Uncle John's Band

by Grateful Dead • Lesson #491 • May 23, 2023


In this week’s lesson I’m excited to teach you how to play Uncle John’s Band, the Grateful Dead classic from 1970. This is a song I first learned through Jimmy Buffett’s 1994 cover on his Fruitcakes album, which was in fact my first exposure to the music of the Grateful Dead.

Unlike most other lessons on YouTube, I’ll begin with a semi-simplified approach to the strumming & rhythm in this song — which goes a long way in making it more accessible to everyday guitarists. Then, in my extended video I’ll tackle some of the trickier bits the Dead incorporate into their version. No matter your skill level, I’ve got you covered!

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Play-Along Cover (Simple & Advanced)

Here’s two play-along covers of the song — where I play the intro, verse, pre-chorus, and chorus sections once each. The first shows the most simplified version of things, where I use the “easy” strums shown in my video (0:46). In the second cover, I’ll use some more advanced strumming techniques as well as utilizing the three-count C major in the verse — which is tricky to do, but mimics the Grateful Dead’s approach (2:22).

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Going Deeper with Rhythm & Strumming

If you’re looking to learn some of the more advanced strumming bits used by the Grateful Dead, check out this video. It shows a handful of ways you might spice things up a bit – such as playing the C chord (during the verse) for three counts, instead of four. I invite you to take (or leave) any of the tips I offer here, in your journey to find a way to play this song that works for you.

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Grateful Dead’s Album Version (1970)

As I note in my video lesson, there’s a lot of rhythmic nuance at play here, which makes this version a bit difficult to chew on — at least from a rhythm guitar point-of-view. Multiple guitars, vocal harmonies, plenty of “pushed” chord changes — it can be tricky! See my extended video for a deep-dive into how they do a lot (but not all) of these things.

Jimmy Buffett’s Fruitcakes Cover (1994)

I must say, this is my preferred version of this song! I love how straightforward and simple the approach is - no fancy business with the strumming or rhythm, plus Buffett’s non-harmonized vocals are quite easy to latch on to. For someone first getting into the song on the guitar, I think this version is a good one to emulate. The only big change is the ending – where Buffett uses a Bm & A instead of the Dm & C.

Rhythm Practice Track

Here’s a video I made early on into my practicing of this song, where I recorded each section and loop them over-and-over for about 5 minutes. This lets you play along in whatever capacity you want. One note I should add:

  • Some of the rhythm here is a bit tricky! For example, I’m pushing a few of the chord changes to match the Grateful Dead’s version — which means the chord changes are happening one eighth note earlier than normal. These chord changes are all happening on an up-strum that aligns with an “and” count, just before a quarter note.
  • If you want guidance on the strumming I use here, see my extended video above. I’m using a few of the patterns I show in that tutorial.
  • If you want a simpler version, see my play-along cover video above — which begins with a simple playthrough with none of this complicated stuff.

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