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Welcome to the Phil Zone: A Lesson in the Phil Lesh Style

Bass Edu

Welcome to the Phil Zone: A Lesson in the Phil Lesh Style

Welcome to the Phil Zone: A Lesson in the Phil Lesh Style

For educational purposes only.

A Lesson in the Phil Lesh Style

Several things make it difficult to describe, characterize, or analyze Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s style of playing. One issue is the improvisatory nature of the Grateful Dead’s music. Songs are never played exactly the same way twice. Even the songs with a fairly strict structure will vary from performance to performance. Lesh will usually stick to a basic feel like it’s a road map, but how he navigates from point A to point B in each performance varies. This presents a hurdle if you want to learn to play a song the way Phil played it. Which version are you going to learn?  For most bands, the studio album version is thought of as the definitive version. For the Dead, the studio version is often the least definitive. The songs are given life on stage, not in the studio.

Another issue is that the Dead aren’t just known for improvisations—the Dead are known for long improvisations. Performances of “Playing in the Band,” “Truckin’,” and “Bird Song,” among others, often last 15 to 20 minutes. “Dark Star” usually lasts longer. And for the most part, once the jam section of the song begins, what Lesh plays in one version won’t translate seamlessly to another.

There are, however, some things he does relatively consistently. So let’s look at several key aspects of Phil’s playing before we dive into some transcriptions.

  1. Durations. Lesh tends to play short note durations. Think “staccato” rather than “legato” (or “detached” rather than “connected”). Even when leaving space in his line, the space will often come in the form of a short note followed by a rest, rather than a note sustained for a longer duration. 
  2. Lack of repetition. Lesh very rarely repeats himself. This lack of repetition is true from performance to performance of the same song, as mentioned above, but in Lesh’s case, it is also true within a particular performance of a song. He almost never repeats an idea, which sometimes gives his bass lines a “stream of consciousness” feel. They are always looking forward, never looking back. And especially once the improvisatory jam begins, he is increasingly less likely to play a repetitive pattern. 
  3. Avoidance of downbeat. Lesh tends to play “across the bar lines,” and does not hit the root of the chord on the downbeat as often as expected. In most other rock/pop or groove-based music, bass players will hit the root of the chord on every downbeat, or at the beginning of every 2-measure pattern (think the Beatles’ “Come Together,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” et al). As we’ll see in the examples below, Lesh doesn’t completely avoid playing the chord root on the downbeat, but he very often withholds it as a way of building tension.
  4. Syncopation. Tied closely to the previous idea is Lesh’s frequent (near constant) use of syncopation. Playing through the transcriptions below, you’ll notice how often he plays on the “and” of the beat, rather than right on the beat. 
  5. Register. Phil uses the entire range of his instrument, whether he’s playing a 4-, 5-, or 6-string bass. He’s not afraid to hang out in the upper register for long periods of time.

Phil Lesh – Playing in the Band

“Playing in the Band” is one of the Dead songs that became a vehicle for extended jams. Below are transcriptions of Phil Lesh’s bass line from the first verse of three different performances of this song: 12/9/73 from Tampa, FL (available on Dick’s Picks Vol. 1); 9/9/74 from Alexandra Palace in London, England (Dick’s Picks Vol. 7); and 2/3/78 from Madison, WI (Dick’s Picks Vol. 18). The Grateful Dead played this song almost 600 times between 1971 and 1995. A transcription of a few measures of three different versions is by no means exhaustive, but it will give us an idea of how Phil builds a bass line and how he varies it from performance to performance. We can see what is consistent and what is not.

The verse of the song is based on repetitions of a 10-beat pattern (4+4+2). I’ve transcribed four passes through this pattern and labeled them A, B, C, and D in the excerpt so it’s easy to keep track of where we are. 

Glancing at these three transcriptions (example 1), they seem to be wildly different, but there are several things Phil does consistently between all three versions. One thing to notice is that Lesh lands on a strong root D on beat 1 of each 10-beat measure (i.e., the first beat of A, B, C, and D). In the 1980s, Phil would gravitate toward 5- and 6-string basses, but the D he plays in these transcriptions (5th fret on the A string) is the lowest available on the 4-string basses he favored in the 1970s. In other words, he’s playing his lowest, strongest D as a way of keeping the band anchored in this unusual time signature.

1 - Phil Lesh - example 1_Playing in the Band

Something else Phil Lesh is consistent about in these three performances is his note choices. He plays almost exclusively notes from a D major pentatonic scale (D-E-F#-A-B). In fact, the only note outside of D pentatonic in the transcriptions is the G# near the end of the 3rd measure of the performance from the Alexandra Palace. Even that G# is short and is very much just a passing tone to get to A.

Another similarity is that Lesh emphasizes the “off-beats” in all three versions, though to different extents. The performance from 1973 is the most syncopated.Notice how few notes fall on the beat. His bass line from the 1978 show in Madison is the most regular. The first 6 beats of A and B are exactly the same, a rare instance of Lesh repeating himself. He then begins C the same as A and B, but varies it slightly after a few beats. 

As we see from these three performances, Lesh does not have a specific bass line that he plays for this song. He does, however, seem to have basic parameters for his groove that he follows as a sort of framework for variation: 1) improvise with the D major pentatonic scale, 2) accent the first beat of each repetition of the 10-beat phrase with a strong root D, and 3) emphasize the off-beats everywhere else. Given that this song usually includes an extended jam section, Lesh will gradually discard these parameters as the band moves toward free improvisation.

Scarlet Begonias

“Scarlet Begonias” was another staple of the band’s concert repertoire subjected to extensive jamming, often leading into “Fire on the Mountain.” Example 2 is a transcription of the first 16 measures of the jam section in the performance from Alexandra Palace on 9/9/74, starting at approximately 4:35 in the recording. This is where Jerry Garcia and keyboardist Keith Godchaux play the riff that ends the song proper, and is the starting point for the jam that follows. Everything takes off from here. I’ve included a transcription of the riff Jerry and Keith are playing, because it’s important to see how Phil Lesh plays against it. Most bass players probably would have played this riff with the guitar and keyboard. Phil opts for an independent line that acts as a sort of counterpoint against the main riff. 

2 - Phil Lesh - example 2_Scarlet Begonias 1

The riff and accompanying parts are based around a B mixolydian scale (think B major but with a lowered 7th—so A natural rather than A sharp), but Lesh is mostly playing notes of a B major pentatonic scale with the occasional addition of E. In the excerpt transcribed, he completely avoids any kind of A, although as the jam continues over the next several minutes, he does begin incorporating A naturals.

In this section of the song, the band is playing a 4-measure pattern. Phil plays the root B on the first beat of each pattern (i.e., downbeat of mm. 1, 5, 9, and 13 of the example). The first two times through the pattern, he plays a C# on the downbeat of the 2nd measure (mm. 2 and 6). Otherwise, bass notes on downbeats are scarce.

As the band begins to jam after this transcribed example, it is clear they’re still thinking and playing in 4-measure groupings. Lesh continues in much the same manner, playing syncopated lines and, at least for a while, hitting a strong B on the downbeat every 4 measures, usually accompanied by a crash in the drums. This helps keep the band together, but also keeps the jam relatively grounded. 

As they keep playing, though, Phil Lesh begins to avoid hitting that B at the beginning of each 4-measure pattern. Example 3 is from about a minute later in the jam (approximately 5:44 in the recording). The arrows above the 5th and 9th measures indicate where we expect him to land on B, but he consciously avoids it. This is a common way Lesh builds tension. Hitting the root at the beginning of each pattern is like a release valve. The longer he avoids it, the more the tension builds. When he finally lands back on B on the downbeat of the 13th measure, he releases the tension and can begin building it up again. 

3 - Phil Lesh - example 3_Scarlet Begonias 2

That kind of tension and release is important in all music, but in improvised music, you as the bass player have a lot of control over how that tension builds and when it is released. You can think of it like sitting in a chair. When all four legs of the chair are on the ground, you feel entirely stable. If you begin leaning back in the chair and the front legs come up off the ground, there’s a certain amount of tension created. The farther you lean back, the more the tension builds. You can release that tension by putting all four legs back on the ground. Playing the root of the chord (or key, mode, etc.) on beat 1 is the equivalent of having all four legs of the chair on the ground. The groove is stable, and sometimes you want that. In fact, sometimes you need that. Once you begin moving away from the root, avoiding the downbeat, and/or introducing or increasing syncopation, you are creating tension in the music (leaning back in the chair). The longer you do that, the more tension you create–at least to a certain point. Do it too long and you run the risk of losing the sense of cohesion the music originally had.

Phil Lesh – Dark Star

“Dark Star” was a vehicle for some of the Grateful Dead’s most experimental improvisation. The performance shown in example 4, from Veneta, OR 8/27/72 (released as Sunshine Daydream), begins with the song’s intro riff, which leads to an “opening jam.” In this particular performance, the opening jam lasts over 11 minutes before Garcia sings the verse. I’ve only provided the first 16 measures of this jam, but it’s a good starting point. 

4 - Phil Lesh - example 4_Dark Star

Phil Lesh’s line here isn’t as syncopated as the ones discussed above, though it remains anything but regular. Notice the arch shapes in Phil’s line each time he moves away from A. He repeatedly ascends, then gradually descends back to A. He gets into the higher register of his instrument early and often. This makes the song feel lighter and less grounded and creates a bigger impact when he finally lands back on the root so heavily. It’s another example of Lesh moving away from the root as a way to build tension, then landing back on a strong A to release it.

Lesh is primarily improvising with an A mixolydian scale. Again, as the jam goes on, he gradually adds dissonance, but he periodically reasserts A mixolydian to keep things from going completely off the rails. In the extended jam section after the verses, the same is true… for a while. At a certain point, the band abandons A mixolydian altogether in favor of some atonal improvisation. 

Phil Lesh has an unusual approach to the bass. It is one that suits the Dead’s style of music very well. But it also requires a lot of trust and understanding from other members of the band who may be expecting more traditional bass lines. In most situations, we can’t get away with Phil’s approach to playing. Even in Grateful Dead cover bands, many times bass players either don’t attempt to play like Phil, or perhaps were told not to by other band members. Lesh’s playing, though, is a key component of the sound of the Grateful Dead, probably second in importance only to Garcia’s lead guitar. So, if you’re going for that authentic Grateful Dead sound, give your bandmates fair warning, then dive headfirst into the Phil Zone.

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