GRATEFUL DEAD: What sets them apart, musically, from other bands?


I got on the Grateful Dead Bus around 1987, but hate being called a “touch head” just because In The Dark came out that year.

Besides never playing the same setlists or solos in each song, I always loved the Dead because of how each player created their own universe where they could do their thing without tripping over anyone else. Jerry Garcia’s playing spanned bluesy pentatonic licks, bluegrass runs, Chuck Berry-style doublestops, lots of jazz chords and even some funky elements. Phil Lesh’s bass playing has often been described as “a second lead” because, in addition to outline chord roots and other triadic functions, Phil could play countermelodies to Jerry’s lead lines that would have clashed if they weren’t so much lower in register. Bob Weir always claimed McCoy as a major harmonic influence. This is evident in his use of fourth chords and chords with angular voicings such as sevenths and ninths. Bobby had an impeccable sense of register; his rhythm playing always found the sweet space between everything else going on.

Of the two drummers, Billy Kreutzman and Micky Heart, Bill was probably the most accomplished jazz-oriented player. When Micky left the band in late 1970, they continued only with Kreutzman until 1975.

I could write a friggin dissertation on the Dead’s keyboardists, being a life-long keyboardist myself, but here are a few initial thoughts. Pig Pen was a very basic organist who could accompany his singing but little more. Tom Constantin would have been much more prominent in the band if he had played piano, Fender Rhodes and synthesizers rather than mostly organ. Keith Gotshau was a supremely lyrical pianist who could also get down with some two-fisted honky-tonk or boogie-woogie. He often matched Jerry note for note during the extended jams so common between 1972 and 1977. By his firing in 1979, Keith’s heroin habit made him nod off during songs and bang out the same chords incessantly, which irritated the other band members. When Bobby brought Brent Midland into the band, Jerry continued working with Keith in the Garcia band until his tragic death in an automotive accident in 1981.

Of all the Dead’s keyboardists, Brent Midland was the most versatile. He had the sleak studio musician chops of a Donald Fagan or Michael McDonald, plus the B3 chops of a Steve Wynwood or Tom Koster, and wasn’t afraid to experiment with layered synthesized sounds. However, his rhythm, especially on the “Help On The Way, Slipknot, Franklin’s Tower” suite usually sounded quite stiff. His high, gravely voice could belt out “Dear Mr. Fantasy” or his own “Blow Away” with impeccable intonation and lots of improvized lyrics. When Brent died in 1990 due to various drug-related health problems, the band replaced him with Vince Welnick, the all-purpose leader of the Tubes. Vince was apparently hired because of his high tenor vocal range and his aural ability to jam out with the rest of the band. Apparently, Garcia’s long-time keyboardist Melvin Seals was passed up for both these reasons. Yet, from Vince’s debut at Madison Square Garden in the fall of 1990, it became heartbreakingly apparent that his playing was stiff and not particularly creatively inspired. Enter Bruce Hornsby.

Bruce had guested with the band on accordion throughout the 1980s. When he was asked to join in 1990, he agreed to play for two years. The results were some of the Grateful Dead’s most inspiring interactive performances. Bruce could match Jerry note for note even better than Keith or Brent. His many jazz influences parallelled Bob Weir’s harmonic approach. During honky-tonk songs like “Ramble On Rose” or “Tennessee Jed,” Bruce’s southern roots injected some authentic downhome flavor into his licks, whereas Brent had just tinkled on top of the band’s groove. Bruce helped out with vocals and the band even performed some of his Range songs such as “Valley Road”. His last show was on June 26th (my birthday) in Atlanta 1995, mere weeks before the band’s last show and Jerry’s untimely death.


Each member of the Grateful Dead has a voice that is so easily identifiable that even when other people have come in later to take on the position such as the various performers who rode the Hot Seat behind the 88keys( notice im not saying piano or keyboard or organ or harpsichord because these all were used at different times) you will notice the difference.

The improvisational nature isn't unique but the use of various styles of music to put together shows which varied night to night and were never repeated, with songs never performed the same way twice ovwr a 30 year period of virtual nonstop,(Family -I know, I know, just trying to keep this simple for the masses) seems unique. I mean u have blyes bands, rock bands, jazz ensembles, drum and bass outfits, world music groups, folkies, bluegrass artists etc but rarely do u find all of them at done at all by one group at a single performance, let alone sometimes done with such perfection that the performances outrank studio effort. Also the band fed off the energy of the atmosphere or tried to do so and the crowd fed off of the band and each other and the lines between performer/observer blurred. People had spiritual and or religious experiences at Grateful Dead concerts. Nightly.

The Fans have established networks worldwide tho we are mostly American which have taken the place of natural families because we are connected through the music and the experiences we shared with this band. And we have carried it beyond the time of the bands active career. We still go see the sylurviving members perform and we still have a thruving community.

So yeah, you know, there's all of that.

Nowadays and for sometime there have been other groups who have taken lessons from the Dead just as the music industry and merch industry have copied or imitated their gel. But let me tell you and you can take my word on this the Dead were there first. They will always be held apart as a standard when looking at similar groups.



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