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About Jerry’s guitar style:
The musical story of the Grateful Dead is a series of snapshots of Jerry’s psyche, variously bouyed and hindered by his bandmates, variously bouyed and hindered by himself. The mid-seventies were a crisis point for the band, the closest they came to breaking up, and the consensus is that they never recovered. But I have a particular fondness for the Dead’s music of this period. The bloom was off the rose by that point, as the band slid from hallucinogens into cocaine, heroin and alcohol, but they still had the essential sound together. The tempos were nice and rubbery, the emphasis was on groove and polyrhythm, and when Jerry was paying attention, he did some of his best playing during the long, languid jams and grooves.
Jerry’s greatness as a guitarist isn’t a matter of technical skill. He had good chops by rock standards, but he was no virtuoso. What he had going for him was touch and phrasing. He massaged and squeezed individual notes into curvy microtonal shapes, in a style informed by his pedal steel playing. (Jerry’s most-heard recording is probably his pedal steel part on “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.) Rockers tend to lean ahead of the beat, but Jerry played behind the beat, sometimes way behind. Again, this was due to his close study of jazz and country. His tone was mostly clean and undemonstrative, sometimes even hesitant. Guitar heroes playing to packed stadiums aren’t usually so quiet and unobtrusive.
Jerry’s improvising was harmonically adventurous, spiced with ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths. He used a lot of intentionally “wrong” notes, like the natural seventh against dominant seventh chords. He wasn’t a jazz guitarist per se, but he had some of that vocabulary under his fingers. For example, he sometimes deployed an angular diminished scale lick that he must have learned straight from John Coltrane. Jerry was a tremendous music dork with keen insight into his own approach. See, for instance, this terrific interview in Guitar Player, in which he compares improvisation to assembling a jigsaw puzzle with all white pieces.
Maybe even more valuable than his original work was Jerry’s ability to synthesize seemingly disparate sources into idiosyncratic new ideas. He drew inspiration not just from rock, but from R&B, blues, swing, bebop, free jazz, bluegrass, assorted world musics, ragtime, and even electronica — Jerry loved controlling synths with a MIDI guitar. He would have been an incredible music blogger or DJ, and his interviews are an excellent guide into the more obscure corners of American music. For instance, he evangelized Elizabeth Cotten and covered several of her tunes, both with and without the Dead. Do yourself a favor and check her out, she’s one of my favorite guitarists ever.