Jerry Garcia’s Surprisingly Interesting Technique

February 1, 2010 | By | 15 Replies More

Garcia_Jerry_blackT_lateHigh Knuckles = ‘Well-Spoken’ Tone?

Here’s a guy I never thought we’d write about on this blog. In case that’s not clear, I’ll come right out with it: I’m not a Grateful Dead fan. The whole never-ending concert, drooling stoner, zero-aggression, electric caravan music scene was never my thing. Call me close-minded, but I never got it, don’t want to get it – not that there’s anything wrong with it….

Because of that, I never was a Jerry Garcia fan. But I was acutely aware that Jerry had (and still has) a bunch of fans, and had his own style of playing the ol’ guit-box. I mean, how could you not be aware? Yes, the Dead had their own sound, but a lot of that was Jerry. His guitar lines and tone were, to my ears, unique. In fact, that’s the only part of any Dead tune I ever liked (with apologies to the mighty Warren Haynes, who now graces the Dead with his presence).

So I gotta say I wasn’t real interested to stumble across a 1978 interview with Jerry that appeared in the December 2009 GP2 online magazine. (That whole GP2 things seems to be an experiment in Guitar Player making money off repurposing old content – not that there’s anything wrong with that….) But in the spirit of being open-minded, I skimmed through it – and found myself interested enough in some of what he was saying that you’re reading about it.

What comes across in it loud and clear is that Jerry wasn’t just a stoner. He was a guy who took music and musicianship seriously, which I didn’t know. He also attributed a lot of his technique to what he learned playing the banjo. So with that in mind, here’s some interesting stuff from Jerry:

Fingering and Vibrato

“Most guitar players, I’ve noticed, seem to use a flat fingering. I’ve somehow trained myself to come straight down on top of the string. I play mostly on the tips of my fingers, so the high action doesn’t get in my way at all.

“Early on, I was lucky enough to have someone point out the usefulness of that [fourth] finger. As a result, it’s one of my stronger fingers, and I prefer to use it even more than my ring finger. That’s always made me different from most rock guitarists that I know….

“I think in rock and roll, a lot of guitar players favor something that lets them use the ring finger for greater articulation and vibrato effects. For me, I’ve got to be able to do it with every finger. I find it ridiculous to have to close all my ideas on my ring finger just so I can get a vibrato. That eliminates a lot of possibilities automatically.

“I have about four or five different families of vibrato. Some of them are unsupported – that is to say, nothing is touching the guitar but my finger on the string. Other methods are supported, and I just move a finger for the sound. Sometimes I also use wrist motion, and other times I’ll move my whole arm. I also use horizontal and lateral motion for different sound and speed.”

High Knuckles = Tone?

“My preference is for the well-spoken tone, and I think coming straight down on the strings with high knuckles makes it. So my little groups of pull-offs are really well-articulated – it’s something I worked on a lot.”

He also said: “I seldom hammer-on because it seems to have a certain inexactitude for me.”


“Generally I use a Fender extra-heavy flat pick, which I sometimes palm when using my fingers. The way I hold the pick is a bit strange, I guess. I don’t hold it in the standard way, but more like you hold a pencil. I think Howard Roberts describes it as the scalpel technique. The motion is basically generated from the thumb and first finger rather than, say, the wrist or elbow.

“I use all different kinds of motion depending on whether I am doing single string stuff or chords.”

He also talks about accenting off beats, which he also got from banjo-playing.

Interesting stuff, no? Almost makes me want to go listen to some Dead. Almost.

Jerry Garcia Band, “Sittin’ in Limbo” and “That’s Alright Mama,” Live, Capitol Theater, Passaic, NJ, March 1980
> This vid starts with Jerry pickin’ away, so you get a flavor of it.
> I dig the keys solo that comes in around 6:00.
> No, I did not make it all the way through the vid!

Category: Fingering, Jerry Garcia, Picking Technique

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  1. WoodyTone! - Jerry Garcia on Playing Stoned | February 9, 2010
  1. Adam says:

    I guess I will call you close-minded. I've enjoyed a lot of your writing, especially on bands and artists I would not listen to otherwise. Prior to finding WoodyTone, I thought George Lynch was a total douche. I still do, but I like his playing and I wouldn't have given him a chance otherwise.

    That said, I can't understand not giving The Grateful Dead more of a chance. There seems to be this perception that the "never-ending concert, drooling stoner, zero-aggression, electric caravan music scene" was the band's idea. Sure, some of the late-70's to mid-80's stuff can get a bit self-indulgent. But try listening to 'The Other One' or 'Dark Star' from any of the Fillmore East performances. "Zero-Agression" will be the last thing on your mind.

    Sorry. I have Phil Lesh's autobiography right next to me, so maybe I'm feeling a little biased. But hey, all that being said, I like your work. Good luck, and if you keep writin' I will keep readin'.

    P.S. Here's a link to a massive archive of streamable live recordings. In case you're ever feeling a little open-minded :)

    • Alligator69 says:

      "But try listening to 'The Other One' or 'Dark Star' from any of the Fillmore East performances. "Zero-Agression" will be the last thing on your mind."

      Well said Adam. I find this to be the one most common misconception of both Jerry and the Grateful Dead from many rock fans and guitar players over the years. The period of the Dead's mid 1967 – summer 1972 playing exemplifies extraordinary levels of spontaneity, creativity, heavy electric raw power and unbridled energy. The music at it's peaks, is highly experimental improvisation yet somehow stays in its' various grooves and swings as madly as a lightning fast John Coltrane or Charlie Parker solo. A lot of the extended jams get way out there and are not for everyone but there's not a rock guitarist or fan on earth who could use the term "Zero-Aggression" after listening to any of the jams from this period. By the end of '72, the band really started to mellow and ultimately lost its' aggressive edge as the post retirement years began and the guitarists and sound crew seemed to be in a never ending quest for mellower and mellower ultra clean guitar tone in the band's sound. Anyone unfamiliar but curious should check out Live/Dead, Skull and Roses, LAGTGD: Fillmore East 1971, Fillmore West 1969, Harpur College 1970, Steppin' Out with the Grateful Dead: England '72 or Rockin' The Rhein: April 24, 1972 to name a few. You won't be sorry…

  2. Jim says:

    I consider myself an 80's guitar playing, metal head. (Eddie is my all time favorite.) In high school, I thought the Dead sucked. However, A Dead Head friend of mine got me a ticket, so I went to a show. Jerry blew me away. Since then he's near the top of my list of favorite players. He's got original chops, riffs and licks. I reallly like the way he compliments his singing style with his guitar playing. If you can't get into the Dead, try listening to The Jerry Garcia Band Live CD from 1991.

  3. Dave says:

    I never understood the Dead growing up. They seemed a bit too weird and they didn't fit into the prevailing hard rock 'scene' in the 1970's. Therefore, I never went to see them live. BIG mistake! Make no mistake. The Dead were a LIVE band, where you didn't just go to listen, but went for the total 'experience'. Putting aside the fact Jerry liked to get high, the band would simply take chances and go places no other band would. They didn't care if they crashed and burned or had an off night because more often than not they went to magical places. Did psychedelics influence their playing? Absolutely! Hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin (especially Garcia) did the band in, but during their 30 year run they created a cannon of songs and recordings (mostly live) that are timeless. My favorite era was 68-72 when Pigpen was still alive and they could go from psychedelic explorations into down-home funky Blues on a turn of a dime. There will never be another Grateful Dead. RIP Jerry…

  4. Garrapata.Red says:

    Which is why ToneWoody here had the long-held perception of Garcia not being a serious musician. I do commend you for admitting the error of your previously held beliefs, and it is a good thing you happened to run into the interview with Garcia. For in fact, Jerry was a *very* serious musician. In the early, early '60s, he taught banjo at Dana Morgan's Music Shop in Palo Alto….he was a serious bluegrass and jug band devotee before he was ever a rock musician, a love he carried over into Old and In The Way and his late-life work with David Grisman and Tony Rice. Once the Warlocks metamorphed into the Dead, it was the eye of the vortex for a musical renaissance not seen since the early 19th century (fueled by Mother Nature's bounty, to be sure).

  5. jonnybabylon says:

    Hey folks,
    Nice to read all this. I saw Garcia quite a few times. He was a Master. How good was he? He was good enough for me. That's all you need with any art.

  6. MongoTheLloyd says:

    I have seen Garcia w/ the Dead and with the JGB more times than I can count or remember. In the hundreds. Keep in mind… Jerry had to learn to play guitar TWICE, and in both cases, he taught himself. The video selection here hardly represents Jerry at his finest. I have played guitar now for over 30 years. I have seen most of the ’60s-’90s guitar “greats” at one time or another, live. I have never seen anyone more captivating than Garcia. The only guitarist I would classify as “better” would have been Zappa. Yet, Zappa couldn’t emote through his instrument the way Garcia could. It is a shame that the author wasn’t able to put his preferences aside in order to experience Garcia live. One doesn’t need to “get on the bus” to go to a concert. His loss.

  7. Clay says:

    I used to be under the same feeling about the dead… that is anything past the 70’s was lame. I hate 80’s dead for sometime! crazy… always been a dead head. but now i love 80’s dead, jerry was absolutely on fire in the summers of 87-89. Best playing he ever pulled off. I’ll put it like this 70’s dead is like algebra, it’s what you learn after you’ve learned basic math and can start to really evaluate stuff with the algebraic methods, but you cant learn calculus (80’s dead) til you get your algebra down. you definitely have to find the board recordings that have been mastered from the 80’s. check out downhill from here-a movie that shows the band in peak 80’s form. I love how the dead evolved with the times, they definitely took a lot from their surroundings to create the psychedelic version of whatever was happening in america around them.

    also, the most overlooked rhythm guitar player ever. bob weir. amazing rhythm guitar player. think about playing rhythm in that band, crazy. i hate deadheads that worship jerry and diss bob… it’s like who do you think jerry chose to be his rhythm man? he did have a tendency to hit some bad notes and wear short shorts, but dont we all? bob even made classy sparse rhythm tracks with 80’s distortion and a floyd rose. now thats how you use a pimped out 80’s axe!

  8. Dust says:

    Got into him when I was much older, as a jazz teacher. Loved classic rock as a teenager, but hated the dead.

    I think not until late 30’s, I went from being in your position, I don’t know how it happened honestly, I think its just exposure. You haven’t heard the right show, I guarantee you.

    Anyone can appreciate Jerry, he has that universal quality, obsession with music, and an incredible, vulnerable, soulful way about him. Believe me, i was in a much similar position to you; cant stand the slack jawed egotistical yet lost hordes. Dude, you wont regret making this guy a part of your musical experience… Jerry can tear the roof off a joint, hit you in the soul, and really scare the hell out of you in the same set, its an experience I recommend highly.

    Seriously, it is somewhat strange how misrepresented his art is, considering all of the fans, and all of the incredibly positive feedback he received critically in the early 70’s. His technique is brilliant, a true pure creative channel.

  9. Chris says:

    For the record, I think the Dead (and Jerry) were at their best during the 72-74 era. I think the approach to improvisation during that appear was awesome, and particularly when they’d get into the long second set jams, Jerry always delivered the goods. And he did it with a pretty simple setup: guitar (typically a Strat or his custom made Doug Irwin Wolf guitar), wah wah pedal and a Fender Twin. I thought the crazy sounds he got with just the wah wah (and occasionally a fuzztone) were far better than what he got in the 90’s with that huge guitar synth rack.

  10. Matt says:

    I first saw the Dead in 1988. I love all forms of guitar centric music- bluegrass, blues, jazz, and dead, and a ton of others. It’s too bad the Dead and Jerry in particular didn’t get better recognition. I just saw an interview with one of his daughters (one is an accomplished orchestral violinist) who said her memory of her dad involved him sitting with the kids watching tv and him practicing scales all night.

    If you want to look at the history of the problems with getting prestine sound in the early dead days, the dead were at the cutting edge of experimenting with speakers to get that crystal clear sound to the point that it was a massive financing drain on them. Jerry was playing a midi-guitar in 1988, and in 1993 they eliminated every speaker on stage and only had their headpieces…
    Give 1977 a listen…

  11. Steve says:

    Yep – common misconception is that the Dead played ‘mellow’ music. Their records are misleading, and (imo) not very representative of what they actually ‘did’.

    I saw the G.D. proper and the J.G.B. around 50 times in the 90’s. I grew up in the 80’s listening to ‘hard’ music like Bon-Scott era AC/DC, Metallica, assorted ‘death metal’ (Celtic Frost, etc) and also liked Black Flag and some other punk music.

    The Dead opened my eyes to what ‘power’ was. Anybody can be pissed off and loud about it – that’s easy. The Grateful Dead took this sullen late teen an energized me in a way that those so called ‘aggressive’ musical entities couldn’t even touch.

    Take a few dozen tens of thousands of people (or more) and put them in a giant bowl with a liberal dose of, well, read between the lines. Stir with the world’s greatest concert PA for 3 hours. Enjoy.

  12. anand says:

    I agree you are a bit closed minded. a lot, in fact.

    i am from india, and our music is in many ways totally different from yours. our scales, modes et al are different. what we understand as melody is different. but it doesn’t matter. there are some musicians who just cut through these things and appeal to everyone with the universality of what they create. jerry was one such. he was a rock. sure he (and the dead) took risks, and sometimes those risks didn’t pay off, but most of the time they reached some sublime space where other musicians seldom go. hear some of the 77 shows – swing auditorium, cornell, buffalo war memorial… hear the winterland ’73 shows, i think they are from november, give the lille concert from the europe 72 box set a chance. you’ll see what this band, and this man, stood for.

    jerry had a life outside the dead too. his stuff with merle saunders and david grisman bear special mention, as do the Old and In The Way recordings. there’s none of the rock star there. it’s just beautiful folksy music, the kind i imagine i’ll hear if i ever visit a midwest juke joint. jerry dove into the heart of america with his folk outings, and is a far, far better ambassador for your country than your politicians or mcdonald’s or starbucks.

    jerry makes me wish there was an indian musician who was so steeped in the sounds of my country as jerry was in yours. you are fortunate to have had him.

  13. Canaan Perry says:

    I was never a Deadhead but once I heard “Terrapin Station” I was amazed. An absolute epic tune with grand orchestration. I also like Garcia’s interest in guitar electronics:

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