Jerry Garcia and His Bluegrass-Influenced Picking

It’s been said that a guitar player’s personality comes through their picking attack. 

Take a moment to think about it and you’ll see how true that is. Tone is a product of the instrument (and connected electronics) but even more so the player’s touch. Think of what makes Hendrix sound like Hendrix, or Van Halen like Van Halen. When I was younger, that aggressive attack was everything I wanted a guitar to sound like. But then in my first year of college I discovered Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

Garcia is also among the iconic players whose tone is instantly recognizable.

Like many of the self-taught greats, his technique was idiosyncratic. A jug band banjo player turned guitarist, Jerry’s playing never lost the crystalline definition of the banjo – even on electric guitar. 


Image by Carl Lender, licensed under Creative Commons.


Of course, banjo picking and flatpicked guitar playing are two totally different things. But tone is equal parts equipment and anatomy: the same hand makes the sound. In Jerry Garcia’s case, his picking hand was (legendarily) missing half the middle finger because of an accident in his youth. Is it possible that this affected the balance of the picking hand, and contributed in some form to his distinctive tone? We’ll never know for sure, but there are certainly echoes of the crisp, bright tone of a banjo in his guitar playing.

What we CAN say for certain is that Garcia’s tone was the byproduct of a light touch.

You can hear this all though the Dead’s music, but the flatpicked acoustic opening of American Beauty’s “Friend Of The Devil” is a great specific example. Most of the song is built around a descending G major scale combined with strummed chords, in quintessential country “boom-chick-a” rhythm. 



First, a quick note on the fretting hand. The opening G note is played on the D string at the 5th fret with the ring finger. The high G note of the G chord is held at the 3rd fret of the high E with the index finger. This keeps that opening note robust and full, and matches tone better with the rest of the descending scale. Pay attention to the fingering shift into the 3rd chord. It’s also worth mentioning that despite all the left-hand fingering changes, the pattern really is just two chords, G and C against a descending bass.

The rhythm is a simple two-step, with an answering upstroke: one AND-a two AND-a. The accented “and” evokes a bluegrass backbeat “chop”, while the full strum also references a Johnny Cash-style “train beat”. 

The challenge of this part is balancing a strong flatpicked downbeat on a single note with a lightly brushed alternating chord. The strummed rhythm has to maintain the sense of backbeat without overwhelming the single notes of the descending scale.

Ordinarily, you would expect a strummed chord to be louder than a single picked note. Here, we’re aiming for the opposite. A strummed chord rings most clearly when the strum “follows through”, meaning that the hand continues past the strings. Strum a chord and try only letting the strumming hand to move as far as the first string. Then try again, allowing the hand to keep moving. You can accomplish this with an arm swing from the elbow, or a twist of the forearm. Either way, the point of the pick moves THROUGH and PAST the strings, setting them in motion as it brushes across it. The pick doesn’t “strike” or “pluck” the string, but glides across its curved surface. This is a really useful mental picture, because the sensation of “brushing” the strings lends itself to a lighter touch.

Try strumming the “boom chick-a” rhythm again, concentrating on the follow-through and the feeling of lightness.

Now pay attention to the attack on the single-note descending line. In contrast to the light, transparent sound of the brushed chords, the single notes need to be robust and clear. This requires a little more weight behind the attack. Instead of playing harder, experiment with putting the forearm into the pick stroke. This requires a more level wrist, as we want to use the entire forearm as our lever. But instead of using the muscles of the arm to push, use the mass of the arm to lean on the string. There’s a big difference between pushing through a string and balancing the pick on it as it slides past. 

The strumming movement itself then has two parts and two hand alternating hand positions: level wrist for the bass note, rotating wrist for the chord brush.

If you’re accustomed to resting or anchoring your picking hand, this might feel strange. If you’ve been taught that efficiency of movement always comes first, this might seem wrong. But it’s a great example of how flexible technique leads to more flexible musicianship. The ability to alter your pick attack gives you far more expressive possibility. 

For a deep dive into “Friend Of The Devil”, click here to take a look at this JamPlay lesson featuring Tyler Grant and myself teaching the song in detail!

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Dave Isaacs has established himself as a guitar teacher extraordinaire, having built a strong set of educational curriculums for beginner, intermediate, and advanced guitar players alike. Dave shares his expertise largely through video platforms, but also through his thoughtful writing. You can take guitar lessons from Dave Isaacs via his comprehensive video guitar courses on

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