This weekend the band I’m in with a few Townsman played semi-acoustic at a house concert. In 25 years (and then some) with the core of us playing together, I don’t think we ever played as acoustic as we did on Saturday night: both of our guitarists played primarily acoustic stringed instruments (our other guitarist, Jim McMahon, played 12-string acoustic, mandolin, and something called a charango) only mic’d, not using any pickups, which we thought would defeat the purpose. The two of us even sat on stools, which I don’t think I’d ever done in concert before, not even when I played in a primarily acoustic band with Townsman E. Pluribus Gergely. It was cool. I felt like one of the guys from Badfinger in Concert for Bangladesh.
There were some other firsts for our band that resulted from that gig, but perhaps the most significant one was it was the first time we ever covered a Grateful Dead song. The hosts for our show are Deadheads, and we wanted to give them a treat. The obvious choice was “Bertha,” a Dead song that hints at a Motown beat and contains no extraneous “space” breakdowns. For some reason, I was the obvious choice to take the solo. In preparing for the solo, I asked myself, What would Jerry do?
Although I didn’t have time to match his facility in moving up and down the neck in his loopy approach to the pentatonic scale, I could focus on a couple of keys that would unlock the secrets of Jerry’s soloing style:
- Give all notes equal rhythmic weight, minimizing rests, syncopations, and the like.
- Maintain a pleasant, easy-going facade while soloing, avoiding the urge to make any kind of Rock Faces.
These two simple keys aided my performance. I stumbled on one segment of my solo and another time I unsuccessfully fought the urge to crack a sarcastic smile, but for the most part I felt like I’d learned something. Should I have the opportunity to play this or another Dead song in the future, what other keys might I find in unlocking the secrets to Jerry’s soloing style?