For years, Bob Weir was more
than Jerry Garcia’s rhythm man in the Grateful
Dead—he was an integral part of determining
where the jam kings took their long, strange
trips. Weir continues to move forward in his role
as one of the guitar world’s great rhythmic improvisers
Can you explain how you use voice leading
when shifting chords?
Of course I listen to the leading tone, but
I also listen for the sum sound of the chord.
Somewhere in the middle there is a ground
zero—I’m not talking about the root note—
and it’s especially true if you have more than
three notes. I try to recognize that and follow
its motion from chord to chord. It’s sort of
like the Om in the middle of the chord, but
it’s nothing mystical or new to me. I’ve heard
chords that way since I was a kid. I’ve only
recently become aware that is in fact what
I’ve been doing.
How did you come to this realization?
Well, it’s highly intuitive, but I recognize it
when I’m writing songs. After I’ve chosen two
chords, I almost know by triangulation where to
go with the third chord. Try it. Play two chords,
and see where they want to take you.
How do you determine what chords or pieces
of chords to play while listening to a lead player
I try to select chord voicings that grace
the lead player’s pivotal note. For example,
if we’re in the key of A, and the lead player
is working around the 5th, then I will not.
I’ll work around, say, the 3rd, and then move
that up to perhaps the 4th or 6th. I sort of
circle the lead player’s pivotal note. I listen
for the lead player’s motion, and if the pivotal
note moves, then I find another complementary
note to pivot around.
Do you have any methods for building interesting
When we jam, there is often more than
one lead—it’s sort of like rock and roll Dixieland.
Everybody plays support, and then steps
out here or there. I will often start working a
groove with a particular chord progression,
although it can be a melodic progression of
single notes as well. Once the progression is established, I’ll drop the first chord or note.
Then I’ll start moving the progression forward
from the second chord or note while adding a
new place to go at the end. I’ll repeat that process
working from the third figure, and so on.
That’s a fairly mechanical way of doing things,
but it works to provide motion.
What misstep do you see players in improvisational
groups make most often?
Well, it’s nice to have at least a somewhat
clear notion about what you’re up to and where
you’re headed. It becomes more intuitive the
longer you work together as a group. A decent
night is full of surprises. Players come up with
new twists and turns that are based off of a
standard approach to how you progress through
the chords, melodies, and dynamics on a given
tune. If you don’t know where you’re heading,
you can wind up sitting in a groove too
long. You’re able to throw more colors at the
crowd if you can be concise and keep moving.
How do you build a given passage to its highest
possible peak, and then understand when it’s
time to move on?
That’s something that you develop as you
learn to play the band, and the band learns to play
you. That said, I’ll use the head of my guitar like
a baton to lead the band. I simply raise or drop
it to motion them up or down dynamically. Of
course, there are more standard ways of doing
things. You can set the solo for 32 or 64 bars,
or whatever it needs to be. That’s worked since
the dawn of improvisational music.
Is there an art to knowing when not to build—
just play at a steady level?
We don’t do that much. Working away at a
steady dynamic comes across as noodling to me
more often than not. I don’t want to do that,
and it tries my patience when I hear it. The guys
I play with moved past doing that long ago.
So playing with dynamics is the key to not
Dynamics are inseparable from rhythmic,
chordal, and melodic development.
They are the compass points of the world
you are trying to create.
Interesting. I only brought it up because
there are plenty of songs on the radio with guitar
solos that stay at a relatively steady dynamic
level. You’re not interested in that at all?
Nah. Even a guitar solo for a radio single
should incorporate dynamics. A statement
made without dynamics is incomplete.