by Andy Ellis
Like Stilton cheese, kimchi, or a double espresso, Jerry Garcia’s playing can be an acquired taste. Some guitarists scratch their heads over the late Grateful Dead frontman’s tone, intonation, and timing, while others hail him as the most inventive improviser to emerge from San Francisco’s psychedelic scene. While Garcia will likely always remain an enigma to non-Deadheads, one thing is clear: He could weave colorful passing tones into his lines like no other rocker.
In this guitar lesson, we’ll explore techniques Garcia used to enrich his lines. Drawing on phrases found in his solo albums—which have been collected for the first time in a boxed set, All Good Things: Jerry Garcia Studio Sessions (see “Long, Strange Trip”)—we’ll discover how to extract arpeggios and intervals from a song’s chord progression and spin them into dense, prismatic melodies. As part of the dissection process, we’ll split each example into two parts: First, we’ll examine a lick’s essential harmonic framework—its genesis—and then see how Garcia filled in the blanks. Regardless of your stylistic predilections, you’ll find it easy to adapt Garcia’s twists and turns to your own solos—a surefire way to make them more compelling.
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In “Alabama Getaway,” a previously unissued song on the newly expanded Run for the Roses, Garcia bases several single-note excursions on sixth intervals. He often relied on sixths to sketch the changes for good reason: Sixths move smoothly on the fretboard—almost as gracefully as single notes—yet they contain essential information about the chord of the moment. Let’s investigate.
Ex. 1a shows two sixths: C#-A and A-F#. The former contains the root and 3 of an A chord, while the latter contains the 3 and 5 of D. Play these intervals several times, and then strum A and D chords to hear how effectively the sixths imply the larger harmony. Because each sixth is composed of tones from its respective parent chord, you’re able to hear the I-IV progression without actually playing the full monty. Cool.
Ex. 1b illustrates how Garcia creates a melodic line by weaving chromatic passing tones and notes from an A blues scale around the shapes we just laid out on the fretboard. See how the sixths—now played melodically—occur on beat one of each measure? The remaining notes act as stepping stones that introduce and connect these two events.
In particular, notice how Garcia approaches each sixth from a half-step below: C leads to C#, and G# leads to A. By timing these chromatic approaches to occur on the and of beat four—the upbeats—Garcia heightens the tension and release. It’s as if he’s ambushing the chord tones both rhythmically and melodically.
You’ll often find arpeggios lurking within Garcia’s lines. The triads in Ex. 2a set up a I-bVII-IV progression in the key of A. (Both Garcia and the Dead were particularly fond of this harmonic shift.) As you work through the jazzy Ex. 2b, try to spot the chord tones. Notice how in three instances the chord tones are preceded by half-step approach notes: C leads to C#, G# to A, and F to F#. As before, Garcia places these tangy approaches on upbeats.
To master the fretboard—a crucial step in becoming a monster jammer—it’s important to rework licks on different string sets. Examples 3a and 3b illustrate this process by revisiting the previous lick, first with new triad grips and then with a refingered melody.For maximum points, apply this concept to all the phrases in this lesson.
Like Django Reinhardt, Garcia would often create lines by embellishing arpeggios. Tweezed from “Valerie” (Run for the Roses), Examples 4a and 4b are classic applications of this technique. First, establish the sound of the IV-I cadence by playing through Ex. 4a. Then, noting the 12/8 time signature, wend your way through Ex. 4b.
The line offers a nice balance of chord tones—A, C#, E (the root, 3, and 5 of an A triad), and G# (an E triad’s 3)—scale tones, and chromatic passing tones. In bar 2, hold the bend so that D rings against E, creating an edgy majorsecond dissonance. The lick concludes with a halfstep approach into a chord tone.
Examples 5a and 5b further illustrate how Garcia could extract memorable melodies from arpeggiated triads and chromatic approach tones. First, start with the arpeggiated changes in Ex. 5a, which form a Vm-IV-I cadence in the key of E. Then, as you begin to construct the line, try to visualize these same arpeggio shapes as a template for Ex. 5b’s melody. In several instances, we’re stepping chromatically into chord tones: F# and B (Bm’s 5 and root) each boast a pair of lower approach tones. And in bar 2, we reach G# (E’s 3) by way of a halfstep grace note.
A final pointer: Before making the whole-step bend at the end of bar 1, shift your hand position down two frets. As you release the bend, notice how it too creates a chromatic approach, this time into the A triad’s root by way of B and Bb.
Built almost exclusively from arpeggiated chord tones, Examples 6a and 6b introduce another very subtle, yet essential, Garcia technique: the ghost note. In Ex. 6B, notice the “x” in beat four—the lick’s penultimate tone. Even if you don’t completely fret this pitch, it’s totally implied. The momentum of the descending G arpeggio is so strong that our ears will interpret a mere thunk as D, the next pitch down on the chord-tone ladder. Garcia takes advantage of this phenomenon in nearly all of his solos, and you can too. The payoff? The musical abstracting of an otherwise predictable melodic or rhythmic phrase—it’s a bit like smudging the edges of a line in a charcoal drawing.
To say Garcia embraced chromatics is an understatement. As evidenced by Examples 7a and 7b—which are derived from “Catfish John,” a song that appears on Reflections, Garcia’s 1976 album, as well as on the new Outtakes, Jams, & Alternates—chromatic tones let you “bulk up” a line while staying in a relatively small fretboard region. Ex.7a maps the fretboard terrain using an A arpeggio and D triad. Ex. 7b traces Garcia’s serpentine journey through these changes. Look closely, and you’ll find three chromatic strands:C, C#, D, D#, E (first string); A, G#, Gn (second string); and E, Eb, D (third string). Not bad for a mere four beats.
Inspired by “Alabama Getaway,” Examples 8a and 8b show how Garcia often plays a series of chromatic tones on the same string. First—to visualize the triads lurking behind this lick—play Ex. 8a, a V-IV-I cadence in the key of A. Now try Ex. 8b, in which Garcia manages to pack chord tones, scale tones, and chromatic passing notes into a dense, two-bar line. Once again, half-step approach tones precede essential chord changes. This time D# and C#, respectively, lead to the roots of E and D chords. The main event, however, is the series of chromatic tones that run along the third string, reaching as high as E and as low as B. Pay attention to the slur mark that starts on beat three, bar 1. It covers five notes—four of which Garcia attacks using slides and hammers—and two position shifts. The quarterbends that conclude bar 2 add a bluesy flavor.
Examples 9a and 9b offer further proof of Garcia’s fondness for chromatic passages. In this case, we’re moving from D to E, the IV and V in the key of A. Ex. 9a defines the harmonic turf with a D arpeggio and E triad. In Ex. 9b, the accents help provide structure to this stream of tones. Even in the earliest recorded Grateful Dead jams, Garcia peppered his lines with such rhythmic signposts. The “forward, backward, forward” halfstep dance that accompanies the first three accented notes is another trademark move.
Distilled from “It Must Have Been the Roses” (Reflections), Examples 10a and 10b illustrate how Garcia often plays chromatics as triplet pull-offs. Start by setting the stage with the I-VIV changes in Ex. 10a. Then slowly—a few beats at a time—map out the contours of Ex. 10b. It looks like there’s a lot of melodic activity, but don’t despair. The tempo is very relaxed, so it’s not hard to handle the flow of sixteenth-notes and sixteenth-note triplets.To keep each pull-off smooth, remember to simultaneously place all three fingers on the string before attacking the first note.
Also from “Roses,” Examples 11a and 11b are classic Garcia. As sketched in Ex. 11a, the chord change is simple—a quick IV-I cadence. Nonetheless, in Ex. 11b, Garcia manages to superimpose a Bm arpeggio over the D chord (beat one), nail a chromatic triplet pull-off (beat two), turn a fat sixth interval into an A7 arpeggio (beat three), and approach a chord tone from a half-step below (beat four). Tasty!
Like many beboppers, Garcia uses a cool technique known as chord-tone encirclement. As its name implies, this concept uses both upper and lower approach tones. Examples 12a and 12b demonstrate the process, using a I-IV lick in the key of A.
Play the voicings in Ex. 12a to establish the basic harmonic movement. With the changes fresh in your ears, walk through Ex. 12b, a figure borrowed from one of Garcia’s studio jams. The last note—F#—is the 3 of D, the note that decrees D’s “majorness.” Falling as it does on beat one, bar 2, it represents the ultimate destination, or target tone, of this phrase. In the preceding beat (beat four, bar 1), we descend chromatically toward F# by playing G# and Gn.
But wait: Just when we’re about to hit F#—a climax that appears inevitable—we instead spring over it to play E, and then nail F# from below. This cagey maneuver involves descending and ascending approaches to the target tone, and creates tension by momentarily delaying the resolution. Such subtleties surface time and again in Garcia’s improvs.
It’s inspiring to discover how much music you can create by combining simple ingredients: arpeggios, half-step approach tones, and chromatic passing tones. This technique offers an attractive alternative to typical scale-based jamming, and, as Garcia showed with his long and varied career, promises a lifetime of adventure on the fretboard.