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Electric Etudes: Jerry Garcia

Few guitarists could expand, develop, and improvise melodies like Uncle Jerry.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn how to create and develop motifs.
• Understand how to use the Mixolydian scale.
• Create interest and tension by using rhythm as an improvisational tool.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Possessing an immediately recognizable tone, a knack for inventing playful melodies, and a skillful technique (that is often overshadowed by his iconic personality), Jerry Garcia epitomizes personal expression on guitar. With more than 15,000 hours of playing documented, Garcia remains one of the most recorded guitarists in history. Thus, it can be difficult to know where to start when discussing his eclectic style, which embraced folk, blues, country, rock, jazz, and the avant-garde.

This month’s etude will focus on Garcia’s playing style from his time in the Grateful Dead—his most celebrated context. While this lesson highlights his single-note playing, you should keep in mind that all members of the Grateful Dead had a hand in creating the band’s music. Garcia was constantly reacting—both with and against—the notes and rhythms played by the rest of the band. That said, I’ve chosen to keep the chord progression and rhythm of this lesson to a Grateful Dead staple: the simple two-chord Mixolydian jam.

First of all, what is a Mixolydian jam? This progression vamps from B to A. These chords are actually the V and IV in the key of E, so we’ll consider that our “home base” even though we never hit an E chord. This demonstrates the relationship between the Ionian (1–2–3–4–5–6–7) and Mixolydian (1–2–3–4–5–6–b7) modes. Just compare E Ionian to B Mixolydian and you’ll see the scales contain exactly the same notes; they simply start in a different spot. The V–IV progression certainly creates a happy major sound, but it’s not sugary sweet, pop happy. It’s more like, “Hey relax, chill out.”

We’ll solo using notes from the E major scale (E–F#–G#–A–B–C#–D#) enhanced with a few chromatic passing tones. The sound of this V–IV progression is very common in many Dead songs. Check out the funky, envelope filter-driven groove of “Fire on the Mountain” or the legendary improvisational juggernaut, “Dark Star.”

Typically, Garcia solos tend to be quite lengthy, some as many as 10 minutes long. This allowed Garcia to develop his solos slowly and rather methodically. For our limited space here, I’ve condensed the idea of a thematically developed solo into four different sections, each eight measures in length.

Click here for Ex. 1

The first measure introduces a classic Garcia concept—a simple motif consisting of diatonic thirds that then moves down a whole-step. Garcia would repeat and transform an idea like this, presenting several variations on the lick. This motif is turned and twisted in several other places in the etude.

The third and sixth measures contain what I think of as the definitive Garcia lick, the chromatic slur. You can see the lick moves chromatically down from Bb to G# and although it only contains one non-diatonic note, it really adds a lot of color. Garcia played this lick literally thousands (possibly millions?) of times. He loved those slippery chromatic notes and they will reappear throughout this solo.

In measure 11 we see a scale run—A up to G#—with a G natural snuck in for style. Long scale passages were also a common theme in Garcia’s playing. A variation of the same lick happens in measure 14, but this time it starts on a different beat. Garcia was never afraid to play simple, scale-based ideas, though he was always ready to throw in a little rhythmic or chromatic twist.

The solo takes on a completely new feel in measure 16, which features more notes and left-hand articulation. The phrasing in this section uses ideas that Garcia explored on Blues for Allah, which is by far the Dead’s most jazz-inspired album. Pay attention to the unusual combination of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. It would be easy to play these phrases by picking every note, but the various slurs are what give it character.

Starting in measure 24, the next section contains variations on a simple five-note pattern that’s filled with tricky triplets. I even put a “mistake” note in there—another Garcia trait. This is a common Garcia lick in which he lets the fingers take over and almost flail about with a sort of reckless precision that’s difficult to recreate note-for-note.

There are other key aspects of Garcia’s playing that really set him apart from so many players. He would constantly tweak his tone and volume knobs during a solo, move his right hand to various positions to exact a certain timbre, pick alternately hard and soft, and give every note longer than an eighth-note some vibrato. Also pay attention to the long, sustained note, like those in measures 13, 15, and 31. In true Garcia fashion, these longer notes let the solo breathe.

As I mentioned in the introduction, it can be challenging to know where to start with Garcia. In addition to the Grateful Dead, his work with the Jerry Garcia Band (both electric and acoustic), duo CDs with mandolinist David Grisman, his guest spots on other artist’s records, and his solo recordings are all worth checking out. But if pressed to recommend one key recording, I’d have to go with Live/Dead. So dive in, pick and choose, take what you want and leave the rest. As Garcia said many times, “My responsibility to the notes is over after I’ve played them. At that point I don’t care where they go.”

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