Jul 262009

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?


  6 Responses to “Unlocking the Secrets to Jerry Garcia’s Soloing Style”

  1. I’m not sure I can help you out with the technique but I want to register my surprise at your song choice. I actually like the song a lot and have no doubt you guys turned in a fine version but I would have though something from the first album would have been more appealing to you, specifically The Golden Road. Maybe it’s because the organ sound sound is similar to Dorthy’s. Also, it’s a short catchy pop song and much more direct than a lot of their other stuff.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    A Deadhead I dated long ago played me the first album, and it had some sounds more to my liking, but considering that not even Deadheads stand by many Dead studio albums and not even Deadheads seem to like that first album, non-Deadheads can’t be expected to dip into that obscuro well for cover selections. “Bertha” does a lot of switches between the I and IV chords, like “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” That’s a device that I’m always willing to give the time of day.

  3. I never would have thought of the connection between those two songs but that makes sense now that you mention it.

  4. Hey Man,

    Just for the record, “Bertha” sucks. It’s a real dumb ass song that goes nowhere. You know that, and all your buddies in the band know that as well. You’re not fooling anyone. I realize ass has to be kissed once in a while, but that’s crossing a line wider than a six lane highway.

    That said, you guys were great at the house party. Me and “Robbie Bear” had a great time. “Robbie Bear” had an especially great time because he got to spend a major chunk of the evening talking to your ball and chain who he hasn’t seen for about a year.

    Just giving credit where credit is due. You guys really rocked the house. Count on me, the brats, “Robbie Bear”, and another buddy of mine being at the Westchester show.

    That’s that!

    Talk to ya soon,
    E. Pluribus

  5. BigSteve

    Man, this clip is a mess. I like the Dead, and I like this song, but this is really sloppy. In general a blissed out demeanor is better than guitar porn faces but, but I’m afraid the WWJD approach will lead to dependence on hard drugs. This is the period when Garcia started to go over then edge.

    I see what you mean about minimizing rests, though I wouldn’t have put it that way, and I’m not so sure about giving the notes equal rhythmic weight. Certainly Garcia varies the volume of each note minutely, and that’s one of his main expressive techniques. And he’s really not just doing pentatonic scales.

    Btw Los Lobos also covered Bertha. So it sets up a good ‘choose one’ RTH poll: Nixon’s Head or Los Lobos?

  6. saturnismine

    what would jerry do? lots of heroin! yuk yuk.

    what does “giving all notes equal rhythmic weight” mean, anyway? it’s an intriguing phrase.

    my memory of what jerry would do is make the major third, not the root, his home base. that’s what gives it such a happy sound.

    i disagree that there are no rests. if we’re talking early to mid 70s Dead, he likes to phrase things, like the guitar is speaking sentences, playing long flurries of notes, with long gulps of silence between each long flurry.

    don’t be afraid to deploy the “hunt and peck” method, either. after one long flurry of notes. hunt for another general area of the fret board and before eyeing up what you KNOW to be a correct note, just peck around up there until you find…the MAJOR THIRD.

    BigSteve is right about the slight variations in volume. the louder notes aren’t always the ones we would expect to be louder, either. they come at the bottom of runs, not at the end, and on lower notes in the middle of quick phrases, rather than on high, long, soaring notes.

    also; tone, man…it’s all about tone. ever marvel at how he could get almost the same tone out of every guitar he ever strapped on, whether it had single coils or humbuckers? i think he uses the treble pick up on whatever guitar he’s playing to give it that light feel, but he turns the treble nob on the amp (and maybe even the tone nob on the guitar and the pedal), way down, to mellow it out, man. there’s a little bit of distortion that goes beyond natural amplifier overdrive, too, but not much. And there’s usually a little bit of reverb around the edges of those notes.

    oh…and do some H. did i mention that?

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