Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Decoding Jerry Garcia with

"The greatest changes on earth don’t mean anything to me if they don’t have a great melody tying them together." (Jerry Garcia, 1978 Guitar Player magazine interview).

Last week I emailed Seth Fleishman of to thank him for creating his online video lessons on the playing of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Even though I'm not a guitarist, I still play a plucked, fretted, stringed instrument that contains the same 12 notes that Jerry was working with. Seth's lessons and learning materials have made it easy for me to apply these concepts back to my instrument of choice.

Anyway, one thing led to another and Seth shared a whole bunch of knowledge with me via our email correspondence, and he's been kind enough to allow me to share this information below. Read on for Seth Fleishman's insights into the guitar style of Jerry Garcia!

Describe Jerry's approach to soloing.
In general what differentiates Jerry’s approach from most rock guitarists is that he was almost always playing to the chord changes, rather than playing a modal scale over the changes. So if a song goes from D to C to G to F, he would play to the chord he is on. He was trying to outline or identify melodically each chord using chord tones at key moments in his phrases, so that if all you could hear was Jerry, you would still hear the changes happening. 

Some might say, oh, so he was using arpeggios? And I would say, for the most part, not really. JG was using chord tones. He had ideas on the fretboard based on chord shapes, but because chords are derived from a particular major scale, he always had a choice of using chordal-based ideas, or scale-based ideas, or both. I usually refer to chordal-based ideas as vertical and scale-based ideas as horizontal, but that’s just a general idea, and doesn’t always apply. So whether he was using a chord shape or a scale, he was going to most of the time hit a target note -- a root, a third, or if applicable, a dominant 7th, on the change, to mark the movement of the harmony, all within a hopefully logical melodic idea.

On top of playing to the chord he was on, Jerry also tried to connect that chord to the next chord with a phrase that begins on the current chord, and lands appropriately on the next chord with some kind of natural resolution, using target notes that make you hear the chord change.

He had a whole bag of licks he could fall back on as needed -- no one can be purely creating at all times -- but he was always trying to make his solo well-composed, made up of phrases that become sentences, sentences that become paragraphs, and paragraphs that become the theme. Jerry tried to create these phrases based on the song at hand. Sometimes he’d play lines clearly based on the melody, other times it might be very loosely based on the melody -- perhaps the phrases are entirely novel, but they are rhythmically arranged in a way that follows the pattern of the melody. He had an ability to recall and build on what he'd already done up to that point in a solo. Sometimes he might imagine the melody continuing in his head, and he’d be playing around where it would be if it were there, creating a sort of counterpoint.

He's always playing to the song, never slathering over it with licks willy-nilly. And he's trying to build whole thoughts in a logical way. JG was able to retain that big picture and stay focused and concentrated, even while dancing out there on the high wire all the time. He was relentless in trying to find a new permutation each time. In a way, within each song, it's like he's trying to do the SAME thing each time, just differently. So the Sugaree solo is always Sugaree. He doesn't want to take it out a new door. He wants to find an undiscovered way of taking it out the SAME door, differently.

He made great use of ornamentation to make the solo interesting. With ornamentation, he could use returning tones, approaching tones, turns and trills to decorate a chord tone, thus transforming a simple chord outline into an elegant passage. Those ornaments could sometimes become a motif unto themselves -- an idea he could use to build and develop as a central theme for a solo or a section of a solo. He also made frequent use of sequencing (scale patterns of a certain ascending or descending character).

Jerry also had an incredibly wide dynamic range. He wasn’t blasting away the whole time. His lead volume would be set loud so that he could use his touch and pick attack to vary the delivery of notes from very soft to very loud.  

When playing repeated patterns and sequences in a modal jam, he would use his pick attack to make certain notes pop on unpredictable beats, creating interesting sounding lines that didn’t just sound like running scales.

On more lyrical passages, he could create emotional impact by emphasizing certain notes. He could also be incredibly tender and subtle, bringing things down to a level that was unusual for a rock player in a big arena. The Grateful Dead had an audience that listened intently, and because of this, Jerry was able to use a wide range of dynamics to great effect.

Last but certainly not least, Jerry used a tremendous amount of chromaticism. Perhaps because triad-based music only gives you so many note choices, he would use chromatic passing tones, approaching tones, and returning tones to turn the simple into something interesting. He had a somewhat rich, elegant style that reminds me of early Baroque violin. So he wanted as many notes as he could have to work with. Chromaticism also enabled him to create phrases with a wide variety of rhythmic contours and length on the fly. If he needed an extra beat or two, he could fill in the gap with chromatic tones, as long as he landed on a solid target note.

Seth Fleishman -
He was a brilliant and original player with a truly artistic mindset.

How did Jerry incorporate a wide range of influences into a unique(?) style? He seemed to be simultaneously distinctive and closely tied to various traditions.

He said in an interview somewhere that the only two major influences he could name were Chuck Berry and Earl Scruggs. I can see how that forms a simplified, but very true idea of his sound. The brightness of it. There was a joyful rock and roll spirit. The banjo incorporates so many of those time-worn folk tradition licks that provided a reservoir of ideas for Jerry to play with and reinvent. Even the tuning of a banjo, to an open G major chord, seems to suggest something of Jerry’s sound, which featured major 3rds so much more prominently than most rock players.

I think the raw power of simple chords on a somewhat dirty sounding electric guitar (Chuck Berry), plus the major 3rd leaning, 8th-note filled, always moving, ornate style of bluegrass banjo (Earl Scruggs) really do go a long way towards describing his sound.

I think Jerry also took inspiration from other instruments. That’s really a great way to come up with fresh ideas, and I recommend it to anybody. Transpose ideas from a different instrument. Floyd Cramer’s famous piano style derived from his copying of pedal steel licks. A piano can’t bend strings, so the bends became little approaching tone licks, and a whole style was born. It’s a great way to get out of a rut and find fresh ideas, not based on your instrument, but based on music itself.

I hear Jerry getting ideas from horns. I think some of his ultra-distorted guitar work, anything from Minglewood to Stella Blue, could be imagined as emulating a saxophone, and inspired by what a horn might do.

In fact, when he started tinkering with the midi set-up, you could hear him quite literally applying horn sounds. So where he might have imagined a trumpet in Let it Grow, it became a trumpet. I wasn’t crazy about this, honestly. I thought he took midi too literally, and I missed his beautiful guitar sound, and I found Weir’s rather sneaky, mischievous and creative application of midi far more interesting. But it shows you where Jerry’s inspiration may have been coming from.

Like everyone else of his generation, where needed, he could draw from the three kings -- BB, Albert, and Freddie, but I think he tried to use their ideas very sparingly. There were so many guys ripping off the blues in those days. I think his artistic mindset demanded that he find something different to do.

And I’m sure he picked up bits here and there from all over. He’s mentioned Django Reinhardt, and I could see how he might have been able to get some ideas he could use. I definitely think he was into Roy Buchanan around 1980 or so. I hear the influence in there. It comes out in JG's own unique way, but it’s there.

Did Jerry play differently in the Grateful Dead than in the Jerry Garcia Band?

That’s a good question. He played a lot more cover tunes, and the mood was a little more somber. I always used to say the difference between a Dead show and a JGB show is that at a JGB show, there are no beach balls. That may not be entirely true, but you get the point. JGB shows, in tone, reminded me more of a Dylan show: somewhat more serious, slightly less celebratory, less spacey or psychedelic. That comes from the songs he chose when he was on his own, and is reflected in his playing.

He was perhaps a little looser and freer with JGB. If you think of it, his band is there to support him. There’s interplay, to be sure, but in the GD, they were all presumably equals, and so the give and take was probably a little different, and perhaps more challenging.

I personally think he was more himself in the JGB. A little looser, but a little more serious. Maybe you could say in the GD he was rock player, and in the JGB he was a soul player, an R&B player. The first time I saw the JGB, while they were still playing the opening bars of “How Sweet It Is”, my first reaction was “Holy crap-- they’re better than the Dead!” Which also may not be true, but to this day I am a huge fan of R&B and soul music, and not so much a fan of rock.

How did you go about learning the styles of Jerry and Bobby, and what is your approach to teaching and explaining it through

Just listening. I refer to video where possible, but usually just to try to confirm what my ears are telling me. I have a pretty vast collection of soundboards, so when I am working on a particular song, I’ll listen to many, many versions, with my eyes closed, headphones on, and try to pick it all up. Some of that, honestly, is a gift. I didn’t always know the fretboard or music theory, but I’ve always had an ear.

In a way, particularly with Jerry, I just got kind of lucky where I was able to sort out what he was doing, and see the logic and the method behind it, or at least divine a logic and a method from it. And then this logic ends up applying over and over again. What’s amazing is how inventive he was within that framework. Just an amazing improviser.

My approach to the videos has not changed. They are very straight-forward and come with tablature and a backing track to use for practicing. I perform a demonstration of whatever we are going to work on, and then I walk through it note by note, step by step, discussing whatever I think is important as I go. The song, or the solo, is the script for me.

I work in bits of music theory, ideas about what makes a good solo, ideas about scales and chords and understanding the fretboard, all in the context of whatever it is we’re working on. I always try keep the explanations simple and practical. I never try to make it sound high-minded or intellectual. So, for example, I’ll say "here’s some chromatic passing tones", but then I’ll say “just think of them as in-between notes.”

I like to use note-for-note stuff almost exclusively because otherwise one could get lazy and miss the true brilliance of the artist. Let's check out what he actually did and see what we can learn from it. It will usually be a combination of things. So you get to steal some actual licks, which is fine, or learn how to play a song the way they played it, but hopefully you learn how to create, you learn more about the fretboard, about music itself, about improvisation, and composition.

I’ve been very fortunate because the feedback has been so great, and leads me to believe that my approach works for a good amount of people. I love the music of the Grateful Dead. I love Jerry and Bobby. I respect all those guys so much as artists. I just wanted to show folks how cool the stuff really was that they were up to.


Seth says that two lessons readers might find useful are 10 Steps to Jerry Style Blues and 10 Steps to Jerry Style Solos, because both of those get right to the heart of Jerry's overall strategy and approach to basic melodic improvisation in a mostly triadic work. If you start with those lessons, when you later look at specific songs and pick apart JG solos to get ideas, you'll get more out of it, and better appreciate his creative ideas within the context of his approach to the task.

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