Music of Phish

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The music of the American rock band Phish is "oriented around group improvisation and superextended grooves"[1] that draw on a range of rock-oriented influences, including psychedelic rock, funk, reggae, hard rock and various "acoustic" genres, such as folk and bluegrass. Some Phish songs use different vocal approaches, such as a cappella (unaccompanied) sections of barbershop quartet-style vocal harmonies.

Some of their original compositions (such as "Theme from the Bottom") tend towards a psychedelic rock and bluegrass fusion, with more rock, jazz and funk elements than the Grateful Dead. Their more ambitious, epic compositions (such as "You Enjoy Myself" and "Guyute") are often said to resemble classical music in a rock setting, much like the music of one of their heroes, Frank Zappa.


Bassist Mike Gordon wrote a number of compositions for the Phish catalog, beginning perhaps with "Minkin" from The White Tape. His compositions are marked by humorous lyric content and a straightforward musical style. The title track of Round Room is a Gordon-penned piece with a more rhythmically and harmonically complex style.

Lead vocalist Trey Anastasio's boyhood friend and schoolmate Tom Marshall was the primary lyricist for Phish. Marshall, a biologist, has written lyrics ranging from arbitrarily assembled nonsequitur ("Stash") to the expressive ("Lifeboy"). The lyrical style was a distinctive part of Phish's music. Often Anastasio would pull lyrics for compositions from large notebooks of prose and poetry kept by Marshall, although the two have also directly collaborated on a number of songs. Anastasio is the next most prolific contributor of Phish lyrics, notably in the Gamehendge cycle. Both lyricists focused heavily on wordplay and musical language, with content taking a subordinate role to the sounds of the words and phrases.

On many album credits, multiple members or all the members of Phish are listed as composers. This has been the cause of some confusion. While not exclusively true, it is generally the case that Anastasio was the composer of most of these numbers, with other band members thereafter making contributions to the music to varying degrees of significance. These changes were sometimes subtle and sometimes major, and ranged from more or less immediate revisions to alterations that were years in the making.



Anastasio's electric guitar is consistently the most prominent voice in Phish. From the band's inception through the mid-1990s, Anastasio's guitar playing was recognizable by its rich, full tone and sustain, a style owing much to Carlos Santana. Later Anastasio used a variety of electronic effects to enhance or otherwise alter the sound of his guitars. His use of a pitch shifter, of phrase sampling devices and long "space" delay, and of multiple-stage overdrive became signatures of his sound.

Other band members[edit]

The other members of Phish played important roles in the band's persona and overall sound, and they have each had successful music careers outside of Phish. Jon Fishman's inventive drumming added to the solidity and cohesiveness of the band's sound, and Gordon contributed a straight-ahead, "no-frills" bass sound that was also tuneful and sensitive. Page McConnell added a variety of keyboard textures to the band by playing grand piano, a keytar, Hammond B3 organ, clavinet, Fender Rhodes piano, and synthesizers.

Compositional approaches[edit]

Trey Anastasio has credited Vermont-based art music composer, pianist, and teacher Ernie Stires for inspiring him in musical composition and arranging. Stires' music juxtaposes atonal melodies and harmonies against catchy swing rhythms. Stires' influence can be heard on The White Tape, The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, Junta, Lawn Boy and Rift.

Anastasio used techniques ranging from riff-based and/or verse-chorus songwriting to unusual chord progressions, modes, atonality, polyrhythm, irregular and compound meters, and polyphonic textures.

The Phish pieces written by Anastasio after the band had begun touring nationally on a full-time basis, as well his compositions for his past and current touring projects outside of Phish, have tended with few exceptions to focus on simpler, more direct songwriting than many of the more involved works of earlier years. Accordingly, dynamic, large-scale improvisation became more of a driving force than detailed composition in the band's final decade.

Anastasio has said that this shift was at least partially due to time constraints imposed by Phish's increasing fame, family responsibilities of the members, and other considerations. As a band of carefree college students, Phish was able to spend vastly more time writing and rehearsing challenging material.

Many of the tracks on the early Junta, as well as some other material from roughly the same period (1985-1990), were notated wholly or partially in full score by Anastasio and were learned by the band in this manner; all four members are experienced at reading notation. This contrasts starkly with their later practice of making demo tapes of original compositions, some of which were later released for sale, from which the band would then aurally pick up and develop selected material.

Sometimes several compositional forms and elements were blended into a single piece of music, with the end result rarely coming off as overly cerebral because of the collective musicianship of the bandsmen and because of the innate "groove" of much of the music. This aesthetic reflects Phish's taste for danceable music with intellectual and artistic depth. Anastasio, in particular, has spoken of his lifelong attraction to music that can be richly appreciated in both the intellectual and the corporeal planes of experience[citation needed]. Phish and other jam bands have always striven to bring the best of both worlds to their fans.

Grateful Dead comparison[edit]

Particularly in lengthy jams and in less thoroughly-composed and more lyrically-styled material, the dynamic interplay and collective improvisation between all four members was certainly as much a calling card for the band as were Anastasio's kaleidoscopic compositions and guitar work. It is in this respect that Phish has often been musically compared to the Grateful Dead, and this aesthetic is really at the heart of all jam bands by connotation.

Neither Anastasio nor the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia ever definitively acknowledged themselves as figureheads of their respective collectives, though widely perceived as such among their fans; this is indicative of the community spirit and sense of partnership evoked by much music, with each musician viewing himself as an equal part of a whole.


  1. ^ From the 2004 The New Rolling Stone Album Guide