Jerry Garcia and The Banjo

by Cory Arnold

It is a convention that the banjo was the first instrument Jerry Garcia focused on, because he wanted to play bluegrass in the style of Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith. The narrative says that he put it aside in 1965 when he began to play electric guitar with the Warlocks. The conventional version goes on to say that the banjo only reappeared in Garcia's musical career in 1973, when he started playing bluegrass again with Old And In The Way. Yet a closer look tells us that is not quite a true story.

Editors note: This article has been edited first appeared on the blog Hooterollin' Around

Definitely, Garcia dropped the banjo in 1965, and took up the electric guitar. In 1969, however, the banjo started to make an appearance in Garcia's musical career. It wasn't constant, but it showed up too many times to say that it was a casual coincidence. So it seems that when Garcia began to play with Old And In The Way, he was reinvigorating his love of the banjo, but it wasn't a cold start. The banjo arose when Garcia took up the pedal steel guitar, and when the banjo started to play a meaningful part in Garcia's musical life, the pedal steel disappeared. This post will look at Garcia's known banjo performances between 1965 and 1973, and try to see how they illuminate Garcia's musical career.

By Garcia's own admission, the five-string banjo was the first instrument that really consumed him, around 1962, when he practiced for hours every day. Now, even during the height of his banjo period, we know that Garcia practiced his acoustic guitar constantly as well, and even fooled around with mandolin, fiddle and possibly other instruments. Yet playing bluegrass banjo in the style of Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith was what drove Garcia. Garcia attempted to be a professional bluegrass banjo player in the Palo Alto and Berkeley areas in 1963 and '64, even though he played guitar when opportunities came his way. The musical world was very different in 1964, but not for banjo players: it has always been pretty much impossible to make a living as a bluegrass banjo player in the Bay Area.

Listen to a 20 year old Jerry Garcia on his first known studio session below. This is with the bluegrass band the Hart Valley Drifters. Learn more about this session here:

Here is a great recording of The Black Mountain Boys with Garcia on banjo from March 6th, 1964.

The band members are:

  • Jerry Garcia - banjo
  • Eric Thompson -guitar
  • David Nelson -mandolin
  • Robert Hunter - bass

Here is Garcia playing "Stony Creek" that was taped by a student of his in 1964 during a lesson.


1965: Banjo Withdrawal

By 1965, Jerry Garcia and his friends had formed a jug band, because there were so few paying gigs for any bluegrass bands. In the jug band, Garcia sang and played guitar, but he didn't play banjo (per Dave Parker [h/t Brian], Tom Stone covered the banjo parts). When the jug band ground to a halt, the best musicians in it formed an electric blues band, and The Warlocks seemed a lot more professionally viable option, so Garcia focused on the electric guitar. He mostly kept that focus until 1995.

1966-68: The Haight Ashbury Period

In the early days of the Grateful Dead, in late 1965, Garcia lived in a Waverley Street house with fellow banjo player Rick Shubb. According to Shubb, they did play banjo together once in a while, so we know Garcia kept one around, but other than that the instrument seems to have disappeared in Garcia's musical life. When the Grateful Dead lived at 710 Ashbury, a lot of informal picking took place, and Garcia must have played banjo when the mood struck to play a different instrument. We do know that Garcia had a Fender pedal steel guitar in 1966-67, and there are even pictures (though no tapes) of him playing it. The Long Strange Trip movie has an intriguing video sequence (without sound) of Garcia playing dobro with Weir and others in some kind of acoustic jam at 710. So while the banjo must have been broken out occasionally, there's no actual evidence of it.

The only really confirmed sighting of Garcia on banjo from 1966 to 1968 was on a studio recording, from RCA Studios in Hollywood in November 1967. Hilariously, the banjo appears in the least likely place--"Dark Star." The original single (45 rpm) studio recording of "Dark Star" (released in April 1968, and recently re-issued) includes a brief snippet of Garcia's banjo, providing background for the voice of Robert Hunter, who made his only appearance on a Grateful Dead recording. Still, this is just a typical 60s gimmick. During the Anthem Of The Sun session, for example, Phil Lesh played some trumpet, which he hadn't played since junior college. There was no sign that Garcia's banjo playing on the record was any more than a novelty.

update: a Comment by fellow scholar LIA reveals that Garcia's banjo part on "Dark Star" was from an old tape, ca. 1964, so it wasn't even a current performance

Butch Waller and High Country released an album on The Youngbloods' Raccoon label in 1971. Waller had been playing bluegrass in the Bay Area since 1962, with friends like Herb Pedersen, David Nelson, Richard Greene and Jerry Garcia.

Here is a full live performance of the band High Country from February 19th, 1969. The photo in the video is incorrect. This is not the Black Mountain Boys from 1964. 

The artists on this recording are:

  • Butch Waller - mandolin
  • Rich Wilbur - guitar
  • David Nelson - guitar
  • Jerry Garcia - banjo.


February 19th, 1969

The Matrix, San Francisco, CA

High Country

Given that Garcia had dropped the banjo, his unexpected appearance with High Country at The Matrix on February 19, 1969 was a meaningful shift. I have written at length about some of the ambiguity of the dating of this show, so for the moment I just want to focus on the surprise of Garcia playing banjo at all. High Country was a bluegrass band led by singer and mandolinist Butch Waller, an old pal from the Palo Alto bluegrass days. Also onboard with High Country at that time was David Nelson, as Nelson had been in the Pine Valley Boys with Waller in 1964. During this period, High Country alternated the banjo chair between Rick Shubb and Pete Grant, who had been the top South Bay banjo pickers back in the early 60s. Apparently, for the Matrix gig, neither were available, so another South Bay banjo picker was engaged.

It's one thing to pluck a few runs for a psychedelic space-out collage, but its another to actually play bluegrass banjo with real players. Now, sure, Garcia hadn't "forgotten" how to play banjo. But he has commented that if you stop playing the banjo, you lose your timing. Bluegrass banjo, as I understand it (I am not a musician), depends on a steady rhythmic touch for the perpetual three-finger runs that never stop, and it is the timing and feel that are the hallmark of a top bluegrass banjo player, rather than just blinding speed. Certainly, it's true that his fellow bandmates were old friends who were surely happy to play with a guy who knew all the old bluegrass standards and wasn't going to panic on stage, and they weren't going to criticize his staleness on the instrument. But Garcia was Garcia--he wasn't going to agree to a banjo gig without being ready to bring it. He must have practiced for days before the show.

I'm not aware of any other Garcia banjo gigs in February 1969 (if you know of any, please Comment!). The resonance of the Matrix bluegrass show seems to have betrayed a certain musical restlessness in Garcia. He had been playing electric guitar essentially nonstop from Spring '65 until Winter '69, and he may have wanted to add a side order to his entree. That would come soon enough.

April 14, 1969:

Unknown Colorado music store

On April 14, 1969--or possibly the day before--Jerry Garcia purchased a pedal steel guitar, from a music store in either Boulder or Denver. Garcia had owned a Fender pedal steel guitar in 1966-67, but it had been difficult to keep in tune. He had traded it to the Youngbloods (another story), but Garcia definitely had pedal steel on his mind. As I have detailed at great length, on a three-night stand the weekend before (April 4-6), at the Avalon Ballroom with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Garcia heard Sneaky Pete Kleinow on an Owsley sound system. According to a reliable eyewitness (Burritos road manager Jimmi Seiter), Garcia was so impressed he played a (presumably rented) pedal steel guitar behind the stage as the Burritos performed. It seems no surprise, then, that Garcia purchased a pedal steel at the next available opportunity. Apparently, he requested that the ZB Custom D10 be sent to San Francisco already tuned.

My hypothesis is that Garcia's willingness to practice banjo to play well enough for a bluegrass gig was a precursor to his willingness to really learn the pedal steel guitar. I do not know which begat the other. Certainly, Garcia had always wanted to play pedal steel guitar since hearing Tom Brumley's solo on Buck Owens' "Together Again" (apparently played on a ZB, probably not a coincidence). Did picking on the banjo make Garcia want the steel, or was the picking an attempt to scratch an already-existing itch?

I am not a musician, but I do know that the three-finger banjo roll invented by Earl Scruggs and refined by Bill Keith has some crossover to modern pedal steel guitar. There is a reason that many banjo players, like Bill Keith himself, shifted to the pedal steel guitar, and while many well-known steel players, like Al Perkins, regularly play banjo when the set requires it. So I think Garcia's constant practice on the pedal steel from 1969-71, remarked on by many observers, made him more comfortable picking up the banjo for occasional sessions (any musicians with helpful insights please weigh in on the Comments).

Jerry Garcia's banjo playing on "Cumberland Blues" was mixed out of the initial release of Workingman's Dead.

"Cumberland Blues" from The Workingman's Dead

Grateful Dead

(Warner Brothers Records released June 1970, recorded March 1970)

In June 1970, the Grateful Dead shocked the rock universe by switching from psychedelic grooving to country music. Today, we can notice the continuity, but that was invisible in 1970 save for a few old Palo Alto and Berkeley folkies. If Garcia had played banjo on Workingman's Dead. the continuum from bluegrass to Buck Owens-style country rock would have been far clearer. In fact, Garcia did play banjo on the album, but it was mixed out. [update: informed correspondents tell me that the banjo was audible on the original release. Probably my high-school stereo was too crappy, or I was too naive to realize that it was a banjo rather than a twangy guitar] Modern-day releases of Workingman's Dead include the full tracking of "Cumberland Blues," where Garcia's banjo intertwines with David Nelson's flatpicked acoustic guitar, drawing a straight line from bluegrass to honky-tonk Bakersfield country. Since only Nelson's guitar made the original mix, Garcia's banjo remained muted for decades.

"Hoedown" from Marrying Maiden

One of the few pictures from 1967 where Garcia is picking his pedal steel shows David LaFlamme playing the fiddle. LaFlamme, another Haight Ashbury resident, has reported that he regularly dropped by 710 Ashbury to play and hang out. By 1970, LaFlamme's group had released a hugely successful debut album (everybody recalls "White Bird"), so Columbia would have been hot for their second album. Amidst the Dead's intense touring schedule in early 1970, Garcia somehow found time to play on album sessions at Pacific High Recorders for It's A Beautiful Day's second album, Marrying Maiden. The album was released on Columbia in June 1970, and probably sessions were completed a few months earlier. Garcia played banjo on the song "Hoedown" (and pedal steel guitar on "It Comes Right Down To You").

"Glendale Train" and "Turkey In The Straw"

JGMF unearthed a unique New Riders show from the Matrix, on July 7. 1970. For some reason, Jerry Garcia did not play pedal steel guitar with the Riders that night. The Grateful Dead had just finished the 'Festival Express" tour (last date July 3), and had following dates in Illinois (July 8) and Fillmore East (July 9-12). I have to assume the band's equipment went East, while the actual band members flew home. It is a remarkable testament that Garcia played a gig with the New Riders at the Matrix the night before an Eastern tour.

Besides the fascination of hearing Garcia play New Riders songs on the six-string, a remarkable footnote comes when Garcia plays banjo for two numbers. One of those songs was "Glendale Train," on which he would play banjo on the record ( about which more below), but Garcia also played banjo on a sort of bluegrass instrumental with David Nelson on acoustic guitar. Although this was a casual performance for--at most--150 people, I don't think Garcia would have played a bluegrass tune with Nelson unless he had some confidence in his playing at the time. The other takeaway was that Garcia made the decision to bring a banjo to the show, because it had to be a conscious choice. Did Garcia play banjo at other New Riders Matrix shows? We don't really know.

 "Let's Go Together"from Blows Against The Empire

Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship

(RCA/Grunt released November 1970, recorded Wally Heider Studios July 22, 1970

Throughout the 1969-72 period, as a result of the Jefferson Airplane's contract with RCA, the Airplane members had an unlimited recording budget at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. These are now known colloquially as the "PERRO" (Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra") Sessions, and formed the core of many well-known albums coming out of San Francisco in the early 70s. Jerry Garcia was a regular participant in the PERRO sessions.

On July 22, 1970, Garcia played banjo on a song called "Let's Go Together," which later appeared on a December, 1970 release called Blows Against The Empire, credited to Paul Kantner and "Jefferson Starship." For this track, Garcia was using the banjo as a sort of rhythm instrument for a rock track. Garcia's versatility was used to good effect, because while his banjo part was basic, Garcia took advantage of his experience in providing a foundation for rock tracks, even on a different instrument than his usual electric guitar.

"Flying" from Cross Between


(Warner Brothers released 1971, recorded Wally Heider Studios October 5, 1970)

Lamb, originally a songwriting duo of Barbara Mauritz (piano) and Bob Swanson (guitar) were signed to Bill Graham's Fillmore Records and subsequently turned into a real rock group. Their second album, Cross Between, was released on Warner Brothers in mid-71. Thanks to JGMF, we know that Garcia's contribution was recorded at Wally Heider Studios on October 5, 1970. Garcia played banjo on "Flying," and pedal steel on two other songs. This seemed to fit a pattern, where Garcia would contribute both pedal steel guitar and banjo to an album. In the then-tiny universe of San Francisco recording studios, this set Garcia apart. Hiring Garcia for a session meant that you had hired a triple threat on multiple instruments.

On a side note, it's remarkable to consider that Jerry Garcia played Grateful Dead shows at Winterland on October 4 and 5, 1970, and found out that Janis Joplin died on the night of the 4th, and yet played a session at Wally Heider's in between. He played sessions the next day, too (Oct 6, for a Papa John Creach album). Whatever your interpretation of Garcia's personal motivations, he was all music, all the time.

"Glendale Train"

New Riders Of The Purple Sage

(Columbia released September 1971, recorded Winter 71, Wally Heider Studios)

The New Riders of The Purple Sage were formed in the Summer of 1969, and signed to Columbia Records sometime in the middle of 1970. Recording began at Wally Heider's soon after, with Steve Barncard on the board and Phil Lesh helping to arrange the songs. Initially, Lesh was supposed to be the producer, but ultimately Barncard took over (Lesh is credited as "executive producer" on the album). There were numerous sessions in 1970, but according to Barncard, they were all erased. At that time, Micky Hart was the band's drummer. By the time the debut album actually got recorded, the New Riders had introduced Spencer Dryden as the drummer.

The NRPS debut album released on Columbia in August, 1971 included a prominent Garcia banjo part on "Glendale Train." It's also possible a few banjo licks snuck into the album on other tracks. Garcia's driving banjo part on the song has contributed to making "Glendale Train" a sort of bluegrass standard, even though it was initially recorded as a rock song. When you're in a pizza joint with craft beers, and the trio in the corner is playing "Panama Red" and "Friend Of The Devil," you know that "Glendale Train" isn't far behind. Garcia was an old bluegrasser, so to the extent he was aware of it, it had to please Garcia that his banjo part had converted a rock song to a bluegrass staple.

One curiosity to consider is the thoroughly lost New Riders studio tracks from late 1970. Did Garcia try out any additional banjo parts on some Riders's songs? We will probably never know, but it's interesting to contemplate.

HDReview710304A "KG" review of Garcia's appearance on banjo with James And The Good Brothers at Fillmore West on February 25-28, 1971 (from the Hayward Daily Review of March 4, 1971)

February 25-28, 1971 - Fillmore West, San Francisco, CA

New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Boz Scaggs/James and The Good Brothers

The New Riders played a four-night stand at Fillmore West along with Boz Scaggs in February, 1971. The opening act was James And The Good Brothers. Canadians Bruce and Brian Good, and their partner James Ackroyd, had played on the infamous "Festival Express" Canadian tour, and had been invited to San Francisco. The trio recorded at Alembic, with Betty Cantor behind the desk. Various San Francisco luminaries, including Jack Casady and Bill Kreutzmann, played on the album. Jerry Garcia is thanked on the record, but doesn't appear to have played on the released tracks.

The album was finished in Toronto, where a third Good brother, Larry Good, played banjo. The album was a sort of folk-rock, acoustic album, rather than a bluegrass-type album of "hot pickin'." My theory is that Garcia played banjo on some tracks during the San Francisco sessions, but the tracks were re-recorded in Toronto, with Larry Good playing the banjo parts.

The critics for for the Hayward Daily Review, Kathi Staska and George Mangrum, reported that for the James And The Good Brothers set at Fillmore West in February 1971, Jerry Garcia played banjo and Jack Casady played acoustic "Balalaika" bass. While the two of them only reviewed a single show, I assume the pair played each show. This review is why I think Garcia played on early versions of the album tracks, although I can't confirm that one way or the other.

"Sweet Lovin' One" and "Lochinvar", from Powerglide

New Riders Of The Purple Sage

(Columbia released April '72, recorded Jan 17 '72 at Wally Heider Studios)

During the Summer 1970 tour in Canada, Garcia and the Riders had discovered Buddy Cage playing pedal steel guitar with Ian And Sylvia, and Garcia had even jammed with him (as you can see on film). Their meeting led to an invitation for Cage to come to San Francisco to replace Garcia in the New Riders. Cage appeared in San Francisco around September 1971, and began rehearsing. Garcia loyally kept the chair for the initial legs of the New Riders tour in October, 1971, for the attendant publicity. However, Garcia's last show with the New Riders was October 31, 1971, as Cage took over the steel at the next show (Atlanta Nov 11 '71). With no need to keep up his chops, Garcia's session dates with pedal steel guitar dropped dramatically.

Nonetheless, the Dead and the Riders still had ties. Garcia spent a day at Wally Heider's with Steve Barncard on the desk, helping out on the New Riders second album. On January 17, 1972, Garcia played banjo on two songs, "Sweet Lovin' One" and "Duncan And Brady." Once again, these banjo parts weren't difficult, but they provided a good rhythmic drive to the tunes and gave them a countrified feel (Garcia also played piano on "Lochinvar" at this session, and all were released on Powerglide). With three tracks on the same day, I have to think that Garcia was not so much part of the arrangements, but rather had heard the work tapes and thought he had something to add.

"Walkin'" from Baron Von Tollbooth vs The Chrome Nun-Paul Kantner

Grace Slick and David Freiberg

(RCA/Grunt released May '73, recorded Nov or Dec '72, Wally Heider Studios)

The Airplane crew were still recording regularly at Wally Heider's, even though it was financially ill-advised. One of the final products of the PERRO sessions was the Baron Von Tollbooth vs The Chrome Num album (released May '73), credited to the trio of Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg. Garcia played a substantial part, and sometime in November or December of 1972, with Betty at the controls, Garcia played a rhythmic banjo part on the song "Walkin'."

Garcia had played pedal steel guitar once or twice on the Europe '72 tour, and he picked some steel at a casual Thanksgiving party in Austin, TX, with Doug Sahm and Leon Russell. However, after that show (November 23, 1972), Garcia gave up the pedal steel, save for a few notes on Wake Of The Flood, and a brief encore for the 1987 Bob Dylan tour. I have looked into the timeline of Old And In The Way in some detail, and it appears that Garcia started casually picking banjo with David Grisman and Peter Rowan in December 1972. I don't think Garcia had a plan, but it doesn't seem entirely like a coincidence that Garcia permanently dropped the pedal steel and took up the banjo more seriously in the very same month.

1973-75: The Jerry Garcia Banjo Renaissance

Garcia's definitive banjo statement was the Old And In The Way album, recorded in October 1973, but not released on Round Records until 17 months later. For many years, the record was reputedly the best selling bluegrass album of all time (no doubt long since eclipsed by the likes of Alison Krauss). 

Around December 1972, Garcia discovered that some neighbors just down the hill from him in Stinson Beach were bluegrass musicians. Garcia got his banjo out, and when the opportunity arose, Garcia, Peter Rowan and David Grisman played bluegrass together. With the addition of regular bass man John Kahn, it wasn't long before they had a band. Garcia must have practiced pretty hard, because by March 2, 1973, he was not only ready to go out into the world as a bluegrass banjo player, but even onto the radio. Pedal steel guitar was off the table, and the banjo was back.

The story of Garcia and Old And In The Way is well-known, so it won't be retold here. Old And In The Way played until November 4, 1973 (delayed from an earlier rainout). In the spring of 1974, Garcia started playing with a Grisman aggregation called The Great American String Band. Garcia was not a permanent member of the band, but he did play with them regularly from March 10, 1974 through June 13, 1974, including a one-time reunion of Old And In The Way in Marin (on April 28).

Here is a live performance from the Pilgramage Theater in Hollywood, CA on April 20th, 1974 of The Great American Music Band (aka The Great American String Band) featuring Jerry Garcia as a guest on banjo playing "Dawg's Bull" and "Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms".

The band consisted of:

  • David Grisman - mandolin
  • Richard Greene - fiddle
  • David Nichtern - guitar
  • Taj Mahal - bass
  • Jerry Garcia - banjo
  • Maria Mauldar - vocals

During the 1973-74 period, there were only two studio banjo sessions for Garcia that I'm aware of. Part of this had to do with the decline of recording activity in San Francisco after 1972, but in any case, Garcia was not playing guitar sessions either. Garcia did play on the Art Garfunkel album Angel Clare, of all things. The story goes that Garfunkel wanted someone who could play traditional old-time banjo, a style called "frailing," to record the song "Down In The Willow Garden." Garfunkel's New York producer and LA session dudes did not know any local banjo players, but the engineer ventured that he knew a guitar player who played banjo. Supposedly, the engineer said "I know a guitar player..." and called Garcia at home, who assured him he was a great frailer.I don't know the exact date of the Angel Clare sessions, but it was probably early 1973, as the album was released in September 1973.

I also know of one final banjo session by Garcia, at Mickey Hart's studio, for some ACT background music, probably recorded around 1974, that was more a courtesy than anything else. Garcia no longer played banjo on rock records after he had started Old And In The Way.

The circle was finally closed by The Good Old Boys. As I have discussed at length, David Nelson had a part-time bluegrass band with the great mandolinist Frank Wakefield. Ultimately it was decided that they would release an album on Round Records, produced by Garcia. Supposedly, Garcia also played a few gigs with Nelson and Wakefield in 1974, as well. A few Good Old Boys shows were booked in February 1975, but it appears that only one was played. But it did happen and we have an eyewitness. Jerry Garcia's bluegrass banjo career ended on February 21, 1975, at a tiny joint in Santa Cruz, CA, called Margarita's. It is fitting that Garcia played with Nelson (along with Wakefield and bassist Pat Campbell), so that he exited bluegrass just as he entered it. 


Garcia didn't have his banjo out much during the 1980's, but here is a recording from the Grateful Dead Thanksgiving Day dinner party. Further info:

Musicians are:

  • Jerry Garcia - banjo, vocals
  • David Nelson - guitar, vocals
  • Sandy Rothman - mandolin, banjo, guitar, vocals
  • Dan Healy - guitar, vocals - does not play on last 4 or 5 songs

1990's: Clawhammer Redux

Garcia did play banjo again in the 1990s, with David Grisman. However, he only played old-time "clawhammer" style, on songs like "Sweet Sunny South." He did perform the song on tape and in person, but they were set pieces, not representing any kind of commitment to the banjo. In 1993 or so, Garcia visited Ireland, and apparently one night at a pub he was coaxed into playing a few songs on the banjo. Enjoyable as that must have been, that wasn't the former South Bay banjo gunslinger taking on all comers, just a middle-aged guy in a bar plunking out a few tunes to amuse his fellow patrons. The banjo had been an essential instrument in Garcia's musical arc, it resurfaced, had a renaissance, and then it had gone.

In this video of Garcia and Grisman playing "Sweet Sunny South" Garcia is playing 3 finger style, but in more of an old time 3 finger style. He does show here well that the banjo can be used as a simple accompaniment instrument to the voice. You do not have to play fast, fancy licks to move people. Just a good song, a good soul, and a good banjo.



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