Jerry Garcia And The Pedal Steel Guitar

August - an important month for all us Leos for a variety of reasons. This year, August marks what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. It also marks the 17th anniversary of his untimely death. Celebrations have been held in his honor.  That’s all righteous. I couldn’t let the month go by without some words of tribute about Jerry’s playing of the instrument known as the Pedal Steel Guitar. The musical legacy he left behind after his short but fertile time spent  playing this guitar has been astonishingly overlooked. The pedal steel guitar is that strange thing you sit down at, and it is often found in Nashville studios, played by guys on twangy country western songs. In Garcia’s hands, though, it was an entirely different matter.

In 1969 he was inspired to take up the instrument. The pedal steel is a hard thing to play. Real tough. It’s complicated. According to his friend and fellow pedal steel player Pete Grant “…he dove into the pedal steel like jumping into a swimming pool without even checking the water…” He didn’t take any lessons, he didn’t read any books - he just sat down and played. At the time, he was living with Mountain Girl, and she said he immersed himself in the instrument, and would get up early every morning and play for hours.

He began playing in coffee houses with his friend John ‘Marmaduke’ Dawson. They were having so much fun that they decided to form a band, The New Riders of the Purple Sage. Garcia only played the pedal steel guitar from 1969 - 1974.  Then he put it aside. During this time, besides his work with the New Riders, and The Dead, he lent his playing talents to some of the top artists of the early seventies – most San Francisco based, and recording out of the Wally Heider Studio. For all you guitar geeks, he played a ZB Custom D-10, and at the time of the Dead’s and New Riders last performances at the Fillmore, he played an Emmons D-10.

Rolling Stone magazine ranks Jerry as the 13th greatest rock guitarist of all time. Garcia wasn’t flashy, but his playing is always recognizable and identifiable. It was unique, his tone always great, his licks authentic, playful, and masterful. For me, these qualities especially hold true with his playing of the pedal steel. No one has ever played the instrument like Jerry.

Here’s a link to a great clip of Jerry playing pedal steel at a rehearsal with N.R.P.S. at the Fillmore West in 1976.

Here is his pedal steel discography.
Jefferson Airplane “Volunteers” 1969   ‘The Farm’
Crosby Stills Nash & Young “Déjà Vu” 1970  ‘Teach Your Children’
Grateful Dead “Workingman’s Dead” 1970  ‘High Time’  ‘Dire Wolf’
Jefferson Starship “Blows Against the Empire” 1970  ‘Have You seen the Stars Tonight?’
It’s a Beautiful Day  “Marrying Maiden” 1970  ‘It Comes Right Down to You’
Grateful Dead “American Beauty” 1970  ‘Candyman’  ‘Brokendown Palace’
Brewer and Shipley “Tarkio” 1971 ‘Oh Mamma’
David Crosby “If Only I could Remember My Name” 1971  ‘Laughing’  ‘What are Their Names’
Graham Nash “Songs for Beginners” 1971   ‘I Used to be a King’   ‘Man in the Mirror’
Stephen Stills  “Stephen Stills2” 1971  ‘Change Partners’
Bob Weir  “Ace” 1972  ‘Looks Like Rain’
Rowan Brothers  “The Rowan Brothers” 1972  ‘Mama Don’t you Cry’
Jerry Garcia  “Garcia” 1972  ‘To Lay Me Down’   ‘The Wheel’   ‘Late for Supper’ ‘Spidergawd’
Graham Nash and David Crosby  “Nash/Crosby” 1972  ‘Southbound Train’
Paul Pena  “New Train” 1973  ‘Venutian Lady’
Link Wray  “Be What You Want To” 1973  ‘Tucson Arizona’  ‘All Cried Out’  ‘Riverbend’
Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, David Freiberg  “Baron Von TollBooth and the Chrome Nun” 1973 ‘YourMind Has Left Your Body’

Of all the songs he played on, I’d like to amplify some of my faves. Number one for me was ‘Laughing’ from David Crosby’s underrated solo album “If I Could Only Remember my Name.” Garcia considered this his best work with the pedal steel. It is.  It soars…a forlorn cry to a distant love.

Steve Barncard was the recording engineer on that album. Today, Barncard still views that Crosby album - and ‘Laughing’ in particular - as among his greatest achievements. “It stirs the soul. Everything just fits together like a beautiful mosaic. It's so satisfying from the first note. Garcia’s playing is ethereal. It truly sounds like it was beamed down from another galaxy. That song is sacred.”

Garcia’s most well known work with the pedal steel has to be ‘Teach Your Children’ by CSNY. He had only been playing for a short time before recording this. He played in exchange for harmony lessons, which he then parlayed into ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty.’ What makes this song so catchy? Sure, Graham Nash’s autobiographical lyrics make for great sing-a-long, but it is Jerry’s licks, and his accents on the pedal steel that make this song so sweet and unforgettable.

Then came New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the white album cover with the saguaro cactus. You can select any cut off this super fine LP. The sonic quality of the recording on this album is absolutely phenomenal - worthy of the headphones for sure. This is Garcia in peak form, where his playing continually shines through. These songs provide a great example of how Jerry listened, and played to the lyrics…a real gift. If you don’t have this CD in your collection, go buy it - 40 years later and still a beauty…timeless. On the song ’Dirty Business’ Jerry wails on a fuzzed out pedal steel for 6 wild minutes.

I always loved the first Jefferson Starship LP “Blows Against the Empire” a beautiful sci-fi psychedelic work. Here Jerry drifts into space, and brings us along for a ride on ‘Have You Seen the Stars Tonight.’ Captain Trips also sat in with the Jefferson Airplane on the LP “Volunteers” on the delightful song     ‘The Farm.’ Another Airplane side project “Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun” contains the terrific track ‘Your Mind Has Left Your Body’ and Garcia takes us out into deep space yet again.

His playing was not Nashville, he often made up his own tunings, but on the song ‘Dire Wolf,’ from “Workingman’s Dead” and on the cuts Brewer and Shipley’s ‘Oh Mommy’ and The Rowan Brothers’ ‘Mama Don’t You Cry’ he proves he can dial up the country sound if he had to.

He did wonderful work with Graham Nash, Crosby and Nash, Stephen Sills, and Link Wray. On Bob Weir’s LP “Ace” he makes us all cry on ‘Looks Like Rain.‘

On Jerry’s first solo album, “Garcia,” he plays plenty of pedal steel, but absolutely startles and shines on ‘The Wheel.’ It is mesmerizing, sparkling - so, so, so good - pure magic.   ”…won’t you try just a little bit harder, couldn’t you try just a little bit more…”

Nashville pedal steel players consider Garcia’s playing mediocre. But sometimes, technical prowess doesn’t make for the best music. Jerry Garcia was an improviser. His playing was intuitive. He was truly one of a kind. He transcended this instrument and made listeners FEEL! He took us to new frontiers, and he still takes us on auditory adventures every time he plucks a note on this instrument he spun into gold.

And lastly, here would be my comp list for a nice little CD…
Laughing  5:26  David Crosby   If I Could Only Remember My Name....
Teach Your Children  2:55            Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young            Déjà Vu
Garden Of Eden            4:36            NRPS            New Riders Of The Purple Sage
Portland Woman            3:40            NRPS            New Riders Of The Purple Sage
All I Ever Wanted            4:40            NRPS            New Riders Of The Purple Sage
Your Mind Has Left Your Body  6:00 Kantner,Slick, Freiberg  Baron Von
Have You Seen  3:43 Jefferson Starship   Blows Against The Empire
The Farm                          3:15            Jefferson Airplane            Volunteers
Dire Wolf            3:15            Grateful Dead            Workingman's Dead
Candyman            6:14            Grateful Dead            American Beauty
Change Partners            3:16            Stephen Stills            Stephen Stills 2
I Used To Be A King  4:42  Graham Nash Songs For Beginners
Man In The Mirror  2:49  Graham Nash  Songs For Beginners
Looks Like Rain            6:12            Bob Weir            Weir Here
Tucson Arizona            4:43            Link Wray  Be What You Want To
Mama Don't You Cry  3:06 The Rowan Brothers  Rowan Brothers
Oh Mommy            3:06            Brewer & Shipley  The Best of
Southbound Train            3:55            David Crosby/Graham Nash
To Lay Me Down            6:19            Jerry Garcia            Garcia
The Wheel            4:04            Jerry Garcia            Garcia

I would like you to really focus on the sounds that Jerry extracts from the pedal steel. The instrument punches through on most of the tunes. Close your eyes if you are able to listen while not driving. Check out what he does underneath the lead singers, and be transported during the instrumental interludes. Turn it up loud, pay attention to the fadeouts!

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Tags: Airplane, Crosby, Dead, Fillmore, Garcia, Grateful, Heider, Jefferson, Jerry, Laughing, More…Nash, New, Riders, Stiils, Wally, Wheel, discography, guitar, pedal, steel

Comment by Easy Ed on August 20, 2012 at 10:33pm

A nice piece on Jerry and his steel work. I've always thought that he was one of the more tastier players out there despite his non-traditional approach to the instrument. His work on the first NRPS stands out as some of the finest playing I've ever heard, and I got the chance to see him with the band in 1969 shortly before the debut was released. I don't think you mentioned it, but he brought out the steel in 1987 for the Dead/Dylan tour. Below is a picture of him playing at the Oakland Coliseum that year.

Comment by Dirk on August 25, 2012 at 12:34pm

Thanks for writing about one of my all-time favorite subjects: Jerry on pedal steel.  What a shame the performance that night, in'72 I believe, wasn't recorded so we could see Jerry playing pedal steel with the New Riders.  The clip you've linked is the only footage I've ever seen of him playing pedal steel.  And thanks for the excellent Jerry on pedal steel discography!

Comment by Kyla Fairchild on August 25, 2012 at 5:00pm

This video of Jerry playing pedal steel on this New Riders of the Purple Sage song was posted on our Face Book page, along with some other great comments, so figured I'd add it in here. Sounds great!

Comment by Cary Allen Fields on August 28, 2012 at 5:38am

Now, don't get me wrong. I love the work of the Ralph Mooneys and Buddy Emmonses and Tom Brumleyses and Shot Jacksons of this world. That said, I'll never set a figurative foot in a steel guitar forum when Jerry Garcia is mentioned again. Ever. MAN, they were hatin' on ol' dude! Technique, approach, taste, material, blah blah blah, there wasn't NOTHING them boys weren't taking exception to.
Jerry developed his own voice on every instrument he played. Period.
Introducing said instrument to many is worth a whole lot too, naturally. 
Personally speaking, I owe the man a great debt. He gave me back the music of my parents. At some point I had decided that the bluegrass and Louvin Brothers and such that my Eastern Kentucky-born mommy sang to us when we was babies was decidedly not cool. And Jerry is the man that said, "You'd better unthink that silliness, son."
Thank you, Jerry. 
And buddy, if the better part of that comp list of yours ends up being one of our goofy little radio programs one day soon, I promise to credit you for the inspiration, OK? 

Comment by crusadercob on August 28, 2012 at 6:08am

Thanks for the eloquence Cary. Ok...but no credit necessary. You are clearly on top of things.

Comment by Dermot O'Sullivan on August 28, 2012 at 7:10am

Thank you. I also agree that Crosby's 'If I could only...' is a a relatively unknown gem (along with Love's Forever Changes!).

Comment by Eric Tingstad on August 28, 2012 at 4:37pm

That’s right Cary, there was a time that even mentioning Jerry Garcia’s name within the “circle” was tantamount to blasphemy. Thankfully that attitude seems to be diminishing thanks in part to such great articles as Rob’s here.

I think part of the issue was/is that there have been two very well known steel solos in pop music. One of them being “Teach your Children Well” performed by Garcia. It became a de facto reference point in the recording studio that only fanned the flame of conceit and arrogance by those who thought their skill set exceeded that of Jerry’s when asked to do something similar.

Within Art and Music history there are many examples of those who came along and had just the right approach, touch and simplicity that garnered popularity much to the chagrin of others. George Winston was pretty beat up by more the “serious” solo pianists. Ottmar Liebert had a tough go at getting respect among the flamenco purists. And as a child I remember the Beatles being picked upon. Imagine! And in the visual Art world the list is endless ...

The pedal steel guitar is an amazingly beautiful instrument and somewhat easy to play (IMHO). And by my estimation is all the more stunning when played with restraint and taste. We have so many fine examples of players like that these days throughout the repertoire and recording catalog. Some of my favorites being Paul Franklin, Eric Heywood and Tommy White.

Thanks for a great and informative post Rob!

Comment by Easy Ed on August 28, 2012 at 5:12pm

@Eric: Hmmm....easy to play. Well, I have always loved steel so I bought myself a Carter Starter about five or six years ago and tried so hard I gave it up. Been pickin' since I was twelve, but this instrument kicked my butt. About a year or two ago, partly inspired by Eric Heywood's work, I tried it again and threw out all of the old steel player's rules. I just played it like I felt it. Not saying I'm any good at it, but I can play it now as opposed to using it as a dust magnet.

Now please tell us, what is the second well known steel solo in pop music? You're killin' me.

Comment by Eric Tingstad on August 28, 2012 at 7:04pm

@ED ... That would be ( drum roll please ) "Someday Soon" by Judy Collins with Buddy Emmons. I still get goose bumps just thinkin' about that guitar part.

I've seen Eric Heywood with The Pretenders and he just nails it. Economy supreme and tasty work. Happy to hear the Carter is no longer just a door stop. I have a '73 Shobud 6139 that damn near plays itself. Tone to die for!

Comment by BillyBobJoe on August 28, 2012 at 10:48pm

Yup, I got's hooked on Jerry's sublime steel several years back.  I made a similar compilation myself that might've made the rounds on the blogs I guess. Here's my tracks.

P.S.            J. GARCIA   

(a Jerry Garcia Pedal Steel Guitar Collection)

 1  The Wheel                           Jerry Garcia

 2  Last Lonely Eagle               New Riders of the Purple Sage

     (Alternate Take -                 1st Studio Session, San Fran 1969)

 3  Oh, Mommy                        Brewer & Shipley

 4  The Farm                             Jefferson Airplane

 5  It Comes Right Down          It’s A Beautiful Day

     To You

 6  Teach Your Children           Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

 7  Man In The Mirror               Graham Nash

 8  Change Partners                   Stephen Stills

 9  Venutian Lady                      Paul Pena

10  Dire Wolf                            Grateful Dead

11  Tuscon, Arizona                  Link Wray

12  Your Mind Has Left            Paul Kantner - Grace Slick

      Your Body                           David Freiberg

13  I Used To Be A King           Graham Nash

14  Laughing                              David Crosby

15  Reach High                          Lamb

16  Hickory Day                        The Rowan Brothers

      (Live Fillmore West            San Francisco 7-2-71)

17  The Weight                          New Riders of the Purple Sage

      (Live Fillmore West            San Francisco 7-2-71)

18  Looks Like Rain                  Grateful Dead

      (Live NYC 3-21-72)

19  The Wheel                            Jerry Garcia

      (Alternate Take #1)                       




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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.