Jerry Garcia’s Custom Guitars

I have more than a couple of reasons to be fascinated with Jerry Garcia’s guitars. Though Jerry is most identified with the lightening bolt guitars he played for the last 15 years of his career, he used over two dozen different guitars on stage with the Grateful Dead. Using a variety of guitars isn’t unique. But Jerry sought a guitar that could do everything. He was not one to switch guitars between songs and rarely switched them in shows at all. He was fiercely loyal to any guitar he felt was up to the tasks. In addition Jerry’s tonal journey also spans the history of the electric guitar itself. He began playing guitar only a few years after the Telecaster came to market and passed away playing with a MIDI pickup built into his guitar. And the wake of guitars within that path is something I find worth diving into.

Jerry Garcia played a variety of Les Pauls and Stratocasters early in his career switching them out on an almost monthly basis. However by 1971, and unsatisfied with off the shelf guitars Jerry with the help of Alembic guitars decided to try modding a Strat to his liking.

Jerry’s first modded guitar was Alligator. Alligator is a 1957 ash strat with a 1963 maple fretboard. It gets it’s name from the alligator sticker on it’s pickguard. The guitar was purchased and given to Jerry by Graham Nash. It was a thank you to the numerous studio sessions he had played on. Alembic guitars, a custom builder in San Francisco added a stoptail bridge system similar to a Gibson guitar, removed a tone knob, added a powered booster into the guitar. Jerry played Alligator on and off for three years. Though the shortest run of the guitars we’ll discuss, it holds a place in notoriety for Jerry making it his own. I believe Alligator is still owned by Jerry’s Estate though I have no idea where it is. I absolutely thing Fender should release a tribute model.

Through his experiments with Alligator, Jerry was a guinea pig for at least one Alembic guitar. Alembic was a stellar bass guitar company but their guitar designs left something to be desired. An employee their named Doug Irwin took it upon himself to redesign the Alembic guitar and his first design ended up in Garcia’s hands sometime in 1972. Encouraged by the guitars playability and feel Jerry commissioned his first custom guitar. Delivered in 1973, the guitar that would become Wolf was nothing like Jerry had played before.

Built from alternating layers of purpleheart and highly figured Maple, Wolf is a monument to both wood craftsmanship and luthiery. Taking aesthetics from his time at Alembic, Irwin dropped many of the features successful in their bass designs but detrimental to their guitars. Starting with an asymmetrical cutaway, it’s through neck design offered Jerry an extended sustain over his stratocasters without the weight of his Les Pauls. Irwin also included a top mounted pickup cavity for Jerry to switch from humbuckers to single coils with few modifications.

Jerry immediately pleased with the instruments and commissioned more from Irwin. He would play Wolf exclusively from 1973 to 1975. After several tumbles and damage to it’s finish, Jerry returned the guitar to Irwin. During it’s 2 year break off the road, Wolf underwent an extreme overhaul of it’s electronics. Always ahead of his time, Jerry desired more tonal options from his guitar and asked Irwin to incorporate an effects loop, split coils, and 3 tone knobs on his revision of Wolf. In addition, Doug was able to permanently inlay the Wolf sticker that had given the guitar it’s name.

Wolf returned once again in 1977 in time to play with the Grateful Dead in front of the pyramids of Egypt and for the closing of the famed Winterland Ballroom. Jerry would play his beloved guitar for another 3 years until it was replaced by Doug next guitar, Tiger. However, when Jerry decided to experiment with a MIDI setup in the late 80s, he again turned to his faithful Wolf to take up the challenge. Installing a Roland MIDI pickup and incorporating a module, Jerry would continue to utilize Wolf as a back up and MIDI guitar until it’s last show in 1993.

While wolf dominated Jerry’s guitars during the 70s, there were others. Most notably was Jerry’ foray into Aluminum neck guitars. If you’ve ever talked guitars with me for any length, I’m sure I’ve talked about my interest in aluminum as a guitar material. Their necks offer a wealth of sustain and tone that you simply cannot find any place else. Travis Bean was an aluminum worker living in San Francisco who decided to design and build guitars using an aluminum neck that would become a center block for the guitar. The pickups would mount directly into the block. He would then use a solid 2 piece body around the block to create the guitar. It’s a truly outside of the box idea that works surprisingly well.

Jerry’s Bean guitars are essentially factory models incorporating his unique electronics setups. I’m a bit perplexed that Jerry would return to a factory made guitar but not surprised that it was an aluminum neck that made him do so. I am curious why it was so quickly abandoned with the return of Wolf. Jerry played at least 3 Beans during this time but after the Travis Bean guitars dissolved, Jerry did not look to keep playing these engineering wonders and simply gave the guitars away and abandoned the platform altogether.

Jerry’s next guitar Tiger is consider the Doug Irwin’s magnum opus. Taking seven years to build, Tiger was both beautifully ornate and offered a huge amount of tonal options. For Tiger, Doug incorporating a similar sandwich design as wolf except using Cocabola and maple. Stunning fretboard inlays, the elaborate inlay on the back, and the tiger inlay giving the guitar it’s name add to the beauty of this functional piece of art.

The electronics pick up where wolf left off. They incorporate Jerry’s effects loop and split coils. It’s binding is made of brass which though stained from years of playing offer an amazing neck feel. When finished, Tiger would be a set neck design similar to a Les Paul. Both Tiger and it’s follow-up are designed as such.

Tiger is the guitar most recognizable to Deadheads for it’s signature lightening bolt cutaways. All of Jerry’s guitars moving forward would incorporate this shape. Through the years aside from pickup changes, Tiger remained relatively unchanged for the decade it was the main guitar. When delivered, the preamp built into the guitar were 18 volt run on two 9 volt batteries. Jerry preferred a lower voltage and the preamp board was redesigned leaving extra space in the guitar. Rumors have circulated that Jerry would store his drugs in this additional room though the rumors are unfounded. Another misreport is that this was the last guitar Jerry would play live. From every picture and every discussion I’ve had from people who were there, Jerry finished the show with Rosebud the next guitar built by Doug.

If Tiger is the museum piece, Rosebud was the workhorse. Pushed out and delivered as a back up in 1989, and got everything right that he was unhappy with on Tiger. Doug only had to incorporate the MIDI pickup as new electronics and was able to route out portions of the body to make it a lighter guitar for Jerry. He also abandoned the brass binding that had already began to wear and stain on Tiger after 10 years of use. Rosebud would be Jerry’s main guitar for the rest of his life and would be the last guitar he would play live.

After a 20 year relationship with Doug Irwin, 1993 Jerry said he “Found the guitar he’s been searching for his whole life”. Ironically, it wasn’t Doug’s. Lightning Bolt was built by Steven Cripe a Florida boat maker and part time luthier. It was the 7th guitar built by Cripe and built totally by feel. Copying Irwin’s lightning bolt cutaways it incorporates the through neck design of Jerry’s Wolf with less layers for the body and more layers for the neck. Jerry was in love with the pliability and weight of the guitar and immediately took it to be modified for stage use. Making it’s debut in 1993, it would be Jerry’s main guitar until he passed. As I mentioned earlier, it did make a return to the shop for the 1995 tour where Rosebud returned and was not used during Jerry’s last shows.

Cripe would meet Jerry only once. Jerry expressing love for his guitar commissioned a back up along with “anything else Cripe thought he’d like”. Steven would deliver Jerry’s backup rather quickly in the form of Top Hat. Jerry though pleased with it would never play it live. Steven passed away not long after Jerry in a fireworks accident that annihilated his shop. Two guitars that would make it out of the shop were supposedly started as Jerry Garcia projects. First is a 3rd of the lightening bolt series later named Tribute. Though similar to Lightning and Top Hat, Steven closed this design’s book with a beautiful diamond inlay on the fretboard. The last guitar is named Eagle and would have been an interesting Garcia guitar. In a strat body semi-hollow body through neck design, it’s a breathtaking guitar with an eagle inlay on the body. Unfortunately we won’t know what would have been.

I have gotten some flack for my fascination with these instruments and I do walk a line between them being pieces of wood and relics. But Jerry loved these instruments. And in my research I like to think that I can at least see what he loved about them. And maybe that’s a good enough reason to care.



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