In 1965 the band made the stylistic switch from folk music to rock music, with Jerry Garcia, Ron Pigpen McKernan and Bob Weir from the Jug Champions joined by Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh, and in 1967 - the band's breakthrough year - another percussionist, Mickey Hart.
Playing originally as The Warlocks, and later "The Grateful Dead" (a name inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead), they became the de facto resident band of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, with the early sound heavily influenced by Kesey's LSD-soaked Trips Festivals. This early period is covered in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Their musical influences varied widely with input from the psychedelic music of the era, combined with rhythm and blues, jazz, and country. These various influences were distilled into a unique new music that was a synthesis of all American folk music forms to-date; it paid homage to previous forms, and also reflected a sense of adventure and a continuous quest for the "musical unknown"; more often than not, exploration and a search for continual newness were the hallmarks of their live performances.
Jerry played lead guitar and Phil played bass guitar. Bob (usually referred to as "Bobby"), the youngest member of the group, played rhythm guitar. Pigpen played keyboards, harmonica and was an inspirational vocalist until his death in 1973. Both Bill and Mickey played drums, and a wide variety of other percussion instruments. Mickey took an extended leave of absence from 1970 to 1975. Tom "TC" Constanten also played keyboards in 1968-1970. In 1971, Keith Godchaux followed TC on the keyboards - appearing alongside Pigpen on tour. Keith brought his wife Donna Godchaux as a vocalist. Keith and Donna left the band in 1979, and Brent Mydland joined as keyboardist. Brent was the keyboardist until his death in 1990. Without missing a show, Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby joined as keyboardists. Vince stayed with the band until 1995. Bruce left in 1992.
Touring was the hallmark of the Grateful Dead. With the exception of 1975, the Grateful Dead toured regularly around the USA from the winter of 1965 until July 9, 1995 - with a few detours to Canada and Europe (see Dick's Picks 7, Hundred Year Hall, Steppin' Out with the Grateful Dead, and Europe '72) and 3 nights at the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt in 1978. Their numerous studio albums were generally collections of new songs that had been initially played in concert. The band was famous for their extended jams, which showcased both individual improvisation as well as a singularly unique "group-mind" improvisation where each of the band members improvised individually, while still blending together as a cohesive musical unit, often engaging in extended improvisational flights of fancy. A hallmark of their concert sets were continuous sets of music where each song would blend into the next (a segue).
Many of their fans, commonly referred to as Dead Heads, would follow the band on tour. In contrast to many other bands, the Grateful Dead encouraged their fans to tape their shows. For many years, almost all of their shows would have dedicated taping sections. The band allowed sharing of tapes of their shows, as long as no profits were made on the sale of their show tapes.
Starting in 1991 the Grateful Dead has released numerous live concerts from their archives in two concurrent series: the From the Vault releases are multi-track remixes, whereas the Dick's Picks series are based on two-track mixes made at the time of the recording. There have been at least 28 DP releases as of April 2003. Then a series of videos began to trickle out of "The Vault" starting with View From the Vault (recorded in Pittsburgh on July 8, 1990 at Three Rivers Stadium) and Another View from the Vault (recorded in Washington, DC on June 14, 1991 at RFK Stadium.) All three series of releases continue to this day.
Following Garcia's passing in 1995, the remaining members formally decided to disband and pursue various solo projects: most notably Bob Weir's Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends and Mickey Hart's music for the 1996 Olympics. Bob, Bill, Phil and Mickey reunited in mid-2002 as The Other Ones, and embarked on a fall tour throughout the eastern half of the U.S. On February 14, 2003, reflecting the reality what was, they renamed themselves The Dead, keeping 'Grateful' retired out of respect for Jerry. The adventure continues...