Ramble On the Guitar Neck
Welcome to “How Does the Song Go?” A column dedicated to taking you deeper into the realms of the Grateful Dead’s music than ever before. This issue will dive into just how Jerry Garcia moved his chords on the guitar neck in the song “Ramble On Rose.” A fascinating topic because it shows that he practiced it a certain way and it stuck for 3 decades.
“Ramble On Rose” is in the key of D Major and uses mainly diatonic triads in its harmonic construction with two exceptions…the E Major chord that appears in all three sections (the verse, chorus, and bridge) and also the C Major used only in the bridge portion of the song. The verse progression is D-E-F#mi-G-D-G-A x2. Most novice guitarists could play this progression in open position with very few issues. The most challenging thing about it would have to be the rhythmic phrasing, the timing. A true statement for many Dead songs in fact! For years, I played this song using mainly open chords and staying in first and second position. It wasn’t until the invention of YouTube plus an inquiry from a student about how to play the song did I realize I had been doing it differently from Garcia all these years. Watching videos of Jerry play the song in different years, I learned that he not only ascended up the fretboard but chose a specific and consistent time to jump back down the guitar neck.
Speaking to the novice guitarist here, you certainly know the E and A chords in open position. Assuming this is true, you’ve likely encountered bar chords which basically just allow you to move these shapes up the neck by barring your first finger and utilizing the same shape to achieve a different chord. For example, in “Ramble On Rose,” Garcia uses the A-shaped chord in fifth position, making it sound as a D chord. The next chord is an E chord so he moves his existing voicing up a whole step to seventh position. The F#mi that follows is still an A-shaped chord, but its quality is minor so the shape changes while the root remains on the fifth string, moving up now to the ninth fret, a whole step higher than the E that preceded it. Next chord is a G Major, just a half step higher, back to the original shape but on the tenth fret. So same family going up via positions V-VII-IX-X.
The next chord is a return to our tonic, the D, on beat four. Being that he’s in tenth position, he now switches families to use the E-shaped bar chord so he can stay right there on that tenth fret. Now the interesting part to me is that beat one of the next measure is also a D chord and instead of staying on the tenth fret and playing the exact same chord, Jerry switches back down to fifth position to the original chord voicing on which he began the verse phrase. This sets him up to use the E-shaped G chord in third position, quickly moving up a whole step to an A chord back in fifth position.
Watching 12/31/78 from Winterland, you can see him doing exactly this at :31-46 and again at 1:41-1:56.
And to prove the consistency argument, take a look at 7/7/89, nearly 11 years later. Exactly the same chords played in exactly the same positions. You can see it clearly at 1:05-1:06 and again at 1:39-1:52.
This consistency solidifies to me that each of the musicians in the Grateful Dead were practiced in the art of creating parts for every song. Without defined parts, the music would become jumbled and frantic. Consistent parts allow for the composition to shine. Variation in these parts was generally saved for the improvisation sections where the music is designed to travel, taking both musician and listener alike on a journey.
Happy listening, see you next week.