I have loved the playing of Jerry Garcia for years. I encountered albums of the Dead when I was probably about 13 or 14, but never really became immersed in them until after high school. I have personal belief that I have loved Garcia's playing subconsciously since I was a little boy, maybe as early as 5 or 6 years old, hearing him play on the radio or amongst my family.
I suppose it was the way he "sang" with the guitar that really drew me in initially. However, as a musician myself, although I've studied some of his leads and listened to his phrasing rather closely, I find that he has influenced me as a rhythm player just as much.
A lot of really far-out folks that I've talked to about this will agree with me when I say that he plays off of the reverb. I have heard Jerry's playing on records without any reverb, and it's drastically different. It is still always recognizable, but it's different. His acoustic playing plays off the sympathetic overtones. He's very aware of a "field" of sound.
So when he plays off the reverb, he can make staccato chord strikes, yet induce their sustaining properties through reverb. It's genius, and although many players before him utilized this same sound, it was he who made it beautiful, and a true trait of his sound. The upstrokes involved in his rhythm playing are so natural. He is a true example of how much of the best rhythm playing isn't all in the strumming hand; so much is in the fretting hand.
Watch any talented rhythm player, and unless it's jazz or classical, it's likely that it's just a continuous strumming motion. It's their fretting hand that syncopates the chordal phrasing. Leaving the chord position there but merely lifting the fretting hand stops the chord immediately, leaving only a noteless, percussive, raking rhythm from the strumming hand. There are many possibilities, especially once you start altering the right hand.
The Famous Chuck Berry Rhythm. The all holy "da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da". Many players learned to take this same rhythm, same chord, same notes, same position, and make a slightly different sound out of it by deadening the notes with their fretting hand. Keith Richards, enough said.
I guess what I like about Jerry is that he knew that he sounded like nobody else. He knew that he sounded best with a rather clean, powerful signal from his Fender Twins, and I'm not sure anyone can use a Fender Twin without using the reverb! Fender reverb is the most beautiful spring reverb I've ever heard, and Jerry knew that too. Once you start to break down Garcia's lead playing, you'll find it's rather simple; just innovative. You can learn his licks pretty quickly. What isn't so easy, is getting that punchy, driving Garcia rhythm tone.
Once I learned it, I knew that I could use it for many different things, in many different ways.