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!