grateful dead band history

Grateful Dead Band History

The Grateful Dead is the band that started it all in many ways. Jerry Garcia and company pioneered most of what we take for granted today about rock music.

The epic concerts, super fans, gigantic sound systems, social movement involvement, and rock n roll lifestyle were not even a theory before the Dead lived through them. As such, The Grateful Dead band’s history is quintessential in both music and modern American history.

What makes the Dead stand a step above the innovative leader compared to other American bands of the time is their fans, the Deadheads, who contributed as much to shaping the band as the musicians themselves. Even though the Beatles and Stones would pack a stadium before the Dead, gigantic rock concerts and cult followings mainly were a Grateful Dead merit.

The Grateful Dead band history is one of the few that’s mainly connected to live shows than records. As a fellow Deadhead who was not born in the right era to enjoy Garcia’s mind-bending improvising, I’ll share my experience in becoming a Grateful Dead fan as a modern listener.

Grateful Dead Quick Facts

Band Members Founding members: Jerry Garcia; Bob Weir; Phil Lesh; Bill Kreutzmann; Ron “Pigpen” McKernan


Later arrivals: Mickey Hart; Robert Hunter; Tom Constanten; Jerry Perry Barlow; Donna Godchaux; Keith Godchaux; Vince Welnick; Brent Mydland; Bruce Hornsby

Genres Rock; Folk; Psychedelic Rock; Jazz rock; Blues; Rock n’ Roll; World Music
Years Active  1965–1995
Origin San Francisco 
Most Successful Album/Single The best selling album is “Skeletons From The Closet; Best Of The Grateful Dead”; The biggest single is “Ripple.”
Website Grateful Dead 
Social Media Facebook, Instagram
Awards Inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame; Grammy Hall of Fame; Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; Ranked 54h on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Last Updated August 2022

Grateful Dead Members

Grateful Dead
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The different musical backgrounds of each member made the Dead’s music so experimental. From avant-garde classical music to bluegrass, everyone brought something different to the extended jams on stage.

I’d argue that even though the official frontman, Garcia was not the band’s musical leader. There was too much going on, most of it improvised, so everyone listened to everyone and added to the music with what they could. Some members, like Robert Hunter, didn’t even perform with the band but have equal merit in making the songs memorable.

Considering the many spin-offs and other big names that played with the Dead, I’ll focus on the stories of their founding members. 

Jerry Garcia

Jerome John Garcia
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Jerome John Garcia (August 1, 1942 – August 9, 1995) was the Dead’s founding member, lead guitarist, and vocalist of the Grateful Dead. Garcia is one of the best improvisers ever to grace a guitar. He is ranked 13th in the Rolling stones list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

Garcia was born in a musical family in San Francisco and was primarily raised by his mother and grandparents as his father died in a fishing incident. His childhood and teen years were far from calm; losing half of one finger of his right hand to a wood chopping accident and a forced enrollment in the army followed by a discharge.

Garcia’s first musical influences were country and bluegrass music, which he later blended with his rock n roll and rhythm and blues heroes. After learning the acoustic guitar and banjo, he got into the electric guitar, mixing all the influences in his unique melodic soloing style.

Garcia is a player I find very hard to categorize as he would switch genres in the middle of a solo with no warning. Live footage of him starting a lead on a blue note and then turning it into a jazz tune or other commonly unrelated vibes are jaw-dropping. 

He is considered one of the most recorded guitarists ever, with over 15.000 hours of his playing preserved in live and studio albums and session work. I consider him one of the greatest electric guitar innovators in pair with Jimmi Hendrix and Van Halen.

He would die in a rehabilitation clinic on August 9, 1995, after suffering from years of drug addiction and diseases. His ashes were spread half into the San Fransisco Bay and a half at the holy city of Rishikesh in India.

Bob Weir 

Robert Hall Weir
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Robert Hall Weir (born October 16, 1947) was the band’s rhythm guitarist, vocalist, and occasional songwriter who is now leading the spin-off “Dead and Company.”

Weir is among the most celebrated guitarists ever known for his tricky chord voicings and slide guitar playing. Not primarily a lead player, Weir had moments to shine in the band, singing lead vocals in many tracks and laying the foundation for Garcia’s solos. 

What I love about Weir playing is his piano-like approach to guitar. He does what every rhythm guitarist wishes they could do and is the rhythm player we all would want. In a jam band format, when songs are extended up to 30 minutes, the groove and rhythm become far more important than the leads.

His country & western style makes up a significant part of the Dead’s discography and his solo work. Weir also played with Kingfish and formed the band RatDog. 

Phil Lesh

Philip Chapman Lesh
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Philip Chapman Lesh (born March 15, 1940) was the Dead’s bass player and leader of the spin-off Phil Lesh and Friends. He is one of the most melodic bass players, innovating the instrument’s role in modern music.

Phil, along with future Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten was the classically trained musician of the band, with influences opposite from the rest. Hearing his bass lines isolated, you can feel that influence on his bass lines, which he plays differently live.

During the early years of Dead, Lesh’s high tenor voice completed the three-part harmonies between Lesh, Weir, and Garcia.

Bill Kreutzmann

William Kreutzmann Jr.  (born May 7, 1946) was the Dead’s drummer for the whole band’s career and is now with Dead & Company.

Kretzmann’s early influences were rhythm and blues and jazz. He started learning drums by himself during high school. The famous writer Aldous Huxley is said to have come in during one of his practice sessions and motivated him to keep drumming.

Kreutzmann was the youngest member of the band, at a time entering clubs with fake IDs to be able to play with the Dead.

He and percussionist Mickey Hart made up the band’s heartbeat, keeping the groove tight and adding dynamics to the extended instrumentals. They even earned the nickname “the Rhythm Devils” from Francis Ford Coppola, which I think suits them greatly. If you have ever played in a band with both a drummer and percussionist, you know how much difference having both makes.

Ron “Pigpen” McKernan

Ron “Pigpen” McKernan
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Ronald Charles McKernan (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973), known as Pigpen, was the Dead’s original keyboard player. He was mainly a blues harmonica and piano player, contributing much to the band’s early years. McKernan deserves his place of mention as a founding band member, but he was eventually sidelined when the Dead evolved into other Genres. McKernan died in 1973 at 27 from alcohol abuse, one year after he left the band.

Rise of The Dead

Grateful Dead
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The Grateful Dead’s history is directly connected with the San Francisco counterculture of the 60s. The band is a product of its time and the culmination of what millions of young people wanted to experience. 

The first glimpse of what would be the Dead is Garcia’s duo with future Dead lyrics Robert Hunter. He met Kreutzman while visiting a music shop, and Bob Weir enrolled as his guitar student at the shop. The trio formed a Jug band, “Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions,” later renamed “Warlocks,” after getting Phil Lesh, an avant-garde classical and electronic music lover, to play bass.

After becoming resident at the Acid Test of the time, which were exactly what they were named after, the band started to get into long jams and experimentation, likely induced by the substances and the environment. Finding out another band was named Warlocks, Garcia randomly opened a dictionary and found the name “Grateful Dead.”

Record labels naturally became interested after the band became Bay Are staples and started building their Deadhead community in the early days. Striking a deal with Warner Bros records gave the Dead unlimited studio time, their first album, and the chance to start playing beyond the Bay Area.

Considering none of the early records were commercially successful, they started touring extensively as a way of living and to make up for the money they owed to the label. Glorious nights and bad nights like the Woodstock festival followed along with their community of fans who made it a lifestyle following the band around.

The band’s spirit remained the same from the acid test in 1965 to selling out stadiums in the 70s and 80s. Living for the moment kept the Dead and their traveling circus of fans going for 30 years. The rest of the story is better told in records and live shows, in true Grateful Dead style.

Grateful Dead Most Important Studio Albums

The Dead released 13 studio albums, a shy figure compared to the 500 songs setlist they played live during their career. The focus was never selling records, and songs would never be played the same way live twice. Consequently, only a condensed fragment of the songs was captured in the albums, especially the early ones. This does not mean that albums are inferior or should be skipped.

Living in the age of streaming, It would be a pity to miss the chance to hear some of their best studio work. There is much more great work from the band apart from these records, yet they make for a good start.

The Grateful Dead (1967)

The first album from the Dead is a rhythm and blues classic. Even though the band member claims the album was rushed and sounded almost nothing as the band did live, it remains a good time capsule for the Bay Area sound of the time.

I consider this as an essential historic album, yet not one of their best musically. Garcia still didn’t develop his soloing style, while the entire band sounded unsure at times. It’s the less experimental album from the group, probably due to their lack of experience and not being in the same line with producer David Hassinger.

At the end of “Viola Lee Blues,” you can hear someone shout to the producer, “Let them play!” The band’s jam style was not much into his preferences, and you can’t blame him for being used to 3-minute rock n’ roll short tracks.

“Going Down The Line” is my favorite track of the album as I believe it’s the best-executed rock n’ roll track. The live version of these 2-minute tracks would have probably been around 10 minutes.

The San Francisco Grateful dead became iconic in the Bay Area but didn’t receive much airplay.

Anthem of the Sun (1968)

The second Dead album starts to sound more like the band as other members and instruments join the mix. It’s an experimental concept album that features studio and live tracks, necessary to grasp the band’s sound at the time.

Second drummer/percussionist Mickey Hart became part of the band and the extra touch needed to give folk, country, and psychedelic music a twist.

The recording process was the opposite of the first album, with the band deciding on getting the sound and mix they wanted. The result is psychedelic albums that are almost too far from what a record should be. Producer David Hassinger and the management at Warner Bros shared that opinion and somehow got through with the band’s requests.

When I first heard some of the songs individually, I didn’t make much sense of some of the choices the band made. Listing the album from start to finish is a different experience that must have been glorious for the newborn psychedelic community.

“That’s It For The Other One” is a track co-written by all the members where individual elements shine the most. You’ll notice when you reach the 50s mark that it almost sounds like another song starts. Again 20 seconds later – that’s the “too far off” element that even Garcia, at a point, agreed might not have been the right choice.

Workingman’s Dead (1970)

Workingman’s Dead (1970)

The third album of the dead is where they start to explore their folky roots. It’s something in between traditional folk and rock where the addition of Rober Hunter as a non-performing songwriter flourished.

Arguably the band did a better job at folk with their fifth album “American Beauty.” I agree with that, yet there are a few tracks on this album that features some of Garcia’s best guitar work. His style develops much in his later albums, while “American Beauty” does sacrifice some of his guitar work for hooks.

American Beauty (1970)

American Beauty (1970)

The Dead’s fifth album is what I and most deadheads consider their best studio album. It shows their folk and countryside at best, yet it explores the psychedelic and jam elements at a time when the band was at its best.

The album is restrained compared to the live performance, yet considering only studio albums, I find it superior musical and production-wise. Songs sound more concise, with solid hooks and some drifting in an experimental landscape. 

The stories and photos of some of the greatest musicians of the time jamming in the studio with the Dead while recording this album are a dreamy scene for me and every rock fan.

Terrapin Station (1977)

Terrapin Station

Not everything about the road was glorious for the Dead. The huge wall of sound setup, tight schedules, drug abuse, and trouble running their record label after finishing their contract with Warner bros in 73 was too much. Terrapin Station marks the point where they decided to take things seriously, get back after two years of a hiatus and fix the loose holes that opened up.

Terrapin Station marks a big turn for the band as they decided to become professional in every aspect. Producer Keith Olsen was involved in the recording and helped the band stabilize things in the studio.

Lesh had issues with his vocal cords, so Weir, Garcia, and Donna Godchaux, wife of keyboardist Keith Dochaux, sang lead for most of the tracks. The female vocals both live and in the studio, give a fresh new feel to the album.

In the Dark (1987)

In the Dark (1987)

The final album I suggest you start listening to first is probably the best mature Grateful Dead studio work. It’s also the most successful, reaching No. 6 on the billboard.

The band toured aggressively and suffered a stop from Garcia’s diabetic coma and drug habits, leaving them six years without a studio record. However, they had new songs they had been playing for years and decided to take a new approach to record this album.

To replicate their live performance as best they could, the main tracks for the album were recorded on stage in an empty theater. The band would take a steady pace and overdub the rest in the studio to add the necessary polishes.

This approach worked perfectly and resulted in their best-sounding spontaneous record. Touch of Grey became the first Dead top 40 songs. The bluesy tune “When Push Comes to Shove” is my favorite track as it feels almost 100% like a live take from the mix and the improvised solos.

Grateful Dead Most Important Live Albums/Performances

Typically, I only list a few performances from bands to highlight different periods. The live albums and shows, though, were much more important for the Dead than the studio recordings. The Dead released an astonishing 167 full-length live albums among their 2300 shows. Considering the many bootlegs and tapes Deadheads were trading, their number could be much higher. 

Live/Dead (1969) 

The first Dead live album is a groundbreaker rock live record. The band couldn’t achieve their sound in the studio, so they opted to have their show recorded with the best technology of the time. It’s the first album to use a 16-track recording and arguably the first live album that sounded as good as a studio one.

Musically it’s not at the level of the 70s Dead, yet the energy of this show is incomparable to any studio album they released. Not much improvising during the album makes it an easier listen, even for the non-Deadheads.

Europe ’72 (1972)

Europe ’72 is my favorite Dead live album by far. It’s a long triple album with what I consider the best Dead lineup in their top form. Much improvisation and jamming are involved in proper Dead style. Compared to Live/Dead, this album has much more diversity in style, and overall, everyone, especially Garcia, has developed their soloing style.

Pigpen’s last contribution to the band was on this record, as his health issues caught the following year. The bluesman left the band, but the blues never left the Dead.

The Closing of Winterland (1978) 

The live DVD of this show is one of the most fun rock experiences to watch and listen. The 4+ hour-long performance includes three sets, a documentary, and interviews with the band and guests. The event of the closing of Bill Graham’s legendary Winterland Arena was so much celebrated that now it has its website.

Reckoning (1981)

The acoustic folk side of the band is best recorded in their live performances in the early 80s. Contrary to any live album, the songs on Reckoning are short and scarce in instrumentation. 

I enjoy the Dead’s acoustic side as much as all their give-it-all 4-hour shows. It’s a different experience, yet I sometimes prefer it more than the long jams. At the moment of writing coincidentally, an acoustic tune, “Friend of the Devil,” is the top-streamed track on Spotify.

Live at Buckeye Lake (1993)

From Reckoning to this live show, much had changed. You will see a lot of grey hair in Garcia’s head and some lacking in his vocal power. The Deadheads are still living it all on the audience, and the band is still musically spot there’s much improvising involved, yet there’s a sense of structure once things get rolling compared to the ’70 and ’80s. Some saw the somehow fixed setlist as the band starting to lose some of its greatness.

What Was It Like at Grateful Dead Concerts?

From what Deadheads say, every Grateful Dead show in their peak was a traveling Woodstock that stopped by in different cities. A temporary autonomous zone is the best way to describe the shows. An army of colorful Deadheads staged a small village where you could buy anything you would struggle to find elsewhere.

A vast three stories high wall of sound designed for the band stood in front of the fans, numbered at times up to 600,000. The shows could even last for 5 hours, as they did in their 1973 tour at Bickershaw Festival, and feature extended improvisation from blues, rock, jazz, some bluegrass, and country. All the members took individual solos, with Garcia at the helm. 

Psychedelic elements were scattered around the show, in the spacey soundscapes, jams, and the many substances used by the band and crowd. No fixed setlist meant you never knew what to expect, and it was worth seeing them live many times. The whole experience was life-altering for many. 

Grateful Dead Music Style

Grateful Dead

The Dead blended more American genres in a single performance than any other band. It’s hard to define which genre is most prominent in their discography, as they would flow from a jazzy Garcia solo to a blues shuffle inside the same improv section. Record companies never knew what to make of them, nor were the band interested in labeling their styles. As Bill Graham put it very well, “They’re not the best at what they do; they’re the only ones that do what they do.”

A thing that most people skip when talking about the Dead on stage is how happy they were. To do what they did, improvise each night, get in the zone and let it all down without a second thought, you need that hyped state of mind to not second guess yourself. 


There’s no denying Deadheads are unlike other fans. The Beatles had die-hard fans and the screaming fainting girls in the front row, yet the culture around the band’s music didn’t allow the forming of a traveling cult.

The origin of the traveling fan, groupie, and perhaps hippie can be traced to the first deadheads in the late 60s. Groups of fans, sometimes hundreds, followed the band around the country and turned each show into a Dead festival. The fans eventually formed the first, tightest rock community that’s alive even today. 

The dead were able to sell out shows only by words of mouth, as the Deadheads counted over 100 000 and would get notified before others for any show. In today’s terms, you could consider them on the premium mailing list.

A subculture was formed inside the community of taping shows and trading tapes among fans. Allowing fans to record free shows for free is unheard of today, yet that mindset permitted the Grateful Dead to be the band that played the most free shows and the one that grossed more than 250$ million in ticket sales in the 90s.

The community was one of the first to start a fan page online and get impressive numbers even before social media.

Grateful Dead Spinoffs

From Garcia’s passing in 95’ the Dead member started performing songs with other musicians. There are over 20 Grateful Dead Spinoffs, each with their merit and performance style, yet the one I want to highlight is one you can see live today.

The Dead and Company is my favorite Spin-off and the closest to the real thing it gets. Bob Weir is backed by none other than John Mayor. No one can replace Garcia, but Mayor feels more relaxed and in his zone when performing with the Dead than in his band. The extended jams on stage are the perfect space to show his guitar skills, which are often withheld from pop songwriting. 

We are still lucky to be able to enjoy part of the Dead’s legacy, which went beyond the band members into the concept of the “rock show experience” itself.


Question: How many Grammys do the Grateful Dead have?

Answer: The band only had one grammy nomination and never won one. They also never had a No. 1 hit. The band’s focus was never on having commercial success through record sales.

Question: Which was Jerry Garcia’s last show?

Answer: Garcia played his last show at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 9, 1995. The last song he performed was “Box of Rain,” which is about facing death upfront.

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