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Jerome John “Jerry” Garcia (August 1, 1942 – August 9, 1995) was an American singer-songwriter and guitarist, best known for his work as the lead guitarist and as a vocalist with the band the Grateful Dead, which came to prominence during the counterculture era in the 1960s. Although he disavowed the role, Garcia was viewed by many as the leader or “spokesman” of the group.
As one of its founders, Garcia performed with the Grateful Dead for their entire 30-year career (1965–1995). Garcia also founded and participated in a variety of side projects, including the Saunders–Garcia Band (with longtime friend Merl Saunders), the Jerry Garcia Band, Old & In the Way, the Garcia/Grisman acoustic duo, Legion of Mary, and the New Riders of the Purple Sage (which Garcia co-founded with John Dawson and David Nelson).He also released several solo albums, and contributed to a number of albums by other artists over the years as a session musician. He was well known for his distinctive guitar playing, and was ranked 13th in Rolling Stone‘s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” cover story in 2003. In the 2015 version of the list he was ranked at #46.
Garcia was also renowned for his musical and technical ability, particularly his ability to play a variety of instruments, and his ability to sustain long improvisations with the Grateful Dead. Garcia believed that improvisation took stress away from his playing and allowed him to make spur of the moment decisions that he would not have made intentionally. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Garcia noted that “my own preferences are for improvisation, for making it up as I go along. The idea of picking, of eliminating possibilities by deciding, that’s difficult for me”. Garcia’s improvisation techniques were widely lauded for their ability to span genres, as well as his ability to employ modal guitar playing. He was particularly a proponent of using the Mixolydian mode, a scale which utilised a flattened 7th note.
Later in life, Garcia struggled with diabetes, and in 1986 went into a diabetic coma that nearly cost him his life. Although his overall health improved somewhat after that, he continued to struggle with obesity, smoking, and longstanding heroin and cocaine addictions. He was staying in a California drug rehabilitation facility when he died of a heart attack in August 1995 at the age of 53