Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Grateful Dead - Jerry Garcia's Guitars

This weekend marks the final shows for the Grateful Dead. What a long strange trip it has been. The appeal of the Grateful Dead has always been their live music, their prolonged improvisations and their audience, the so-called Dead Heads, that has remained loyal for years, and followed them from city to city as they have toured. Perhaps the best known guitarist in the band was Jerry Garcia.  His taste in sound, instruments and innovation helped this band become legendary. Beyond that, The Grateful Dead changed the ground rules for not just for rock concerts, but for sound support systems for all venues. This feature is mainly about Jerry's Guitars.

Jerry Garcia played some very unique guitars over his long career with the Grateful Dead and with The Jerry Garcia Band. How he came to acquire each of them is equally unique.

Doug Irwin's Wolf guitar
Garcia was in a San Francisco music store when he came across a very unusual guitar and inquired about it. He was told it was built by a guy named Doug Irwin. Garcia came back a few days later to buy that guitar.

Irwin tells the story that he was in the back of the store putting pickups on that particular guitar.

Wolf with modifications
Irwin says a couple of guys from the store came to the back room and told him that Jerry Garcia wants to buy your guitar. He thought they were joking. They came back a couple of times to get him and Irwin finally brought the guitar to the front of the store. Jerry told him that he liked the way the neck felt and he asked him to make another guitar. This Irwin built guitar came to be called The Wolf. Doug Irwin would go on to build four guitars for Garcia.

Garcia with Guild Starfire III
Like many of us, Jerry started learning guitar by playing a Danelectro through a small amplifier. During the early 1960’s he delved into Bluegrass and Folk music. Eventually he made his way to rock. And by 1965 he was playing a Guild Starfire III with a group called The Warlocks, which would eventually become The Grateful Dead.

He graduated to playing Gibson guitars, usually a Les Paul with P-90 pickups through 3 Fender Twin Reverb amplifiers that were driving two cabinets, each of which was equipped with 4 twelve inch JBL D120 speakers. By 1968 Garcia was playing a 1967 Gibson SG standard that was equipped with humbucking pickups and an American flag sticker.

Garcia played this guitar until 1970 when he was given the Stratocaster he called Alligator. While play concerts with Delaney and Bonnie, Garcia played the rosewood Telecaster that George Harrison had given to Delaney Bramlett. After that Garcia was hooked on the feel of Fenders.

The Stratocaster that came to be known as Alligator was made up of a 1957 Strat body that was paired with a 1963 Strat neck. It was Graham Nash who had purchased this guitar at a pawn shop for $250. He gave this guitar to Jerry for doing some guitar work on one of Nash’s recording sessions.

Garcia proceeded to make numerous modifications on the guitar. The finish was sanded off the guitar to reveal the original swamp ash wooden body. Garcia did not use the guitars vibrato bar and wanted it gone. In its place he wanted a built in effects loop. An effects loop is a device placed between the preamp EQ section and the power amp of an amplifier.

A lot of guys were using effects loops back when the amps did not have Gain controls; i.e. old Fender amps, though Jerry is the first I have heard of to have this mounted inside his guitar.

How an effects loop works

Some effects, such as reverb and modulation loose their natural sound when placed in front of an amplifiers power section. A solution for this was to utilize an effects loop, which is a device that would allow the signal to be interrupted between the two sections of the amplifier. So the dry signal would first then go to the preamp, then to the effects loop and then out to the power amp section. This made the effected signal cleaner and more pronounced.

2 output jacks
Jerry’s guitars generally had two output jacks. One carried the regular guitar signal to the pedal board effects and then to amplifier. This is the same arrangement most of us use. Although Jerry did have this modified with the addition of a line device called the Alembic Strat-O- Blaster.

Alembic Strat-O-Blaster circuit
The Strat-O-Blaster was a small, built-in pre-amp, which boosted the guitars signal. These were the days before wireless transmission of guitar and microphone signals. Jerry and the Dead used long guitar cables, which caused the signal to diminish by the time it got to the amplifier.

The other output jack went to the amplifier between the preamp section, and the power amp section.

Note the Reverb In and Reverb Out
Amp builders eventually put this feature on amplifiers. However when you think of old Marshall and Fender amps, this feature did not exist. The tremolo was built into the circuit. The reverb on old Fenders did have an IN and Out jack on the back side that was hooked for the jacks coming from the Hammond reverb unit. This essentially was an effects loop.

This may be a good time to point out the changes that The Grateful Dead brought about to the live music industry.

The Beatles - House Sound System
Think back to the early days of rock when the performer showed up with their instruments; guitar, bass, amp, and drums and depended upon the house or auditorium public address system.

They may have been great performers, but the sound heard by the audience was a crap shoot.

The Grateful Dead Sound System
It was the Dead demanded that the live sound heard in concert by their fans need to be the absolute best. They were one of the first bands to travel with their own state of the art public sound system.

The instrumentalists and sound engineers working for the band made demands on the industry. So companies like Furman Sound, Meyer Sound and Alembic guitars and basses are in business to this day making musicians sound better than ever because of the Grateful Dead.

Another Grateful Dead first that is now common place in the industry are rack mounted systems, such as power amplifiers, equalization, compression and effects.

Getting back to Jerry Garcia' Stratocaster; he wanted the effects loop to be mounted internally on his guitar. So the vibrato/bridge was taken out of the Stratocaster and the routing was enlarged to make room for the internal effects. This was covered up with a wooden plate.

Because the guitar now needed a bridge/saddle Garcia got one from the Alembic guitar company. This bridge was a modified tune-o-matic type with sliding individual saddle units, for intonation. It was made completely of brass and was placed in front of the wooden plate. A brass plate with indentations on the distal end to lock the ball ends of the string was anchored just behind the wood plate.

Replica with Strat O Blaster Circuit
The pickguard was modified and another brass plate was crafted to house the controls. Jerry chose different knobs from the original Fender knobs. Jerry also wanted an Alembic blaster circuit to be tied in with the guitar’s jack.

To make this modification, the original route were most Strat output jacks are placed was elongated. To cover up the defect, another brass plated was used. A brass nut was also installed to give Jerry’s guitar a brighter sound. Jerry found some stickers at a truck stop including the one with an alligator holding a knife and fork that he placed on the guitars pickguard. Thus, the Alligator was born.

Jerry played this guitar between 1971 and 1973. It is estimated that Garcia owned around 25 guitars that he used while playing with The Grateful Dead.

Doug Irwin made Wolf guitar
From 1973 to 1993 Garcia played the guitar created by Doug Irwin and called Wolf.

Irwin had just started building guitars at Alembic. This was a company run by Ron Wickersham, an electronics and sound expert that previously worked for Ampex, Rick Turner, a luthier and guitarist, and Bob Matthews, a recording engineer.

The company started in a rehearsal room for the Grateful Dead, so there was an immediate connection between Alembic and the band.

As the story goes, Doug Irwin was recently hired by the Alembic company and was building electric guitars for them and he also built some for himself. The first one that Jerry Garcia purchased was known as The Eagle.

This was the guitar that Jerry found when he came from the music store that where Irwin was employed. This guitar had humbucking pickups. At the time Garcia preferred the sound of his Stratocaster with single coil pickups.

Garcia asked him to build him another guitar. Irwin took a cue from this and created The Wolf, which he sold to Jerry Garcia in 1972 for $850. Garcia played this guitar for more than 20 years.

Wolf with 3 single coils
Garcia asked Irwin to optimize Wolf with three single coil Stratocaster pickups. This guitar was made of purpleheart wood and curly maple. The fret board was ebony with 24 frets; longer than Fenders, which at the time only had 22 frets. The first version had a peacock inlay made of abalone, but in subsequent years Irwin changed this to an eagle.

A blood-thirsty cartoon sticker of a wolf adorned the body. This gave the guitar its name.

In later years the middle and bridge single coil pickups were swapped out for humbuckers. This was an easy change because Irwin configured the pickups on a metal plate. In fact it was Irwin who created both plates for the guitar.

The pickup selector is the five position strat type. The guitar features a master volume control and a tone control for the middle and front pickups. Two mini switches on the guitar are pickup coil switches, to choose between humbucking and single coil. There are two ¼” phone jacks. One goes to the amp and the other goes to Jerry’s effects loop. There is also a mini switch to toggle the effects loop on or off.

The electronics are accessible from a plate on the guitars back side and they are shielded.

The tuning machines are Schaller’s and made of chromed nickel as is the bridge. This was the first guitar Irwin built that had the D shaped headstock that he used on other guitars he made as his trademark. On the headstock was the inlay of a peacock done in mother-of-pearl.

While at a concert the guitar fell about 15 feet off of the stage and this caused a small crack in the head stock. Doug Irwin took this as an opportunity to replace the head stock with ebony veneer and a mother-of-pearl inlay of an eagle, which by now had become Doug Irwin’s signature. Jerry Garcia used the three single coil pickup plate up until 1978 when he had the single coil neck pickup and twin Dimarzio Dual Sound humbuckers for the middle and bridge positions.

Almost immediately after Garcia received The Wolf he commissioned Doug Irwin to design another guitar. This new guitar is the one that would come to be known as The Tiger. It was six years before Irwin delivered the guitar and it earned him $5800. The first time he used The Tiger was on August of 1979 in concert at Oakland Stadium.

Irwin made Tiger guitar
The Tigers body was a sandwich of heavy laminated woods; cocobolo, and maple. The laminated neck is made of maple and vermillion. These woods combined with the solid brass binding and hardware made this a very heavy guitar weighing 13 ½ pounds.

Once again, the pickups were a single coil in the neck position; the bridge and middle pickups were DiMarzio Dual Sound humbuckers. Jerry could get 12 distinctly different tones from that guitar and he loved that. Jerry loved the fact that he could control his guitars sounds with the flick of a switch on the guitar.

Irwin did many modifications to this guitar throughout the years for Garcia. The guitar included a five-way pickup selector switch and a master volume control, two separate tone-orbit controls and three mini toggle switches; one was to turn off the built in effects loop and the other two were coil taps.

In keeping with what Jerry liked, both the Wolf and the Tiger had brass tune-o-matic style bridges and saddles and brass plates to secure the strings. Like his other instruments, this guitar featured two input jacks mounted on the guitars top on a brass plate. One went directly to the amplifier and the other came from the built in effects loop to Garcia’s effects.

The Tiger featured a mother-of-pearl inlay of a white tiger on the guitars face that was framed in brass. The head stock feature an ebony veneer surface with the signature Irwin mother-of-pearl eagle

Doug Irwin made Rosebud
Rosebud was the next guitar that Doug Irwin built for Jerry Garcia. It was delivered to him in the latter part of 1989. This guitar was Irwin’s best effort yet. He put everything he knew into the making of Rosebud.

The Saint aka Rosebud
Irwin called the Dancing Skeleton that he inlaid on the guitars body, The Saint. This skeleton image was meant to be doing a dance to repel death. The design had a rose in its hand and a pendant with the Egyptian “ahnk”, which was a symbol for life. When Garcia received it, he named the skeleton Rosebud and that name stuck.

This guitar weighed 11 ½ pounds, just two pounds lighter than The Tiger. Jerry used this guitar as his main instrument with the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band from 1990 to 1995. Rosebud had most of the amenities of The Tiger, except that the guitar’s flame maple core was hollowed out to reduce the weight. Also gone was the brass framing the guitars body.

The other features were similar to The Tiger, although Rosebud was not as fancy. It was topped with 3 DiMarzio pickups. The only modification ever done to it was swapping out the pickups. Jerry felt the magnetic field did not last long and the high end sound would become lost. This was done every one or two years.

Wolf Jr.
Irwin made one more guitar for Jerry Garcia, but he never used it in concert. This is a headless guitar, in the spirit of Steinberger guitars. It came to be known as Wolf Jr.

The fifth guitar that Jerry Garcia used was built by Stephen Cripe. Cripe had spent years designing and installing woodwork for yachts and decided to try building guitars. Garcia hardly knew Cripe. But Jerry really liked Cripes work.

Lightning Bolt
The Lightning Bolt was Cripe’s copy of The Tiger. It was made from recycled wood that was originally harvested in Brazil. This was used for the fret board. Particular attention was made to the guitars upper register. Recycled East Indian rosewood was used for the top and bottom of the body. Interestingly enough this wood was taken from a bed used by opium smokers.

The body has a core of light walnut. The 9 ply laminated neck runs through the length of the body. There is a rather large volute on the backside of the neck near the headstock break. The builder claims this added structural strength and balance to the guitar.

The lightening bolt design is made from mother-of-pearl. The headstock not only has an unusual shape, but an unusual design as well.

Cripe was not an electrician and handed that job to a San Francisco electronics expert named Gary Brawer. Brawer had the task of making this guitar midi compatible. Midi or musical instrument digital interface was coming into vogue on synthesizers. The Roland Company applied this technology to guitars, by using a special type of pickup and special wiring. To accomplish installation of the electrical work, Brewer had to remove the inlay and attach it to a cover plate. It was then put back on the guitar.

Note the large neck volute
Jerry played The Lightening Bolt from 1993, first used at a Seattle show for the Jerry Garcia Band in August of that year. The last show he played this guitar was with The Grateful Dead at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View California in June of 1995.

When he first laid hands on it Jerry remarked, “This is the guitar that I’ve always been waiting for.”

Steve Cripe made "Top Hat"
The final guitar, also made by Stephen Cripe was Top Hat. He asked Cripe to make a back up copy of The Lightening Bolt. Cripe was somewhat hesitant about this because he had never photographed or measured The Lightening Bolt. A member of the Dead’s staff told him to just wing it. With these directions the Top Hat was built.

The body consisted of a walnut core with a laminate cocobolo back and top. The headstock also has laminated cocobolo wood veneer and Cripe’s signature headstock design.

The 9 ply neck was made of laminated maple and rosewood and topped with a bound ebony fret board with mostly ivory double block inlays. The inlay at the 9th fret is a single block. The ivory came from recycled ivory. The top hat inlay that adorns the front of the body is made of warthog tusk. This is actually a cover to conceal the batteries. The Schaller hardware on this guitar has a black finish.

Top Hat
Cripe called the top and bottom cutaways on his guitars rose ears. Like the Lightening Bolt, the Top Hat has an extra large volute at the neck break. The scale is 25 ¾”.

Cripe sent the finished guitar to Jerry’s staff with a note asking them to pay him what they thought it was worth. He received a check for $6500. Like the Lightening Bolt and most of the Irwin guitars, this guitar featured DiMarzio pickups; three humbuckers in this case. The Top Hat weighs 10.4 pounds.

Top Hat Guitar

This guitar is currently on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is on display in Cleveland along with some of Garcia’s other guitars.

After the death of Jerry Garcia, in 1995, his will directed that his Irwin-made guitars be returned to Doug Irwin. This prompted a legal battle because the remaining Grateful Dead members stated these guitars were owned by the band and not Jerry Garcia.

The parties eventually settled and agreed that Doug would receive Wolf and Tiger and the Grateful Dead would keep Rosebud and Wolf Jr. Irwin took possession of the instruments and sold them at auction. Wolf sold for $789,500 USD and Rosebud sold for $957,500, which up to that time was a record high price paid for a guitar.

The Eagle guitar that was the first Doug Irwin guitar built for Jerry, but was never played was auctioned off at Bonham’s in 2007 for $186,000.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


Gregory Gabbard said...


Thank you for researching and posting this article. Of course I'm not an expert and I don't pretend to understand the technical stuff but I have been listening to and enjoying the great sound these instruments for years. This really puts things in perspective.


Gregory Gabbard said...


A few years ago I read an interview with Bobby Weir in which he talked about the provenance of a Telecaster he played for years, still does for all I know. In short, Weir was adopted. When he tracked down his birth father, who was an air force officer, the father had another son who had died shortly before the meeting. The son had left behind a broken Telecaster which Weir took to the Dead's guitar guy for repairs, liked the sound and played it for a long time. No doubt it was modified along the way. If you have some spare time some day maybe you could find out something about this.


Gregory Gabbard said...

And then there was the time in the Wall of Sound days when Lesh played a six string bass with each string playing through a different set of amps.

Marc said...

Interesting to see that he was 'activating' his pickups by use of a preamp/buffer in the guitar.

The effect of a long guitar cable on a weak passive guitar signal is due to capacitance and described here:

Guitar Cable Capacitance and Resonant Frequency



Anonymous said...

Entertaining info mixed with some very poorly researched facts...

Anonymous said...

There are so many errors in this article!

A P90 in the neck position?

Alligator with an effect loop?

The second output of the guitar going into the power amp section? (This one would probably actually kill a person)

Anonymous said...

As others have said. There are a lot of errors here.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the facts in this article are pretty accurate. I never saw or heard of Irwin installing a P-90 into any of JG's guitars, but it may have been an experiment at some point. I also didn't know Alligator had the effects loop; for one thing, Jerry wasn't using much in the way of effects yet - mainly just a wah wah pedal, but the article refers to the cavity below the bridge for the loop's electronics.. Also don't know of a second output on Alligator. I'm pretty sure the Travis Bean Strat ("The Enemy Is Listening") which we associate with the great '77 tour is the first with the loop. The two Travis Beans aren't mentioned here for some reason - the Guilds, Gibsons and of course Fenders are, but after that only the Luthier-built axes.
Anyway, other than that this is a pretty good and accurate primer. BTW, the dude who referred to Phil's multi-channel bass almost got it right: it was actually the "Godfather" bass - originally a Guild Starfire he had been using since '70 or '71 that he gave to Alembic when the Wall of Sound project was under way. 6 string basses weren't in vogue yet - this was a four string bass that was modified to have, yes, a separate circuit, amplification and vertical speaker stack for each string which of course was only able to be used as such with the WOS system. The first time I heard it in person I had no idea of the quad amp setup and I was righteously cubed to boot - unexpectedly hearing each string emanating from a different part of the stage was a mind-blower! The clarity was so astonishing though - most folks who never heard the WOS assume it was ear-splitting loud, but even though it was way more powerful than anything before it the power was for distortion-free clarity, not sheer volume. Its distortion that makes music seem "loud" because of the harsh effect on the ears. The crystal clear WOS actually, at times, made the listener want MORE volume, but bottom line, it was the best sounding music amplification rig of all time. Unfortunately, despite hype to the contrary, there was no way to effectively capture the effect of the WOS on recordings, as the Band was recording directly off the board. Ironically, only audience tapes give an idea of what the WOS was like, but of course with lots of ambient noise mixed in and so forth. It mainly exists in the memory of those who witnessed it in person.

Anonymous said...

Oh, BTW, Bob's brother's Tele became one of his favorite performing guitars and he used it all the time until it was STOLEN from a gig in the late '2000's! Of all the guitars to be nicked from Bob - how devastating. Probably no way the thief had any idea of which guitar was in the case when he / she snatched it, but I'm sure Bob offered a reward for its anonymous return and that never happened. Sad..

marcus ohara said...

I've taken your comments to heart Anonymous and made a few changes after reviewing sources. The Alligator's circuit was a preamp circuite designed by Ron Wickersham and later renamed The Alembic Strat-O-Blaster. I also found an article regarding the P90 in Irwin's Tiger, but after re-reading Irwin's description of Tiger I removed that sentence.

Anonymous said...

You didn't even begin to clean up the errors here. There's an amazing amount of misinformation, misconception, wrong guesses, omissions, and "lose" spelled "loose". Ain't nobody got time.

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Anonymous said...

Please lose the Tiger photo with dot inlays on the neck.

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