During the Grateful Dead’s more than 30 year-long existence as a band, much of their core lineup remained the same: you had Jerry Garcia on lead guitar, Bob Weir on rhythm guitar, Phil Lesh on bass, and some combination of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman on drums. The keyboard players, however, depict a completely different story.
The band had five different keyboardists during their time; four of them died tragic deaths, and three of them died while they were still in the band.
This led to the keyboard spot in the Grateful Dead being playfully referred to as the “hot seat” by members of the band and fans alike, and some do speculate that there might be some sort of curse attached to being the keyboard player in the Grateful Dead.
While this unfortunate circumstance made for a lot of broken hearts in the Grateful Dead family, the rotating cast of keyboard players also contributed to the evolution of the Dead’s music and allowed for many different styles to find their way into the band’s sound over the years.
Each keyboard player has come to represent a distinct era for the band, with a shifting sound and dynamics that makes digging deep into their live archives that much more of a fulfilling experience.
So without further ado, we offer you our official timeline of Grateful Dead keyboardists, in order from the band’s inception in 1965 right up through the final show in July of 1995; a long, strange trip cut short by the heart-attack-in-rehab death of Jerry Garcia.
Read on to learn about the history of the keyboard seat in the Grateful Dead and what each member brought to the band’s sound.
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (1965 – 1972)
The founding keyboardist of the Grateful Dead was none other than Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who according to the Jerry biography Dark Star was named such after Pigpen from Peanuts.
While Jerry emerged as a reluctant leader as the band developed, in the early days one could argue that Pigpen was the main driving force behind the loose, blues-oriented sound of the Dead.
In the late sixties, when the band started to experiment with psychedelics and extensive jamming, Pigpen stayed away from the acid and instead chose to drink.
By 1971 Pigpen’s drinking was starting to make him sick and keep him from the road with the band. He took a short hiatus to get his health in order in 1971, and it was at this time that the Dead added Keith Godchaux to the lineup on piano. In December 1971 Pigpen returned, but his return was brief.
Pigpen and Keith both joined the band on the famous European tour, which turned out to be Pigpen’s last stand. By June of 1972 his condition had progressed to the point of not being able to play, and he left the band for good.
In March of 1973, Pigpen was found dead in his home of gastrointestinal hemorrhage, at the young age of 27. He had drank himself to death.
Tom Constanten (1968 – 1970)
Tom Constanten was a short blip in the history of the Grateful Dead, and one of the few to avoid the curse of the hot seat.
Constanten joined the band in 1968 and brought some psychedelic improvisation to the table for the recording of 1968’s Anthem of the Sun and 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, and their early days of improvised jams.
He left the Dead on good terms in 1970 because he felt that he wasn’t contributing much to the band anymore. It is said that his innovations on the piano and harpsichord provided the extra spice that was needed for the band to come up with songs like “Dark Star”, which made its debut during Tom’s time with the band.
Ned Lagin (1970 – 1975)
An often-overlooked Grateful Dead keyboardist is Ned Lagin, who played with the band sporadically from 1970-1971, but once Keith joined the band Ned hardly played with them again until 1974 (just one show in 1972). The summer of 1974, however, saw Ned showing up to play with them at a number of shows.
Ned was into synths and electronic music, and his contributions can be heard on some of the more experimental stuff they did with the Wall of Sound, including “Seastones”, which are sections of electronic white noise that are reminiscent of what Wilco would later experiment with.
Ned was also known to play with Phil between sets on what became known as “Ned and Phil” during those ’74 tours.
The band also reportedly recorded some sessions of “Seastones” at drummer Mickey Hart’s home studio, but they are assumed to be lost. There’s an old blog that really dives into Ned’s little-known involvement with the Dead, called NedBase. Check it out here if you want to learn more.
Keith Godchaux (1971 – 1979)
As Pigpen’s health continued to worsen and the Grateful Dead continued to explore psychedelia, he was more and more absent from the keys. Then one day after a show, according to the 2017 documentary Long Strange Trip, Keith Godchaux’s wife, Donna Jean Godchaux walked up to the band and introduced them, and said to Jerry Garcia: “Keith is your new keyboard player”.
Keith’s first show with the Dead had him filling in for Pigpen at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium on October 19, 1971, and on New Years Eve at Winterland that year the band invited both him and Donna to join the Grateful Dead full time.
Keith was a classically trained pianist, contributing his talents on the grand piano. He added embellishments to the band’s live sound that were detailed and intricate, and his contributions helped the Dead ease into a more roots-rock oriented sound in the 70s.
Keith’s peak with the band were in 1973 and 1974 especially. After the Grateful Dead took a touring hiatus in 1975, Keith began to spiral further into drug use.
So while the band would reach another big peak in 1977, Keith starts to lag behind. He had developed a heroin habit and was starting to use drugs to numb the anxiety that came from the Dead’s extensive touring schedule.
Eventually he lost his creative edge, and sometimes even nodded off during shows, especially in late 1978 and 1979. After one particularly rough tour, the Dead sat down with the Godchaux’s and kicked them out of the band.
After that the Godchaux’s went on to form the Heart of Gold band, and released one album, but it was short-lived as Keith died in a car accident on July 23rd, 1980, just over one year after leaving the Grateful Dead. This makes him the second Grateful Dead keyboard player to suffer a tragic death at an age that is far too young.
Brent Mydland (1979 – 1990)
After being a Deadhead himself in the 1960s and 1970s, Brent Mydland joined the Grateful Dead in April of 1979. He had met Bob Weir and joined the side project Bobby and the Midnites, and that led to his invitation to join the Dead. Formerly, he had been a member of the country rock band Silver, and contributed keyboards on one of their albums.
Brent remained in the Grateful Dead until his death in 1990, making him the longest-running Grateful Dead keyboardist, and perhaps the most beloved. His first show with the Dead was April 22nd, 1979 at at San Jose’s Spartan Stadium.
Brent’s contribution to the band was multi-faceted. For one, he was only 26 years old when he joined the Grateful Dead, making him the youngest member of the band (even younger than Bobby by 5 years). He brought a youthful energy and helped give the music some more pep that brought the band into the shifting musical atmosphere of the 1980s.
Mydland skipped the traditional grand piano in favor of electric keyboards and synthesizers, which gave the music a little bit of an electronic edge.
Brent was also a fantastic singer, and over the years he became more comfortable taking the role of lead vocalist. He wrote songs like “Blow Away” and “Easy To Love You” that became staples of the Dead’s live catalog in the late 80s, and he was especially strong on backup vocals.
His riffing off of Jerry Garcia, both vocally and instrumentally, is one of the best things to happen to the Dead during the sometimes rough years of the mid-1980s. The two shared a musical connection and an understanding that was not exactly present during Keith’s years.
Brent’s peak years with the Grateful Dead came in 1989-90, when the band was experiencing their last renaissance period. Jerry had mostly cleaned up his act, and some of that old magic had crept its way back in. Brent himself struggled with drug abuse as well as depression that came in waves over the years, but during his final two years it seemed that he had cleaned up a bit as well.
Things were looking good after a strong summer tour in 1990, but Brent’s tenure with the Dead was cut short tragically by his death on July 26th, 1990 at the age of 37. He had accidentally overdosed on a concoction of heroin and cocaine, just three days after the Dead finished their summer tour.
His final show with the band was July 23rd, 1990 at at the World Music Theater in Tinley Park, IL.
Enjoy some great Jerry & Brent synergy in the “Ramble On Rose” from 7/7/89 below, officially released as part of Crimson, White & Indigo in 2010.
Bruce Hornsby – (1990 – 1992)
Bruce Hornsby was another lifelong Grateful Dead fan that had his chance to join the band. Already an established musician himself, known best for the 1986 hit “The Way It Is” (which was later made even more famous when Tupac sampled it in 1998).
Hornsby first performed with the Dead at the Rainforest Benefit at Madison Square Garden in September of 1988, joining the boys for a rocking “Not Fade Away”. After that he would occasionally sit in with the Dead whenever possible, and then in 1990 he joined somewhat officially for 18 months after Brent’s death, contributing keys and accordion.
He eventually left the band in March of 1992, and would occasionally join them again right up until the end of the road in 1995.
Many consider Bruce’s contributions on piano in the 1990s to be some of the only shining moments for the band during that time. Some even say that there aren’t many post-Brent shows worth listening to other than the ones with Bruce, who managed to avoid the curse of the hot seat and is still alive today.
Vince Welnick (1990 – 1995)
When Brent Mydland died in 1990, the Grateful Dead ran auditions for a new keyboardist. Many argue that the band should have taken some time off to regroup after Brent’s death, but the truth is that the Grateful Dead had become a machine at this point, employing hundreds of people who counted on them continuing to tour to pay their bills.
There was immense pressure to find a new keyboard player and rush back out on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Vince was chosen among a few other candidates, most likely because he was able to provide the vocal support that the band was looking for in the absence of Brent, who was a remarkable singer.
Vince remained with the Grateful Dead until 1995, when Garcia died and the whole machine came to a grinding halt. Six months later, while touring with Bob Weir & Rat Dog, he attempted suicide on the tour bus. He had been diagnosed with cancer and emphysema in 1994 and had been struggling with depression after that and the death of Jerry in such a short time.
Around ten years later, after a continued battle with depression, in June of 2006, Vince Welnick was found dead in his home of apparent suicide. He was 51 years old.
I don’t want to end on a sad note here, with the curse of Grateful Dead keyboardists, so instead I want to share the Dead’s performance of “Eyes of the World” on June 17th, 1991 at Giants Stadium. This was the first and only time that they ever opened with that song, and this version features both Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick on stage. It gives 3/29/90 a run for its money.