Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia took great pride in his guitars. Though he played many in his career, there are a handful of truly noteworthy axes that have stood the test of time. A true musician’s musician, Jerry Garcia has not only left us with a rich legacy of music, but one of musical instruments as well.
Let’s take a look back at these s guitars that Garcia used throughout his career…
In the earliest days of the Grateful Dead’s career, Garcia played a lot of different guitars. The band was just coming up, and the guitarist played whatever he could get his hands on at the times. As the band started to garner more commercial success, it was Graham Nash who would give Garcia his first name-worthy guitar. Alligator is a customized 1957 Fender Stratocaster, and was used between 1970-1973. Technicians Frank Fuller and Rick Turner of Alembic Guitars modified the guitar regularly, so much so that they referred to it as a “Frankenstein” guitar. Their last modification came in August of 1973, though Alligator’s last live appearance came on Garcia’s birthday, August 1st, of 1973. It currently resides in the Jerry Garcia archives.
While Garcia was in contact with the luthiers of Alembic Guitars, he came upon an instrument built by Doug Irwin and bought it on the spot. Eventually, he contacted Irwin and asked him to create a custom guitar for his own use. That was the inception of Wolf, which Garcia first played with Merl Saunders at a private party for the Hell’s Angels on September 5th, 1973. The guitar actually originally contained a peacock logo, followed by Irwin’s eagle logo, but it was Garcia that placed the blood-thirsty wolf sticker on his guitar. Irwin eventually incorporated the Wolf into the design, thus giving the instrument its name.
We’re celebrating 45 year’s of Jerry’s Doug Irwin custom “Wolf” guitar which made its live debut on this day in 1973 aboard the SS Bay Belle in New York Harbor at a Garcia/Saunders show! pic.twitter.com/68EJtrxHxL
— Jerry Garcia (@jerrygarcia) September 5, 2018
Wolf was made from purpleheart and curly maple, and features an ebony fingerboard and twenty-four frets. The guitar was predominantly used during the 1970’s, though it resurfaced in 1989 for a MIDI synthesizer experiment, and was last played by Garcia in 1993. After a legal dispute, Irwin won back the rights to Wolf and auctioned it off in 2002. The guitar sold for $700,000, and was played by Warren Haynes on his Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration tour. Since then, it’s made its rounds and been played by various artists, including Tom Hamilton (JRAD), Dark Star Orchestra, and more.
Travis Beane TB500
The TB 500 #11 guitar was debuted at the Grateful Dead show on December 31, 1976, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California. Garcia played this TB500 at more than 90 shows in the late ’70s, including the Grateful Dead’s three-night stint at the Winterland Ballroom in 1977, approximately 35 Dead shows, a benefit for Greenpeace and with the Jerry Garcia Band. During this time, the Dead recorded Terrapin Station with Garcia playing this guitar.
According to a letter of authenticity written by longtime roadie Steve Parish when the TB500 was sold at auction in 2013, this guitar was the third-most-played by Garcia—behind “Tiger” and “Wolf.” A sticker affixed to the body reads “Ass, Grass or Gas/Nobody Rides Free,” which was placed over an earlier sticker that read “The Enemy is Listening.” Garcia would effectively retire the TB500 when he picked up his new “Tiger” axe from Doug Irwin in the late ’70s.
Almost immediately after Doug Irwin made Wolf for him, Jerry Garcia asked Irwin to create yet another guitar. This time, Garcia said, Irwin should not hold back. With cost and time as no object, Irwin went all out and spent six full years making Tiger. The tiger inlay was included with the guitar, which also featured different wood types sandwiched together in an arrangement playfully called a “hippie sandwich.” Weighing 13.5 lbs, Tiger is a notably heavy instrument, but it was one of Garcia’s favorites. He was quoted as saying, “[There’s] like twelve discreet possible voices that are all pretty different…That gives me a lot of vocabulary of basically different tones. And that’s just the electronics; the rest of it is touch. I mostly work off the middle pickup…and I can get almost any sound I want out of that.”
Tiger was first used in Oakland on 8/4/79, and was Garcia’s primary guitar of choice throughout the 1990’s. While he was mostly using Rosebud in the 1990s, that guitar malfunctioned during the Dead’s final performance on July 9th, 1995. Thus, Tiger became the last guitar to ever be played by Jerry Garcia. After Garcia’s death, Irwin won the guitar back in a legal settlement, and auctioned it off for $850,000 in 2002. It was purchased Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and guitar collector. Through Irsay’s efforts, the guitar was placed in the hands of Warren Haynes and played publicly for the first time in over 20 years at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in 2016. It was only fitting that the guitar’s return to the spotlight happened on what would have been his 74th birthday.
Despite Doug Irwin going “all out” for Tiger, guitar technology only improved throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Hard at work again, Irwin created Rosebud for Garcia at the end of the 1980’s, with built-in MIDI controls. The guitar was the spiritual twin of Tiger, though weighed a full two pounds lighter with a hollowed out maple core. Excluding some swapping out of pickups, Garcia never modified Rosebud in its years of use. The inlay was initially named “The Saint,” but was nicknamed Rosebud by Garcia himself.
The guitar made its debut on New Years Eve of 1989, ushering in the new decade with style. Garcia used the guitar almost exclusively during the early 1990’s, until he was given Lightning Bolt in 1993. Lightning Bolt was out for repair, however, during the summer of 1995; thus, it was Rosebud that Garcia played on his final tour, including the second-to-last ever song that he played, “Black Muddy River”. The guitar was eventually donated to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, where it currently resides.
Unlike the last three guitars, which were all made by Doug Irwin, Lightning Bolt was created by yacht builder Stephen Cripe. He studied the “Dead Ahead” video footage of Tiger and tried to replicate it, eventually adding his own custom stylistic flares to the instrument. Cripe sent the guitar to Garcia, who immediately fell in love with it. The reused rosewood for the finger board fell in line with Garcia’s conservationalist philosophies, and the design allowed Garcia extra range and comfort in the high end of the neck. Cripe also designed the inlay, giving the guitar its “Lightning Bolt” name.
Garcia first played the guitar on 8/7/93 with the Jerry Garcia Band, but there was one slight problem. Cripe was unaware of Garcia’s technical and electrical preferences, so Garcia had repairman Gary Brawer install a MIDI compatible system in the guitar almost immediately. Later on, a new bridge had to be installed, which left the guitar out of commission during the Dead’s final tour. Lightning Bolt’s last-ever performance was 6/4/95, at the Shoreline Amphitheater. Like Rosebud, Lightning Bolt also resides in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
Though there are many more guitars in the Garcia collection, these five stand out for their unique characters. Each one seems to define an era of the Grateful Dead; Alligator during the early 70’s, Wolf during the mid to late 70’s, Tiger during the 80’s, and Rosebud/Lightning Bolt in the 90’s. While we all miss Jerry Garcia, fortunately his legacy will live on through his wonderful music.
[Photos and information via from Jerry Garcia’s website]
[Originally published on 5/8/16]