and is rooted in the Celtic styles that the earliest settlers brought to Appalachia from the British Isles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Exercise 2

One thing you might notice right away is there is also a blues element. The opening lick in measures 1 and 2 uses an A minor pentatonic with a raised 4/flatted 5 passing tone (in this case, D#/Eb on the first fret of the 4th string). This is the “blue note” that defines a blues scale. When the chord changes to G in measure 3, though, the melody shifts with it. The use of the F# “neighbor tone” in the first 3 notes of this lick moves us squarely from A minor to G major. This scalar change is repeated in the second half, with bars 5 and 6 using the A blues scale and bars 7 and 8 using G major.

Play the eighth notes evenly, again using strict alternate picking and a clean attack. Note the syncopated “DA-da-( )-da-DAH” rhythm in bar 4, a figure that would be equally at home in a ragtime or Dixieland tune. This is a great illustration of how Garcia mixed styles in his music. We have an ancient Celtic/Appalachian modal chord progression, a melody that could have been an Irish fiddle tune with a jazzy shift between blues and major scales to fit the changing harmony, and a touch of syncopated ragtime rhythm. Got all that? Great! Listen to Garcia’s acoustic solo or duo renditions of the traditional ballad “Little Sadie” to give you the feel of this one.

Touch of Grey Inspired Lick

For our last example, we’ll look to the more song-oriented approach the Dead began to develop with the release of 1970’s “American Beauty” and arguably culminated with the monster success of their hit single “Touch Of Grey” in 1987. This one is based on the first part of Garcia’s solo on that tune, a beautifully concise and melodic piece that he tended to stay very close to in live performance , something he rarely did.

Exercise 3

Here, we follow the chord changes very closely. Measure 1 outlines a B major arpeggio with connecting scale tones, followed by an arpeggiated F# triad in measure 2 that resolves neatly back to B along with the chord. Measures 3 and 4 are solidly in E major, but notice the jump to an A at the downbeat of measure 4 to match the A chord before walking back down to E. Measure 5 again outlines a full F# major arpeggio before dropping us solidly into B major for the rest of the line. Note the syncopated rhythm of measure 7 (a lick that could have come straight out of “The Entertainer”) and the double pull-off at the beginning of measure 8, a trick Garcia used often to create more fluid moments inside otherwise staccato lines.

These three examples only scratch the surface of Garcia’s style, but they illustrate three key elements and are connected enough that you should be able to comfortably get the licks under your fingers in one or two practice sessions.

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun with your rigs this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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