Learn to Play: Riffs in the Key of Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia (1970). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives. Getty Images.

Jerry Garcia — guitar titan and '60s counterculture icon — would have turned 75 years old today. To celebrate his life and massive contribution to music, we put together a couple of lessons that cover some of his most influential riffs.

Check out the videos below and read Joe's explanation to learn how you can play like one of the greats.

Help On The Way/Slipknot!

Though the first thing you hear when you spin the Grateful Dead's "Help On the Way/Slipknot!" is Phil Lesh's melodic bass lines and bends, it's Jerry's lick that really pulls us into the song.

What I've always loved about this song is its mysteriousness. Though it's minor, it isn't sad, and it has a darkness that isn't heavy — hard to accomplish in a minor key.

The part that we dissect in the lesson is the most complex part. Nearly everything that is played in this section is a 7th chord arpeggio, so if you are familiar with your 7th chord arpeggio shapes, access them. If you have never learned 7th chord arpeggio shapes, then this is a wonderful exercise for you.

For me, 7th chord arpeggios are one of the most eye–opening techniques I have ever learned. It is a framework that spans your entire fretboard, enhances your chord structure knowledge, and provides melodic visualization.

Stay patient, and slow these riffs down. You can be behind the beat (like Jerry). What is important here is that you realize which chord you are arpeggiating at which moment. When I was learning these years ago, I would often say the chord names out loud, which helped my hands/brain/eyes/ears connection.

After you have learned the riffs in this tune. Take this practice a step further. Throw these arpeggios all around your fretboard. Challenge yourself to pull them off in any key and from any degree (1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th). It may sound daunting, but it’s all the same system.

Start with the three most common 7th chords: Major 7th (1, 3, 5, 7), Minor 7th (1, b3, 5, b7), and Dominant 7th (1, 3, 5, b7).

Casey Jones

In music, simple is often better. The solo riffs in "Casey Jones" are a perfect example of what I mean.

Jerry Garcia was capable of pulling off many styles with his lead riffs and melodies. With "Casey Jones," he decided to simplify the process and more or less outline the vocal melody.


For many young players, a riff comes along that allows them access to a band’s “sound.” For me, that riff was "Althea."

I had been listening to Grateful Dead for some time, and I enjoyed many of their songs. But, admittedly, I was way more interested in playing loud AC/DC power chords and Zeppelin riffs. Hey, I was 10.

But when I heard "Althea," I felt that a whole new sonic landscape of playing was unlocked for me. Not only did I love the riff, but I also thought I could pick it up pretty easily. B minor, A, E. Got it. Now, what’s the other stuff in there that makes it sound like Jerry?

Similar to the "Casey Jones" lesson, this is simplicity. Jerry teaches us that we can do so much with simple chords that we already know. Even if you don’t know much about flat 7s or sharp 13s, you can still explore within a chord shape.

When learning these riffs, take the “let’s see what happens if I do this” approach. Oftentimes, knowledge is hiding in plain sight, behind simple chords and easy melodies. Take a look.

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