The Grateful Dead formed during the era when bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were dominating the airwaves. “The Beatles were why we turned from a jug band into a rock ‘n’ roll band,” said Bob Weir. “What we saw them doing was impossibly attractive. I couldn’t think of anything else more worth doing” Former folk-scene star Bob Dylan had recently put out a couple of records featuring electric instrumentation. Grateful Dead members have said that it was after attending a concert by the touring New York City band The Lovin’ Spoonful that they decided to “go electric” and look for a dirtier sound. Gradually, many of the East-Coast American folk musicians, formerly luminaries of the coffee-house scene, were moving in the electric direction. It was natural for Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, each of whom had been immersed in the American folk music revival of the late 1950s and early ’60s, to be open-minded toward electric guitars. But the new Dead music was also naturally different from bands like Dylan’s or the Spoonful, partly because their fellow musician Phil Lesh came out of a schooled classical and electronic music background, while Pigpen was a no-nonsense deep blues lover and drummer Bill Kreutzmann had a jazz and R&B background. For comparison purposes, their first LP (The Grateful Dead, Warner Brothers, 1967), was released in the same year that Pink Floyd released The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Grateful Dead’s early music (in the mid 1960s) was part of the process of establishing what “psychedelic music” was, but theirs was essentially a “street party” form of it. They developed their “psychedelic” playing as a result of meeting Ken Kesey in Palo Alto, CA and subsequently becoming the house band for the Acid Tests he staged. After the Dead relocated to the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, their “street party” form developed out of the many psychedelic dances, open-air park events, and closed-street Haight-Ashbury block parties at which they played. The Dead were not inclined to fit their music to an established category such as pop rock, blues, folk rock, or country/western. Individual tunes within their repertoire could be identified under one of these stylistic labels, but overall their music drew on all of these genres and more, frequently melding several of them. It was doubtless with this in mind that Bill Graham said of the Grateful Dead, “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” Often (both in performance and on recording) the Dead left room for exploratory, spacey soundscapes.
Their live shows, fed by their improvisational approach to music, made the Grateful Dead different from most other touring bands. While most rock and roll bands rehearse a standard show for their tours that is replayed night after night, city after city, the Grateful Dead never did. As Garcia stated in an 1966 interview, “We don’t make up our sets beforehand. We’d rather work off the tops of our heads than off a piece of paper.” They maintained this operating ethic throughout their existence. For each performance, the band drew material from an active list of a hundred or so songs. Due to the band’s varied song selection and the improvisational nature of their playing, no two Grateful Dead concerts were exactly the same.
The early records reflected the Dead’s live repertoire—lengthy instrumental jams with group improvisation, best exemplified by “Dark Star“—but, lacking the energy of the shows, did not sell well. The 1969 live album Live/Dead did capture more of their essence, but commercial success did not come until Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970. These records largely featured the band’s laid-back acoustic musicianship and more traditional song structures.
As the band and its sound matured over thirty years of touring, playing, and recording, each member’s stylistic contribution became more defined, consistent, and identifiable. Lesh, who was originally a classically-trained trumpet player with an extensive background in music theory, did not tend to play traditional blues-based bass forms, but opted for more melodic, symphonic and complex lines, often sounding like a second lead guitar. Weir, too, was not a traditional rhythm guitarist, but tended to play jazz-influenced, unique inversions at the upper end of the Dead’s sound. The two drummers, Mickey Hart and Kreutzmann, developed a unique, complex interplay, balancing Kreutzmann’s steady beat with Hart’s interest in percussion styles outside the rock tradition. Hart incorporated an 11-count measure to his drumming, bringing a new dimension to the band’s sound that became an important part of its emerging style. Garcia’s lead lines were fluid, supple and spare, owing a great deal of their character to his training in fingerpicking and banjo.
The band’s primary lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, commonly used themes involving love and loss, life and death, gambling and murder, beauty and horror, chaos and order, God and other religious themes, travelling and touring, etc. Less frequent ideas include the environment and issues from the world of politics.