“Whatever the guitar says to me, I play”

By Sergio Ariza

Jerry Garcia is one of the most original guitarists in the history of rock. Although his roots are in blues, country and bluegrass, Garcia was a guitar visionary, someone who sought out notes from the air, and taking risks that most instrumentalists avoid. Garcia didn't mind making mistakes, his thing was a tireless search for ecstasy and trance, to enter a terrain ‘where notes would appear to him’, so his favorite terrain was live, far above the studio. It was above a stage where Garcia began to fly with his guitar and the rest of the band began to orbit around him, achieving the mystique that made them the cult group par excellence. It is impossible to talk about Garcia's best solos without his live shows, because that was where he found his favorite means of expression. So I have taken 10 great songs and included a number of live versions, in addition to the original in the studio. 

The Other One

Released on the band's second album, Anthem Of The Sun, in July '68, The Other One was part of an extensive medley of songs called That's It For The Other One that stretched to 7 minutes and 40 seconds and had parts by Jerry Garcia and Tom Constanten. However the part that remained forever in the band's repertoire was that written by Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann, in which the former sings about his mentor, Neal Cassidy, the legendary Dean Moriarty of the Beat generation. In the original version, Jerry Garcia performs a solo that is one of the heaviest heard up to that point, but it is in the later versions where you can most clearly appreciate his style, mixing rock and jazz, which will have a great influence on groups like the Allman Brothers. On YouTube there is a great version on the 1974 Winterland that is over 16 minutes long and has Garcia demonstrating his class with the slide.


St. Stephen

released in June 1969, is the best studio album of the Dead’s psychedelic era and it opened with one of its best songs, St. Stephen, composed by the usual pair: with Garcia playing the music and Robert Hunter the lyrics, with a little help from bassist Phil Lesh. It's one of the best examples of the more acid Dead, with a brilliant guitar line by Garcia on which the song is composed, Weir harmonizes his 335 with Garcia's SG, similarly to Duane Allman and Dickey Betts in the Allman Brothers, and it is here that Garcia delivers some of his most psychedelic moments. The Dead used to play it live with The Eleven, as you can hear in the legendary Live/Dead, although in the video we have chosen it is played a month before their performance at the Fillmore West, in the Playboy mansion itself in January 1969.


China Cat Sunflower / I Know You Rider

China Cat Sunflower
was the song that opened the B side of Aoxomoxoa but live it found its best moments when, from 1972, it sat perfectly next to a version of the traditional song I Know You Rider. With this medley the Dead linked their psychedelic past with their new direction, more anchored in the roots, which began in 1970 with the appearance of the two best albums by the band, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. The two songs first appeared together on Europe '72, which was the album that chronicled their extensive European tour that year. 1972 and 1977 are the two years preferred by the Deadheads when choosing the best performances of the band, so I have chosen the concert of April 17th '72 in Copenhagen, where Garcia is able to get the sweetest sounds from his Stratocaster, but we shouldn't forget the wonderful chords weave that Bob Weir used to put on it so Jerry could fly. The May version in Paris, the one that appears in Europe '72, is also a marvel.


Dark Star

Dark Star
is the song that best defines the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. Released as a single in April 1968, the original studio version lasted less than three minutes, but when the Dead played it live the Black Star expanded to more than 20 or 30 minutes, many of them with Garcia showing his skills as an improviser, in the best tradition of jazz musicians. Rarely have rock and jazz come together better than in those extensive 'jams' in which Garcia shone like never before, with a lyrical and paused style, and with a country pose. It's interesting to listen to the different versions and see Garcia's guitars gear change, in the Live/Dead canonical, in 69, his equipment was a Gibson SG with a wah wah Vox Crybaby pedal connected to some Fender Twins, but in the version I've chosen here, from the wonderful vintage of 72, specifically from August 27 in Veneta, Oregon, Jerry plays with a Stratocaster during the 36 minutes that the song lasts.


Dire Wolf

But beyond his facet as a chaser of notes in endless 'jams' there is another side of Jerry Garcia in which I think he stands out enormously and that is his wonderful use of the pedal Steel. At the end of 1969 Garcia began to play the instrument and discovered that he had a natural talent for it. In a short time he was a prodigy with the steel and was playing it on records by Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The Grateful Dead went back to the roots, following in the footsteps of
Dylan and The Band, and released Workingman's Dead in the early '70s, an album featuring this delicious Dire Wolf. Here you can see how at a time when country rock was being born, Garcia defined his sound with his Steel pedal as he had done with psychedelia before. As a curiosity we might add that when the Dead were playing this song live, Garcia was not playing the pedal steel but his usual electric guitar, as you can see in the version I have chosen, February 28th, 1983, in which Garcia plays a great solo with one of his mythical custom made guitars, Tiger.



' is another key song in the Dead's career. It was the closing track of their best album, American Beauty, and was written by the band's main composers, Garcia, Hunter, Weir and Lesh. If the album was already a marvel and Garcia was able to give it that feeling of a "long and strange trip" that the song talks about, it is usually recognized that the version of May '72 in London, in the concert that closed the tour of 1972 and appeared in Europe '72, is the most memorable live. For a band whose life is the road, it is quite logical that they composed the definitive ode to it. Garcia precisely combines Chuck Berry's 'licks' with moments that are pure jazz.


The Wheel

We return to another song from Garcia, ‘the maestro of pedal steel’. Released on his 1972 debut solo album, Garcia, which is one of the best examples of his style on the instrument. Although the Dead performed it several times live, they never really captured the magic of the original recording. His control of volume and delay is absolute, and what he achieves here shows that when Garcia was on the pedal Steel the magic didn't take long to appear.



is another song from Garcia’s great solo debut, an album in which he plays all the instruments except the drums, which are played by Kreutzman. Sugaree is one of the most beautiful songs of his career and also became a classic within the band's repertoire. In the original version Garcia plays his guitar through a Leslie, with a beautiful result, but, again, he surpassed himself live. Just listen to the version recorded with the Dead on May 28th 1977 in Hartford, one of my favourite moments of the most lyrical Garcia. Normally the guitar didn't have much to tell him in the studio but live he was able to tell the story of The Odyssey, as on this occasion where you can hear him floating around with pleasure while his guitar recites real poetry.


Playing in the Band

A composition by Weir and Hunter, Playing in the Band is one of the songs that the Dead have played the most, with almost 700 live versions recorded. The song was released on the 1971 live album, Grateful Dead (better known as Skull & Roses), but had its studio version in 1972 on Ace, Weir's solo debut, for which he had the entire band at his disposal. This is one of the few times the Dead are able to bring the magic of their jams into the studio with Garcia delivering one of his best off-stage solos. However, it is possible that on 27th August 1972, at their legendary concert in Veneta, a better version can be found.


Scarlet Begonias/Fire On The Mountain

Scarlet Begonias
was released on their seventh studio album, From the Mars Hotel, released in 1974, while Fire On The Mountain appeared on Shakedown Street, released in late 1978; although the band had been performing the latter song live since March 1977. Specifically, they liked to play it with Scarlet Begonias, forming one of their monumental 'jams'; like the one they did in what is possibly the most mythical concert of their career, the one they gave on 8th May 1977 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. According to many Deadheads, this is the best concert of a band that has to have had more concerts recorded than any other. So it's to be expected that Garcia is having one of those days when he had everything going for him. After 5 minutes he starts his solo in a soft way, and then little by little he climbs to ecstasy in a way that only a guitarist of his class can achieve, and that's because Garcia was chasing notes in his head - sometimes he found them and sometimes he didn't, but when he reached the ecstasy like here, there weren't many guitarists that could compare to him. The transition between the two songs is incredible with Garcia ‘putting on his John Coltrane suit’ and bringing out the best from his Travis Bean TB500. But the most sublime part comes in the final minutes, where Garcia unleashes himself completely and shows why he is one of the most underrated guitarists in history.